Lust. In popular song, it has a place of honor – both “jazz” and “rock n’ roll” of course started off as euphemisms for sex. And dance has often been seen as a form of foreplay, certainly since ancient times when Salomé danced for Herod. So, music and lust have gone hand in hand since way back.
Lust is a primal urge . And in the moment, it’s the only thing that matters. When lust takes hold, gone are the gooey feelings of self-sacrifice which love tends to inspire because lust is about the right here, right now, wanting. This feeling is a heavyweight in the human condition stakes; it made the top seven sins, didn’t it? Sometimes, lust is mutual. And sometimes, it exists even in the context of that loving relationship which it is often seen to contradict. Yet, the most common form of lust is the ‘unrequited sex’ variety – aspiring to be with someone, rather than actually getting there. This kind of tension has inspired songwriters through out the decades to document just how powerful carnal cravings for another can be.
Here are 10 songs about lust – the tension, the physicality, and the frustration which is often associated with the realities of sexual longing so common to people of all backgrounds.
image courtesy of Violator3
The blues is about basic impulses and motivations; despair, braggadocio, and (yes) being horny too. And sometimes, the impulses are strong enough to cast aside one’s illusions about what one person expects from another in order to get to the heart of the matter. When it comes to love, candour can simplify the stickiest situations and in this song originally written by Chess Records’ house producer and bassist Willie Dixon and first recorded by the great Muddy Waters, Etta James is the personification of candour. This is not simply a lust song, although it certainly is that. It’s about a woman who owns her own sense of self, and what she really wants. In this, sex or the need for it, is a means to an end, allowing her to overcome what is expected of her in society and allowing her to reclaim it. In this, Etta James’ take on a song originally sung by a man becomes something of a political statement – that women are fully engaged with their libidos just as men are, although often have to use different ways and means to meet their needs.
Etta James is no stranger to songs of lust, having recorded “Roll With Me Henry” and “Rock Me Baby”, among many others which make few excuses as to their carnal motivations. James recorded “I Just Want to Make Love to You” in 1961 on her album At Last, during a time when sexual frankness was not for public consumption on the radio, especially when expressed by women. Yet the song became a signature hit for her, and would enjoy a resurgence in TV commercials and then on the charts into the 1990s and beyond.
One of the things that is the most obvious when it comes to lust is how aware one becomes of one’s own body when in that state. Perhaps this is why certain religious traditions label the state of arousal as a sin – that it’s tied in with the physical to such a degree that any lofty spiritual ideas we may have are bumped out for a time in favour of the physical. Those impulses and bodily reactions encoded into our make-ups as members of the animal kingdom become, in moments like this, bigger than anything. They make us throw caution to the wind, and make any consequences seem entirely irrelevant to the urge to greet the friction of sexual desire head on. This 1967 song by the Rolling Stones describes that state of arousal detail, when words and reasoning become difficult because the physical reactions become so undeniable – “going red, and my tongue’s getting tied”, “off my head, and my mouth’s getting dry”. Jagger and Richards connect this state of being with the effect of being drunk. And perhaps there’s no difference.
The Stones performed this song from their album Between the Buttons on the Ed Sullivan Show, where they were especially asked to change the lyrics of the song to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” to which they agreed. But perhaps they knew that the rest of the song spoke volumes in any case, and no lyric change to the title and chorus was going to hide it. The kids knew better, and so did their parents.
Contrary to the idea that lust is always an unthinking, lumbering beast, the art of seduction often involves using sexual drives as a basis for some pretty compelling sales pitches. The impulses of the body regularly inspire the mind to weave webs of deceit, cradles of reassurance, or even plain old logical arguements as to why sexual prey should give in to advances. The poet John Donne and his poem the Flea is a great example of this in literature, the argument being that if a flea feasts on one person’s blood and then the blood of a would-be lover, shouldn’t such co-mingling occur on a more deliberate level too? Gross? Maybe. But it seemed to work for John Donne, who wrote quite a few seduction-themed poems during the Renaissance.
