TIME Books

How To Survive 13,000 Album Reviews

Harper Collins

Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, has just published a memoir of his life in the downtown music scene, Going into the City. 'It's very unlikely that there'll ever be anybody like me again,' he says

The whole class of NYU sophomores had arrived on time, ready for discussion with notebooks and pens and perhaps a little less ready for the compulsory quiz on the week’s assigned readings. The professor, a white-haired man with a slight bend at the waist, read a dozen questions aloud, repeating each one to help the panicked. For extra-credit, to aid the beleaguered types, he asked this one:

“Complete the line—and, please, pardon my flow: ‘And all you other cats throwin’ shots at Jigga, you only get half a bar…’ What comes next?” He repeats the question, and his smile broadens. “You know, I’ve always thought that was one of his best couplets.”

If I had a nickel for every time a 72-year-old professor encouraged me to write “f-ck y’all n—-s” on my sheet and turn it in, I’d be dead broke. As anyone would be, for what it’s worth, if he or she set out today to become a rock critic. Survival, though, is a peculiar thing, and Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, is a peculiar survivor if ever there were one.

While every American mass-culture critic of recent inauguration wanted to be like Roger Ebert (personal and powerful), most of them wanted to write like Robert Christgau. He’s ferocious, frustrating and funny, miraculously compact while deploying looooong sentences. He worked at the Village Voice, a generation’s hip tipsheet, from 1969 until 2006, primarily as music editor. Some readers would use the back pages of the Voice to get their rocks off; another, smaller group needed only his music section. He’s the critic’s critic.

More than that, he’s the only one of the bunch who originated his discipline who’s still scrapping at it. Lester Bangs and Ellen Willis have passed; Jon Landau became a Springsteen-abetted music-biz macher; Greil Marcus has ascended to a higher plane of professional practice. Which leaves a whole generation of critics in Christgau’s debt, even as they work alongside him. He cleared the way for the appreciation of pop on its sonic merits alone, and for the only-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek (but exceedingly practical) process of slapping a letter grade on Art.

If this were a Christgau review—and there is something to review here, Going into the City, Christgau’s memoir and debut full-length book, published Tuesday—it would have ended 200 words ago with an idiomatic yet scholarly rapture or kiss-off and a letter grade. Like he did for Prince’s Dirty Mind in 1980: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home. A.” Or for Talking Heads’ 1980 Remain in Light the same year: “Second side celebrates a young terrorist and recalls John Cale in his spookiest pregeopolitical mode but also begins at the beginning: with ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ the greatest song Byrne will ever write. It’s about the secret of life, which even a woman’s hips can’t encompass. A.” Or for Guns N’ Roses’ G N’ R Lies in 1988: “‘Back when they hit the racks, these posers talked a lot of guff about suicide. I’m still betting they don’t have it in them to jump. E.”

Christgau calls this his Consumer Guide, so named “to razz a counterculture that considered consumption counterrevolutionary and didn’t like grades either.” By his count he’s undertaken nearly this exact mission for between thirteen and fourteen thousand records, with about three thousand others earning judgments that don’t quite meet the “review” threshold. His list of A+ albums covers everything from the Beach Boys to DeBarge; the most recognized artists are Sonny Rollins and the New York Dolls. His top five artists, Christgau once told Salon: Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Dolls. Hard to knock his catholicness.

A little easier to knock the oeuvre, though, given the certitude and bite of each capsule review. Countless online spaces provide scornful analysis of why Christgau stinks; this is what happens if he doesn’t grok your fave act or genre. Or, as Sonic Youth’s “Kill Yr Idols” (later briefly renamed “I Killed Christgau With My Big F-cking D-ck”) put it: “I don’t know why//you wanna impress Christgau//let that sh-t die//and find out the new goal.” The critic responds, broadly, in the memoir’s introduction: “To the eternal ‘Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one,’ I just say, ‘Yeah, but not everybody’s got ten thousand of them.’ It distresses me that the wit of this riposte so often fails to impress the asshole I’m talking to.” Least he’s honest.

