The Moment a Pop Star Becomes Undeniably Horny

The Moment a Pop Star Becomes Undeniably Horny

This rite of passage—when the music goes from suggestive to indisputably sexual—is a risk not every pop star is bold enough to take.

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A lot of pop stars go through a second puberty right before our eyes and, apparently, for our pleasure. If these musicians emerged into the public consciousness sexless or merely suggestive of sexuality, the introduction of sex into their work often marks an occasion, impregnating their music with a new meaning and urgency. 

Singing about sex has defined many a pop star era. The more pushback they get—and most of them get pushback for being bad influences or creatively bankrupt, as if selling one’s sex on a global stage and making people like it doesn’t require ingenuity—the more “important” pushing back against sex negativity seems. Of course, criticism comes with the territory of stardom, and the naysayers rarely drown out the talking money of fans and admirers. In the end, sex sells, and one sure way to maximize profits is to turn the entire process into a ceremony.

Women in pop tend to make grander gestures, probably in part because guys get away with slipping sex into their music more casually, without it being a thing. Prince never had a sexual awakening, because he arrived ready; in his first Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” he declared, “I wanna be the only one who makes you come…running!” Tee hee! By his next album, 1980's Dirty Mind, he was singing about sex with his sister. Men in pop can surf a tide of entitlement, assuming everyone knows what they’re talking about even when it’s nonsense. Justin Timberlake had one of the biggest hits of his career in a song in which he declared he was bringing sexy back, though it was all tell/no show. What did that even mean? What exactly did he do with it when it was supposedly back? I couldn’t tell!

There are also big stars who never go through pop puberty. Adele seems destined to remain functionally chaste in her work. Whitney Houston’s music didn’t really take that sexy of a turn—her early hit about cheating with a married man, “Saving All My Love for You,” focused on anticipation and absence. It was only through interviews (like when she told Diane Sawyer the one thing she was addicted to was “making love”) and Being Bobby Brown that she pulled the curtain back on apparently a robust libido.

While many artists have claimed that the sexual expression in their music is a (however rough) translation of their actual lives, it would be a mistake to ignore the commodification at hand. Selling one’s sexuality is a group effort, informed in part by collaborators, producers, and label executives. Last year, Da Brat told Tamron Hall that she started shedding clothes and rapping more hornily at one point in her recording career because she was told she needed to be fuckable to sell albums. The section of the recent Lifetime JANET JACKSON. documentary that focuses on the making of the 1993 janet. album suggests that Jackson’s then-husband, René Elizondo Jr., was a major force in the sexification of her sound, which Jackson initially approached with timidness.

Jackson didn’t merely dabble with sexy pop before moving on—it became a recurring theme, with each album that followed janet. offering the opportunity to explore a new kink or act (Jackson would go on to sing about bondage, S&M, masturbation, and oral). Instead of treating sex like a passing phase, she invested in it. If selling sexuality was a gimmick, it was a long con gimmick. This worked for about a decade, until it didn’t. Apparently, the unveiling of her nipple at the 2004 Super Bowl was one envelope push too far for audiences, and especially, cultural gatekeepers.

It goes to show that sex can be a shaky ground for an audience in a country as sex-negative and hypocritical as the United States. It can titillate or repel, and there’s no way to predict the degree or duration of an audience’s tolerance. To assume that one is taking the easy route by starting to express sexuality is to ignore the considerable risk in doing so. That’s what often makes this kind of pop—music that exists to be user-friendly—so exciting.

What follows are some examples of the major sexual awakenings in pop music, what the artists themselves said about expressing their sexuality in their work, and what commentators and critics said in response—good, and most tellingly, bad.

