They call it the world’s oldest profession. If that’s true, then we might imagine the earliest human songwriters singing about what has since endured as a bastion of musical inspiration: prostitution. There have been many, but these are my top ten.
For purposes of broad appeal, I tried to include songs from about ten different music genres, or rock genres at least, although genre categorization is so highly inexact that that part really doesn’t matter much. I’ve also kept the descriptions short and sweet to emphasize that this is a list to be experienced principally by listening.
Naturally, add your own favorites in the comments.
Being a brainchild of front-man Freddie Mercury, and reaching #2 in the UK charts, this record was made possible by the use of two pianos, two bass guitars and a four-part vocal harmony. In 1975, it was performed as part of Queen’s A Night At The Opera Tour, in a medley following Bohemian Rhapsody. Mercury made no bones about the song’s meaning, explaining, “It’s about a high class call girl. I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores as well. That’s what the song is about, though I’d prefer people to put their interpretation on it.”
Just take this in for a moment: “Bad Girls” was released on the triple-platinum album, Bad Girls, alongside the hits “Hot Stuff” and “She Works Hard For The Money,” the cover art of which featured a lingerie-clad Donna Summer standing under a rutilant streetlamp. (For Listverse fans who love a rare word, “rutilant” means glowing red.) But it’s the music itself that qualifies this song as a top ten, and if you disagree with it then you’ve obviously never roller skated to it. The catchy “toot-toot, beep-beep” riff would later be sampled in numerous hip hop songs, most notably by Aaliyah on the track “Ladies in the House.”
For those of you who don’t quite fully understand the appeal of country/western/gospel music, it helps to realize that the main emphasis, more than any other style, is on the storytelling nature of the music’s words. Having said that, “Three Wooden Crosses” tells the story of four people; a farmer, a teacher, a hooker and a preacher, who are involved in a collision between a bus and an eighteen wheeler. The three non-hookers are killed in the crash but the prostitute survives and, at the song’s conclusion, is revealed to be the mother of song’s narrator, who ultimately becomes a preacher as well. It was awarded Song of the Year in 2003 by the Country Music Association.
Written in 1976, by bassist Dee Dee Ramone, this song is about a Green Beret who kills a male prostitute with a razor blade and is now being chased by the police (although it’s not perfectly clear). The title refers to the street corner in Manhattan once famous for its lively male prostitution scene, and where there now stands a church. The song was covered by Metallica in 2002, the same year the Ramones were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall-of-Fame, and were ranked as the 2nd greatest band of all-time by Spin Magazine, behind only the Beatles.
A spoof of “Roxanne” by The Police, this songs earns a spot on a list of beautiful songs because it is extremely funny, and when good enough, humor does indeed achieve beauty. And honestly, is there any more beautiful phrase possible than “You don’t have to be a prostitute”? I submit no. Bittersweetly, the Flight of the Conchords show lasted only two seasons. Bittersweetly because, while we wish there was more, it is always better to go out at the top of your game than to stay too long; a lesson lost to most, unfortunately.
Certainly not the most explicit song on this list, hardly even touching on the act of prostitution per se, but the character who sings it did prostitute herself, so we’ll count it. This selection is on here mostly because of Susan Boyle’s 2009 performance on Britain’s Got Talent, which, regardless of your opinion of Susan, the song or that show, was a cultural phenomenon beyond denial. Her rendition of the song transformed her into an international star (in viral views if nothing else), re-popularized a worthy play, and, in my humble opinion, gave us all a masterpiece of reality television editing.
This beautifully creepy song is about a sailor who’s “back on dry land once again” with lots of money to, you guessed it, eagerly spend on whores. But split infinitives aside, “Sweet Painted Lady” contributed significantly to the whole work that is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. That album is universally considered to be the magnum opus of the collaborative pair Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Also by Elton and Bernie: “Island Girl,” about a 6-foot-3 Jamaican prostitute of vague gender.
A blues song of anonymous authorship, “House of the Rising Sun” is a tale of sin, sexual ruin and a tortured soul in New Orleans. The song has been recorded by various artists including Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton. Many debate the true meaning of the title, arguing that it could be a euphemism for a whorehouse, a jail, a slave plantation or a specific establishment in the French Quarter. The most famous version of the song was by the British-Invasion-era band The Animals, who maintained it was an old English folk song emigrants brought to America (originally it was a Soho brothel instead of a New Orleans one). Thanks to Eric Burdon’s chilling howls, the Animals’ adaptation would become a classic in its own right and would make Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time, at #122.
Just call it “Sex Offender.” The name was changed because of typical apprehension by the label, yet the lyrics remained the same. Anyway, this quintessentially new-wave song by a quintessentially new-wave band is about a streetwalker who, rather romantically, falls in love with her arresting police officer—or as she puts it, her “vision in blue.” The tune was written by bassist Gary Valentine who envisioned a song about [merely] prostitution, but the bit about the cop was Debbie Harry’s own signature twist. Also by Blondie: “Call Me” about a call girl, and “In The Flesh,” which, like so much of the Blondie’s greatness throughout their history, was a B-Side (fittingly to “X Offender” in the UK).
Given the prevalent use of the misogynistic “bitch” in rap music, and the fact that the female group Salt-N-Pepa were, as women, major pioneers in that industry, this anthem resonates with a special complexity. Plus, it is plainly an awesome record, and it taught us the expression “Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one.” In 1995, the song won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, the first ever female act to win the award, and also helped nominate Salt-N-Pepa for the AMA for Favorite Hip-Hop Artist the same year. The music video wasn’t bad, either. In fact, despite being sufficiently risqué to be given limited play on MTV, it won a VMA for Best Dance Video.
So, there are your top ten. If you don’t take anything else away from this list, please take this: Salt-N-Pepa was not a duo. An amazingly high percentage of people automatically and erroneously assume they were a duo, but they were a trio, composed of Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton), and Spinderella (Dee Dee Roper).