How Explicit Can a Love Song Be?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 24 2012 12:04 PM

Why Did Brian McKnight's “Adult Mixtape” Cause Such an Uproar?

mcknight
Brian McKnight in the preview for his "adult mixtape"

Brian McKnight is one of many, many singers who, after getting his start in a church choir, made a successful transition to secular music. His album Back at One went triple platinum, and he has been nominated for 16 Grammys (though he has never won).

But can an R&B singer get too secular? McKnight inadvertently tested that hypothesis by previewing an "adult mixtape" on YouTube yesterday. You can see the video below, but be warned: The lyrics McKnight sings are definitely not safe for work.

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After McKnight uploaded the video, he became a trending topic on Twitter worldwide and his song became the butt of jokes and outrage. (One producer on Twitter referred to the song as McKnight's "nasty old Uncle ballad.") Given how raunchy American popular culture has become, why would this song, in particular, get such a strong response?

Part of it is probably McKnight himself: The 42-year-old singer and songwriter has a more wholesome image than some of his contemporaries. But part of it, too, I suspect, is how earnestly explicit these lyrics are. McKnight introduces the song like an X-rated Mr. Rogers, walking us through its initial conception and then breaking it down musically. Then he launches into the lyrics, and, well... things get awkward in a hurry.

Approaching sex with that kind of unapologetic, utterly explicit sincerity in a piece of popular music just feels weird—and certainly unexpected. As McKnight wrote on Twitter: "I think I just mind effed the whole world this is crazy!!!!!"

Of course, some of the lyrics are just goofy. "I did my postgrad in sociology," McKnight sings at one point, "so what I tell you might seem strange / The things you don’t know about your physiology, you don’t have to feel ashamed."

As far as I can tell, McKnight did not, in fact, do postgraduate work in sociology. But this video does feel like a sociological experiment of some kind.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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