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Madonna, “Justify My Love” (December 3, 1990)

Madonna, “Justify My Love” (December 3, 1990)

From her start in the early ‘80s, sex was implicit in Madonna’s professional essence. With a wink, she prowled onto the scene in “Lucky Star.” An object of desire made her feel “Like a Virgin,” which allowed listeners to ponder how she felt prior to their meeting. “Like a Prayer” has frequently been interpreted as a thinly veiled metaphor for oral sex (“I’m down on my knees/I wanna take you there”), she chained herself naked to a bed in the “Express Yourself” video, and she showed off her whole boobs in “Vogue.” But it was on 1990's “Justify My Love,” recorded for her greatest hits set The Immaculate Collection, that sex became explicit in her text, and in the accompanying video, sex became explicit, period. The singer, whose ability to push buttons was just as fundamental to her celebrity as her songs’ earworm melodies, caused her biggest uproar (at that point) with the video clip to accompany her song’s murmurs and (stolen) Public Enemy beats. Voyeurism, S&M, queerness, grainy film stock, an expensive-looking hotel—this video had it all! MTV banned it and censored Madonna all the way to the bank—she sold a ton of video singles as a result of the banning. The result is one of the weirdest tracks to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and a song that has aged well, the further it gets from the sex panic it provoked.

That’s what she said: “The video is about people being honest to each other about their sexuality. They’re not alienating anyone, they’re not degrading anyone. It’s about honesty. It’s about the celebration of sex. There’s nothing wrong with that, OK?” Madonna on Dateline in 1990, after MTV had banned her video

That’s what they said (for): “‘Justify My Love’ is truly avant-garde, at a time when that word has lost its meaning in the flabby art world. It represents a sophisticated European sexuality of a kind we have not seen since the great foreign films of the 1950s and 1960s. But it does not belong on a mainstream music channel watched around the clock by children.” —Camille Paglia, New York Times, December 14, 1990

That’s what they said (against): “A modern, sexually-liberated woman does not need to prance around in black see-through lingerie, putting herself in poses and scenes that come out of pornographic magazines geared mainly to adolescent male sexual fantasies. A modern, sexually-liberated woman is confident and intelligent enough to find herself a confident, intelligent partner who doesn’t need or want a phony, media-made fantasy doll pretending that she enjoys the kind of sex that can only be empty and depressing in real life.” —Rose Simone, The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario), December 18, 1990

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Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Goes” (April 14, 1993)

Janet Jackson, “That’s the Way Love Goes” (April 14, 1993)

The rollout of Janet Jackson’s sexual blossoming had so many steps that it almost looks deliberate in retrospect. She followed up her ode to chastity on 1986's Control, “Let’s Wait a While,” with “Someday Is Tonight” on 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814 (first line: “I’ve been waiting for you”). The seventh (and last) Rhythm Nation video, “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” featured a dressed-down Jackson deliberately cultivating her sensuality, dancing seductively with and without a fresh-faced Antonio Sabàto Jr. That turned out to be a preview for her 1993 album janet., which contained allusions to oral sex, erections, public sex, and condoms. Its audaciously chill first single, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” found the image and content coalescing when Jackson cooed, “Go deeper, baby, deeper / You feel so good I’m gonna cry.” Same!

That’s what she said: “I know there will be people who will look at me now and think, ‘God, what has she done? She used to be this innocent little girl.’ Well, I’m still the same person, but there is a point where you grow up and this is the time in my life...I don’t think the album is crass because I don’t think sex is crass. To me, it’s an expression of love.” Janet Jackson, Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1993

That’s what they said (for): “A significant, even revolutionary transition in the sexual history and popular iconography of Black women — who have historically needed to do nothing to be considered overtly sexual — is struck as the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? girl declares herself the what-I’ll-do-to-you-baby! woman. The princess of America’s black royal family has announced herself sexually mature and surrendered none of her crown’s luster in the process.” —Touré, janet. album review, Rolling Stone, June 24, 1993

That’s what they said (against): “...By the time she declares her pride as an ‘African-American woman’ and denounces gender-discrimination on ‘New Agenda,’ which pairs her with rapper Chuck D. of Public Enemy, it’s hard to believe any adult listeners will take her seriously after all the I am bimbo/see me, feel me numbers before it.” —George Varga, janet. album review, The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 20, 1993

