Friday, November 02, 2012

Underage sex in popular music: sleazily celebrated in every genre

This is my 'Spaekalation' column from this week's Shetland Times :

The idea that Jimmy Savile once spent several days patrolling Shetland in his now-infamous camper van is disturbing, to say the least. He left, according to one person who was around at the time, somewhat disgruntled at the absence of fawning attention.

One hopes there is no more to be said about his visit, and that his predatory sexual behaviour did not extend to the isles. He can never be brought to justice for the terrible crimes he committed, but perhaps some of those still alive who pursued similarly horrific exploitation of young people will be. Savile himself has become a bogey man, a figure of transcendent evil whose activities are now being defused by the telling of horrendously tasteless jokes. And far, far too many people dressing up as him for Halloween.

Of course, it’s not just Jimmy Savile. The BBC, the Roman Catholic Church, various hospitals, health boards, charities,social services, the police and political parties have been implicated in either turning a blind eye to his and others’ activities, or else harbouring small groups of paedophiles who organised the systematic abuse of young, vulnerable people.

The kind of compartmentalised, rigid power structures you find in such organisations, - public schools, uniformed youth groups and the armed forces are other examples - are perfect repositories for this kind of thing. Add in the heady whiff of fame, celebrity and money, and the kind of grisly activities revealed in the past few weeks come as no real surprise. What has shocked many is that ‘naebody tellt”.

That, it has been argued - notably and brilliantly by Andrew O’Hagan in this London Review of Books essay - seems to reflect a very different culture from the one we live in today. A culture where such behaviour as ‘Jimmy’s little habit’ was, if not acceptable, at least connived at. More and more people have been breaking their silences, telling now of grotesque gender inequality, sexual assault and worse in the BBC and elsewhere. And how it was regarded as Just One Of Those Things.

But there is one area, one I’ve known well all my listening life, where underage sex, the outright, brutal exploitation of young girls, has always been not just winked at, but explicitly celebrated. And that is music.

The list of ‘jailbait’ songs is endless, and the sentiments expressed in some remain unprintable in a family newspaper. It goes way, way back, and crosses all stylistic boundaries. Conway Twitty’s You’ve Never Been This Far Before is a mawkishly sentimental and very sinister example from country. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, a blues standard but originally recorded by the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson, has been covered hundreds of times with varying amounts of lascivious glee. Early rock’n’roll is rife with illicit sexual content - Chuck Berry was, in the end, arrested for ‘transferring a minor across a state line’ and his songs are full of extremely questonable references; Chantilly Lace by the Big Bopper is essentially a rape fantasy. And then there’s the world of hard rock. Songs that in some cases will have been covered and performed by Shetland’s pub bands, such as Motorhead’s Jailbait (“I don’t even ask your age/it’s enough to know that you’re backstage”)

That, interestingly, is exactly the argument I’ve heard put forward by some ‘showbiz figures’ from the 60s and 70s. We were pursued by those girls, they’ve been saying, what could we do? You didn’t ask their age when they were in the dressing room...

From a rock’n’roll point of view, the groupie culture reached its zenith, if that’s the right word, in the 70s, as ubergroups like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones toured in a fair, orgiastic approximation of the last days of Rome. Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous captures something of this, but it’s utterly sanitised and sentimenatlised. The real, sleazy horror is in the songs: think of this when contemplating paying £900 to see if the OAP Stones are going to survive yet another bout with stagecraft: Stray Cat Blues contains the lines “I can see that you’re 15 years old. No, I don’t want your ID.” In later, sleazier hair metal there’s Motley Crue’s All in the Name Of (“You say illegal, I say legal’s never been my scene”). And even in the world of indie jangle, the worship of the late Alex Chilton of Big Star by the likes of Teenage Fanclub has to deal with the sickening 13, after which TF even named one of their albums. “A stunning exploration of adolescent lust” said one critic. Yeah, sure. What age was Chilton when he wrote it?

I won’t go on. I won’t mention the horrors to be found in Frank Zappa’s work or even worse things in rap and hiphop, from the likes of Biggie Smalls. Some of this is not ‘60s culture’, it’s comparatively recent and the songs are still performed, still played on the radio.

Do these lyrics affect the way people behave? Do they provide excuses for some of the predators who live and work among us? I believe they do. But then, I’ve always thought song lyrics were absolutely crucial. That they are there to convince, to reflect, to explain, and to persuade.

Jimmy Savile may not have received much of a welcome  in Shetland, but make no mistake, there are and always have been those living here who ruthlessly groom, and sexually exploit children. They are criminals, and they should be treated as such. But should we avoid condemning the performers who provide them with a soundtrack? And should the personal habits reflected by those lyrics be investigated?

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