Why Female Pop Stars Are Better at Singing About Sex

Unlike their male counterparts, they know how to be coy.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Sex sells. And music about sex sells even better. So the fact that the Bruno Mars single "Locked Out of Heaven" is pretty sexual was not surprising. Mars, as endearing as he may seem with his fedora and retro aesthetic, isn't immune from the general persuasion of pop music to be absolutely dripping with lyrics about sexuality.

Never had much faith in love or miracles
Never wanna put my heart on the line.
But swimming in your world is something spiritual
I'm born again every time you spend the night
'Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah your sex takes me to paradise

The song isn't just about sex. It's about how having sex with this particular woman—the nameless, beautiful-just-the-way-she-is woman—makes Mars feel like he hasn't has sex in far too long. He proclaims four times that her "sex takes [him] to paradise."

And this is "the stuff of great pop" according to Jody Rosen's review in Rolling Stone.

Now, this isn't to disparage the song. It's catchy. If you haven't had a chance to hear it, take a listen. And Mars is more than charming in interviews. Especially when he skirts around the question asking what "Locked Out of Heaven" is about. "Come on Lee, we're grown men," he told the interviewer on CBS Sunday Morning a week ago. What the interviewer fails to ask Mars is "were you half asleep when you wrote this song?" Infectious dance beat aside, "Locked Out of Heaven" sounds like it was written on the back of a Starbucks receipt during a five-minute cab ride. His unimaginative musings about sex only highlight how lazy Mars and his contemporaries have gotten in terms of songwriting. Hit songs are no longer forced to solely allude to sex to get airtime. But now that songs can reference sex outright with little to no consequence, pop artists have lost a good deal of the creativity, not to mention the appeal, they once had.

Simple songs can be good songs, but injecting "sex"—not the image or the idea, but just the word—in hopes that it tugs at the listener's carnal side is an unfortunately safe bet that has become the norm in pop music. We're not talking Cole Porter's 1928 classic "Let's Do It," which so iconically instructs that "Birds do it, bees do it." No, apparently songwriters have lost even the ounce of creative spark that took to get that on paper. Have listeners stopped caring about the slightest bit of imagination in our Top 40 fodder? Usher's "Scream" is another culprit. Unlike his other notable single of 2012, "Climax," which actually has very little sexual content besides the title, "Scream" leaves nothing to the imagination, ultimately making it terribly dull to listen to:

Got no drink in my hand
But I'm wasted
Getting drunk on the thought of you naked
I'd get you like ooh baby baby
Ooh baby baby, ah-ooh baby baby ooh baby baby
And I've tried to fight it, to fight it
But you're so magnetic, magnetic
Got one life, just live it, just live it
Now relax, and get on your back

There's been quite a shift since the days the Rolling Stones were supposed to change the lyrics of "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" to perform on the Ed Sullivan show (they didn't, if you don't know the story, and were banned from the show for a number of years).

Released in 1967, the song is as vague as it is hinting—which may be the trick to its success:

Don't you worry 'bout what's on your mind
I'm in no hurry, I can take my time
I'm going red and my tongues getting tied
I'm off my head and my mouths getting dry
I'm high, but I try, try, try
Lets spend the night together

Mick is trying to get some here. We all know what's on his mind. But his articulation is slightly more endearing, if not just more comfortable to listen to in mixed company, than if he had just come out and said it. There's an art to wooing a girl. "Hey, let's have sex" isn't a particularly effective pick-up line.

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Emily Ferber is a writer based near Chicago.

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