Number 63 / December 1988:

Maggie Haselswerdt writes: The beat of rock and roll may be the beat of sexual intercourse, but for the most part, it's intercourse from the male point of view. Though female sexuality is one of the stronger flavors in the brew when it comes to blues, soul, and dance music, rock's driving beat, piercing guitar lines, pounding keyboards and expansive, stage-dominating gestures marks the territory as male. Female sexual response, which in case you don't know I will tell you, is slow- building rather than immediate, diffuse rather than focused, buzzing rather than pounding, melting rather than hardening, and cyclical rather than constant. And it's not often reflected or catered to in rock.

Too bad. And not only because girls don't like being ignored. Some of the most powerful songs about sex, all masterminded by men, show that they have been shaped in some ways by female sexual style. If it happened more often, rock would be more passionate, more human, sexier than it often is now. You can't start a fire without some idea of how the process of combustion works.

In this context, The Song is "Be My Baby," which owes its uncanny power to wholesale appropriation of female patterns of sexual response. Phil Spector and the Ronettes weave a gauzy curtain around the sexual impulse, diffusing and romanticizing it, blurring the focus with walls of vibrating sound, highlighting the drama of the encounter with a series of minute yet heart-stopping pauses. "So c'mon and be... be my little baby" leads to the almost unbearably intense moment when Ronnie's famous "Wa-oh-oh- oh" is punctured by a reprise of the devastating opening beat That's as close to what I mean by melting as mere vinyl can come.

In a different way, "Layla" also owes a lot to its (deliberate or accidental; who cares?) representation of female patterns of response. After thrashing out his anguish in the face of rejection and loss, Clapton goes on to orchestrate what sounds to me like a sexual encounter fueled and dominated by female passion. The lengthy instrumental coda is a passage out of some woman's erotic diary in which wave after wave of arousal is interpreted with soft-edged abandon by piano and guitar. The sun shines; flowers open; a bird sings. Choose you own metaphor--I swear I can hear them all.

Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" is no "Layla," but it does stand out among rock come-ons, partly because it reflects traditionally female concerns but mostly because it duplicates the dramatic, slowly building quality of female response. From the melodrama of the spooky opening vocals to the climactic scream in which a gorgeous female voice emerges from the chorus to blend ambiguously with Mick Jones's somewhat less gorgeous falsetto, the keynote of "I Want to Know What Love Is" is sexual tension, female style.

It's not that "I Want to Know What Love Is" is a better song than, say, "Need You Tonight" because it shows more respect for female sexuality. By those standards, Aerosmith's "Angel" would be a better song than Robert Plant's "Tall Cool One," which it isn't. Rock gets its energy from a lot of different sources; rampant male narcissism has given us some great moments. But "Layla" is a better song than "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and I think I know part of the reason why. [Maggie Haselswerdt is a writer in upstate New York]

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