We were talking, though, about surviving. Christgau’s new memoir belongs to a class of recent good downtown-culture-scene-in-the-60s-and-70s books, written by survivors of the cull that followed. There’s Patti Smith’s Just Kids (won the National Book Award), Ed Sanders’ Fug You, James Wolcott’s Lucking Out, Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, and others still. I say survivors because Smith lives, and so does Hell, but Robert Mapplethorpe and Lou Reed and Hilly Kristal and Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy are all dead. It ain’t easy to miss how these books have piled up as the neighborhoods, characters and scenes they chronicle have vanished.

But Christgau’s still here. He’s an employed rock critic in an era structurally hostile to them (he writes now on Medium’s Cuepoint). “There was always a devil’s bargain in journalism. The advertisers paid your salary, and now the advertisers don’t want us. It’s very unlikely that there’ll ever be anybody like me again,” he says. “There’s no economic basis for it. I feel terrible about what has happened to rock criticism.” He sticks to a CD changer. (“iTunes freezes on me.”) Yet he doesn’t loathe the web; he finds Twitter a good source of links and says music review site Pitchfork, “which was publishing really a lot of bad writing,” has gotten better in recent years. And rapper Azealia Banks sent him into a reverie last year—hard to imagine her without the web.

Christgau bikes a couple times each week from his East Village apartment to his NYU gig, one he’s held since 2005. The class he teaches, at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, is Artists and Audiences, a required one for everyone in the program. It’s music history, with a writing-intensive grafted on. Takes a survivor to keep teaching essay composition to art-school students. As he told the class: “There’s always someone who says I’m imposing my subjective views on writing on their work. Sometimes that’s true. Most of the time it’s not. I was a professional editor for a long time, and a well-regarded one. I had long-running fights with professional writers, and lots of them came to agree with me.” He says, “I’m very proud—even egotistical—about how good I am at what it is I do.” (He also says: “Other teachers will tell you to avoid dashes. Not in this class. They’re great. Use them a lot.”)

The real survival story of his life, though—the one he’s proudest to tell—is the one about his four-decade marriage to author and fellow rock critic Carola Dibbell (pronounced like a Yinzer would “Carol of the Bells,” just with only one bell). “I thought, what do I have to write about? My religious background, my Queens background, my career—although I didn’t hang out with artists like a lot of journalists do. The great saga of my life,” Christgau says, “is romantic love.” He’s big on this, and peeved at the extent to which other memoirists have elided their wives’ influence. That might sound sappy to the hard-hearted rockists out there, but they never cared for Christgau anyway.

In the memoir Christgau’s childhood, college and early postcollege years, plus attendant discursions—there are lots—precede his union with Dibbell. Such is the life of the mind: You’ll learn more here about Crime and Punishment than King Crimson (a band whose first album Christgau called “ersatz sh-t”) and you’ll hear a good deal too about his worldview of contingency, which is original and nicely turned if a little murky. The dramatis personae include Greil Marcus, the pioneering critic and Christgau’s long-term friend; Ellen Willis, the pioneering critic and Christgau’s longish-term lover (she ranks as the smartest person he’s ever known, and then a whole lot else); and his own peccadilloes, dysfunctions and double standards, the confrontation of which leads him to intellectual and emotional development. The Willis sections read especially swell if you shudder but secretly half-smile at the varied indulgences of the ’60s left, as Christgau seems to. Particularly memorable is the moment when our narrator’s pal and mentor, the painter Bob Stanley, tells him the era’s ostensibly enlightened screwing-around actually always stings bad. This after Willis tells Christgau she’ll cheat only on Tuesdays. Writes Christgau, “I swore I’d never try to look cool like that myself, and I never have—not in my private life, and not, I hope, in my public life either.”

And then, enter Dibbell: “[A friend] was sitting beside a pretty, slender brunette with a generous mouth and the kind of hair you want to put your face in. She seemed to be glowing slightly, which you could say was because she was coming down off a sleepless night of mescaline and sex just after she split with her husband, but I say was because for me she just naturally glowed.” Christgau told his NYU class that the best writing is “vigorous, direct and comprehensible.” Oh, this is, and his vigor w/r/t Dibbell recurs—does it ever. They fall in love and wed. The ending, as far as the plot goes, is already spoiled: Dibbell and Christgau are still married, and the daughter, Nina, they adopted from Honduras, is now 29 years old.

