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April 10, 2007

Book Notes - Hanne Blank ("Virgin")

With Virgin: The Untouched History, author Hanne Blank shares the history and importance of the concept of virginity in the West and its relationship with society, our values, and even our governments. Blank pulls no punches, even questioning what constitutes virginity in society today (and how that concept has changed over the years).

In its review of the book, the Baltimore City Paper wrote:

"The one culminating idea in Virgin is that, regardless of expert studies such as this, virginity as a physical and psychological concept will forever be in flux. Blank suggests that however much we pore over the subject, we can never understand virginity any more definitively than what our history and culture offer up. While there's certainly enough trivia on display here to make you the center of attention at your next visit to singles night at the local bar, Virgin is more than just a reservoir of sexual trivia. At times, there are painful sociological implications on display."

Thanks to Benn Ray at Baltimore's Atomic Books for helping line up this Book Notes essay.

In her own words, here is Hanne Blank's Book Notes essay for her book, Virgin: The Untouched History:

The "virgin" playlist I amassed during the three and a half years or so that I was working on Virgin: The Untouched History ended up being truly vast, with some 500 songs. Obviously, this is a significantly smaller sampling, but I think it gestures in the direction of some of what I was listening to that was in some way influential or cross-fertile with the work.

1. Dame Shirley Bassey singing "I'd Like To Hate Myself In The Morning,"from the "Something Else" album

This is a great, feisty song that I love in the mid-career Bassey belt. It's an anthem to rebellion and libido, and the arrangement here, heavy on the horns, is grindy and sexy and powerful. I have a lot of songs in the virgin playlist that celebrate women's sexuality and sensuality, from a lot of different perspectives. This is probably one of the most genuinely felt, autonomous, and unapologetic.

2. MC Solaar, "La Belle et le Bad Boy," from the "Cinquième As" album

Ruination and death await the beautiful young woman who falls for a bad boy, dontcha know. It's a gorgeous track, and there's every reason in the world it was his crossover hit (the strings are lush and his voice is beautiful). And of course it is the quintessential tale of the ruined virgin.

3. Stew, "Bijou," from the "Guest Host" album

As close to film noir as you can get in a simple little acoustic-guitar tune. "Picture your granny all drunk with pearls / Chipped nail polish, going home with girls..." I love Stew's intimate view of women's sensuality and intensity and lush weirdness, all of which has rather a lot to do with the kinds of issues that get wrapped up in virginity.

4. Joe Henry, "Beautiful Hat," from the "Fuse" album

"I'm through with this, this beautiful hat / I've never let nothin' be easy as that." I don't know that this is a song about virginity (it's a bit opaque in its poetry, which is simple and strong and lovely) but it might be. And in any event it's a sweet, simple hymn-like tune, very nineteenth-century American, and very prettily orchestrated.

5. Dana Baitz, "Ave Maria," from the album "Pretty Little Shape-Shifter"

This just gives me chills. Sometimes I have to skip it when I'm listening while I'm working, because it can stop me in my tracks. It is a beautiful, tender, ferocious piece about femininity, femaleness, gender, vulnerability, holiness, and the nature of sexual desire that incorporates a recording of Alessandro Moreschi, last of the castrati, singing the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria." The otherworldly not-woman-not-man sound of Moreschi's voice (he was an old man at the time of the 1902 recording) is a fragile yet lush counterpoint to Baitz's similarly ambiguously-gendered voice, a tribute to the gender of "virgin" at the same time as it is a tribute to the beauty of differently-sexed, differently-gendered bodies.

6. Smokey Robinson, "Virgin Man," from the album "Pure Smokey"

You gotta give Smokey major props for coming out with this tune in 1974. It took serious balls to even come out with a tune that asks--from the perspective of a male virgin, or at least someone who sympathizes with their lot--what the hell is up with the double standard in regard to virginity. Plus it's a hooky song, with real earworm potential in the chorus "Can you love a virgin man?"

7. Frank Zappa, "G-Spot Tornado," from the album "The Yellow Shark"

The auditory equivalent of a quadra espresso with eight sugars. Sometimes you need something to help get you amped so you can keep working. The title is lagniappe. Turn it way up.

8. Stephen Sondheim, "Liaisons," from A Little Night Music

The most dignified and clearly nonvirginal woman in the world explains her intensely pragmatic sexual economics, in clever rhyme no less. "Too many people muddle sex with mere desire / And when emotion intervenes, the nets descend / It must on no account perplex, or worse, inspire, / It's but a pleasurable means to a measurable end. / Why does no one comprehend?"

9. Sigur Rós, "Olsen Olsen," from Agætis Byrjun

I have no idea what this song is about, I never do, with Sigur Rós, but it is otherworldly and evocative and like an awful lot of early Sigur Ros, it was on the Virgin soundtrack. I love the timbre of the vocals in this and "vidrar vel til loftárása" and "ágætis byrjun," they seem very timeless and like they come from some not-quite-human creature. Which somehow seems completely right for writing about virgins, especially as mythological and religious subjects.

10. Ava and Noelle, "V.I.R.G.I.N" (single)

I had to include this because a whole lot of people sent me a whole lot of virginity-related songs while I was working on this book, and a mess of those were pro-abstinence songs of various sorts. I can state without any doubt whatsoever that this one is... astonishing. In the Florence Foster Jenkins sort of way, if that means anything to you. I gotta give the girls props for doing their thing to the fullest of their ability and with great enthusiasm, seriously, it takes a lot of chutzpah and more power to them. I also gotta admit that I still laugh my ass off every time this one comes up when I put the playlist on shuffle. I even inflicted it on my agent, with firm instructions to listen to the whole thing -- not just the parts where they're rapping about how "I'm gonna show him I'm a good thing, I'm gonna fix him up some biscuits" (no, it's not a metaphor) -- including the omigod breathless marriage proposal skit outtro. Which has yet to stop making me snort tea out my nose.

Hanne Blank and Virgin: The Untouched History links:

the author's website
the book's website
the author's MySpace page
the author's Livejournal
the author's Wikipedia entry

New York Times review
Entertainment Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
San Diego Union-Tribune review
New York Observer review

Scarleteen interview with the author
Big Fat Blog interview with the author
Advocates For Youth interview with the author

other books by Hanne Blank:

Unruly Appetites (2003, Seal Press)
Shameless: Women’s Intimate Erotica (2002,Seal Press)
Best Transgender Erotica (with Raven Kaldera, 2002, Circlet Press)
Zaftig: Well Rounded Erotica (2001, Cleis Press)
Big Big Love: A Sourcebook on Sex for People of Size and Those Who Love Them (2000, Greenery Press)

see also:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)