Flip through your local radio stations for half an hour and you’ll inevitably come across a song about a sex worker — whether you realize it or not. There’s a good chance it’ll be “Roxanne” by The Police, or some other track about a guy saving a woman from what he perceives to be a soul-sucking den of iniquity. But if you’re lucky, it might be a song that isn’t quite so straightforward in its references to red light districts. More importantly, it might also not be quite so cynical about sex work.
“Call Me” by Blondie
Maybe as the theme of the 1980 film American Gigolo, it’s rather obvious that “Call Me” is indeed a song about sex work. But “Call Me” has become ubiquitous in a way American Gigolo has not. It’s the kind of track you’re as likely to hear in a grocery store as you are in a bar, and despite being about a prostitute, it’s still demure enough to blast in front of your mom.
Lyrically, the song is somewhat vague — “call me anytime, call me I’ll arrive” and “roll me in designer sheets” are about as much as we get for an indication that this song is about calling up an escort. And while American Gigolo is about a high-end male escort who gets tangled in a murder case, “Call Me” isn’t immediately pessimistic about the world of sex work. This isn’t to say it’s optimistic, but it’s neutral, at the very least. It’s also a total bop, so there’s that.
“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed
To this day, Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” appears in commercials for Airbnb and Super Bowl ads for Michelob Ultra — pretty charming considerting that it transparently discusses sex work, as well as a trans woman’s transition and drug use. None of these topics are necessarily referenced in a negative light, though — the lyrics are more observational than they are judgmental.
The song mentions a cast of characters. One, Candy, is described as being “everybody’s darling” when in a back room, and “never losing her head,” even when she’s “giving head.” Another, Little Joe, is said to have never “gave it away, everybody had to pay.”
Seems like an odd choice for a commercial from Airbnb, a company that uses A.I. to discriminate against sex workers, but hey!
“Killer Queen” by Queen
“Killer Queen” is a delightful song from 1974 about a cultured, extravagant, luxury-loving courtesan who caters to the elite. She drinks Moet, buys her perfume in Paris and never maintains the same address for long. She may also be lethal, potentially just by how good she is in bed. This is, at least, what the lyrics describe, and a story that Freddie Mercury himself stated as the background for the song.
According to Mercury, there was no real-life Killer Queen he was inspired by — it’s just fiction. However, some fans speculate that the song is about the band itself, or serves as a sort of diss track against a record executive. More likely, it’s probably just a fun song about an imaginary sex worker who fucked both JFK and Khrushchev.
“Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry (and Reba’s cover)
If you already pay close attention to lyrics, this one should be rather clear. Still, the 1969 song originally written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry and revived by Reba McEntire in 1990 is so dense, you might gloss over what it’s all about. The Southern Gothic country song follows the narrative of a woman named Fancy who reflects upon the circumstances of her life. Living in abject poverty, Fancy’s mother spends the last of her money to purchase a “dancing dress” for Fancy upon her 18th birthday. Unable to afford to feed her infant sibling, the mother has arranged for Fancy to leave home and pursue prostitution in some unnamed form.
It’s framed as a desperate sacrifice the mother makes in order to ensure that Fancy can have a shot at a different life. And as Fancy’s story continues, she reveals that she’s been rather successful, “charming” elite men to the point where she now owns a Georgia mansion and a Manhattan townhouse. In the end, Fancy explains that she refuses to feel shame about her life and that she sympathizes with her mother for what she had to do. Gentry later stated that she felt the song to be a statement for feminism and women’s liberation.
“None of Your Business” by Salt-N-Pepa
Like “Walk on the Wild Side,” “None of Your Business” isn’t entirely about sex work. The 1993 song does feature it as a strong theme, however, and is perhaps one of the most progressive mainstream songs to approach it. The basic premise, obviously, is that what people decide to do with themselves isn’t anyone else’s concern. In the hook, Salt-N-Pepa say, “If she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend / It’s none of your business.” And in the first verse, performed by Salt, she explains, “The difference between a hooker and a ho ain’t nothing but a fee.”
In the context of the song, she’s saying that people — especially men — have sex without reprecussions all the time, and that it shouldn’t matter that someone happens to get paid for it.
Someone oughta tell Sting.