Today we bring a few funk/soul songs to the table that deal with the subject of prostitution. The funny thing is, for the most part we weren’t aware of this until now.
It’s the oldest job in the world. Think of it what you will, but you can’t ignore the fact that prostitution has worked its way into a number of songs over the years. And by “a number of songs” we mean Roxanne by the Police. Can’t think of any others? Neither could we, until we took a closer look. In this episode we discuss 5 funk/soul/R&B songs that we’ve either suspected or discovered are about this shady business. Much likeRoxanne, we did notice that most of these are from the 80s, graciously coined by Kyle as the “decade of the prostitute” (which sounds to us like a great Doctor Whoepisode).
Make no mistake, we’re not strangers to taboo topics. But you just don’t hear about this one too often. At any rate, here’s some examples we found:
1. Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (1984)
Ironically enough, this song was originally written to be sung by a man. Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame) penned this tune and tried it out, but realized it would make more sense if sung by a woman. He played it for Tina Turner to get her thoughts, and she agreed with this line of thinking.
She dug the song a lot (obviously enough to record it herself), but it was reportedly never clear to her whether the girl in the song was a prostitute or a “classical private dancer.” The ambivalence carries on to this day, but we suspect it’s one of those situations where she simply refers to herself a “private dancer” because it sounds a little more dignified than “hooker.”
2. Labelle’s Lady Marmalade (1974)
This song’s famous chorus, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” is French for, “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” Apparently for the day this was really risqué, even considering that it was sung in a foreign language. As a result, the “Moral Majority” prohibited Labelle from singing this lyric when performing the song on TV (exactly like some others we’ve discussed). A slight change made the line say “dance” instead of “sleep” which satisfied the censorship beast.
We do find it a little strange that lead singer Patti Labelle claimed in an interview with NME that, “I swear I had no idea for a while what [the chorus] meant…” Which seems odd considering both that they did have to censor it for TV, and the otherwise English lyrics aren’t terribly vague on this subject either.
3. The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun (1964)
The mystery of this song’s meaning actually goes much deeper than our own ignorance. In fact, the origins of the song itself are just as unclear. Most of us are familiar with the Animals’ version, but historians know that the song sprang up sometime in the 1930’s as a blues standard with no distinct person to credit it to. So we can only theorize about what it’s actually talking about.
People have narrowed it down to one of two possibilities: 1) It was written about a New Orleans brothel run by Marianne LeSoleil Levant (“Rising Sun” in French) from 1862 -1874. Or 2) It’s about the Orleans Parish women’s prison, which had a rising sun adorned on its entrance and gives possible meaning to the “ball and chain” lyrics.
4. Hall & Oates’ Family Man (1983)
At least a dozen times we’ve touched on covers of songs that became much more popular than the original version. Here it is again, and this time British musician Mike Oatfield gets the shaft. Sort of.Family Man originally came from his album Five Miles Out in the year prior, but didn’t climb higher than #45 in the UK. That is, until Hall & Oates performed their cover and reached international acclaim.
So where do hookers work into this whole scene? The lyrics tell a story of a prostitute trying to convince a married man to throw some business her way. He’s not game, so she basically tries to sweeten the deal with a discount and wink & a smile. Ironically, by the time he’s convinced, she’s had enough and leaves. Probably best for his marriage anyway.
5. Sade’s Smooth Operator (1984)
For those unaware, it’s pronounced “Sha-day,” not “Sade.” (We’re pretty sure Peter says “Sade” regardless. Don’t be like him, kids.) Anyway, Smooth Operator is easily one of the more acclaimed songs from this list. Is it really about prostitution? Our definite answer is: kinda maybe.
The song paints a picture of a rather attractive man who goes around breaking women’s hearts with his smooth-operationy lifestyle. Most of us are aware of this. But some of the lyrics could be interpreted to imply that these women he uses actually bring him financial gain. So is this guy a stone-cold pimp? (Not to be confused with a Cold Stone pimp. You’re welcome for that mental image.) We’re not sure. It could explain why he treats these women so unaffectionately, but then again he may just be a simple player who’s playing the game. We may never know, but the seeds of funky wonderment have been planted in your brain. It’s what we do.