Art history tells us show don't tell.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
Here's how I spent last night, alone with nothing but cold pizza and self-pity for company: I put on an acid house record—maybe "Rise From Your Grave" by Phuture—and halfway through it, I did the loudest impression I could of the most cliched kind of male orgasm imaginable. Screamed a "HEUURGHH," bellowed a "FUCK...FUCK...FUCK," and howled a "JESUS...I'M COMING...UHHHH."
It sounded strange. It sounded sort of alien and uncomfortable, and not just because I'd been pretending to cum to an old acid house record on a day when everyone else—or so it seems—on earth was out having the shag of the year. It sounded odd because outside of life and pornography, it's a sound we're rarely presented with.
The female orgasm, on the other hand, is a relatively prevalent sample-source. Why is that? Why have we packaged and sold that and not its male counterpart? How come it's used by everyone from Guns N'Roses to Venetian Snares?
Sex, lest we forget, for all its pleasures, is a largely embarrassing thing that's best not thought about, talked about, or memorialized in song. Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:
You're sat on a bus, on a Tuesday morning in October, on the way to work. You're running late, haven't showered properly, and your breakfast was a few sucks on a Pall Mall and an unbuttered slice of white Hovis. You went out last night, too, and the residual tang of last night's pints, last night's fags, last night's regrets rolls round and round your mouth. The bloke next to you is watching an episode of Carpool Karaoke on his phone and muttering, "legend, absolute chuffing legend," to himself.
As the bus crawls through Elephant and Castle, the world seems awash with greyness, and you'd happily drift into the eternal ether, willingly accept death's cold and final crush, smiling as you slide into satan's gaping gullet, you decide that you need to listen to some music, just to alleviate the sensation that you're quite excited for the forthcoming apocalypse. So you slide a greasy finger over a cracked screen, stuff your cheap earbuds into their waxy canal, and drift into another world. The bus breaks suddenly, you jolt forward, the headphones are disconnected and the entire 172 turns to look at the bloke listening to this...
That in itself is an abhorrent embarrassment, and a moment you'd probably never recover from, but it goes beyond that. The record that best elucidates the arguments that me and a merry squad of academic hellraisers are going to make is "French Kiss" by Lil Louis. Once heard, never forgotten, the 1989 acid-track famously builds itself up to a slowed-down climax, where the shudder and judder of synth is accompanied by the kind of coital-caterwauling that's usually accompanied by the unmistakable crack of a laptop lid being shut at rapid speed.
"French Kiss" makes for an interesting case study because acid house, in its own strange, unsettling, otherworldly way, can be incredibly sexy music. It is minimal, repetitive, and most importantly, imbued with the kind of squelch redolent of either a steamy sex session or a Sunday afternoon stroll in the woods. Acid's allure arises from its fundamental disconnect from the voice, its ability to seamlessly fuse man and machine—it is a music of submission, forcing the listener to be dominated by the detuned rumblings of a damaged 303. Which, when combined with dark rooms and strong drugs, can be an incredibly arousing prospect.
The orgasm that cuts "French Kiss" in two sort of shatters the fantasy—it shows rather than tells. And in doing so, it pulls of a trick as old as art history itself: objectifying a woman for male consumption.
As John Berger states in his seminal 1972 book Ways of Being, "men act and women appear," before noting that, "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." This is undoubtable, a sorry fact of life itself. Because for all of the elevated status we afford it, dance music is no different to life itself, and as a result club culture is riddled with painful examples of men acting like women don't appear to exist. Today, though, we'll limit ourselves to the intersection between sex-sounds and club-music.
During the course of Ways of Being, Berger introduces an idea posited by Kenneth Clark in his influential study The Nude—that of the difference between nakedness and nudity. Clarke argues that nakedness is essentially an unknown property—you meandering about your empty flat of a Sunday morning waiting for the shower to heat up—whereas nudity comes into being under the gaze of another. "To be nude," Berger writes, "is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself." Nudity, which came into being as soon as Adam and Eve chanced upon a few fig leaves, frames the body as an object, something to be desired and wanted but never heard. Crucially, this almost always applies to female bodies. Female bodies, as represented by men, obviously.
So in music, when the sex sounds are heard, are sampled over tracks, and we cringe, perhaps it is because what we are hearing is the nude, objectified version of female sexuality. Not an authentic moment, but a choreographed one, orchestrated by a male producer conducting a vocalist in the booth, not a lover in the sheets. They're nothing more than a demystification process that leaves the listener feeling used and grubby. They are a cheap shot, a vulgar display, a pornographic show-all that, like most experiences with pornography, leaves us ultimately unsatisfied. We've been given what we're told we want, only to find out that we didn't want it after all.
It can't be ignored that the nude object in art—be it a person, an oil painting, or a singer impersonating an orgasm for an acid house record—is more often than not a woman. In fact it's crucial to understanding why the ickiness of orgasms and squeals played on Funktion-Ones is more than just a throwback to the confusion and shame we felt as teenagers watching simulated sex on television with a parent in the room.
In effect, every time a male producer decides to incorporate sexual gratification into their music they attempt to seize control over yet another sphere of experience. While this (sadly) shouldn't shock us, there is something disquieting about it happening in a supposedly universal space.
Nightclubs, being places where people of every persuasion and orientation mingle in the dark, glistening with sweat, are naturally places where sex and sexuality hang heavily in the air. This is why sex noises are actually unnecessary—let people dance to house or techno or disco or dubstep or gqom or grime and they'll probably end up fucking anyway, without needing to be coerced into it by the grotty-movie grunts emanating from the speakers. Especially not ones coerced into being by sweaty-palmed dudes sat in studios bashing away at an MPC.
Oh, and also, the orgasm in "French Kiss" is corny as fuck too.