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Toni Braxton, “You’re Makin’ Me High” (June 1996)

Toni Braxton, “You’re Makin’ Me High” (June 1996)

Babyface wrote some songs on Toni Braxton’s 1993 self-titled debut with Anita Baker in mind, which at least partly explains why the then 25-year-old came off as years older and entirely uninterested in the melding of hip hop and R&B that was cutting edge at the time. Her follow-up, 1996's Secrets, was more a tease than a hormone surge (2000's The Heat would, by contrast, gush), but it did find Braxton at least occasionally contending with sexuality, most notably on its lead single, “You’re Makin’ Me High.” The opening lines say a lot: “I’ll always think of you/Inside of my private thoughts/I can imagine you/Touching my private parts.” The salivating over pillowy pecs and other parts on the Chippendales-ready male specimens in the accompanying video tells the rest of the story.

That’s what she said: “The first thing I got to say is that Babyface wrote those words, not me. I wasn’t too comfortable with them to begin with and I said to Babyface, ‘Aren’t we going a little left here?’, because it was so far from what I had done before. But I am happy with it now. Sexual fantasies are healthy. I am a young woman too. I played it to my father and he said he liked the beat. I wasn’t about to draw his attention to the words. I just said nothing.” —Toni Braxton, The Independent, June 28, 1996

That’s what they said: “Even when she growls erotically in ‘You’re Makin’ Me High,’ she concentrates on her anxious need, rather than her potential enjoyment.” —Jim Farber, Secrets album review, New York Daily News, June 25, 1996

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Mariah Carey, “Honey” (August 1997)

Mariah Carey, “Honey” (August 1997)

After her mega-selling 1995 album, Daydream, Mariah Carey emerged from the cocoon that her husband/label boss Tommy Mottola had been keeping her in. She dumped him and found herself in more hip hop-influenced musical territory, with songs that actually reflected her life on her 1997 album Butterfly. In her 2020 memoir, she wrote that album contained “my first docu-song,” “The Roof,” about a stolen moment with her part-time beau Derek Jeter. Still, Butterfly is largely a quiet-storm album without fucking—Carey would become a lot more explicit as she piloted her own ship through the next decades (though she’d hold onto her claimed chastity, frequently claiming in interviews that she could count her sex partners on one hand). Butterfly’s first single, “Honey,” nevertheless depicts a sexual progression, as she literally peels off her clothes down to a bathing suit. There’s at least the suggestion of a double entendre in the lyrics, if it’s not quite an all-out ode to semen (“It’s like honey when it washes over me...Honey, I can’t describe/How good it feels inside”).

That’s what she said: “I have something to say! For the first five or six or seven years of my career, they made me wear a top up to here and things down to there. If I want to show my body...I’mma show it.” —Mariah Carey after Rosie O’Donnell criticized her for wearing a “trampy” dress in 2000, The Rosie O’Donnell Show

That’s what they said: “A sexy, soulful number with just a hint of danger and some perky, squeaky bits - and that’s just the video.” —Ian Hyland, “Honey” review Sunday Mirror, August 24, 1997

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George Michael, “Outside” (November 4, 1998)

George Michael, “Outside” (November 4, 1998)

By the time George Michael was ripped out of the closet by a penis-wielding cop in April 1998, he’d already made a mint from telling his audience that he wanted your sex, and then, years later, extolling the virtues of casual sex in “Fastlove.” But because life can feel incomplete before you’re fully out, I’m placing his blossoming at “Outside,” a disco sendup of his public-bathroom arrest that was indisputably queer several times over. It’s not just an ode to cruising—it’s a camp ode to cruising. Being tongue in cheek regarding his tongue in cheeks (or wherever!) set a tone that Michael would sustain for the rest of his career: unabashed and open about his love of having sex with men.

