On the 1934 jazz hit “Anything Goes,” Cole Porter sang: “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking/But now, God knows, anything goes.” Now, on the number two song in America, Bruno Mars eschews subtlety altogether, stating, literally, that he likes “Sex by the fire at night.” This increase in sexual explicitness over time was recently quantified in an analysis of pop music lyrics, in which its author, a self-described expert on boys, men, and masculinity, explains how music came to be so uncensored.
In an interview with Inverse, Dr. Andrew Smiler, a psychotherapist and author whose analysis was published in Sexuality and Culture on Wednesday, explained that pop music’s bluntness about sex has a lot to do with the fact that people are getting married so much later than they used to. In the 1960s, the average age of first marriage ranged from 18 to 21; now, it’s closer to 27 and 28. “I don’t think most of us really expect people to be celibate through all of their teens and all of their twenties,” Smiler says. “Performers are singing to a different audience.”
Since that demographic is spending an increasingly greater fraction of their time having sex — and much more openly than they would have in the past — it makes sense that this would be reflected in the music they listen to and create. Smiler saw these trends emerge in his research: In his analysis of 1,250 pop songs released from 1960 through 2008, he found that the proportion of male artists referencing sex in their songs jumped from 7 percent in the 1960s to 40 percent in the 2000s. This jump isn’t just a reflection of the fact that people between 15 and 25 are the determinants of what is a popular song, Smiler points out; for the most part, the creators of those popular songs also fit squarely in that age bracket.
“As long as the music industry is playing to that crowd, this is going to be part of what that crowd wants,” Smiler says.
The shift away from metaphorical allusions to sex seems to have begun in the 1980s, he notes (“‘I Want Your Sex’? It doesn’t get any less subtle than that!”) and has continued to become more explicit since then, across male, female, and mixed-sex artists and groups. The emergence of rap in the ‘80s seems to have pushed this trend along: More than half of the rap songs that hit the top 50 charts had references to sex, Smiler says, “talking explicitly about, typically, breasts or butts.”
While reluctant to predict how much more sexual pop music will be in the future, he doesn’t think it’s going to become more chaste. “I think having a higher level of sexual content than we had 30 years ago is here to stay,” he says, adding that the age of first marriage “isn’t suddenly going to come down to 18 to 21.”
The days of being scandalized by the sight of an ankle are long behind us, but it also doesn’t look like our exposure to increasingly explicit lyrics will eventually lead to a sexual free-for-all. Smiler’s extensive experience as a therapist for male high schoolers and college students has revealed that, despite the sexually explicit behavior presented to them in their favorite songs, these young men are actually confused about how they’re supposed to act, sexually.
“They have a lot of questions about what they feel like they should be doing because the image of male sexuality presented to them tends to be very forward, even aggressive toward women, and highlights being promiscuous,” Smiler says. “That’s actually not the reality for most teen boys, even most adult men.”