Powers’ book examines the role of sex, gender and race in creating popular music.
Ann Powers has made her mark as a music critic for over three decades at outlets like the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, The Rocket and her current employer, NPR. Much of her writing has chronicled the role of gender and race within the pop- music landscape, which is also the turf she explores in “Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music” (Dey Street, $26.99, 412 pages). She discusses the book with DJ Riz Rollins in a presentation by Town Hall Seattle on Friday, Sept. 8.
“Good Booty” is a sharp analysis of the role that sex, gender and race played in creating popular music in America. Powers argues that music is intrinsically intertwined with these themes, and shaped by it. “American popular music, our nation’s first original art form,” she writes, “is made of our best impulses toward freedom, community, and self-realization, and our worst legacies of racial oppression and sexual hypocrisy.”
In “Good Booty” Powers also challenges popular conceptions about when rock ‘n’ roll as a form even began, suggesting that it formed long before Elvis shook his hips in the fifties.
The author of “Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music” will speak with Riz Rollins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8, at Town Hall Seattle’s temporary location, The Summit on Pike, 420 E. Pike St.; $5 (townhallseattle.org).
“It really begins at the dawn of our country,” she said the other day from her home in Nashville. She begins “Good Booty” with a tale of how Methodists in the early 1800s were already arguing about how much they should move their bodies when playing church music.
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Powers shifts her book from those early days all the way to the modern era when she suggests a pop artist like Rihanna can both be defined by the domestic violence she suffered at the hand of Chris Brown, but then reclaim her sexuality away from victimhood in a later video she did with Brown.
She argues that music has shifted in the modern era, where what is counterculture is unclear. “I was just listening to the new Keisha,” she says, “and she’s articulating a persona of a messed-up psychology, but it’s a dialogue she’s having within the mainstream, without thinking of herself as oppositional.”
Seattle’s Ryan Lewis produced some of that Keisha record. Powers grew up in Seattle, and though she hasn’t lived here for sometime, she still has hometown pride.
Her career began at the UW Daily, and then her first professional experience was at The Rocket (a magazine I edited for a time). Covering bands like the Cowboys, the Heats and the Girls, she reveled in Seattle’s nascent new-wave scene as a fan, and as a journalist chronicling pre-Grunge.
Looking back on the 80s, she says there were aspects of how she embraced rock journalism that mirror the contradictions women musicians faced. “There is that conundrum to the young girl in the rock ’n’ roll scene,” she said, “who is finding some power and agency, but also who could be exploited by the sexism of the music industry. These were the pre-Riot-Grrl years.”
Gender is a topic that Powers has long explored in her criticism. “I’m not sure if I was conscious of it, but this was where I was steered as a writer,” she says. “It is important, though, to not equate women with sexuality or gender, because historically women in music are the exception to the rule.”
Two of Powers’ previous books were a collaboration with Tori Amos, and the groundbreaking “Rock She Wrote” (with Evelyn McDonnell), which collected essays by women rock critics. “Good Booty” is a significantly more ambitious work, and covers male and female icons. The book took six years to complete, an arc that stretched from the Black Lives Matter movement to the last election.
Race, Powers says, plays a central role how we understand music. “American music would simply not exist if slavery, our American Apartheid, had not brought Africans to this country,” she says. She covers hundreds of musicians in her book, but Jimi Hendrix gets more space than any other, perhaps because his career dovetailed with several of her thematic topics.
She cites alcoholism as “the pervasive killer” that doesn’t get as much attention as drug abuse, even in drug-riddled Seattle music, and as an ill that derailed some of the greatest “explosive revolutionary moments,” including the career of Hendrix (he died mixing alcohol and drugs).
In the end, music, Powers writes, remains cathartic, even as it serves “as a conduit for both joy and pain.” Reading “Good Booty,” however, is ultimately nothing but a joy.