That’s what he said: “I think it’s important that I can be out there and say that I’m a big tart and still have a big smash album...When I made the ‘Outside’ video I knew I was helping a whole generation of 15-year-olds who are cruising and dying of shame about it. I felt that lightening the stigma around cruising was the most immediately beneficial thing I could do. I know for a fact that when I was 16, 17, when I started cruising, that watching the ‘Outside’ video would have taken some of the weight off my shoulders.” George Michael to Attitude in 2004

That’s what they said (for): “This should begin the next era for this keeper of an artist, who at last seems comfortable just having a little fun.” Chuck Taylor, “Outside” single review in Billboard, November 7, 1998

That’s what they said (against): “Michael is setting a terrible example, saying casual sex with other men is okay. He is putting out the dangerous message that his lewd behavior is something he is proud of, when he should be thoroughly ashamed.” —Valerie Riches of the Family and Youth Concerns Group, as quoted in The Mirror, October 8, 1998

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Britney Spears, “I’m a Slave 4 U” (September 24, 2001)

Britney Spears, “I’m a Slave 4 U” (September 24, 2001)

A self-proclaimed virgin for what seemed like an eternity, Britney Spears had flirted with flirtation earlier in her career, but it wasn’t until her self-titled third album that she literally handled a snake (during a classic VMAs performance). The sweat visible in the clip for “I’m a Slave 4 U” was from dancing...or whatever you wanted it to be!

That’s what she said: “I don’t feel any pressure to be sexy. I just want to be myself—I don’t want to be a boring adult. When I’m on stage or doing a video, being sexy or whatever, that’s cool, I’m just playing a part. But I’m such a dork. Seriously, I don’t see myself as that at all. I think the thing that makes somebody sexy is just being comfortable with themselves and just being confident. I try to do that, but I don’t find myself sexy—I need to work on it a little bit.” Britney Spears, Daily Record, October 3, 2001

That’s what they said (for): “You can almost hear the cheers from her publicity team. After years of selling her sexuality with a nod and a wink, they think it’s finally the right time to go all out. The song and the video (just as important when talking about Britney) scream ‘It’s OK to fancy me now’ as she tries to appeal to an older generation.” —“I’m a Slave 4 U” single review in Sunday Express, October 14, 2001

That’s what they said (against): “The problem with establishing yourself as pop music’s virginal kewpie doll is that there comes a time when you grow up and have to make a dramatic about-face... ‘I’m a Slave 4 U,’ serves as her take on Madonna’s ‘Erotica’; at first, it’s such a radical step that it raises suspicions of being more of a gimmick than a stepping stone to musical maturity.” —Chuck Taylor, “I’m a Slave 4 U” single review in Billboard, October 6, 2001

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Rihanna, “S&M” (February 1, 2011)

Rihanna, “S&M” (February 1, 2011)

From fairly early on, Rihanna evinced the casual and sporadic sexual frankness exemplified by men in pop. It was so casual, in fact, that you might have missed it if you weren’t paying attention. However, it became impossible to ignore when “S&M” was released as a single in 2011 and went on to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it/Sticks and stones may break my bones/But chains and whips excite me,” she sang. While promoting the single, Rihanna claimed the song was but a metaphor (its video featured her engaging in power play with the media). Sure, Jan!

That’s what she said: “Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun. You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your shit. That’s fun to me…I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun. I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned – you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. I’d rather have him use his hands.” —Rihanna, Rolling Stone, March 30, 2011

That’s what they said (for): “It’s hard to tame a pop star who scratches her way out of the gate with an ode to kink.” —James Reed, Loud album review in the Boston Globe, November 15, 2010

That’s what they said (against): “It says much about Rihanna’s story that she pierced the mainstream bubble only after she was widely photographed sporting a black eye, given to her by her then partner, the singer Chris Brown. For a woman who became the overnight face of domestic violence to later release ‘S&M,’ a song with the lyrics: ‘Sticks and stones/ May break my bones/ But chains and whips/ Excite me,’ is either ironic, empowering or plain silly.” Hannah Pool, essay for The Guardian, February 20, 2011