Christgau writes relatively frankly about his life considering some of the principals are still around. Dibbell, for one. He makes fewer concessions to discretion than you or I, if not she, might expect. Christgau writes, “I’ve told all with her cooperation or in one or two cases acquiescence. She’s glad this book takes love so seriously, and although she’s less bold than I am, she very much agrees that to shilly-shally about love is a species of lying.” This disclaimer precedes a thorough if not especially graphic account of a phase in their union (spoiler: an affair, hers) that would have severed many, if not most, marriages.

With the bit about his never trying to look cool in mind, I asked Christgau and Dibbell over dinner how it was to research—and by extension relive—those months. Christgau says it was extraordinarily painful; he had nightmares while writing it. But they both say the writing that came from it was good. I agree. Although reading it I felt the same way I did when I sat at their table, dredging up that past transgression: a little thrown.

The unpleasant moments in his writing process, he says, had their pleasant inverses; Christgau says he never wrote more quickly than he did describing a day of passion more than 40 years ago. “I was exalting. I’ve never written that quickly in my life. Did I make a pass at you that night?” Carola smiles but doesn’t answer. “I think I must have.” Some might find this icky. I found it adorable, which to another edgy set would have been icky in its own right. But they’re more in love now, he says, than they’ve ever been before, and they don’t care who knows it. Dibbell has her own upcoming book, The Only Ones, a dystopian debut novel she’s been working on for a decade. It’s out a month after Christgau’s. They edited each other’s work, paging through it in bed.

The three of us headed after dinner to a coffee-and-sweets shop a couple blocks away, where I wanted to continue to ask Christgau about his class and career while Carola wanted to go home, and to bed. He kissed his wife good night. She left, and he started drinking her leftover tea.

As far as love stories go, it’s a little more vanilla than Sid and Nancy—grump away, fatalist Village romantics—but it’s not Nick Sparks. Christgau’s polyhistoric, yeah, but honest, detailed, stirring and sweet. And isn’t that how all the best love songs should be? A-.

TIME Books

Controversy About This Feminist Manifesto Is Nothing New

Betty Friedan
Jim Seymour—;The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Betty Friedan pictured in 1965

Feb. 19, 1963: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published

To feminists of the Lean In era, the revolutionary premise of The Feminine Mystique — that women could, and should, be more than full-time homemakers — seems so dated it’s almost quaint. But its lasting subversiveness is apparent in its listing on a conservative magazine’s 2005 roster of the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Betty Friedan’s feminist manifesto, published on this day, Feb. 19, in 1963, made the list at #7 (just behind Marx’s Das Kapital) more than four decades after becoming a wildly controversial bestseller.

The magazine found her slightly less noxious than Hitler, whose Mein Kampf measured up at #2, but took issue with her characterization of stay-at-home mothers as prisoners of “comfortable concentration camps.”

The Feminine Mystique provoked even wider outrage in its day. Even before the book came out, there were those who couldn’t stand it — within the very publishing house that ultimately produced it. According to the New York Times, while the president of W.W. Norton lauded Friedan’s book proposal, calling it “overstated at almost every point, yet entirely stimulating and provocative,” another staffer objected that Friedan’s arguments were “too obvious and feminine.”

“I got very tired of phrases like ‘feminine mystique,’” the staffer said.

The Times gave the book an ambivalent review, calling it provocative and highly readable but also challenging Friedan’s central claims. “It is superficial to blame the ‘culture’ and its handmaidens, the women’s magazines, as she does,” the review alleges. “To paraphrase a famous line, ‘The fault, dear Mrs. Friedan, is not in our culture, but in ourselves.’”

TIME, meanwhile, paid little heed to Friedan and gave more ink to a 1964 book praising traditional stay-at-home motherhood, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Phyllis McGinley. (According to TIME, McGinley insisted that becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet was “an accident, and that her role as a housewife (was) more satisfying.”)

Rebutting the Smith College-educated Friedan and her ilk, who rejected the “sweet, simpering and sort of stupid” feminine ideals of their day, McGinley suggested that wives let their husbands educate them. “The whole duty of a wife is to bolster her husband’s self-esteem,” she writes, per TIME. “A man’s ego bruises easily. It is not nourished like a woman’s by the sheer biological ability to bear children.”

