Face it: only douchebags still believe the typical music soundtracks of 1970's porn films are "classic." Although, since only a douchebag would watch enough actual pornography to allow himself (or herself) to eventually arrive at such a conclusion, perhaps that particular revelation is a moot one. Nevertheless, an example: I was recently watching yet another John Holmes "classic" mid-70's porn film (not for any unseemly reason. Let's just say I was...masturbating) and as soon as the screeching, thin, artless fake-funk soundtrack began to mask the fake shrieks and moans, I had to wince. It was like an un-orgasm for my ears. How did the myth that this abominable 70's music represents some sort of cultural climax come to be? Why is it still perpetuated? Was 60's porn music any good? Is 80's porn music any better? 90's porn music? 00's porn music? Do porn movies of the 00's even have music anymore?
Unsatisfied, I decided to ask the opinion of notorious guerrilla pornographer and author Sam Benjamin, who possesses a vast, throbbing brain filled with the where/when/who/why of most porn films from the second half of the 20th century, and on, and on. He's has suffered hard trench experience as an actual pornographer, pro-porn film cameraman, agency talent-scout and general entrepreneur in the brightly colored dark void that was and is the Los Angeles pornography underworld. Sam recently wrote a book about his adventures, called Confessions of an Ivy League Pornographer.
According to Sam, 80's porn video music is far superior to 70's porn film music, even though it's actually quite worse. It all has to do with context. Read on...and stick around to the end, he's brought a few audio clips for your enjoyment.
Sam: Great to be here. Thanks for having me on your show. Yes. 70's porn music sounds like a high-school band performing a soundtrack to a disco musical that should have never existed -- so bad, it's bad. If you took the worst genre in the history of contemporary American music (funk-disco -- narrowly edging out big-pants trance for sheer lack of imagination) and paid a group of mustachioed degenerates sixty bucks apiece to "jam" for a couple of hours so you could give your badly-lit, badly-shot, ill-conceived, glorified stag film the non-diegetic musical punch it didn't need in the first place, you'd end up with typical 70's porn music. And yes, that's exactly what happened.
Movie-music is about establishing mood. And the mood established in your typical 1970's porno film was what I like to call "corduroy bop" -- a cheesy, sleaze bag, cornball vintage that's amusing once, but insufferable afterwards. I particularly hate how the words "bow-chicka bow-bow" have become synonymous for "let's get it on" in our contemporary culture.
Although, 70's porn music isn't a failure because it's bad. All aspects of porn, from the faked orgasms to the terrifically sub-literate scripts in pornography have always been "bad." 70's porn music fails because it doesn't match the visual tatteredness of its movies. Directors were working with film in the 1970's -- occasionally 35 mm, but for the most part 16 mm reversal -- blotchy, grainy, and orangey, shot by guys for whom keeping in focus and avoiding giant patches of shadow were massive accomplishments. The dialoge was often dubbed in later, like a terrible Italian horror movie, or just tossed off in a "one take is for damn sure all you get, Johnny!" way. These films were mysterious, myopic, bastard children of the 1970's, and an ideal porno soundtrack would have been one part Frank Zappa at his most satirical, two parts Jello Biafra at his most nasal, three parts Gil-Scott Heron at his most seductively negroid, and twelve parts Li'l Blind Stevie Wonder taking a naked shower with R. Crumb and Al Goldstein at the same time.
70's porn music could have invoked all that was dead and dying and wrong with the "Me" decade: the slow stagnating crumble of the hippie movement, the crushing depression that was Yankee baseball and Kissinger's violently engineered overthrow of Socialist Chile, the feathered weirdness of Joni Mitchell going down on Jimmie "Dyn-o-mite!" Walker, the rise of DDT, black power, Reggie Jackson, leisure suits, feminism, and the quiet rise of the corporate Reich. Instead, you just got leisure suits. Porn-disco failed to ironicize -- or even complement -- what were at that time the first fledgling acts of public copulation that we had been forced to deal with on a grand scale in quite some time.
