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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Earworm Weekly: Whose “Sexual Healing” Is It Anyway?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2015 at 2:25 PM

click to enlarge marvin_gaye_1973_1_.png
I love the music of Marvin Gaye as much as I love the music of any musician. Not just the widely acknowledged genius of the album What's Going On or his definitively menacing version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” I love his early hit “Ain't That Peculiar,” and the disco-esque “Got to Give It Up,” now also known as “that song Robin Thicke and Pharrell plagiarized.” I have honestly been known to cry when I hear the opening notes of “You're All I Need to Get By,” his duet with Tammi Terrell, recorded after she was diagnosed with the malignant brain tumor that would soon kill her.

But there is one song of Gaye's that I loathe. It also happens to be one of his most famous hits – and one of his catchiest hooks. I cannot stand “Sexual Healing.” And, thanks to the car radio last week, it is once again lodged in my brain.
Allow me to explain.

There's no denying that “Sexual Healing” is a successful song. As I've noted previously, most earworms are, in one way or another. Musically, it's fine – an early example of the Quiet Storm subgenre of R&B. The problem with “Sexual Healing” is simple and straightforward. Gaye sings earnestly about all the good having sex does for his body, mind, and soul. It soothes his soul and stabilizes his mood, preventing him from plunging into depression and despair. He is, I will admit, quite persuasive, if perhaps teetering on the edge of wheedling. “Sexual healing is good for me,” he croons, over and over again. That's great. But is is good for his sexual partner, too? That's what I found myself shouting at the radio.

At this point, many writers would probably turn to Gaye's prodigious porn collection and supposed sex addiction for their explanatory power. The thing is, I don't believe in sex addiction – compulsion, perhaps – and I don't have a particular problem with porn per se. Sex can, indeed, be not just pleasurable in the moment but act as a greater psychological balm as well. And, no, you don't have to be in love with your partner in order to access those healing vibes (or, more accurately, all that feel-good biochemistry).

In other words, it's not the sex; it's the sexism. There's an unequal exchange going on here. Gaye's “Sexual Healing” partner is there to soothe his troubled mind, but there's no reciprocation on the horizon. And if that's not happening, some other form of renumeration for his partner's time and labor would be nice – not just the sexual skills, but the emotional labor as well.

Would it have hurt Gaye to put even just one line into the song about how much his partner digs it too? He did for “Let's Get It On,” another Gaye sexing-it-up song that makes me roll my eyes sometimes but rarely makes me seethe. I wish I could get into the light, almost joking groove that the singer tries to create in “Sexual Healing,” but I can't. I start talking back to the song instead. “I'm not your medicine,” I yell. “I'm not your doctor or your sexy nurse.” (Am I the only one who yells back at the radio? Putting aside the fact that I'm the only one who still listens to the radio in the first place.) The fade-out, in which Gaye whispers almost inaudibly, “please don't procrastinate/ it's not good to masturbate,” is frankly the final straw.

“Sexual Healing” was Gaye's first post-Motown single. The song won two Grammys in 1983. It was also his last big hit; in early 1984 he was murdered by his father.
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Lori Selke


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