At this point in the great American experiment, porn has firmly embedded itself in the culture. James Deen, whose media ubiquity reached a tipping point with his starring role in The Canyons, is this generation’s Ron Jeremy, except he doesn’t look like a bridge troll. Porn starlet Jessie Andrews has added the inarguably scummier trade of EDM DJ to her resume. Sasha Grey…well, she exists, and even your mom knows who she is.
Sites like Xvideos, PornHub, and YouPorn dominate traffic numbers, with hundreds of millions of unique visitors per month, dwarfing the likes of CNN, ESPN, and Reddit. Put simply: you watch porn, and so does everyone you know.
Rarely, though, do we notice the one aspect of pornography that, according to those in the industry, ties the mise en scene together: the music. In a way, it’s understandable: Who has time to appreciate atmospherics when we can skip ahead to the diddlin’? In the world of commodified fetish porn you can stream on your iPhone, few among us prefer the high-budget lovemaking soundtracked by some bow-chicka-bow-wow over grainy cell-phone footage of a bukake in some basement in Iowa.
But there are those who do. Composers who still produce original music for pornography, directors who demand it, experts who study it, and an audience for whom music still represents an integral part of the experience.
“When anyone’s watching porn, I’m the last thing on their mind. … Nobody’s been like, ‘Man the music in that porn is really good! That music really helped me climax during that scene. I really felt that!”
As James Lynch, porno music composer, tells me this, he sounds simultaneously dejected and relieved. Lynch is in Brooklyn on a bracingly cold Tuesday, where the band he is tour-managing, Night Terrors of 1927, are the undercard at Rough Trade NYC later that night. Before that, we’re headed to Shag, a Brooklyn sex shop. Over examinations of male masturbation devices that look like shampoo bottles, Lynch tells me about the timeless art of porn music.
Tall with close-cropped hair, deep-set eyes, and sporting portrait tattoos on his biceps, Lynch resembles Michael Shannon cast as a rock musician. The 32-year-old plays six instruments (including the ukulele) in Tje Uncluded, a band consisting of friends Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson. He also manages them, as well as a couple more groups, from his home in Los Angeles. He is peripatetic, nearly always on tour with this or that band either managing or engineering sound, and often doing both.
To round out his already-lengthy business card, Lynch is a professional composer of music for porn. He has soundtracked films like Evil Head (a parody of Evil Dead) and Not Another Porn Movie (a meta-parody firmly ahead of its time) with original songs, parodies, and instrumentals for the past decade. When all he’s done is laid out before him, he still can’t quite believe it.
“Even to hear myself talk about it, this is such weird shit,” Lynch said, with the disbelieving, light tone he maintains throughout our conversation. “Taken all at one time—because this is spread out over my life—but yeah, it reminds me that it all did happen.”
“It all happened real naturally,” Lynch said of his dip into the seedier side of composing. “It wasn’t a decision at any point, it was just kind of like, I did a couple horror films and a couple small things and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Hey, we’re doing a porn and we’re already using this music you did for this other thing so let’s just, you wanna make some more music?’ It just kind of came about like that.”
Lynch fell into the industry the same way as many porn directors, writers, and editors he knows: They produced indie movies, and then one day, they produced a porn movie. Some of them never stopped.
“It’s hard to make the passion piece every time, but porn will fucking hire,” Lynch said of the DIY filmmaker’s mentality. “There’s like ten porn films shooting at any city in America on any given afternoon.”
In the early 2000s, Lynch worked with a collective called Troma Entertainment, a B-film company out of New York that included noted porn actor Tommy Pistol, doing the occasional acting spot and composing a lot of music. A few months after producing music for a DIY horror film, one of the Troma guys called him to say they had used the same soundtrack for a porn film.
That film was Re-Penetrator, produced by Burning Angel as a porn parody of the movie Re-Animator. (Burning Angel is a titan in the world of alternative porn, where the performers are paler, more heavily tattooed, and generally seem more down to earth than presiding pornography.) Lynch has been producing for Burning Angel ever since, everything from full, digital orchestral scores to reprisals of the famous ‘porn groove’ popularized during porn’s Golden Age of the 1970s.
At first glance, music and pornography appear to make strange bedfellows (or, if you’re inclined, awkward fuckbuddies). Why would you care about what’s going into your ears when you jack off, anyways? But much as touch, smell and taste—depending on your preference—can enhance sexual pleasure, music can heighten the sex quotient.
Dr. Chauntelle Anne Tibbals, a sociologist, author and pornography expert, said the proper aural stimulation can be critical to a successful smut experience.
“Like in any type of filmed media, music can enhance whatever mood, story, or tone that’s being conveyed,” Tibbals said. “Be it a romance title, some blockbuster epic, or hard gonzo, music can enhance—or possibly ruin—the mood. For a title that is seeking enhance intimacy, the appropriate music can have a huge impact. This would be the case in any type of film though.”
