Music

What Happened To The Music In Porn?

Porno flicks used to feature luscious and inventive soundtracks - so where did they go?

The Devil In Miss Jones porn film

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Everybody knows what stereotypical “porn music” sounds like: swaggering basslines, cheesy synths. It’s a genre in and of itself, a sound settled into the cultural foundations. Which is funny, given that most pornography today is almost totally silent.

For at least the last decade, the overwhelming majority of pornographic films have been scored by nothing but the sounds of grunting, panting and shouted instructions.

At the most, porn will be scored with free, looping tracks downloaded from the net. The ruling share of videos don’t even have that.

But why? After all, in the golden age of porn, composers scored erotic films with full-scale, full-band soundtracks. And even through the ’80s and ’90s, porn had some kind of musical accompaniment, albeit of the deliciously trashy, janky kind — the bass loops that have now become shorthand for debauchery.

The story of porn soundtracks is the story of evolution, of change. It’s the story of how the internet disrupts everything. And it’s the story of the evolving moral attitudes of an entire nation.

The Golden Age of Pornography

The story of music in porn really starts in the late sixties, during what quickly became known as ‘The Golden Age of Porn.’ Prior to this porn production boom, most erotic films had been home-made affairs, or independent productions.

Pioneering erotic filmmaker Doris Wishman spent the early sixties making quasi-documentaries about nudist camps. Over in Europe, Italian Lasse Braun was shooting short loops, around ten-minutes long, to be distributed to peep show booths around the world. But fully-fledged porn films as we know them didn’t become mainstream until — appropriately — the year 1969, when Andy Warhol released Blue Movie.

Largely plotless, Blue Movie feels rather quaint now — two lovers sit around their apartment talking about the Vietnam war, fuck, then talk some more. At the time, it was shocking. Variety referred to it as the “first theatrical feature to actually depict intercourse”, and a New York cinema that showed the film was raided by police.

Not that the controversy hurt it much. On the contrary,  Blue Movie became one of the buzzed about movies of the year, recouping its minimal production budget in a matter of days. And its impact was massive. Within a number of years, dozens of narrative erotic films flooded the American market, spurred on by Blue Movie‘s success. The Golden Age of Pornography had begun.

Blue Movie had been scoreless. But many of the films that followed it were not. Behind the Green Door, one of the early classics of the erotic genre, had a rich and full soundtrack, composed by Dan Le Blanc.

Its main character, played by the iconic Marilyn Chambers, doesn’t speak a single word of dialogue. Instead, the music takes the place of that character development. Moving from funk to drum-led pop instrumentals and back again, Le Blanc’s score is shockingly inventive.

The Devil in Miss Jones, released in 1973, was similarly lush. Based on No Exit, the book by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the film follows a young woman as she dies, meets the devil, and makes her way through limbo, culminating in a genuinely shocking ending.

Alden Shuman wrote the score — complex and baroque, it borrowed heavily the work of composers like Chopin and Mozart. It even had its own theme song, a sultry ballad voiced by little-known pop wannabe Linda November.

But perhaps the most impressive musical achievement of the Golden Age of Pornography is the score to a full-length erotic musical, Alice In Wonderland. Directed by storied nudie filmmaker Bud Townsend, the film is packed with original songs. They’re all good, but best might be the ribald and silly ‘What’s a Nice Girl Doin’ with a Knight?’, full of the swagger and energy you’d get from any showtune.

In fact, Alice in Wonderland was such a hit that it was later transformed into an off-Broadway musical, updated and now set in a trailer park. Talk of a remake circulated for years, with storied British director Ken Russell working on a mid-budget adaptation right up until his death.

All told, these early days represent the height of porn soundtracks. Pornographic films of the time were, though scrappily made, designed to ape the formula of narrative cinema. These films had plots; characters; themes. People paid money to see them in cinemas, and so filmmakers were keen to make sure each audience member got a bang for their buck, and in more ways than one.

The aim was to titillate, obviously. But it was also to entertain generally — to tell a story, amid all the fucking. And music was a big part of how those stories got told. For a while, at least.

The Rise Of Videotape

Throughout the ’70s, erotic films continued in the vein set by those early masterpieces, and so did their soundtracks — The Opening of Misty Beethoven, released in 1976, was a grand comedic farce with a score adapted from the work of classical composer Gioacchino Rossini.

Not to say that there was no experimentation in the form. Let My Puppets Come, released the same year as Misty Beethoven, was a bizarro cult epic starring a horde of puppets, who variously fuck and suck each other while an eclectic, upbeat score of jazz standard covers can be heard in the background.