Sam: 80's porn music reeks of repetition, stupidity, loneliness, unoriginality, and unrelenting sadness -- and that's a great thing. 80's soundtracks actually speak to the visceral experience of masturbation itself: it's like the dull, throbbing death-beat of your heart in your head as you forsake real life and real partners for yet another unhealthy, scared wank. 70's porn music is busy; conversely, 80's porn music is solitary. The advent of the analog synth meant that one lonely loser could score your whole movie for you, and guess what: that's precisely what happened. With the exception of anomalies like Greg Dark's 1984 masterpiece New Wave Hookers (a precursor to the alt-porn movement), by the middle of the decade you had almost no live accompaniment at all in porn.
The 1980's ushered in Video Sex, but it was also the age of the synthesizer; we shouldn't forget that. The fuckings of superstars Randy Spears, Tom Byron and Peter North (and the women! That aggressively coked-up, highly-arobicized, poison-silicon-betitted clan!) were set to the strangest of keyboard sounds. To me, the retarded, computer-generated loopings actually work: complimenting videotape's bleary, vacant resolution to perfection. Synth-sound created a production value that is Lo-Fi at its very best. It provided an ambiance that underscored the abject, majestic cheapness of pornography -- its poverty of connection, of hope.
It's amazing the way that technology has truly been the deciding factor when it comes to the aesthetics of porno. Nowadays, porn has got the stain of the internet all over it: it brings with it a tinge of computer-screen radiation, an insane amount of procrastination-guilt, and the taste of multifarious and multi-media conquest (i.e., having three or four clips playing at the same time and having a wank to all of them simultaneously. Or maybe that's just me.)
But back in the 80's, it was Pac-Man, conspicuous consumption, "gadgets" like answering machines, Colecovision, and Betamax. And porn rose to the immediate occasion, both in music and vision, and emphasized all that was sad and plastic and hopeless in our culture.
The upshot -- or downturn, depending on how you look at it -- is that bonky synthesizer 80's porn music pretty much killed off the porn music genre. Oh, sure, it hung tight for a while; big-budget 1980's pornos pushed their resources toward stupid movie parodies for the most part, as they made the awkward transition from film to Vivid Video, and those guys needed dumb scores by the truckload. But the synth revolution gave birth to Gonzo, the hand-held, up-skirt, New Wave-style of a thousand newly independent pornographers, and Gonzo truly took advantage of the new and cheaper medium, the hand-held video camera. The new, smaller, and easily-focusable cameras took you up close and personal with the medium's newest stars, with no fear of wasting film or breaking the fourth wall. And while there continued to be music in Gonzo (there will always be porn music for people who like to throw in a beat when the action devolves into pure, animal rutting), but the music lacks the dumb grandeur of previous times, when it was meant to underscore a dramatic plot point or mise-en-scene. The fourth wall began to get broken the day consumable pornography was created, that's the thing. But people only started taking advantage of that, only started doing it right, in the 80's, when they began to use video and lonely-sad-man soundtracks.
Mark: Hmm...interesting. Okay Sam, I understand you brought a few clips? [non-music sounds on these clips definitely NSFW!]
Sam: Yes Mark, I did. To get us started, here's a typical 80's porn soundtrack. Robotic, but robust. Sounds pretty good, right?
But let's dig deeper. Check out this one from a classic 80's Kay Parker video. It's decidedly 80's, but it sounds like Trevor Horn went into a coma while at the mixing board. Also note the music's sound quality in comparison to the actor's voices (this is digitized from a 1st generation video):
Kay Parker 80's
Check out this audio clip from a domestic kitchen scene in a mid-80's video. I'm sure Kraftwerk aren't proud. Again, note the quality of the music recording in relation to the actors (I also think the accidental phone ringing in the background is a nice touch).
Milky Tit Fuck 80's
Listen to the music from one of Nina Hartley 80's videos. It sounds like the worst possible mash-up of Vangelis' Chariots of Fire and Brian Eno's Music For Airports...set to a three-way. Have you ever heard anything so bleak and desolate?
Nina Hartley 80's