The Evolution of Female Desire in American Music
Anyone with a Spotify account and access to Twitter remembers the debates surrounding Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s 2020 song “WAP.” The sexual desire conveyed in its lyrics sparked outrage. Two women outwardly celebrating their sexuality and physical autonomy? Disgraceful, some conservative activists said. Other listeners were quick to point out that male musicians have sung and rapped about sex, going so far as to depict assault via their lyrics, and have remained largely unscathed. Like in many creative arenas, the treatment of male and female artists is a reflection of historical inequalities.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been an increase of female musicians releasing music about desire and lust. Still, this evolution in mainstream American music didn’t occur overnight. Before there was Rhianna’s “S&M,” 1986 hit single “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa revolutionized the airwaves. (Insert video of Glee Season 1, Episode 2 here.) To fully understand the evolution of female sexuality in music, we must start at the beginning, pre-Britney and pre-Beyoncé. Time to pay homage to the OG girl bosses.
The 1960s were a turning point for American civil rights, with this came the social and cultural shifts that would later be coined, “The Sexual Revolution.” As women gained access to birth control, discussions regarding the ideas of sex and morality prompted widespread attitude changes toward the publicization of sexual activity. Like much social change, this revolution was reflected in music.
The Shirelles, an all-Black girl group, stunned radio listeners with their 1960 hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” In the track, the musicians contemplate if their lover from the previous night will still love them come the morning, “Is this a lasting treasure / Or just a moment's pleasure? / Can I believe the magic of your sighs? / Will you still love me tomorrow?” While tame for the 21st century, the song’s lyrics evoke a sexual and romantic desire that was rare at the time.
As observed by researcher Marybec Griffin in a 2022 study, “Expressions of female sexuality are fraught with the duality of expressing desire but conveying this message in a socially acceptable manner.” Furthermore, Griffin contextualizes this double-bind, stating that male musicians are historically more likely to have sexually explicit lyrics, yet similar words sung by a female musician attract greater media attention.
We see this reflected in Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit “Natural Women,” as well as in the discography of disco queen Donna Summer. Summer rocked the late ‘70s, particularly with her song “Hot Stuff.” Between the toe-tapping chorus, Summer expresses her sexual yearning, crooning, “Lookin' for a lover who needs another / Don't want another night on my own / Wanna share my love with a warm blooded lover / Wanna bring a wild man back home.”
Transitioning to the ‘80s, it’s only fitting to pay homage to pop’s undisputed original sex symbol, Madonna. An icon of American music, Madonna solidified the relevance of female pleasure in music, with songs like “Express Yourself” and “Like A Prayer.” The latter’s accompanying music video was banned by the Vatican and condemned by religious groups for its use of Christian symbols and sexual content.
The Riot Grrrl Era of ‘90s American music represented a sharp departure from the overwhelmingly positive depictions of sex in the decades prior. While Riot Grrrl artists still made music about female sexuality, their framing of sex revolved around the male exploitation of female desire. Bikini Kill’s “Feels Blind” is still considered a valuable and astute depiction of gender roles in 21st century feminism.
The end of the ‘90s and the tail-end of the Riot Grrrl era saw the rise of other women singing about sex, with pop stars like Janet Jackson and Christina Aguilera topping charts nationwide.
Ultimately, the evolution of female desire within American music is a star-studded, multi-faceted timeline, complete with controversies, number-one hits and lots of WAPs.
Originally published in Milk Crate's Spring '23 zine.