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Justin Bieber, “Christmas Eve” (November 1, 2011)

Justin Bieber, “Christmas Eve” (November 1, 2011)

Justin Bieber’s horniness would only become more pronounced as his voice and balls dropped (he told Ellen DeGeneres in 2020 that “Yummy” was about his sex life), but “Christmas Eve” is notable for being the first musical stirrings of his libido (that was the only thing stirring, presumably, all through the house). It’s hilarious that the then 17-year-old chose a Christmas album to let us know what was going on with him. “You leave some cookies out, I’mma eat them all,” he sang on the track co-written by bastion of good taste Chris Brown. Okay, big guy!

That’s what he said: “It’s different, because you’ve gotta think Christmastime. You’ve gotta think, ‘What’s at Christmas? Mistletoe, reindeer, Santa, all these things.’ And especially when it’s not Christmastime, it’s hard to really get your mind around it. But once you get into it, like, I was really thinking it was Christmastime when I was writing this album. ... We had Christmas cookies [in the studio].” —Justin Bieber, MTV News, October 17, 2011

That’s what they said: “...A holiday album is probably the safest context for Mr. Bieber to talk about pleasures of the flesh. ‘Wanna put my ear to your chest, girl,’ he sings on ‘Fa La La.’ And why’s that, Mr. Bieber? ‘Baby, I hear melodies when your heart beats.’ What else did you think he was talking about? Shame on you.” —Jon Caramanica, Under the Mistletoe album review, New York Times, November 22, 2011

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Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop” (June 19, 2013)

Miley Cyrus, “We Can’t Stop” (June 19, 2013)

Before Miley Cyrus engaged in twerking tourism and spent nearly an entire album cycle with her tongue jutting out of her mouth in what I believe was an attempt to project sexiness (perhaps while satirizing it), she told us she can’t be tamed. But we didn’t listen to the title of her 2010 album, and so her true blossoming was somewhat of a shock. The original “We Can’t Stop” video was provocative enough, but it was her over-the-top performance at the 2013 VMAs alongside Robin Thicke that cemented Cyrus’s emergence as, bar none, the most bizarre pop music had ever witnessed. She was creeping around the stage like a cartoon villain!

That’s what she said: “I went from people just thinking I was, like, a baby to people thinking I’m this, like, sex freak that really just pops molly and does lines all day. It’s like, ‘Has anyone ever heard of rock ’n’ roll?’ There’s a sex scene in pretty much every single movie, and they go, ‘Well, that’s a character.’ Well, that’s a character. I don’t really dress as a teddy bear and, like, twerk on Robin Thicke, you know?” —Miley Cyrus, New York Times, December 26, 2013

That’s what they said (for): “It’s a clip from a former ‘tween queen in the midst of shedding her good-girl image and it’s bound to raise some eyebrows. Scandalous, sexualized and strident, full of party-hearty sentiments and barely-there sartorial flair, it may be shocking, but it’s not as if Miley hadn’t been telegraphing this transformation since at least 2012.” James Montgomery, “We Can’t Stop” video review, MTV News, June 19, 2013

That’s what they said (against): “The kind of lewdness that used to be confined to the privacy of peepshows and the seamy back alleys of civilization is now streaming live not just into living rooms but into young malleable minds, compliments of the likes of Cyrus.” Augusta Chronicle op-ed (no byline), September 2, 2013

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Beyoncé, BEYONCÉ (December 13, 2013)

Beyoncé, BEYONCÉ (December 13, 2013)

Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album not only revolutionized album releases (so much so that the surprise-drop strategy was known for a while as “pulling a Beyoncé”). It also charted new territory for the singer’s lyrics, which in many songs took a sexual turn. “Rocket” rhapsodized celebrating self-love through loving sex, there was the whole surfboard thing in “Drunk in Love,” and “Partition” painted a rather vivid picture of the effects of giving oral sex on Beyoncé’s makeup. Bold!

