Popular Music and Sexuality

Goin' to the chapel and we're gonna get married
Gee, I really love you and we're gonna get married
Goin' to the chapel of love
—Dixie Cups, Chapel of Love (1964)

Cause I may be bad but I'm perfectly good at it,
Sex in the air, I don't care, I love the smell of it.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.
—Rihanna, S&M (2010)

It is impossible to analyse popular music without considering sexuality – the driving force behind much music – and how it shapes both the music and fans' reading of that music. Music, (and reaction to music ie dancing) is the one way in which humans can communicate their sexuality without actually taking their clothes off, that's why Salome pissed off John The Baptist so royally. Teenagers the world over get their first erotic charges from pop music and it can provide a learning channel for both boys and girls to articulate their emotions. Music is both a physical and emotional form of expression; it affects us in our feelings and in our feet. Music is universal, it knows no boundaries of language or culture; what gets them going in Glasgow is probably going to do the same in Goa. Therefore, popular music, which is accessible to all, which is easily possessed as a commodity and understood/ingested as a medium, becomes a channel for communicating human sexuality.

Sexuality - A Quick Working Definition

Human sexuality has five main elements:

  1. Cognitive/Intellectual - the need to share the thought aspects of one's life, to communicate with the other
  2. Emotional - the need to give, and receive love & affection
  3. Physical - the physical need for skin contact and sexual release
  4. Moral - sexuality comes with a large bundle of codes and values
  5. Social - sexuality makes us wanted, gives us identity and value in the eyes of others, defines us in social terms

Sexuality is a vitally important currency in our modern media world. Gender is, of course, what you are stuck with at birth.

Popular music, as an audio-visual medium with both a rhythmic and verbal content, allows us to explore many aspects of sexuality - from a safe distance from a sexual partner. It can be about communicating with "the other" - allowing the audience to take on the mantle of that other, and consider that the singer is communicating just with them. Lyrically, a lot of pop music is about giving and receiving love and affection, as well as the physical aspects of sex: it also involves dancing, both from performer and audience, and dance is a commonly used metaphor for the sexual act. Again lyrically, and through the exposure of the troubled lives of our favourite performers in the press, pop music provides us with a discourse on morality. And above all, popular music bestows a sexual identity on fans, defining them through costume in social terms as goth, punk, raver whatever and hopefully steers them towards sexual attractiveness to those of a similar predilection.

Popular music also allows a space for alternative sexualities. Those whose sexuality does not fit conventional modes (David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Boy George, Madonna, Lady Gaga, et al) are able to toy with it and express it through popular music, and the attendant sites of institutional support.

Music & Adolescent Sexuality

Popular music is an important part of the modern teenage experience. As is sex. Ever since Elvis's pelvis outraged parents in 1956 on the Jimmy & Tommy Dorsey Show the two have existed in a state of collision which threatens never to come undone. Hooray! Much has been written about the way in which popular music is part of adolescent discourse with the world: it provides a channel for learning about love, pain, identity and ideals. In a world where most other media seem to shore up hegemonic ideas, pop music offers rebellion and alternative expression. However, it is worth remembering that this alternative discourse is as much produced by an institution for commercial purposes as any other media form.

Gender is a key aspect to consider when analysing the relationship between music and audience, particularly a teenage audience. Boys, generally speaking, seek an alternative way of life through music, hence the attraction of gangsta rap for the white middle class male. Girls, on the other hand, seek validation of self, especially of their burgeoning sexual self. Therefore girls use the non-threatening, often asexual role models provided by boy bands who act as non-reciprocal sexual partners, mouthing approval through nondescript "I love you love me too" lyrics, and always presenting themselves as clean, accessible and nice to be with. Unlike real adolescent boys who are spotty, grow their hair, play guitar badly and want to play video games all day. Just like on a rock&roll tour bus.


Because of its close links with sexuality, popular music is often condemned as obscene - either lyrically, or the way performers present their songs onstage or on video. You can read more about the censorship of popular music here on this site.

Further Reading