We’re nearing the close of 2019, which, if both sexually/socially marginalized somewhere in the world AND a fan of music, has been something of a banner year. From Lil Nas X’s country-western boom-bap gay liberation to Lizzo’s body positivity, there’s been a lot of opportunities -- via these artists’ social savvy -- for issues surrounding sex workers and the LGBTQ community to gain some credence in the national and global pop-cultural conversation. However, if one thinks back 30 years to when Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” was actually a moment where talking about sex was more important than talking about much of anything else. When a song is greater than the sum of its words, its legacy as being greater than just four minutes of radio or video time is assured.
In 1990, we were two years into the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Noted for being generally as conservative as Ronald Reagan -- the previous president for whom Bush served as a Vice President -- it was, in retrospect, how he handled issues surrounding sex, HIV, and AIDS that could be considered most egregious. In showing what NPR calls a “kindler, gentler indifference,” he slowed what were ultimately quite necessary evolutions of the nation’s policies that caused “Catastrophic Harm To LGBTQ People,” as noted by Michelangelo Signorile for the HuffPost. Thus, if wondering why Salt-N-Pepa’s soon-to-be three-decade-old “Let’s Talk About Sex” is a great example of “when a song is greater than the sum of its words,” here’s why. It’s in this song showcasing why music oftentimes speaks when people and organizations are muted or censored, its legacy still rings true to the present day.
“Let’s Talk About Sex” was the fourth single released from Blacks’ Magic, the third, and most commercially successful, global crossover release, from Salt-N-Pepa. It has a hip-house appeal, thus giving it a greater global reach. Lyrically, the song talks about safe sex, the positive and negative sides of sex and the censorship that sex had around that time in American mainstream media. The song, likely due to a blend of both of these factors, was a platinum-selling #1 pop hit worldwide. Insofar as advocating for the sexual freedoms of people feeling marginalized by Bush’s conservative administration and right-wing leaders worldwide, the song’s description of a sex worker who is shunned as a de-personalized sexual object resonates. She, as the song’s lead character, is a perfect doppelganger for someone with kinkier desires than most, someone who is living with HIV or AIDS, or, notably in this era, in the LGBTQ community.
Maybe not-so bizarrely enough, 30 years later, we’re in a place where once again, the American President is a noted conservative, and the rights of sex workers and marginalized people by way of sex and kink are endangered. It’s in contemplating that 2019’s Billboard chart hits and global smashes include 50% representation by women and queer artists -- queer rapper Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is a record-setting hit -- but without a song that directly discusses issues related to mainstreaming issues of concern to those communities, that’s hard. It’s one thing to be an artist who advocates for an issue. It’s another to be one who actually puts it all on the line, in lyric and verse, too. For as much as we cannot and should not expect artists to always be fervently political in their stances when FOSTA and SESTA exist, plus rights for transgender Americans are of great concern, songs oftentimes speak when people and organizations are muted or censored.
In a July 2019 interview with the Financial Times, the song’s writer -- and group’s manager/producer -- Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor noted that, “Despite my own admitted sexual dishonesty, [this song] is a call for more open communication around ‘a three-letter word some regard as a curse.’ Even deeper, the song’s final verse truly notes the level to which a potential song released in the present era should be advocating: “Like a dumb son-of-a-gun, oops, he forgot the condoms/ ‘Oh well,’ you say, ‘what the hell it’s chill/ I won’t get got, I’m on the pill’/ Until the sores start to puff and sore/ He gave it to you and now it’s yours.” When you get to the point that, as Sal-N-Pepa did in 1994, where ABC’s Peter Jennings suggests that you rework the song as “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” and Jennings himself adds the bar “I got some news for you so listen, please/ It’s not a black, white, or gay disease,” another level has been reached.