Then there was the work of Fred Halsted, a pioneering queer pornographer. With two features, L.A. Plays Itself and Sextool, Halsted blurred the boundaries between erotica and visual art. Both films are montages of a sort, culminating in lovingly-shot queer sex acts, all set to scores that blend guitar noodling with industrialised sounds and diagetic noise.

But as the decade came to a close and the ’80s began, porn changed. It’s easy to stereotype the eighties as the decade where everything got a bit sleazier; slicker. But certainly in the world of porn, that was true. The films got more explicit, and rather than the lush colour palette of the ’70s, there was a distinctly grain, lo-fi look to erotic films of the era.

It’s not hard to figure out what changed — cinema was getting democratised. It was no longer prohibitively expensive to get your hands on camera gear. Smaller productions could tell smaller stories, and while low-budget cameras produced scrappy footage, it was still eminently watchable.

It’s not hard to figure out what changed — cinema was getting democratised.

That was only more true as digital cassette began to flood the market. As early as 1982, there was a sudden spike in low-cost, home video style porn films. With the new medium came a glut of new directors and stars — Traci Lords, who by the mid-90s was one of the first pornographic performers to transition into mainstream movies, and director Gregory Dark, who pioneered the slick new look of erotic.

With these changes in budget and scale, music changed too. Full band soundtracks became something of the past. The new normal became keyboard-oriented works, composed and performed by a single performer. Jack Spinoza became one of the most prolific composers of the era, writing synth-heavy scores for films like Splash rip-off Talk Dirty to Me Part III.

Just as disruptive was the way that music was used. The two biggest porn franchises of the eighties — the Insatiable series, starring Marilyn Chambers, and the seemingly endless string of Debbie Does Dallas spin-offs — featured music, but nowhere near as prominently as erotica of the past.

Insatiable in particular uses the score as a background feature, rising and falling over rushed, rather aimless narrative scenes.

Which is not to say that the scene saw nothing but regression. Many of these these new voices were genuine artists, with a good knowledge of how to use music — horror filmmaker David DeCoteau, who made softcore films under the name Ellen Cabot, was particularly skilled at deploying shaky, simplistic scores. But music was clearly less important, a trend that would only get cemented into the early two thousands.

The Age Of The “Amateur” And The End Of Music In Porn (Sorta)

The early two thousands became the age of the celebrity sex tape. 1 Night in Paris, Paris Hilton’s infamous leaked home movie, was the apotheosis of that new wave — grainy and shoddily shot, completely free of music, it had an “authentic” feel that began to typify a ruling share of porn.

In turn, that template began to filter down to the pornography made by “amateurs.” More and more home enthusiasts began shooting their own sex scenes, forgoing the cinematic artifice of the ’70s in favour of an emphasis on the variety of sex acts on offer. Compilations and very short clips, some shot on iPhones, became mainstream. Narrative pornography became the domain of spoofs.

And even these narrative films of the era used very cheap music, if any at all. Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?, an extremely low-budget “satire” starring a Sarah Palin impersonator who quickly finds herself in a string of increasingly erotic encounters (the film starts with a threesome and only amps up from there) typifies the new way pornographers used music. As in, there are two scenes across the film’s entire running time that feature any at all, and what music there is sounds soft, simple and brief.

After all, music is expensive, and audiences seemed, for the most part, happy enough without it. The new trend was naturalism, and the new focus was purely on the sex itself, rather than the meetings and greetings around it.

That’s not necessarily to decry this new phase, or to claim that pornography became “artless.” As the two thousands progressed, more female filmmakers entered the industry, and the further democratisation of the art proved to be only a good thing. Suddenly, porn was more diverse, inviting and ethical than ever before. Mainstream porn’s priorities changed, that’s all. And music had become less of it.

For the most part. There’s so much porn out there that it’s not sensible to make sweeping statements about any of it, and there are still a vast number of groundbreakers who make narrative erotica with innovative soundtracks.

Take The CrashPad series. A string of queer porn shorts made by and starring queer performers, the series follows an array of characters interacting in a trendy Los Angeles apartment, and is stunningly well-represented. The focus isn’t exclusively on on cis or white bodies — performers from across the gender spectrum are represented. Oh, and the whole thing is scored to a series of well-placed and effective needle-drops.

If there’s one thing you can say about porn, it’s that it is always evolving. Trends come and go, and more and more innovators are making erotica, bringing new styles into the fold with them. Who knows, before the decade is out, we could have the return of big-budget, full band erotic soundtracks. Let’s hope so.


Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.

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