I once walked into a sex shop lodged between a Goodwill dropoff and a Taco Bell and squeezed a pinch of pheromone-enhanced lotion into my palms. I nonchalantly took a whiff, and the exotic scent instantly unlocked a memory — or, I should say, a song: Fiona Apple's “Criminal.” The scent was that of a stripper who came dangerously close to my nostrils one night in Hollywood, but what I remembered was the song she danced to, by the classically trained pianist who seduced all of America in 1997 when she sang “I've been a bad, bad girl.”
Twenty years later, “Criminal” is still a staple for the modern stripper, or for the sex-positive feminist who refuses to be described as anything other than a dancer. In the process of creating this list, I spoke to several dancers, sex workers, feminists, gay men, married men and old college buddies. I wasn't looking to repeat a list of Southern-rap club bangers, cliched cock rock or country; I wanted to be curiously taken aback by tunes that didn't reinforce stereotypes or pander to the penises in the front row.
7. Bikini Kill: “Rebel Girl”
“Rebel Girl” dices cis-male tropes into bite-sized pieces. While most men at a strip club don't listen to the lyrics or hold degrees from Evergreen, they can probably appreciate this song. “Rebel Girl” inspires body movements that force men and women to stare, mouth agape, but never touch or judge. In a recent interview with the Guardian, singer Kathleen Hanna described herself as a “punk rock stripper with sexual abuse counselor training,” which is fitting here.
6. David Bowie: “Young Americans”
It’s likely that after Bowie died, an increasing number of dancers across the country were grooving snakelike around faux-gold flagpoles to the saxophone in “Young Americans.” I know of one woman, a regular at Jumbo's Clown Room, who did this as a way of seducing the despairing and horny hipsters in her midst. The sexually charged sax and Bowie's androgynous magnetism are ideal for expressing gender-neutral sexual experiences.
5. Bruce Springsteen: “I'm on Fire”
Springsteen advertised his masculinity with blinding clichés, particularly that aw-shucks small-town mechanic he aped so believably. And every older sister I knew insisted that Springsteen had a nice ass. So when he wrote a song about his desire to sleep with a married women, it made us all sweat in our skintight Calvins — and long for the day that we might hear “I’m on Fire” at a strip club.
4. Huey Lewis and the News: “It's Alright”
It's been said, often, that Huey Lewis has a humongous penis. In other news, his a cappella Curtis Mayfield cover captures perfectly the white boy–channeling–black soul thing — without coming off as an imposter. He counterbalances that with finger-snapping and doo-wop harmonies that seem directly ripped off from Bobby McFerrin's “Don't Worry Be Happy,” which is too kitschy for a dancer to tease you with. Lewis' version, on the other hand, conjures a one-night stand. Someone told me they heard “It's Alright” at Chippendales, which means it can be adapted to stupidly muscular construction workers, too.
3. Fiona Apple: “Criminal”
There's a noirish, Old Hollywood bent to Fiona Apple's reimagining of the vixen as a “bad, bad girl” who crushes the male ego. When she says, “I'm feeling like a criminal” in her deep voice, insisting that she needs to punished for cheating on her boyfriend, and that she can't stop, well, she reminds us just how deliciously lustful infidelity can be. Over the years, the naughtiness of the rumbling piano and Apple's bluesy vocals have made it the ideal hipster stripper's good girl–gone-bad song.
2. George Michael: “Freedom! 90”
A gay anthem that exemplifies the entirely American concept behind a nudie bar: to be free and leave any puritanical guilt at the door. George Michael sings, “But when you shake your ass, they notice fast,” which in some contexts can be taken as a declaration to be sex-positive (in other contexts, of course, it's a cynical read on fame's reliance on sex and beauty). The video made a darkly humorous statement about the music industry's obsession with that particular brand of sex and beauty — in an era when America was allergic to such statements in music videos — which makes it the ideal strip club anthem.
1. Michael Jackson: “Give in to Me (feat. Slash)”
Michael Jackson's sexual orientation was up for debate the moment he started to look more feminine in the mid-'80s. That didn't take away from his ability to write ultra-masculine pop songs with heavy-metal riffs that, with the inclusion of Slash, turned MJ's domination anthem into a meaner, BDSM pop classic saturated with earth-shaking power. I've only seen male strippers dance to this, perhaps because it’s so overtly masculine and has, over the years, become a gay hard-rock anthem. And make no mistake: THIS IS HARD ROCK. It’s MJ's most forcefully sexual song, which is at once disturbing and romantic.