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July 13, 2022

Chris Belcher's Playlist for Her Memoir "Pretty Baby"

Pretty Baby by Chris Belcher

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Chris Belcher's Pretty Baby is a thought provoking memoir that smartly examines sexuality and power.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A provocatively lucid, impressively rendered memoir."

In her own words, here is Chris Belcher's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Pretty Baby:

“Hot Child in the City” by Nick Gilder

Danger in the shape / Of somethin' wild / Stranger dressed in black / She's a hungry child

If Pretty Baby had a theme song, it would be Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City.” It’s about a girl emerging onto the scene, stoking male desire and breaking hearts. She’s the one with the power, has all the boys begging for her attention. She’s the girl I wanted to be when I was fifteen, and the woman I got to be, in some ways, when I built my femininity to sell as a professional dominatrix. I imagine the protagonist of Gilder’s song as a country girl, showing up not-at-all-naïve on the city streets, feigning innocence to take what she wants. I probably heard it for the first time in the backseat of my mom’s yellow Ford Fairmont and never forgot it.

“Chattahoochee” by Alan Jackson

This is what my childhood sounded like. The river where I learned how to swim and I learned who I was may not have been the Chattahoochee—it was the Ohio—but the pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight captures precisely the late summer nights in West Virginia, getting enough of a beer buzz to forget about curfew. This song also has a line about consent that I love, consent being a central concern of the book: Well, we fogged up the windows in my old Chevy / I was willing but she wasn't ready / So a settled for a burger and a grape snow cone / Dropped her off early but I didn't go home. The song’s protagonist doesn’t push, he doesn’t complain. He goes down to the riverbank to fantasize about cars and women and to learn more about who he is. I like the idea of the riverbank as the place of education. I feel like that’s where I got some of mine as well.

“…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears

I couldn’t write about teen girl desire and longing without Britney. I was a freshman in high school and becoming more aware of sex and my own sexuality, and wanting to be part of the adult world so badly, when this song came out. In the book, my best friend loses her virginity, and Britney became the soundtrack to my jealousy. I write, “On the day that Katie decided to do it with Max, she gave me a hug: a little too long, a little too scared. Like the tampons and the douching, she must have known it would hurt. I went home and sat catatonic in front of the television. TRL was on, “…Baby one more time” inching closer and closer to number one. I watched Britney, like Katie, act like a woman when she was only just a girl.” I felt like I was inching closer too. My friends and I used to scream-sing the chorus of the song, “My HORNINESS is killing me.” And clearly, it was.

“Violet” by Hole

The book takes a turn when I lose my virginity. While I now understand virginity as a social construct, it’s is and was an effective one used to control girls and validate boys. “Once you fucked, the fucking was no longer about you and your power. It became about boys and theirs,” is how I describe it in the book. My tastes changed almost overnight from Britney Spears to Courtney Love. In “Violet,” Love screams, “When they get what they want / they never want it again” and I remember hearing her growl and thinking, this is fucking everything I’m feeling. I screamed along in my bedroom to every song on the Live Through This album. The violent challenge of the lines Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to were the distillation of my teenage girl rage.

“I Like Fucking” by Bikini Kill

Being queer saved me from at least some of that rage. In college, I discovered riot grrl and Bikini Kill became dogma to me. “I Like Fucking” is particularly prescient for the college years of the book because there’s a real shift from high school and seeing hetero sex with boys as something very different than what I thought it would be, to seeing queer sex as radical and world-changing and full of possibility. In the song, Kathleen Hannah says, “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe. / I do. I do. I do.” I wanted to believe that with her so badly. I still do.

“Barracuda” by Heart

“Barracuda” was the song I heard in my car, probably on KROQ, after doing my first domme session. In the book, I write that “All that shame,” which I felt because I was pretty bad at being a domme at first, “faded away once I put the car into drive.” “Barracuda” blasted from the speakers and I called it my whore song. I’m glad I landed on KROQ—it could have been a much less fitting tune to map onto that singular experience.

“Glory Box” by Portishead

Find me a dominatrix who doesn’t associate Portishead with the job. “Glory Box” is the sound of the dungeon, period. I could orchestrate entire scenes to the Dummy album. Every dungeon I’ve ever visited has a dusty CD player in a corner with Portishead CDs (maybe some Garbage, some Radiohead), in case your phone dies and you need sexy music in a pinch. When I listen now, I can almost hear the click of stilettos on polished concrete, slowed to the beat. I can still feel the leather in my palm, smell the dungeon (not what you might expect: if it’s a good dungeon, it will smell like anti-bacterial sprays and rubbing alcohol).

“Bitch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna

In an essay on sex work and risk that I wrote for Catapult, I describe the circumstances of doing sex work with and for men in the midst of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and how my anger about men sexually assaulting women with impunity started to affect my ability to do my job. I write that “I was angrier about their money than I was happy to take it. I started referring to all of my clients as ‘Brett.’ Driving to the dungeon, I would blast Rihanna and sing, ‘Brett better have my money.” There are many moments like this in Pretty Baby as well. At some point, the work lost much of its shine and became droning and repetitive. In addition to being an anthem for getting yours—fuck you, pay me a sex work motto—Rihanna’s song feels almost hypnotic to me.

“Fancy” by Reba McEntire

Circling back to the book’s roots in rural America, “Fancy” by Reba McEntire is a sex worker anthem. I have been obsessed with Fancy’s story since I first heard the song, sitting my grandmother’s kitchen table after in elementary school. As a domme, when I dealt with annoying clients, I would often repeat this lyric like a mantra, grin and bear it: “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy. / They’ll be nice to you.” Fancy also has no time for “self-righteous hypocrites” that “call [her] bad.” An inspiration to sex workers trying to make do in a culture of stigma and shame.

“The Seeker” by Dolly Parton

The journey that I began in Pretty Baby—seeking to understand my own sexuality, pleasure, and place within economies of desire—it’s ongoing. The book concludes with me still in search. Oddly enough, a lot of the gospel music I heard as a kid feels to me like an articulation of that journey. If you replace the God of Dolly Parton’s “The Seeker” with the idea of a lover, or a Domme, or a Daddy, you’ve got something both kinky and profound in your ears. Dolly belts to the heavens, I am a seeker / And you are a teacher / You are a reacher / So reach down / Reach out and lead me / Guide me and keep me / In the shelter of your care each day. BDSM power exchange can feel like that: an intense desire for devotion, refuge, enlightenment.

Chris Belcher is a writer, professor, and former sex worker. She completed a PhD in English at the University of Southern California, where she is now Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Writing and Gender Studies. Under her working name, Natalie West, she edited the acclaimed anthology We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. Born and raised in West Virginia, she now lives in Los Angeles.

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