Lynch echoes the sentiment, saying porn music, like any soundtrack, should be heard and not seen.
“I’d compare it to mainstream film,” Lynch said. “Maybe that makes me sound like an ass, but if the score is doing its job, you don’t notice it. It’s just part of the atmosphere, part of the filmmaking. So when you do notice it, it’s really bad.
“I think the role of music in porn is to just support the mood and go unnoticed, sort of blend in overall with what you’re looking at, the weird slapping of skin and stuff like that.”
The current over-saturation of porn—everything from personal webcams in college dorms to hundred-thousand dollar feature-film shoots in rented Hollywood Hills mansions—has actually been a boon for the music side of things. For every amateur-hour spousal POV, there’s a full-length feature, and while the first won’t need much in the way of atmospherics, the latter always will.
“For as long as I’ve been in (the industry) people have always said the feature is dead, the feature is dead, the feature is dead,” said AVN senior editor Peter Warren, who has been covering porn for 11 years. “Forever, that’s been the mantra. Yet, features continue to get made in droves, so somebody’s watching them. And you need music for features. Music is an essential element of making these movies. You can’t have one without the other.”
Lynch agreed, saying that despite the presiding audience’s cry for immediacy, low budgets and personally tailored videos, he was confident there would always be an audience who wanted more.
“Maybe I’m one of those people who likes to have rose-colored glasses on that there’s still someone, somewhere, who says ‘I still want to shoot a sex scene on film,’ and I want it lit well, I want to get the take right,” Lynch said, in a bout of faux-indignation reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s famous 47 percent speech. “I want gorgeous people who are doing a good job, and I want good music. I want it to be edited well. And they put it out there, then maybe ten percent of the people who look at it will care. It’s probably not what most people want, but I like that they’re there.”
It was these fervent porn music supporters, wherever they are, who convinced the AVN Awards, porn’s Oscars, to add a Best Original Song category in 2009. Up to that point, all music—original compositions along with digital recordings—were lumped together in Best Music. That meant that Lynch, who was nominated in 2008 for his work on Not Another Porn Movie, lost out to a movie that used part of Eddie Van Halen’s oeuvre.
“I don’t even know if Eddie van Halen knew that he was up for the award,” Lynch said. “They basically got the rights for some fucking Eddie Van Halen song. It wasn’t like he scored the film, they just put his song in there and he won an award for it. I don’t even know if he knows that. But I fucking know it!”
While Lynch laments the appropriation of existing music, the practice has always been a staple of the improvisational pornographic film style. Even during the Golden Age of the 1970s, when adult films were shot on 35mm and porn directors were thought of as auteurs, music was used to help track porn over to the mainstream as much as possible.
“There was an attempt to sort of legitimize the genre by adding things that the producers thought were elegant,” said Dr. Joseph Slade, a media studies professor at Ohio University. “I can’t remember the specific titles, but I can remember watching films where there was classical music. Partly because there were no copyrights and partly because it seemed sophisticated.
“It was a way of adding a kind of romantic theme to what was otherwise straight intercourse.”
Still, original scores were rare, limited to industry elite like director Gerard Damiano (Deep Throat) and actor/director John Leslie (Talk Dirty To Me). The majority opted for what is now known as porn groove, with heavy wah pedal and bow-chicka-bow-wow, which was itself derivative of popular funk of the time.
As digital recording became more accessible in the intervening decades, films started choosing music based on the subject matter. As the sub-genres splintered, the varieties of music used under them multiplied.
It’s also given Lynch the license to create some indelible memories, most of which revolve around scoring music while people on camera, you know, bang.
In the mid-2000s, Lynch was living with cult rapper P.O.S. in Minneapolis. Burning Angel had just wrapped filming on Joanna’s Guide 2 Humping, a parody of Dangerous Minds. Lynch, in a bold attempt to be porn music’s Weird Al, decided to parody Coolio’s seminal ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ for the movie.
“We did the smut version of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise,’” Lynch said, beaming with something like pride, “and we changed all the words to be horrible porn things.”
The lyrics are indeed horrible porn things, and nary a bar goes by without an overt reference to coitus.
“I had to record all the lyrics (in P.O.S.’s studio) and then had to take them and get Joanna (Angel, porn star and head of Burning Angel) to rhyme stuff like ‘anus’ and ‘penis’. I was with her in the studio like, ‘Just say pay-nus!!’ It seemed so simple to me. So that’s what I do.”
At its essence, Lynch said, porn is just indie filmmaking. It’s hard work, but you don’t want to take it too seriously.
“I do put effort into it,” Lynch said. “(But) I get a kick out of it. I don’t think anyone’s mind should be blown by it, but I want them to laugh at it. Like, ‘Dude, you wrote lyrics to that? You recorded this? You spent time on this?’”
“It’s more like, ‘Hey, look at this ridiculous thing that I did!”