Last week, Carly Rae Jepson released the song “Party for One”, a bubbly, synthy pop track about… well, let’s let Jepsen describe it. “We wrote a song about, basically being alone…” she said hesitantly, all the way back in 2015 on a New York radio show.“I’m trying to find a delicate way to say this. It rhymes with contemplation.”
Back in 2015, Jepsen refused to even consider the possibility of releasing a song about masturbation: “About five minutes into it I was like, ‘You know this isn’t making my album, right?’” But three years later, something’s changed. “Party for One” is vague enough – the lyrics euphemistically talk about dancing for yourself – apart from one key line: “Making love to myself / Back on my beat”.
Songs about female masturbation are hardly unprecedented. In 1984, Cyndi Lauper released “She-Bop”, a song that was so explicit for it’s time that it helped to create the Parental Advisory sticker still adorning expletive-laden records today. “They say I better stop or I’ll go blind,” Lauper sings. “They say I better get a chaperon / Because I can’t stop messin’ with the danger zone”. Six years later came Divinyls’ “Touch Myself”, a sublime, euphoric song about masturbation as infatuation that’s also an indestructible, titanium-level banger. In 1994, Tori Amos released “Icicle”, a (much less jaunty) song about masturbating while her preacher father prays with her family (“Getting off / While they’re all downstairs”) that sees self-love as divine: “When my hand touches myself / I can finally rest my head / And when they say ‘take of his body’ / I think I’ll take from mine instead”. In her 1996 song, “You’re Makin’ Me High”, Toni Braxton sings, “Inside of my private thoughts / I can imagine you / Touching my private parts / With just the thought of you / I can’t help but touch myself”.
The Noughties saw a spate of songs from pop stars about touching themselves. Tweet ft. Missy Elliot’s “Oops (Oh My)” was a serious mainstream hit despite, or perhaps thanks to, racy lyrics: “I was feelin’ so good I had to touch myself”. Dannii Minogue’s oft-forgotten 2003 ode to her vibrator, “Vibe On” contains lyrics about batteries, frequencies, and a chorus that repeats, “Jump on top it, sit right on it / Plug in give me my vibe on / Gotta have vibrations” – making it one of the least ambiguous masturbation songs of the period. Britney Spears’s 2004 album track “Touch of My Hand” sees her sing “I’m not ashamed […] I love myself / It’s not a sin / I can’t control what’s happening”.
The Pussycat Dolls’s 2005 single “I Don’t Need a Man” centres around the line: “I can get off when you ain’t around”. On her 2006 album I’m Not Dead, Pink included two masturbation tracks: single “U + Ur Hand” (“I’m not here for your entertainment […] It’s just you and your hand tonight”), and the more scandalous “Fingers”, a song about her videotaping herself masturbating. “There are plenty of songs out there about that topic,” she said in a 2007 interview. “I probably didn’t need to add to the bunch, but I couldn’t help myself.” Kelly Rowland’s 2011 song “Feelin Me Right Now” sees Rowland fall in love in the club – with her own reflection: “I wanna take her home / ‘Cause I know I’ll love her right”.
But there has been a particular culture shift in more recent years that helps to explain why Jepsen, who began working on writing EMOTION in 2013, went from refusing to contemplate releasing a masturbation song to doing just that in 2018. Yes, the last five years have seen a new wave of wank tracks.
In 2013, Miley Cyrus released a titillating video of herself simulating masturbation for her song “Adore You”. 2014 saw a number of more experimental, critically adored, but less mainstream artists release less cynical takes on masturbation. FKA Twigs’s released her strange, hypnotic song “Kicks” (“When I’m alone / I don’t need you / I love my touch”), Charli XCX’s album Sucker contained the irresistibly fast and furious “Body of My Own” (I don’t need you / My touch is better […] I can do it better when I’m all alone”), while St Vincent released a lead single that opened with the line, “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate”. In the same year, Nicki Minaj and Beyonce released “Feeling Myself”, complete with a reference to a bestselling sex toy: “I’m feelin’ myself, jack rabbit”.
2015 saw Macy Gray turn to the topic, with her song B.O.B. – a love song to her battery-operated vibrator: “He fits like a glove, always up for love, / Steady like a Caterpillar […] He looks just like a big hot dog”. Actress Hailee Steinfield started her pop career with the teenpowering bop “Love Myself”: “I’m gonna touch the pain away / I know how to scream my own name […] I’m gonna put my body first / And love me so hard ’til it hurts”.
In 2016, Lady Gaga suggested her song “Dancin’ In Circles” was about masturbating: where earlier Gaga tracks, like 2009’s “So Happy I Could Die” and 2013’s “Sexxx Dreams”, reference the act, “Dancin’ In Circles” makes it the song’s sole focus: “I lay around, touch myself to pass the time […] Up all night tryin’ to rub the pain out”. Selena Gomez released “Hands To Myself”: its accompanying video saw Gomez writhing around a bed, touching herself – Tove Lo generated controversy with her masturbation centric music video this year, too. Meanwhile, a song by an artist called Miss Eaves, “Hump Day”, made headlines thanks to lyrics explicitly describing “flick[ing] the bean”.
This year, it feels like mainstream pop is full of more and more direct references to women masturbating. Little Mix’s new song “Joan of Arc” features the lines, “I’m stanning myself / I love me so much I put my hands on myself”. In her feature on the Maroon 5 song “Girls Like You”, Cardi B raps, “Every time you call, I play with this kitty like you play with your guitar”. And one of the biggest songs of the year, reaching number one in eight countries, Clean Bandit’s “Solo”, is an explicit celebration of self-love, in which Demi Lovato sings, “I wanna […] t-t-touch but I got nobody / So I do it solo”.
2018, when one of the biggest pop songs of the year is explicitly about masturbation, might feel like a strange time to release “Party for One” – which feels lyrically tame compared to many of its contemporaries. “To me ‘Party For One’ is an anthem of what it is to celebrate time with yourself, which is a hard thing for people to really enjoy sometimes, and it’s something I’m learning to do more and more,” Jepsen said euphemistically as the record was released. What rhymes with “celebrating time with yourself?”
Listen to the songs mentioned here