A more recent, and less parasite-oriented, example of this kind of seductive reasoning is Marvin Gaye’s 1973 pop-soul classic “Let’s Get it On” from the album of the same name. In this song, the narrator is the voice of reassurance that ‘giving yourself to me could never be wrong/if love is true’. Lust is the undercurrent here, to the one who has been ‘really trying, baby/trying to hold back this feeling for so long’. And again, we’re showed the enormity of desire in that holding back is only something one can do for a limited period before inevitable consummation. Marvin Gaye’s passionate performance, the keening intensity of his delivery, completely sells the idea. And anyone made of flesh and blood buys in.
The teenager; if ever there was a time of life when one feels the most victimized by lust, it is when one hits the teens. What with hormones jumping around inside of us, and bodies developing all around us at the same time, we’re driven to it. Yet, because of this, the idea and practice of healthy fantasies come into play which serve us well (for the most part) as we get older. In this tune by Northern Ireland’s The Undertones, the narrator is a fantasist, like most teens are, and takes the lust for a girl and makes it into his own dream scenario – “I wanna hold her, want to hold her tight/get teenage kicks right through the night.” The song was released as a single in 1978, and then appeared on the group’s self-titled 1979 debut album. From there over the years it gained a following as new generations of teens discovered it on compilation albums and chart re-releases, making them fans. And no wonder; it was the perfect track to set the tone for teenage kicks (or dreams of them) everywhere.
Famed British DJ and impressario John Peel regularly cited this punk classic as his favourite single of all time, being as it is an exuberant youth anthem that perfectly captures that period and what it feels like. Peel discovered it after it failed to chart, championing it on his radio show, and eventually gaining it enough momentum to get the band signed. The song was duly played at Peel’s funeral in 2004.
That which is the most sexy is often the most frustrating too, and being made to wait, to feel the pull of desire yet be very much in the throes of the tension of it can make for some powerful medicine. And that’s what this song is about – the waiting. Since lust is all about the here and now, waiting for consummation seems to be counter-intuitive – and so it is. Of the more complex human states of being can offer, lust has few competitors when wanting someone who perhaps doesn’t return the same level of desire at the same time. It produces something undeniable and single-minded in us, perhaps a mental state which might cause us to take actions with regrets later. Yet at the same time, this drive connects us to the heart of our physicality too. In moments like this, lust is the most honest thing we can offer.
The Knack made this song a smash on AM radio in 1979, taken from their debut Get the Knack. It would certainly become their signature hit in addition to their other smash “Good Girls Don’t” which offers a considerably better outlook in the “getting some” stakes. “My Sharona” is textbook power-pop, the portrait of someone who is on the road to getting the girl, but may never (for all the listener knows) get there. Yet who knows – that extended instrumental break and solo toward the end of the song seems awfully celebratory…
Lust is often something one keeps to oneself, maybe because the object of one’s desire is unattainable in some way. But sometimes there are other forces at work that are more complex. Sometimes the object of our lust is also someone we don’t necessarily like or respect, and the tension of that makes the lusting that much more insistent. In this song by early-80s Canadian radio hit makers Rough Trade, the object of the narrator’s desire is a “cool, blonde scheming bitch” that she sees at school everyday, who she wants “so much I feel sick”. In many ways, this is a darker portrait of teenaged lust than the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks”; there is no entertaining fantasy here. In this song, it is more like a sexual obsession, and the narrator suspects that everyone is looking to get with this girl – even the principal.
The song is taken from the group’s 1980 album Avoid Freud, and would be the first of many hits with a sexual theme. The band pushed the boundaries in many ways in that singer Carole Pope doesn’t ever bring the gay/lesbian angle of any of her material into the foreground. Her lust over another woman here is framed just as it is, and as a result it’s a more powerful statement of fact than any polemic about what it’s like to be a lesbian teenager.
The bathroom wall; a place of sacred-profanity, which can be looked upon as the library of lustful feelings recorded for posterity. Is it a slight against your character if someone writes your name there, or is it a dubious honour? Well in Jenny’s case, it might be time to change that number. The narrator in this tune not only lusts from afar, but has taken it to a rather drastic conclusion, placing his lust as a vehicle for his own desperation. As such, this hints at the darker side of lust, when it turns from something innocent and natural into something else.