And, after being criticized for undermining the traditional family structure in some circles, she found herself criticized elsewhere for not undermining it enough.

Although she was credited with helping found the second-wave feminist movement, some of the movement’s members found her too tame to lead a revolution. Friedan was no bra-burner, after all. She shaved her legs, wore makeup, dressed stylishly, and, according to TIME, “insisted that it was not necessary to give up femininity to achieve equality.”

In her memoir, as reviewed in TIME, Friedan recalled New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug’s objection to Friedan founding the National Women’s Political Caucus: “‘This is my turf,’ she screamed at me.”

Read TIME’s full review of that memoir, here in the archives: The Friedan Mystique

TIME Books

Eleanor & Park Author Rainbow Rowell Talks Fifty Shades and Franzen

Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell

The author is headed to BookCon in May to talk about her upcoming novel, Carry On

What do you call a work of fiction about another work of fiction that first appeared inside another work of fiction? You might say fanfiction, had Rainbow Rowell not written all three. The acclaimed author of Eleanor & Park and Fangirl just announced she’s headed to BookCon on May 30 to discuss with Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser her upcoming fantasy novel, Carry On, and its unusual origins.

The novel, out in October, follows a young magician at a Hogwarts-like school named Simon Snow, and he’s already familiar to Rowell’s readers. The protagonist of 2013’s Fangirl, Cath, was obsessed with a massively popular fictional book series about the adventures of Simon Snow; parts of the fictional series, as well as Cath’s own fanfiction, appeared throughout Fangirl. TIME recently spoke to Rowell about building a fantasy world from scratch, Fifty Shades of Grey and how that Eleanor & Park movie is coming along.

TIME: So what do you call a book like this?
Rainbow Rowell: I think it’s just straight-up fiction. Some people have said, “Oh, you’re writing fanfiction for your own book!” I don’t think it’s fanfiction, I think it’s more like canon! Because even though Simon Snow is fictional inside of Fangirl, I still had to make him up. He still feels like he’s my character.

What’s it like writing your first fantasy novel?
I’ve always read so much fantasy and science fiction, but before Fangirl I didn’t think I could write fantasy. Maybe because I worked at a newspaper for so long, I didn’t feel I could let go like that. When I wrote Fangirl, writing the Simon Snow parts were my favorite parts, and they came really easily. Nobody said, “This fantasy part sucks!” So I thought, “Maybe I could do this.” My brain was ready to go there.

Did Carry On emerge from the leftover Simon Snow segments that went unused in Fangirl?
They didn’t really make it into the book. The Simon Snow I was writing in Fangirl was a different Simon Snow. When I was writing as [fictional Simon Snow author] Gemma T. Leslie, I envisioned this feeling of British children’s literature and had a very traditional middle-grade voice. When I was writing Cath, it was more of what a talented teenage girl writing romantic fantasy would do. Neither of those voices are me. When I started writing my own Simon Snow, it was more what I would do with this character.

The characters of Simon Snow play a small part in Fangirl, but from the fanart and fanfiction created about them, they’re just as beloved as your other characters.
For people in fandom, that’s actually ideal. Sometimes the characters that people love most in fandom are characters like Draco Malfoy. You can do a lot with Draco Malfoy because there’s not much Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter books. You get some of him, but there’s so much to fill in.

I’d imagine that building out a magical world where anything goes would be incredibly fun but also overwhelming.
Anything goes, but you also don’t want your world and your magic to be just like someone else’s. I would think, what sort of magical things are community property, that every fantasy story has? And what is too much like that book I read in sixth grade? I would get stuck and have to remind myself that I don’t really know how the magic works in my favorite fantasy stories. I don’t really know how the Force works, and when George Lucas tried to explain it to me, that was very disappointing. I get really confused if I talk specifically about the magic in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I try not to get too bogged down about how it works. It’s magic! There’s no rational explanation to magic! I just tried to be consistent. When it breaks down is when you break your own rules.

