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How did it happen? One day I was a twentysomething heaping scorn on Tipper Gore and her campaign against explicit lyrics in pop music, and the next, 20 years later, I am Tipper Gore, driving my 12 year old home from school, listening to Lil Wayne singing “Lick it like a lollipop,” watching my daughter mouth the words “Let me get it juicy for you,” and wondering how it came to this on commercial radio.
The year 2008 launched the era of oral sex—for men at least—in pop music. In You Can Have Whatever You Want, T.I. crows, “Brain so good (good), swore you went to college,” and he isn't talking about smarts; “brain” is slang for head. Saving Abel sings “I'm so addicted to/all the things you do/ when you're going down on me/ in between the sheets" in Addicted. And in Nickelback’s Something in Your Mouth, Chad Kroeger declares, "you're so much cooler when you never pull it out, you look so much cuter with something in your mouth."
But Lollipop, which just won a Grammy, is a little different. If my kid were older, I might thank Lil Wayne. His five minute ode to oral sex offers something you don’t see much in the endless stream of rappers bowing under the weight of their Sisyphean masculinity: a lyric describing a man satisfying a woman, and enjoying it. I quote: “That pussy in my Mouth/had me lost for words.” There’s no poetry to it, but it does deliver a rare gift. At a time when sex is everywhere in pop culture, female pleasure is nowhere, and for a second, he revels in one way it happens: “The middle of the bed (Yeah)/Givin’gettin’ head (Huh).” Somewhere, some woman taught Wayne what most entertainment and media people have yet to learn or don’t care to know: only 30 percent of women can achieve orgasm through penetration alone. How many commercial films, for example, do we have to watch in which women are shown in the throes of rapture without so much as a hand job?
It’s my daughter’s age, of course, that poses a problem. Like so many public schools that were muzzled in the Bush era, hers has almost no sex-ed and the little it does focuses on the mythic meeting of the sperm and the egg, not their intimately messy modes of transport. “Lolllipop” is the most graphic information she’s getting beyond what she’s been told at home, which includes mention of the clitoris and its charms. But explaining oral sex to a middle schooler? For the suburban kids in my neighborhood who are barely kissing, this seems premature. So what’s a mother to do when Lil Wayne’s lollipop is out in public, getting licked on national radio?
“Twelve is a difficult age,” says Kris Gowen, a sex educator and researcher who wrote Making Sexual Decisions: The Ultimate Teen Guide. “Some girls at that age are past puberty; others don’t even have breast buds. Some kids are having oral sex in middle school. It’s hard to get a handle on what they know. I would start by asking the child why she likes the song. If it’s just the beat, the discussion may end there.” And if the kid knows the song is about sex? Gowen recommends finding out if she knows what it means.
“Oral sex is a whole new level of complexity and is not brought up in school,” she says. “Why? there’s nothing procreative about oral sex. Once you start talking about it, you’re talking about pleasure and, holy smokes, that’s not easy for a parent or for society. “
But determining what a child may know without forcing the discussion can be tricky. A line like “let me get it juicy for you” may fly wholly or only partially under a child’s sexual radar. “Clearly, ‘juicy’ is an erotic term, but is it sexualized below the waist or above?” asks Gowen. To a child, she says, “’juicy’ could refer to the mouth, like a wet kiss, not the vagina.”
Word play used to avert this confusion and allow for dual meanings. Any number of blues and pop songs balance highly suggestive metaphor with straight narrative. In Black Snake Moan, Blind Lemon Jefferson sang:
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room
Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon
Even the most overtly sexual blues lyrics (sung by Robert Johnson and nicked by Led Zeppelin) hew to a metaphor, subtle as it isn’t: “You can squeeze my lemon ‘till the juice run down my leg…” But increasingly, metaphor and simile are being vaporized in the timeless poesy of hit makers like Webbie, unburdened by innuendo, singing, "She don't never trip/all she want is that dick." (And dubbed-for-radio lyrics just drive kids straight to the Internet to see what they’ve missed.) Likewise, Lil Wayne starts with the conceit of a lollipop, (layered with a pun: “make her wanna lick the rapper”), but quickly abandons it for the single entendre of lines like “let me get it juicy for you,” which (nice of him to offer) bear no relevance to lollipops.
It was this poetic failure that made me take Gowen’s advice and broach the subject of oral sex in a moving vehicle with a 12 year-old. The next time my daughter cranked up Lollipop, I inquired about the lyrics. She told me she knows exactly what they mean, and we discussed it briefly while she tried not to squirm.
Then she asked why I asked. I explained that as long as she’s going to hear about oral sex on the radio, I want her to understand what it is, why it’s done, and when and if it’s right to do it. She shot me an angry smile, and said, “You know, you’re the only mom who talks about this stuff.”
She meant it as an insult. I took it as a compliment.
Margot Mifflin is an author, journalist and professor at Lehman College/CUNY and CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism. Her book, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman (University of Nebraska Press) has just been published.
Also see Activists Boost Female Health Empowerment by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine
Also see Shaping Sexual Futures On A Budget by Donna Schaper in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.