There’s always a strain of porn in pop music—not just sexiness or sensuality, which are different things, of course, but an industrially strategic manipulation of words, music, and images to manufacture desire. Clever performers have exploited this, sometimes upending it to comment upon or to subvert that desire, since Josephine Baker petitioned for African American equity in a snake dance. I grew up with disco and “Push, Push in the Bush” on top-40 radio. Still, today—a time when pop stars and their audience accept the tropes of hardcore videos as commonplace, just another brand of stuff for sale—there’s music so blunt and efficient as sexual exploitation that it’s practically a genre of its own: porn pop.
I think immediately of hip-hop, and specifically of Nicki Minaj, a gifted performer who has escaped the dance-cage prison of status as a “video ho” to assert a less submissive identity as the best thing in Kanye West’s “Monster.” I think, too, of Ke$ha, the white-trash princess of “Tik Tok,” though the two women are riffing on the cliches of service as sex objects to practice different kinds of politics. Minaj is saying, OK, I’ll give you a good time, and I’ll have one, too, and then I think I’ll kick your ass at your own game. Gender politics. Ke$ha is saying, Hey, let’s do everything our parents say is wrong, not because it’s better than they think, but because it’s worse. Generational politics.
This week, I’ve been thinking about Lykke Li, the Swedish pop singer and songwriter who recently released her second album, Wounded Rhymes, and who just performed on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” to promote her first major American tour. The song she sang on the Fallon show, her breakthrough single, “Get Some,” seems, at first listen, to position her as the Nordic sister of Minaj and Ke$ha. A blunt come on, it opens with the line, “Don’t pull your pants before I go down,” and builds to the refrain, “I’m your prostitute, you gon’ get some.”
Being Swedish, Li has grown up in a culture inured to porn; in fact, the generation of her grandparents, being Swedish, grew up with blue movies, and “Get Some” is porn pop of an advanced variety. Its politics are sophisticated, subtly convoluted. Li submits to the prostitute’s job of male gratification so matter-of-factly, so coldly, that she depersonalizes sex. The promise of “Get Some” is simply to give some—or, more accurately, to sell some. There’s no desire, but in the exchange of commodities, desire’s denial—and the vague threat of harm. The trope that endures (from Genesis to this song) is the idea that women, through sex, represent danger to men. What justifies it, I think, is point of view this time. Li revels in her power as the one in control of that danger. Very much like a prostitute, she’s not interested in sex at all.