Ann Powers Spins the Sexy Soundtrack of Our Nation’s History

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This week’s contender for Best New Book Title is . . . drumroll, please . . . Good Booty. (It’s fun to say, isn’t it?) To understand what it’s about, you should probably know that the author, NPR music critic Ann Powers, gave it subtitle, too: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. 

Powers — who also happens to be a Nashville resident — has been writing about the intersection of music and social culture in America for over two decades, including stints at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Village Voice. She has written two prior books, co-edited a third, and served as editor of the anthology Best Music Writing 2010. In other words, she knows the material — which makes this book not only illuminating and entertaining, but deserving of a spot on the shelves of every music lover, history major, and pop-culture junkie.

We can’t wait for you to join us when Powers visits Parnassus on Thursday, August 17, at 6:30 p.m. for a discussion and signing. Meanwhile, she tells us a bit more about the book:

Good Booty covers a lot of territory — both culturally and chronologically. How long have you been working on it?

GOOD BOOTY - Ann Powers author photo (credit, Lucent Vignette Photography)In some ways, my whole life! I’ve been working as a music writer since I was a teenager, and from almost the beginning I was exploring issues of sexuality and gendered self-expression in my pieces. But my first book (Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America) isn’t about music per se, and my second was a collaboration with one artist, Tori Amos (Tori Amos: Piece By Piece). About a decade ago, when I started to think I’d like to do another book, I was having conversations with various friends, and this idea of doing a book about music and sexuality came up. I remember sitting in a downtown Los Angeles café with Josh Kun, a writer and professor at USC, and mentioning it. He was like, “You need to do that.” And I guess I was ready to hear it, because I began to formulate the proposal not long after that.

The formal presentation that became part of the book was a talk I gave at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. It was called “Rock and Roll Started with the Shimmy.” Even then, dance was as important as music in my view of how we express ourselves erotically as a people. After that, I started the research. I’d go deep into an era, really fall down the rabbit hole, and then write that chapter. It was always hard to pull myself out of whatever time in which I immersed. I had a really hard time just getting out of 19th -century New Orleans!

Tell us about this fabulous title. Was the book always going to be called Good Booty?

GOOD BOOTY - Jacket ImageFor years it was called Rock Me With a Steady Roll: The Erotic Life of American Music. I liked the idea of making clear that “rock and roll” is, flat-out, a description of sex. But my editor felt that few people would know the reference – it’s an old blues song from the 1920s, by Trixie Smith, called “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).” It was hard to put aside a title I’d had in my head for six years! I was standing there looking at my bookshelf, thinking, what am I going to do? I glimpsed the Little Richard biography by Charles White and it just came to me: Good Booty. It had everything: sex, obviously; humor; a little bit of commerce and thievery. It was perfect!

As for the subtitle: as I started writing, I realized that I couldn’t talk about desire, self-expression, and bodily pleasure and pride in America without confronting the basic reality that in this country, race is at the core of how people’s bodies have been treated, and whether they’ve been allowed the freedom to realize their pleasures and desires. I was writing in the years when Black Lives Matter caused a serious reckoning with our national memory. And then, after the gospel chapter took form, I knew I had to get the soul in there too. So, “Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul.”

Did you have a particular reader (or type of reader) in mind as you wrote?

Since the book ranges so widely, I’m hoping that anyone who loves popular music will connect with it. It does have footnotes, so it qualifies as scholarly, but I really sought out great stories that I think will resonate with people, whether or not they’re history nerds or music nerds. The nerds are my people, though, so I hope they find it enriching!

If you could surround yourself with the music of a single decade, what time period would you choose?

Writing the book, I pretty much did this: I’d really immerse in the soundtrack of whatever era I was exploring. I don’t know if I can choose just one! The early 1970s is probably my favorite time in terms of contemporary music. Glam, disco, hard rock (I love Led Zeppelin!), singer-songwriter stuff, salsa, the beginning of punk: that time was so great for musical hybridizing. At the same time, I’d love to be able to go back in time and experience the music of the early 1920s in person. I’d love to know what the great star of the stage at that time, Florence Mills, sounded like as a singer. She left no recordings, so it’s a mystery.

What’s a trend in music you could do without?

This is a trick question! I remember years ago Greil Marcus (a friend and one of my greatest influences) wrote something about how he liked all music but polka, and then at some point, he discovered some awesome polka, and he had to eat his words. I’m an optimist and a poptimist when it comes to music — I find good in it all!

What brought you to Nashville — and what’s it like being based in Nashville as a music writer?

My husband, Eric Weisbard, is a professor of American Studies at University of Alabama. We moved from Los Angeles to Tuscaloosa in 2009. Small town life wasn’t for us, though, and once he got tenure two years ago, we moved up here. (He spends half the week down there still, during the school year.) I’d already fallen in love with Nashville over the previous half-decade, coming up here for Americana Fest and other events. It reminds me of my home town of Seattle: really green, lots of Craftsman homes and great parks, and an essentially creative spirit to the city. And there are just so many music people here! When we bought our house in Inglewood we soon found out that we already knew some of our neighbors, just from being in the music scene over the years.

It’s been a huge boon to be here as far as my work goes. Within a year of my moving here, the NPR-affiliated radio show World Café initiated a Nashville hub, with me hosting interviews for the show recorded in various studios around town. NPR Music loves having a Nashville correspondent! There’s more live music than I can absorb — I could go to three shows a night and never see everything. And even more wonderful is the fact that even as it grows and gets more expensive, Nashville is still one of only two or three cities in America where it’s possible to be a working musician and survive. I treasure the fact that so many people who have become my friends have music at the center of their lives.

And finally: Would you consider making us a little musical companion playlist to the book?

Here you go!

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