A woman goes home with a man. She looks around his bachelor pad, taking in his wall art: Klimt, Lichtenstein, and an Arcade Fire concert poster — clearly, he contains multitudes. While she’s making the rounds of his black-leathered pad, he slips over to his record player (no matter what year it is, he has a record player, because he is “smooth”) and drops that needle. The dulcet sounds of Lana Del Rey’s “Cherry” start to pipe through the apartment. Or maybe it’s Chet Baker’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” It can’t be “Let’s Get It On;” that’s far too obvious. No matter what plays when that record spins, this is the man’s signal to her that it’s time to get down — at least that’s what hundreds of movies and TV shows have told us.
But, in real life, have you had a partner put on a record to set the mood and instead, the vibe changed as harshly as a record scratch?
When it comes to music, there is no universal standard for sexiness. And sexy doesn’t mean sex, rather it is the buildup that comes before the act, establishing the vibe. It’s a game of the mind to find what is sexy to another person and seduce them with it. And that’s exactly why it can be so damn difficult to make a playlist of sexy songs (or drop the needle on the right album, if you’re living in a romantic film trope).
There are some artists so inherently smooth and sensual that simply pressing play on their work gets things going (Sade, Prince, Khalid); the same goes for a handful of classic songs (Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place”).
And while what we find sexy may be subjective, there’s a case to be made that there are elements of musicality that are universally seductive — and those can be used to make a playlist that will set the mood, no matter whose ears hear it.
Anytime someone is giving me something that feels like a secret, that can be very sexy.
One of the most iconic songs about sex is Donna Summer’s 1975 “Love to Love You.” It features her soft, wispy voice cooing into the ears of the listener (for a full 16 plus minutes in the original and uncut version!) about how she enjoys their love, in a completely obtuse fashion — does she mean sex or does she mean love? The question is resolved in the last half of the song, where she notoriously moans her way to ecstasy, mimicking the sound of a woman having an orgasm. Songwriter Priscilla Renea, who co-wrote some sexy singles with Ariana Grande’s “imagine” and Rihanna’s “California King Bed,” says we haven’t heard another song like it for a reason: because no one else would dare to be that vulnerable and intimate on stage, in the ‘70s when the track was released or now. “She was groundbreaking with that, so much so that no one else has dared to try and recreate the vibe,” Renea tells Refinery29.
Vulnerability creates intimacy, but so does a particular technique all these people, and many classically sexy songs use, of crooning into the microphone. In his book How Music Works, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne breaks down how the invention of the microphone changed recorded music and allowed for the rise of a generation of crooners. “The microphone’s invention in 1925 ushered in this new style called crooning, which Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and others but mainly male performers, took advantage of to do something that hadn’t been possible before: they sang softly on a recording,” musicologist and co-host of the podcast Switched on Pop Nate Sloan tells Refinery29. “The crooning movement was wrapped up by WWII, but clearly listening to these songs that principal still holds true nearly a century later.”
In the same way that it gives you pleasurable shivers down your spine when your crush whispers into your ear, having a singer croon, or — in modern parlance — whisper, an intimacy into your earbuds can simulate that same feeling of closeness; the intimacy it creates sets the mood for a sexy vibe.
Renea mentions Cassie as a modern day example of a whisper-singer in the crooner tradition, whose debut 2006 single “Me & U” can be found on many a sexy songs list. “Anytime someone is giving me something that feels like a secret, that can be very sexy,” Renea says.
“You can’t hurry love” is not just a lyric from a Supremes song; it should be taken as a near-universal law when it comes to creating a sexy mood. Sure, there are faster songs that are sexy, but if you’re making a playlist of sexy songs to accompany sexy times you have to ask yourself how fast do you want to move?
As Sloan explains it, three elements that make a song sexy are “intimacy, tension, [and] suspense.” The tension comes from songs that hold a steady beat and don’t let you speed up to quite reach a state of euphoric release, especially in a playlist. You can hear it in “Love to Love You,” which maintains a steady synthesized beat throughout, punctuated by faster high-hats and funky bass — the song hits on every downbeat, there is always something happening, but it never deviates from a driving tempo that keeps momentum tightly reigned in. Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U” (from 2001) does the very same thing, but on the upbeat which makes it feel faster even though the beats per minute (BPM) are only slightly faster (96 vs. 110). If you lay them side by side in a playlist you might notice your body reacting by switching up your motions. Tempo and whether a song emphasizes downbeats or upbeats have a huge influence on how sexy we think a song is — if it’s too slow or too fast, it no longer mimics the movement of the body during sex. Or, at least, not the kind of sex we want to have.
“When there are slight changes in the track, those become very significant but, for the most part, it keeps you in a state of suspended animation by refusing to change,“ Sloan explains. What most sexy songs have in common is that they don’t change up the elements of the musicality too much, meaning the verses and the chorus aren’t wildly different. Those songs where the chorus is incredibly fast or sounds like another type of music was dropped in — the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” for example — can really throw you off your game.
Explicit Vs. Subtle Lyrics
Can a song be so vulgar (or so thirsty) that it is no longer sexy? Definitively: yes. Those are songs about getting it on, not songs to get it on to. Although we will leave the door open for subjectivity, we’re looking in your direction Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Khia’s “My Neck, My Back.” But, what constitutes “too vulgar” is constantly evolving.
Going way back to the roots of today’s popular music, Angela Y. Davis writes the book with Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; in which she explains how rife blues music in the ‘20s and ‘30s was with sexually explicit lyrics, while popular music aimed at white audiences “demanded saccharine and idealized nonsexual depictions of heterosexual love relationships.” Though sexuality was at the heart of the blues, the songs just as often used allusion and metaphor to address the act of having sex as they explicitly addressed it — and the less explicit songs were co-opted by white singers for pop records.
Beyoncé is, of course, the modern day master of this old blues lyric method; you can hear it on one of her sexiest tracks, “Rocket” but also on “Ego,” “Kitty Kat,” and “Blow.”
“It’s always fun to infer and talk around things,” Renea says of her preferred songwriting style. “My thing is: you let people fill in the blanks. You can say you were in a room and you can say you loved the feel of his kiss or ‘I woke up next to you’ without actually having to say you did anything.”
In case there was any question: Consent is sexy and toxic masculinity isn’t (and that’s why “Cherry Pie” isn’t a song we boff to). Lyrics that objectify people and uphold unrealistic beauty standards are not hot. And yes, songs that are outside of the heteronormative world are sexy AF — please see Tegan & Sara’s “Closer,” Frank Ocean’s “Pyramid,” and k.d. Lang’s “Constant Craving” as examples at every kind of vibe and tempo.
But consent applies at the non-verbal, purely musical level, too; songs that don’t get all up in your aural space and demand your attention are exponentially hotter because they don’t eclipse the main event. (Think subtle, slow-burn, nuanced numbers like Selena Gomez’s “Good for You,” Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” or almost any version of “I Put A Spell on You.” )
Unless, of course, you’re into that.
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