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A Physical, Sensual History of American Music: Ann Powers at MTSU


Histories of American music and musicians, in their attention to sounds, influences and personal stories, often overlook the corporeal side of the story - the physical bodies and erotic souls moved by rhythm and pursuing sex lives influenced by the power of music. That’s very much the terrain however of Ann Powers’ late 2017 bookGood Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music.

Powers, NPR’s music critic and correspondent, visited MTSU’s Center for Popular Music this week to read from and talk about the new volume. She began by defining a set of questions that had compelled her for decades.

“How does music make us feel, in every sense of that term?” she said. “Sensually, physically in our bodies; emotionally, in our hearts and the way we relate to each other; and ideologically in the attitudes that we form about each other’s identities, our power, our sense of freedom and liberation. These are the questions that even when I was a kid, just a teenager, I started to ask about music.”

What followed was a talk that mixed the personal and the scholarly, connecting late 18th century social dancing in New Orleans (which she called the nexus of all American popular music) with gospel quartets, doo wop, rock and roll, Madonna, Britney Spears and Beyoncé.

She read a passage from her introduction that set up the premise that America’s music has been forceful and deep enough to literally shape our personalities and our deepest sense of self. “I gained my rebel attitude from punk,” she read. “My joy from disco. My openness from singer-songwriters. My seriousness from soul. I went to thousands of shows. What I remember most is the physicality of it all - the heat of the Metallica mosh pit and the tenderness of tears shared at a Tori Amos singalong.”

Powers launched her career in San Francisco and has covered music for the Village Voice, The New York TImes, the Los Angeles Times and Blender among many other outlets. She’s now based in Nashville.

Ten years in the making, Good Booty was pitched by its publisher upon its release last Fall as: “stories of forbidden lovers, wild shimmy-shakers, orgasmic gospel singers, countercultural perverts, soft-rock sensitivos, punk Puritans, and the cyborg known as Britney Spears (illuminating) how eroticism—not merely sex, but love, bodily freedom, and liberating joy—became entwined within the rhythms and melodies of American song.”

In this swirl of physical and emotional forces, the book argues, lie insights into race and gender dynamics, power and privilege and the self-conception of young people coming of age.