DWANE BROWN, HOST:
Punk, rock 'n' roll, soul, gospel, jazz - NPR music critic Ann Powers takes us on the wide-ranging history of American pop music in her new book "Good Booty: Love And Sex, Black And White, Body And Soul In American Music." No big deal, just all of that. And she joins me now from Nashville, Tenn. Ann Powers, great to talk with you.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me on.
BROWN: Well, of course, we can't start a conversation with a music critic without a little music. Hit it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI FRUTTI")
LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Tutti frutti, oh Rudy (ph). Tutti frutti, oh Rudy. Tutti rutti, oh Rudy. Tutti frutti, oh Rudy. Tutti frutti, oh Rudy.
BROWN: Thanks to you and your book title for the opportunity to play some of this oldie but goodie. Tell us about the inspiration Sir Little Richard played in this book title.
POWERS: Well, in the song we all know, it's tutti frutti, oh, Rudy. But in the original, it was good booty. And the lyrics were very, very dirty, frankly. They were something you couldn't play on the radio. So when he went to record it, he and a young woman named Dorothy LaBostrie rewrote the lyrics and made them that wonderful nonsense. And, you know, Dwane, I think nonsense is a key element of rock 'n' roll and of American music. And when I say nonsense, I mean language that goes beyond linear understanding. And just like our experience of sexuality and eroticism, we have to go to another place to really feel it.
BROWN: OK. So moving on, but only a little bit to your subtitle, "Love And Sex, Black And White, Body And Soul In American Music." Let's take a look at each of those briefly, if you would, starting with love and sex. That, of course, Ann, has certainly been a focus, even an inspiration, for many songs over the centuries. But why did you want to center much of the book around this connection?
POWERS: Well, you're absolutely right that it's cliche to say that popular music and particularly rock 'n' roll is about sex. But I wanted to go deeper. You know, I wanted to go beyond just that cliched statement - oh, yeah, of course, this is dirty music or whatever - and really think about how in every era from the 19th century to the present, particular anxieties of the time and the possibilities of that time were reflected in and shaped by music.
So, for example, in the '50s, the teenager was this newly named phase of life. And people were very worried about young kids experimenting sexually, so the music reflected that. The music also guided kids through their early attempts to be erotic beings. Now, kids are living on the Internet. We're all living on the Internet. So I talk about how artists like Britney Spears with their very processed voices kind of embody virtual reality and a cyborgian way of being that reflects what's happening erotically in cyberspace.
BROWN: Onto the "Black And White" of the subtitle. Again, you write that music allows people to ride the storm that arises when desire encounters the roadblocks of prejudice, moral judgment or cruel circumstance. How do you see that playing out today, or do you?
POWERS: What I think is that music reflects the best of us coming together but also has offered a way for communities to preserve their own traditions and legacies and to speak to each other through those legacies. I'm not saying it's utopian. And I'm not saying that it's all about liberation. I think it's important to recognize that in music, we share our ugliest emotions as well as our most beautiful emotions. And all that stuff is happening when an artist like Beyonce is articulating both the rage and the hope of a moment that's very frightening for many of us.
BROWN: OK. Let's get in the final part of the subtext, "Body And Soul." Just briefly here, are we talking disco and gospel or what?
POWERS: For me, the soul and the body are not separate. And I think music is that connective tissue that reminds us that all of our experiences, even transcendent experiences, are generated in our bodies. And that's why in a disco, a place where maybe it seems like it's just a bunch of fun and, you know, hedonistic nightlife, there also is a spiritual side. And you have an artist like Sylvester, one of the great singers of the '70s, whose voice lifted people up in the same way that a gospel singer would.
And, you know, not to always go back to Beyonce, but I think she's showing us that. You know, I think she's showing us that with the fact that she dances in the same way that the ring shout dancers danced in the early 19th century, you know, that she's making those same moves. And she's tapping into those same stories. They live on through music.
BROWN: NPR music critic Ann Powers. Her book is called "Good Booty: Love And Sex, Black And White, Body And Soul In American music." Ann Powers, thanks so much.
POWERS: Thank you so much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.