“867-5309/Jenny” was a smash hit in 1981 taken from the band’s album Tommy Tutone 2, with a sound that might be described as Neil Young forms a power pop band. The supremely catchy chorus had an effect on many, including loads of crank callers and their unfortunate victims numerically cursed by the phone company with the aforementioned digits. Some years ago, an experiment was conducted where the number was called in every area code with the hopes of finding a ‘Jenny’. I should have that much time on my hands.
Sometimes, wanting someone who is unattainable is not necessarily because they’re out of your league, but because they are already attached to a significant who is bigger than you are, and who is into a pretty important line of work – like say, creating the universe. In this 1991 song by Matthew Sweet from his album Girlfriend, the narrator Jonny 6 yearns for the titular Evangeline, a woman perfect in nearly every way except, for Jonny’s purposes, one – she’s a nun. Now, before you get images in your mind about dishevelled nun’s habits and the blur of black and white in the backseat of a car (sorry, I guess I’ve just put that image there…), know that this story is based on a 1980s comic about a nun who seeks revenge on those who murdered her fellow nuns while on the mission field – on the planet Mars, to be exact. Jonny 6 becomes her sidekick. And she’s a bit of a hottie. There. I said it.
But Sweet’s story is mostly centred around the barriers that create lust, that it doesn’t matter why someone is out of reach, but rather that they are. This is a pretty universal thing, whether you’re a high school student, a middle-aged office worker, or an interplanetary cat burglar like Jonny 6.
Lust and love share few characteristics. Yet one of the ones they do share is how easily they can take us by surprise, and then keep us distracted. In Edwyn Collins’ 1994 smash single “Girl Like You”, this is exactly what happens, along with the ensuing humiliation one often goes through at the hands of being physically enthralled with someone – “Now my hands are bleeding and my knees are raw/ Now you’ve got me crawlin’, crawlin’ on the floor”. This is not just natural physical attraction. In this tune, the narrator’s own dark side is revealed to him. This could easily be a drug song on the 10 songs about drugs list. And in many ways, much like Jagger and Richards pointed out in their song, there is often not much difference. One hopes that Collins’ narrator doesn’t become the guy who’s got Jenny’s number…
This song was used to great effect for the Austin Powers: International Man of Mistery soundtrack, but originally appeared the album Gorgeous George. Edwyn Collins is considered a one hit wonder in North America, but had a strong career in the 1980s with his band Orange Juice, and their signiture hit “Rip it Up”. He recently suffered and made an incredible recovery from a near-fatal brain hemorrhage due to a stroke and will be doing select shows in Britain soon.
Christina Aguilera took a lot of criticism for this tune taken from her 2003 album Stripped, and the phase she appeared to go through where she wore (even by pop starlet standards) very little when in public. Yet, her response to this criticism, in particular the criticism directed at this song and its accompanying video was hard to argue with. She said that she was in her early 20s – what should she be singing about if not sex? It’s a compelling point. After all, it’s our 20s where most of our engagement and experimentation with sex begins. It’s certainly when we begin to cease to be victims of lust and learn to have fun with it without it becoming destructive. The emotional supports that are perhaps not there when we’re in our teens allow us to flaunt our bodies, to tease, and to engage with powerful physical impulses when we reach the age Christina was at when she recorded this. And so, this song is about not being carried along by lust, but by having the presence of mind and a strong sense of self which allows us to make it fun.
It is very interesting that she took so much flak for this song, making it questionable whether or not we’ve really come very far in terms of gender equality, particularly around the subject of sexuality. It’s speculative, but I wonder how this compares with Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Herre”, which is largely centred on the same themes. Did it register as highly on people’s outrage-o-meter, seeing as the two songs came out roughly at the same time? I seem to remember that it didn’t.
It should be noted that one of Christina Aguilera’s vocal heroes is Etta James, which is nice for me as it brings this full circle, almost as if that’s what I had in mind all along!
New Wave singer-songwriter Joe Jackson, in his 1979 song “Pretty Girls” suggested that it would be handy to have a switch to turn off his libido when surrounded by women who are out of reach. And at times, that’s hard to argue with. But, for the most part, our libidos are a thing we have to learn to manage. Just like any aspect of the human condition, we’ve got to learn the ropes as we go.