Has the public perception of fandom and fanfiction changed since Fangirl came out?
It was already changing. It’s such a huge and a popular thing that I don’t think it was going to stay counter-culture and quiet. When I wrote Fangirl I had to explain what fanfiction was to a lot of people, and I don’t have to explain that much [today]. That will continue because the Harry Potter generation is growing up. The Harry Potter generation is the generation where fanfiction really became a big deal. Even if you weren’t writing fanfiction yourself, you know it’s there, you’re just much more fluent in the internet. And in its way, Fifty Shades of Grey introduced a lot of people to the concept of fanfiction, even if they got the wrong idea.

You obviously aren’t freaked out about fanfiction the way some authors are, but does something like Fifty Shades of Grey make you nervous — that someone could go in a direction you maybe wouldn’t approve of, one that could eclipse your own work?
If no one told you this is Twilight fanfiction, in my opinion, you would never know that those characters are Bella and Edward. I don’t know how Stephenie Meyer feels. Maybe she feels it’s too close. I felt like that seed had been planted pretty far away from the source material.

I don’t think ideas are as clean and separate as we think they are. Everything is derivative in a way. What you write is often a reaction or a response to the things you’ve read. I’ve read fantasy my whole life, so when I first sat down to write a fantasy novel, I was responding to all of these concepts of what it meant to be the chosen one, what it meant to have the gift and responsibility of magic. Definitely there is fanfiction that takes my characters in a direction that I wouldn’t intend for them — almost all fanfiction. They’re taking it away from the path that I’ve charted. It doesn’t really bother me.

Did you see Jonathan Franzen’s comments last week about young-adult fiction being “moral simplicity”? What did you think?
I didn’t see his quote, so I hate to respond to a quote that I didn’t see, but it’s a common thing to say. If he said that, he’s not alone in saying that. I don’t think people would be saying that if YA wasn’t popular right now. A lot of people look at something popular, and they’re dismissive of it because they don’t understand it. If you think YA is simple, you probably haven’t read a lot of it. But YA is not a genre. It’s just this really loosely defined category of books. If YA had always been this popular category, a lot of books we think of as classics would be YA. The Catcher in the Rye? Without question. Also, I don’t know that people just read YA. So I don’t know what he says, but I’m familiar with the argument.

How is writing the screenplay for Eleanor & Park?
I have finished a first draft, and DreamWorks is talking to a possible director.

Does adapting your own book feel like doing surgery on your own children, as I’ve heard one author describe it?
It felt more like trying to like transmogrify a dog into a cat and keeping it alive. I think it would be easier to adapt someone else’s novel or write a screenplay from scratch. It was difficult, and I’m sure it will continue to change. It’s just like learning how to do it on the job. Eleanor and Park is a tricky book because almost everything happens internally. There’s a lot unsaid. I had to figure out how to show it in the screenplay, but whoever directs the film will ultimately make those decisions. A movie belongs to a director much more to a screenwriter.

Will you be on set and involved in casting in the way John Green is with the movie versions of his books?
That really depends on the movie company and the director and how involved they want me to be. It’s someone else’s party. There are some directors who find the author really helpful, and there are others who are like, “I need to stay fresh and do my own thing.” Which I would understand because the director of the film has a completely different job. So I’m for it, I’d love to be involved. What I want is a director who really can make it happen. I want that more than I want to be involved.

TIME Books

Celebrate the New Dr. Seuss Book With a New Fact About the Author

Dr Seuss Holds 'The Cat In The Hat'
Gene Lester—Getty Images Dr Seuss sits at his drafting table in his home office with a copy of his book, 'The Cat in the Hat', La Jolla, Calif., Apr. 25, 1957.

'What Pet Should I Get?' will be released in July

Fans of cats in hats and pops being hopped on learned on Wednesday that a new Dr. Seuss book is on the way: in July, Random House will published What Pet Should I Get?, a manuscript the late and legendary writer likely completed in the late 1950s or early ’60s but never published.

Just a few months ago, several stories that Seuss wrote for Redbook in the 1950s were published under the title Horton and the Kwuggerbug and More Lost Stories. In honor of that released, we combed TIME’s archives for some Seuss-ian history, and turned up these five facts:

Dr. Seuss wasn’t necessarily for kids.
The career-making images that TIME cited? An advertising campaign for Flit insecticide.

