Why Female Pop Stars Are Better at Singing About Sex

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

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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.

Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and Rufus and Chaka Kahn's "Tell Me Something Good" (1974) live on as some of the sexiest songs in pop culture, neither of which mentions the word "sex" explicitly. There's a coyness to them. They leave something up for grabs. Even Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" doesn't come out and say "sex." The listener is free to hear or not hear what he or she prefers.

Women seem much more at home with pun and innuendo than their male counterparts—even to greater effect. P!nk's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" and Rihanna's "Birthday Cake" show two ends of the spectrum: P!nk's effort a cheeky middle finger to an ex and Rihanna's an overtly sexual mating call. The discrepancy between men and women in the songwriting realm isn't hard to believe; the gender divide in music is just a prominent as it is elsewhere in the world. But, as we've already established, music about sex sells. So why aren't women talking as bluntly about the act as men?

One of the more crass songs on the radio might hold the answer. The recently released "C'mon Let Me Ride" by Skylar Grey, while an obvious metaphor, never actually mentions sex:

If the world starts freezing, I can make it hot and humid
If you get a bee-sting, I can suck out all the poison
I can make you last like other bitches can't
Have I made it clear, boy?
There's only one thing that I want from you

In interviews, Grey is forthcoming about how the song is a satirical take on the current state of pop music (the music video drives that point a little further). And at least the song is good for a laugh. Less laughable is the rap interlude by Eminem, which comes across as a poor handling of the joke Grey lobs at him.

Bagging up chicks like a bag of chips
With a bag of prophylactics as big as Mick Jagger lips
Shagging's not something I'm a pro at, but I ain't practicing shit Allen,
Iverson has safe sex, condoms are for practice, man, I skip practice

It could be that gender norms pervading pop music have actually laid the groundwork for more sexual creativity for female artists. Women still aren't expected to be the pursuers of sex, so they fill the void with music that is far more flirtatious than explicit. And there's an argument to be made that, for men and women, singing about sex is to achieve vastly different ends. One need only look to Ke$ha to see that people get up in arms when women take singing about sex into their own hands. This isn't to say that the American public is too delicate to hear the word "sex" on the airwaves. Quite the contrary, in fact. This is what the sexual revolution has wrought. But maybe in this arena, sex is better when it isn't so blunt. Flirting was invented for a reason. Coy works on both sexes.

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Emily Ferber is a writer based near Chicago.

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