That’s what she said (for): “I don’t at all have any shame about being sexual. And I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have.” Beyoncé in her self-produced Self-Titled documentary, December 30, 2013

That’s what they said (for): Beyoncé pushes boundaries not because it sells sex at every turn, but because it treats a power-balanced marriage as a place where sexuality thrives. At a time when young people are gripped by an ideological fear of monogamy’s advertised doldrums, Beyoncé boldly proposes the idea that a woman’s prime—personal, professional, and especially sexual—can occur within a stable romantic partnership. Monogamy has never sounded more seductive or less retrograde as when dictated on Beyoncé’s terms.” —Carrie Battan, Beyoncé album review, Pitchfork, January 6, 2014

That’s what they said (against): “She puts out a new album with a video that glorifies having sex in the back of a limousine. Teenage girls look up to Beyoncé, particularly girls of color…Why on Earth would this woman do that? Why would she do it when she knows the devastation that unwanted pregnancies…and fractured families—why would Beyoncé do that?” Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor, March 10, 2014

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Cardi B. & Megan thee Stallion, “WAP” (August 7, 2020)

Cardi B. & Megan thee Stallion, “WAP” (August 7, 2020)

I mean, what could be said here that Cardi and Megan haven’t already said and repeated? “Yeah, you fucking with some wet ass pussy/Bring a bucket and a mop for this wet ass pussy/Give me everything you got for this wet ass pussy,” pretty much sums it up. It’s not that Cardi B. and Megan thee Stallion ever obscured their sexuality, it’s just that with “WAP” their music was utterly saturated by it.

That’s what she said: “The people that the song bothers are usually conservatives or really religious people. But my thing is, I grew up listening to this type of music. Other people might think it’s strange and vulgar, but to me, it’s almost like really normal, you know what I’m saying?...Of course I don’t want my child to listen to this song and everything. It’s for adults.” —Cardi B, The Kyle and Jackie O Show, August 24, 2020

That’s what they said (for): “While others will scream that demanding cunnilingus from a partner and describing in great detail how it should be executed is not empowering for women, Cardi and Megan Thee Stallion flipped the script in a way that puts the power firmly back in their hands.” Megan Reynolds, essay on Jezebel, August 12, 2020

That’s what they said (against): “This is what feminists fought for. This is what the feminist movement is all about. It’s not really about women being treated as independent, full, rounded human beings. It’s about wet-ass p-word.” Ben Shapiro, Daily Wire, August 10, 2020

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Ariana Grande, Positions (October 23, 2020)

Ariana Grande, Positions (October 23, 2020)

Ariana Grande sang about fucking side to side and Pete Davidson. She tweeted about his junk, thereby helping birth the concept of big dick energy. And then she made an album with a hefty dose of slow jams—her boldest expression of sexuality in song yet. In theory, she pulled off a great trick with 2020's Positions in making sex sound so nice and user-friendly. Of the creation of “34+35,” perhaps the first Top 5 song explicitly about 69ing and certainly the first to include the demand “Gimme them babies,” Grande said: “We heard the strings that sounded so Disney and orchestral, and full and pure. And I was just like, ‘Yo, what’s the dirtiest possible, most opposing lyric that we could write to this?’” Cute! In practice, it can be somewhat disconcerting when your 9-year-old niece professes her love for such a sweet-sounding song, as mine did.

That’s what she said: “A lot of my singles have been hilariously lacking in substance. You’re talking to someone who put ‘Side to Side’ out as a single. I love that song, but it’s just a fun song about sex...I promise that your kid’s gonna have sex. So if she asks you what the song’s about, talk about it.” Ariana Grande, Vogue, July 9, 2019

That’s what they said: “THANK U, SEX!” Headline in The Sun, October 28, 2020

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