Dr. Seuss’s wife helped him develop his stories.
Their marriage was financed, TIME reported, by a “cartoon of egg-nog-drinking turtles” that Dr. Seuss sold to Judge magazine in 1927. (Sadly, she died only a few months after that 1967 profile was published.)

Dr. Seuss had no formal art training.
He walked out on “a high-school art teacher who refused to let him draw with his drawing board turned upside down” and that was that. For non-art education, he went to Dartmouth and Oxford.

Dr. Seuss’s early vocabulary was inspired by school curricula.
Many books meant to teach kids reading used standardized lists of basic words that should be known by students of various ages, and Dr. Seuss’ work — despite the fantastical nature of the stories those words created — was no exception. He stopped using the lists when he no longer found them adequate, “because,” TIME explained, “today’s television-viewing children have an expanded vocabulary.”

Dr. Seuss worked on an Oscar-winning animated short film.
Dr. Seuss’s Gerald McBoing-Boing cartoon won the Academy Award in 1951.

Now, in honor of the new story coming to light, here’s another fact to add to the list: Dr. Seuss said that he thought the idea of academic analysis of his work was pretty silly. His books were, as he put it, “logical insanity.”

Read the full 1967 profile of Dr. Seuss here, in TIME’s archives: The Logical Insanity of Dr. Seuss

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: How Game of Thrones Will Diverge From the Books

"Everybody better be on their toes," George R.R. Martin says

George R.R. Martin warned Game of Thrones fans recently that characters who survived in the A Song of Ice and Fire book series that inspired the show might still die on TV. Watch the Know Right Now above to find out more, and read more here.

TIME Television

Game of Thrones Author Warns HBO Show May Kill Off Book Characters

George R.R. Martin says HBO may kill off characters who survive in the books

Bad news for Game of Thrones fans who are sticklers to the books: the series’ author says characters who live on the page are going to die on the screen.

A Song of Ice and Fire series author George R.R. Martin revealed the news at the Writers Guild West Awards on Saturday, Showbiz411 reports. “Everybody better be on their toes,” Martin said, adding that the creators of the HBO show, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss “are even bloodier than I am.”

The popular show returns with a fifth season on April 12, and the network has already commissioned a sixth season. Martin is working on the penultimate book now, The Winds Of Winter, and will then finish the series with a novel entitled The Dream of Spring.

Considering that those two books will tally up to about 3,000 pages, it could be years before fans have a final death tally between the books and the show.

[Showbiz411]

TIME movies

Fifty Shades of Grey Brings in Record Numbers at Box Office

The erotic movie may become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all-time

Fifty Shades of Grey—an erotic R-rated movie based on the best-selling novel by E.L. James—brought in almost $9 million on Thursday and $30 million on Friday, according to Box Office Mojo, which could make it the highest-grossing February debut in history.

MORE: Fifty Shades of Grey Star Eloise Mumford: I Would Never Make a Film That Didn’t Empower Women

Movie experts are predicting that Fifty Shades, which features a sexually explicit relationship between a college student and a business mogul, will gross $91 million over a four-day stretch, surpassing the R-rated movie Passion of the Christ, which debuted in February 2004 and made $84 million.

It also could become the highest-grossing R-rated debut of all-time. Matrix Reloaded currently holds the top spot with almost $92 million made in its opening weekend in 2003.

TIME Books

The Top 10 Fifty Shades of Grey Quotes Readers Couldn’t Get Enough Of

And now you can enjoy them again

While Fifty Shades of Grey dominates theaters this weekend, it’ll be easy to forget that the E.L. James erotic novel on which the film is based is quite the work of writing: flip to any page and it’s clear that James’ style—My inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm—is truly a force of nature.

