The Psychology of Sexy
I can’t decide if Madonna is more like Bill Clinton or Star Wars. Do you ever think that?
Madonna, like President 42, is utterly incapable of embarrassment, which may be the single most important attribute a modern celebrity can possess. If you can smile through nude photo scandals, ugly public divorces, Razzie awards, and countless other excuses to die of shame, you might just have some career longevity. And as Star Wars forever changed the movie business like no film had before or ever will again, Madonna is the benchmark by which all female pop stars will henceforth be measured, until humans are replaced by robots (who have even worse taste than we do).
When Madonna formed from the ether in the early 1980s, I was a pubescent boy who spent more time thinking about sex than all other important topics combined, including Godzilla movies and algebra. So I must have had it bad for this busty, brazen pop singer who churned out hit after hit and wanted everyone to know how much she liked getting laid, right?
Not really. Even then I thought she produced well-crafted pop tunes but relied on shock tactics and publicity grabs as a smokescreen to keep people from noticing that she sang about as well as your Aunt Trudy after two glasses of white zinfandel. It’s only as an adult that I’ve come to admire her for being such a brilliant businesswoman. I guess that quality makes her more like Gene Simmons than like Bill Clinton or Star Wars. Except she has girl parts instead of shock make-up and a giant tongue. And hairier armpits (yikes).
Her first scandalous nude pics were a ho-hum disappointment, and perhaps even a turn off to those of us who don’t mind a little landscaping down there, if you know what I mean. She might have shown us the gory details, but, at the risk of sounding like my father, that’s boring. Female pop stars had “sexy” figured out way before Madonna ever picked up a microphone. It happened in the 1960s. We could look at any number of artists as an example, but why not talk about one of my favorites?
By the way, that was rhetorical. I’m not asking for permission to talk about one of my favorites. If you don’t like my choice, no one is stopping you from writing your own story about sexy female singers. God, could you be more sensitive?
The late 1950s saw plenty of so-called “girl groups” in the pop-music realm, but most of them were white-bread, Lawrence Welk-approved G-rated acts. Then, in 1961 and hot on the heels of the The Shirelles (the first all-black girl group to have mainstream success), came The Marvelettes. Those girls put Motown Records on the map with “Please Mr. Postman” and landed 22 more songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart over the next eight years. Despite being overshadowed by that bitch Diana Ross and her Supremes, The Marvelettes were Motown’s best artist, at least to my ears. Not lost on audiences of the time (or me now) was how pretty they were and how good they looked in slinky dresses.
To me, sex appeal comes from passion and soul, something Madonna’s music lacks. The Marvelettes’ co-lead singer Gladys Horton, on the other hand, with her throaty, sassy vocals, knew how to seduce with her voice. In their cover of Chubby Checker’s Slow Twist, Horton turns an innocuous dance tune into a song about fucking without changing a single lyric. When she sings the opening line, “Baby baby baby baby take it easy, oh let’s do it right,” you can almost see her prying her young lad’s hands off her torso and saying, “Stop pawing and groping me, you oaf, and learn how to touch me like a man.”
Unfortunately, we have little extant footage of the Marvelettes, since that bitch Diana Ross got all Motown’s attention, but here’s a nice clip of one of their hits, Don’t Mess With Bill. This tune has equally sexy Wanda Young on lead vocals, but it suffices as an example:
The adjective people often utter today when they see videos like that one or by The Ronettes or The Toys is “classy.” So, yeah, I think classy girls are sexy. But whether it’s an unclassy Madonna looking at her cootchie in a mirror or an elegant pop singer from the 1960s working graceful stage moves, we men are still, in the end, thinking about sex. So what does it say about me that I prefer the “classy” girl?
1. I’m a conservative with strong religious values who thinks women who flaunt their sexuality are sluts?
2. I’m the shy, retiring type who is afraid of women who are open about their sexuality?
3. I think girls in the 1960s knew their place, which was to serve and entertain men? I mean, look at the bows in the Marvelettes’ wigs- er, hair in that video.
4. I’m gay?
5. I don’t like hairy bush Italian girls?
In fact, none of those things is true. I don’t have religious values at all. I’m not shy and think women have every right to get laid or do whatever else men do, and, despite carrying on numerous man-crushes, I prefer my romantic partners to have two X chromosomes. Oh, and I’ve dated hairy bush Italian girls.
Ah, but option three up there has wider ramifications. While I hope younger readers will recognize why we Gen-X folks are unimpressed with Lady Gaga’s alleged brilliance (being that Madonna already did everything she does but better), I do admire Ms. Gaga for being in total control of her career. She is her own business enterprise and answers to no one. For that reason, I hope she inspires a million other girls to do the same.
Sadly, it’s far too late for the Marvelettes, who got screwed in every way but the good one. They gave their famed record label its first smash hit and continued to crank out great music for years with hardly a royalty check to show for it. Gladys Horton, who died in 2011, spent the final years of her life fighting to get the Marvelettes name back after she found out she couldn’t use it because it had been sold to a touring group with no connection to the actual artist. Ain’t that some shit?
So female artists in the 1960s had plenty of class, and, some, like Horton, had plenty of sass. They just didn’t have business savvy to own their careers. If they had a chance to do it again, I bet they’d kick more ass.
The torch is in your hands, Nicki Minaj. You’ve got looks, business savvy, the wigs, and that intangible thing that makes it hard for people to look away. Now learn how to write a friggin’ song that doesn’t make my ears bleed and we’re good to go.
About the author: Eric J Baker took Intro to Psych in college and got an A, which qualifies him to discuss psychological things on the internet. If that weren’t impressive enough, he’s also good friends with two psychologists (real ones!).
Great insight, Eric! It’s odd to think back on it all now but I don’t think Madonna ever seemed sexy in the Marilyn Monroe tradition from which she so heavily borrowed. She’s been strong, creative and hardworking but I don’t think sexy was ever an attribute that people connected with her. I think the same is true of Gaga and Grace Jones and others, too, who are beautiful and have amazing talent and I wonder why that is. Are men still intimidated by strong women?
I don’t really think The Marvelettes are sexy, either. Maybe that’s just because I’m gay.
Great comments, Mr. Tuttle. I think you’re correct that some men are intimidated by strong women, if not outright hostile. Whether people think she is sexy or not, Madonna has pushed that marketing angle quite hard over the years. I’m not sure if her unsexy “sex” book was intended to turn people on or simply to swamp the competition. That is, if people were going to make money selling nude photos from before she was famous, she might as well get in on the act and put out a better product.
Your closing line elicited a big laugh from me. Perhaps this whole story I wrote is just a smokescreen to hide my weird fetish for women with 1960s fashion and hairstyles.
Is it okay if I like Kylie Minogue just a little bit. I don’t care about her music or anything else, it’s just she seems very nice and has some sense of style, most of the time.
— James K.
She does seem nice.