This week, in anticpation of the upcoming WAM Prom on Friday, I'll be blogging some thoughts on music and culture by the way of our mash-up theme of hip-hop and disco.
Those of us who lived through the early 90s can attest that it was a time when there was a sudden surge of pop culture interest in HIV and getting out the message about safe sex. MTV started talking about condoms, and having special addressing condom use. Fox, believe it or not, started airing condom ads in 1991. The first major movie about AIDS, the treacly “Philadelphia”, came out in 1993, the same year that a cast member of “The Real World” came out as both gay and infected with HIV. And, the two biggest female hip-hop acts in the country made raising awareness about condoms part of their act.
First you had TLC, who tried to normalize condoms in a sly way, by having Left-Eye Lopez wear one as an eye patch.
And Salt’n’Pepa took on discussions about safe sex on in a big way, both in their hit song “Let’s Talk About Sex” and revised versions that put even more emphasis on the issue of preventing HIV transmission.
Why was there a sudden interest in having even more frank discussion about HIV and AIDS in the early 90s? I think it was a couple of things. Part of it was that it was an era of shaking off the Reagan years, and all the prudery and conservative nonsense that came with the so-called Reagan revolution. But another part of it was that AIDS really stopped being the “gay disease” in the early 90s.
HIV incidence among women increased gradually until the late 1980s, declined during the early 1990s, and has remained relatively stable since, at approximately a quarter of new infections (23% in 2009).
The realization that women were getting HIV in the late 80s really, I think, made it clear that straight people needed to be educated on protecting themselves. It’s a shame that it took HIV growing into the straight community to get this much attention paid to it, of course, but to be expected considering how much more acceptable homophobia was back then. That women were getting it, too, is why I think it was female rappers specifically felt pressure to address the situation. I’m just speculating here, but I suspect that these women, being, you know, straight women, knew very well how hard it can be for a woman to bring up the topic of safe sex with a man she’s having sex with, and they did a really great thing in trying to make condoms and the discussion of them seem less scary.
What I want to point out is that TLC and Salt’n’Pepa framed portrayals and discussion of safe sex within a larger context of talking about pleasure. Their songs are fun and light-hearted and put a particular emphasis on women as sexual subjects, who have sex for their own reasons and not just because men expect them to. This is in contrast with far too many safe sex messages, which are medicalized and don’t talk about power or pleasure. Many safe sex messages assume that the biggest barrier to condom use is knowledge, but actually, a lot of people who don’t use condoms really know that they should, and so repeating messages about the efficacy of condoms doesn’t do much to improve usage. But if you can associate condoms with having fun, and if you can portray women taking charge of their sex lives in a positive light, you’re going to do a whole lot better.
What’s disappointing is that this trend of women putting out songs portraying women as fun-loving, empowered, sexy women who take care of their own health seems to have been just a blip on the radar. Good luck finding that many women doing anything like TLC or Salt’n’Pepa were doing in the early 90s in hip-hop, dance, or rock music, at least anything that’s topping the charts like these groups were easy to do. Why it went away so fast is something of a mystery to me, even still.
By the way, Marc has released another mash-up from the set he'll be playing on Friday night at WAM Prom. It's two female acts from completely different eras from the one described above, but both with their own strengths.