Every sentence is more or less quotable, but Amazon rounded up the top 10 most highlighted quotes from Fifty Shades’ Kindle e-book edition. Here’s a glimpse of which lines readers loved so much they just had to save so they could read them again:

  1. “Because I’m fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia.”
  2. “A man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.”
  3. “‘The Flower Duet’ by Delibes, from the opera Lakmé.”
  4. “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”
  5. “‘Villa Lobos,’ an aria from Bachianas Brasileiras.”
  6. “Men aren’t really complicated, Ana, honey. They are very simple, literal creatures. They usually mean what they say. And we spend hours trying to analyze what they’ve said, when really it’s obvious. If I were you, I’d take him literally. That might help.”
  7. “It’s called Spem in Alium, a forty-part motet by Thomas Tallis.”
  8. “‘Chopin. Prelude opus twenty-eight, number four. In E minor, if you’re interested,’ he murmurs.”
  9. “He’s … taciturn.’”
  10. “No, Anastasia, it doesn’t. First, I don’t make love. I f*** … hard.”

TIME Sex

Fifty Shades of Grey and How One Sex Act Went Mainstream

A cultural evolution, from 'Fanny Hill' to 'Fifty Shades'

In 1976, a survey was distributed to American women through magazines like Cosmopolitan. The questions it asked were personal — very personal — and the answers, compiled in The Hite Report, were a landmark insight into female sexuality. Women were asked to describe their experiences, desires and disappointments. In a 1987 story, TIME praised the report’s author, Shere Hite as “the doyenne of sex polls” and “liberator of the female libido.”

(Read more from TIME’s archive on Shere Hite and her research on sex in America.)

In their anonymous responses, women vented and raved about both sexual practices and social attitudes. One of the findings that might shock audiences today, however, was actually one of the least “free love” of all. Buried in the section about receiving oral sex (and not even listed in the index), was a question about fellatio. One woman’s comment (expressed in blunter language than can be used here): “I would consider [it] with a loaded gun at my head. No other way.”

Reading that line, I wondered where that woman is now. Perhaps she’ll be one of the millions of people off to see Fifty Shades of Grey this week: the story of a young woman’s sexual awakening in which said act accounts for some of the tale’s least provocative moments. Advice about it is now a staple of Cosmopolitan today; indeed, today’s readers are told that it’s basically “the kickoff…for sex.”

How did attitudes change, and so quickly? As recently as the 1970s, this was certainly not something that a gentleman would expect. Today, the act is something more like bread before dinner: noteworthy only if it’s absent.

But there’s more to the history behind that change than a simple move toward permissiveness — and, it turns out, the ubiquity and “standardness” of fellatio is perhaps not as widespread as one might believe.

***

Fellatio has been happening for as long as humans have been around, and there are references to it from ancient Peru and classical Rome. Cultures and religions, however, have not all taken—and still do not take—the same attitude towards it.

I went to the Kama Sutra, thinking that would be an obvious starting place for historical ideas about the topic, but its discussion of fellatio is fairly brief, associating it with dirty and loose women. (Interestingly, the Kama Sutra spends much longer on the erotic quality of using one’s fingernails to impress dents in a lover’s skin.)

That classic of the dirty book canon, 1748’s Fanny Hill, makes no reference at all to fellatio, which suggests it wasn’t something commonly offered in London brothels at the time (or else that it wasn’t something that the clammy-handed readers of smut novels were expected to want). In American legal texts of the early 1900s, fellatio was clearly for fellas. The statutes referring to it, originally falling under the vaguely defined idea of “unnatural acts,” were about catching gay men. Hetero oral sex tended to get passing references in pre-World War II sex manuals, the kind that talk about the need for a man to “instruct” his presumably virgin bride. Apparently some healthy couples indulged in this kind of thing, the message ran, but it’s not part of most people’s repertoire. In 1919’s Sexual Truth Versus Sexual Lies, Misconceptions, and Exaggerations, the author wrote that cunnilingus and fellatio “are very common in the less worthy marriages.”

In his 2000 study, The Social Organization of Sexuality, sexual behaviorist E. O. Laumann theorized that oral sex became more popular in the 1920s. Laumann’s surveys, which describe the sexual histories of various age cohorts, show a big jump in oral sex right about the time when the baby boomers started hooking up. The sexual revolution brought fellatio into the public consciousness, via its most famous practitioner, Linda Lovelace.

Despite the counter-cultural frisson of the subversive act going mainstream, there’s indication that not everyone was on board with it at this point. Women started to write about fellatio, but as something they merely did, much more rarely as something they enjoyed. The narrator of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1974) references it, unpleasantly. Indeed, as Samantha, the most liberated of the group on Sex and the City, consoled a friend, “there’s a reason it’s called a job.”

