I was seven years old when Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” hit the airwaves, and I danced my little butt off to it. To me it was all about aerobics and Jazzercise. It was an opportunity to choreograph yet another elaborate, spastic dance routine with which to mortify my parents at family gatherings; it had absolutely nothing to do with sex (since I was seven, after all). So lines like this were totally lost on me: I took you to an intimate restaurant / Then to a suggestive movie / There’s nothing left to talk about / Unless it’s horizontally. I didn’t know what “horizontally” meant, geometrically speaking, let alone its sexual subtexts.
So imagine my confusion a couple of years later when my friend Margaret confided in me that her parents wouldn’t let her listen to Olivia Newton John, among various other shocking artists. Why not? I asked. Well, because of “Physical,” she said. When I still didn’t get it, she leaned over and whispered conspiratorially in my ear: “Because it’s about sex.”
By then I knew what sex was, technically speaking, but I considered it some amorphous adult activity that held very little interest for me at that point, boys still being duly classified as “gross” and decisively cootie-fied. But it wasn’t long until I got to be thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—and then I started to get what “Physical” and a host of other songs were really talking about.
“Too Darn Hot,” by Cole Porter
Many people have a (mistaken) tendency to think that music that was produced before 1969 was all innocent, sappy tunes about love and romance and getting married. And while there was a pervasive conservative streak, culturally speaking, in that era, it didn’t mean that a little sexy suggestiveness didn’t slip through the cracks. “Too Darn Hot,” from the 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate, by Cole Porter, is an excellent example of this idea. All the lyrics have, shall we say, room for interpretation, but the bridge chorus leaves little to the imagination:
According to the Kinsey report
Every average man you know
Much prefers to play his favorite sport
When the temperature is low
But when the thermometer goes way up
And the weather is sizzling hot
Mister Adam for his madam is not
’Cause it’s too too
It’s too darn hot
In 1948, Alfred Kinsey exhaustively surveyed everyday Americans about their attitudes and behaviors regarding sex and released the Kinsey report. Among his controversial assertions was that “every average man” engages in some sexual activity on a regular basis—including sexual activity outside the marital bond, which was a shocking thing to contemplate in that day and age (hence Porter’s reference to a man’s “favorite sport”).
“Cherry Pie,” Warrant
If the glam metal’s rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’. The ’80s were so libidinous that almost every word and phrase in your average rock song could be interpreted as a euphemism of some sort. Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” is absolutely no exception; the entire song is basically a litany of thinly veiled sexual references. For example:
Huh, swingin’ in the livin’ room, swingin’ in the kitchen
Most folks don’t ’cause they’re too busy bitchin’
Swingin’ in there ’cause she wanted me to feed her
So I mixed up the batter and she licked the beater
You don’t have to live in the gutter to know what’s meant by “swingin’,” to say nothing of the last two lines in their entirety. You can’t expect too much subtlety from a song written in fifteen minutes on the back of a pizza box. But it was a hit and put Warrant on the map, overshadowing pretty much everything else they ever recorded. Warrant frontman Jani Lane was quoted on VH1 as saying, “I could shoot myself in the f*cking head for writing that song.”
“Flower,” by Liz Phair
Liz isn’t known for being demure, as all of her songs make more than clear. But “Flower,” from her debut album, Exile in Guyville, ensured that no one would ever, ever accuse her of being coy. The song’s unpolished sound and overt sexuality work together to lull you gently into a state of abject lust.
“One More Time for Me,” by the Reverend Horton Heat
If there’s one thing the Reverend Horton Heat can be relied upon to do, it’s write big, loud, fast songs about smoking, drinking, fighting, drugs, and sex. You can’t mash country rock, punk rock, and rockabilly into the same man and get anything less. Among such venerable singles as “Bales of Cocaine,” “Interracial Homo Cowboy Love,” and “Nurture My Pig,” there’s also “One More Time for Me,” which is a passionate plea to a special lady to pleasure herself as he watches. That’s not the “dirty” your mama was talking about—that’s a whole new Boogie Nights level of dirty. Milder lyrics in the song include:
I really wanna, wanna see ya, wanna see you explode right now whoa!
Come on and work it baby,
Churn that butter honey,
You’re gonna get it and how!
“The Lemon Song,” by Led Zeppelin
First recorded in 1969, “The Lemon Song” started life as “Killing Floor,” a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf’s song of the same name and a moving target of sexual innuendo. The echo effects of Robert Plant’s voice were all live, not created electronically, and John Paul Jones winged the complex bassline throughout the recording. As the band took the song on the road during their 1969 U.S. tour, the gritty in-the-moment approach persisted as it morphed into what we now know as “The Lemon Song,” improvised onstage and mashed up into other blues-inspired medleys. It should be noted that the infamous line Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg was borrowed from Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, who, in the tradition of blues music, probably borrowed it from Arthur McKay’s song “She Squeezed My Lemon.”
“Candy Shop,” by 50 Cent
“I attempted to be as sexual as possible, from a male perspective, without being vulgar or obscene,” said 50 Cent of his MTV Award–nominated song “Candy Shop.” With lyrics like this, it’s safe to say he managed to be as sexual as possible. As for the lack of vulgarity or obscenity, that’s a matter of your personal sensibilities.
I touch the right spot at the right time
Lights on or lights off, she like it from behind
So seductive, you should see the way she wind
Her hips in slow-mo on the floor when we grind
“Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails.
With a drum sample from Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” Trent Reznor’s pulsing, sexy song (also known as “Closer to God”) put industrial rock back on the grid of popular culture. But what really pushed the song into the spotlight was the creepy, beautiful video that went along with it. Directed by music-video maestro Mark Romanek, it’s full of disturbing imagery that correlates sex with various forms of violence and domination—you know, if that’s your thing.
Are you blushing yet? You should be.