Ann Powers’ Booty-Licious Tome

"My daughter really hates it when I read this part,” Ann Powers half-apologizes at Parnassus Books. Well over 60 people have crowded in — fellow writers, radio producers, NPR music lovers, and the Indigo Girls — to hear the acclaimed music critic read from Good Booty, her latest.
      Considering the preamble to the book subtitled Love and Sex, Black & White in American Music divines Powers’ own attraction to eroticism in contemporary music, the notion of young girls who can’t name “lust,” “libido,” or “erotic thrust” dancing around as a means of expression is pretty tame. And yet, even in the capturing of her pubescent self, the post-waif Powers in her sexy secretary glasses and perfect post-flapper bob manages to electrify the moment.
      Powers, probably the age her daughter is now, writes of coming into puberty without the words for quite what it was about the music, but knowing there was something. So did her friends. Deep dove, the power of this pop music, these rock songs revealed. Just not through intellectualism or the rock press, but dancing.
      Making the notion “but the little girls understand” literal, Powers’ curiosity about what the surge of desire means and how pop/soul/rock works turned into one of the 21st century’s most respected careers in music criticism. An editor or primary critic at The Village Voice, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, and a stint at the Experience Music Project, the woman who was a favorite of Prince currently serves as NPR’s lead contemporary music critic.
      Importantly, she knows how to unpack a notion. Rather than jumping on rock music from the days of Little Richard (whose “Tutti Frutti” provides the title from its original, unrecorded lyrics) and Elvis, she opens the book 200 years earlier with a chapter called “The Taboo Baby.” As she says, “If you want to understand, you have to start there.”
      To Powers it is black and white, Creole, Cajun, otherness imbuing the backbeat its erotic bent. Gospel music, dirty blues, songs for sale, and the code of each era provide the skeleton for her writing. With 11 years of research, in New Orleans and Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it was Fisk’s archives that provided one of the most surprising resources.
      “The personal effects of (cabaret performer) Florence Mills and (gospel songwriter) Thomas Dorsey were so valuable,” Powers explains. “Just reading their letters and correspondence.”
      More than the Playboy/porn and raw hedonism tilt — though that’s here, too — Powers focuses on sex’s myriad realities. Empowerment, social force, fashion driver, alternative culture enabler are as present in Good Booty as the gauntlet of musicians, songs, and genres tumbling through her writing. As always, Powers churns truths beneath the surface while invoking music and moments that bring her arguments to life.

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