The act is barely depicted or mentioned in mainstream films at all before the 1990s, when the act itself became a well-known activity in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton made famous the notion that fellatio is “not sex”, and 60% of teenagers today agree with him. (The idea that it is “not sex” could go part of the way to explaining why people tend not to use protection for it.) At the time of the Starr Report, Newsweek warned readers that some of the activities described would make readers “want to throw up”, which does suggest that their readers in the 1990s (or at least the editors at Newsweek) were still not of the view that the President’s predilections were “standard.”

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Even today, the “everyone’s doing it” attitude that prevails in sex writing is not entirely accurate.

Perhaps the reason we’ve come to believe that everyone is into oral sex is because it’s most common among white people, and it’s white sex writers who are saying that it’s universal. Yes, 75% of white college women reported in 2001 having done it at least once, according to a 2001 study called “Race, gender, and class in sexual scripts,” but only 56% of Latina and 34% of African American college women say they have. (Of these groups, only 55, 46, and 25%, respectively, describe performing fellatio as appealing).

Other research over the last twenty years bears out these ethnic differences. Among college students in the ’90s in Canada, whites were more likely than Asians to participate in oral sex. In the U.S., a national survey in 2002-2003 of women ages 15 to 44, showed that 84.3% of white women had engaged in fellatio at least once, while only 60% of Hispanic women, and 57.4% of black women had. (That’s “ever in your life,” not “regularly.”) That study’s authors found that whiteness correlated highly with practicing oral sex: “White race, age of 20-44 years, being married and having higher numbers of life time ex-partners were related to having ever given oral sex.”

In addition, though the act is much more common than it once was in mainstream films and TV, not every pop-cultural depiction has caught up with the idea that it’s standard. In some cases, it’s still used as shorthand to suggest that the man receiving it is a jerk. He’s an adulterer, a corrupt cop, or from Wall Street. The message to viewers is disregard for these scumbags mixed with (depending on the film) some level of reluctant admiration for this jerk who manages to be on the receiving end. The message is generally less mixed for the woman involved. For her, the transaction is degrading. Even Tony Soprano thought that it was only for a certain type of woman: when asked why he had a mistress, he explained that his wife “kisses my kids with that mouth.”

In the 2013 film Don Jon, which is hilariously honest about casual sex, the main character describes his girlfriend (played by Scarlett Johansson) as too hot to need to give oral sex—as though that were something only unattractive women have to do, to compensate for their other failings.

Indeed, fellatio is often seen in pop culture as the act of a desperate supplicant begging for favor (see: every single joke ever about a woman earning a promotion on her knees), a source of homophobic innuendo or simply as some kind of punishment.

So how can something that almost “everyone” is doing also be something bad? After a century of rapid evolution in attitudes toward fellatio, we’ve arrived at the warped mindset that something that is seen as degrading and awful is also often seen as obligatory for straight women — and perhaps made even more disturbing by the fact that we ignore the people who prove it’s not obligatory at all.

These cultural differences and paradoxes are ignored in the “this item is standard” mindset. I spoke to several friends while writing this piece, and one told me of having the offer of fellatio declined: the man is from a culture where that just isn’t done. By normalizing a predominantly white practice—and not even one that all white people do—the message is “your culture is having sex incorrectly.”

It’s hard to reconcile a sex-positive attitude that was supposed to allow women freedom to express their needs with the mindset that says oral sex is compulsory. In fifty years, fellatio has gone from a niche (and in many places illegal) sexual activity—which at least would have offered the frisson of an illicit thrill—to something not only normal, but also presented by mainstream culture as obligatory.

And as attitudes toward the one act have changed, that progression has perhaps created space for other acts to move from niche to mainstream (see porn, Internet). And other formerly-rare practices among heterosexuals seem to be heading towards that tipping point. Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’re looking for a hint that bondage and sadomasochism have breached the mainstream, how about an R-rated movie that breaks ticket presale records? Though Anastasia Steele’s oral-sex choices might have once scandalized audiences, today they’re just filler before the real action begins.

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