Aural Sex

By now it's hard to imagine that there are any American men, women, or children who don't know what an orgasm sounds like. Long a staple of rock and roll (think Plant's string of carnal diphthongs in "Whole Lotta Love"), the injection of sex into popular music climaxed in the disco era, when the likes of Donna Summer and Barry White set themselves free amidst a wash of pulsing beats and ecstatic repetition. Now, thanks to sampling technology, the familiar strains of men and women getting off can be produced with the touch of a button, and artists across the pop music spectrum are touching that button with impunity.

It doesn't take Masters and Johnson to realize that the recorded orgasm, that glossy split-second exhale that has graced such contemporary classics as LL Cool J's "Back Seat of My Jeep" and Janet Jackson's "Throb," has very little to do with real-world sex. Uprooted from its natural habitat (where's the foreplay? the afterplay? the ringing phone as coitus interruptus?), the digital climax functions as a sort of erotic metonymy, a single highlight that stands in for the whole game forced by pop music's aesthetic of compression. As a result, while there's no shortage of books and films that detail the full scope of the sex act, only a very few recordings A like Yoko Ono's "Kiss Kiss Kiss," Prince's "Let's Pretend We're Married," and almost anything by Iggy Pop -- trace the trajectory of concupiscence from pillar to post.

Now, though, everything is about to change. With the appearance of Cyborgasm, an hour-long copulation compilation of spoken word released by the San Francisco indie Algorithm, the beast with two backs can finally do its thing inside America's car stereos and Walkmen.

Cyborgasm comes complete with a cardboard blindfold and a deep-blue condom, accouterments that ostensibly aid and abet the album's bedroom scenarios. Because explicit language and mounting moans might not be enough to convince you that you are there, all performances on Cyborgasm are rendered in high-tech "3-D Audio," a revolutionary new process for improving aural intimacy and virtual space. While revolutionary new processes are by and large admirable things, "3-D Audio" is a mixed blessing at best. Cyborgasm includes lots of heavy breathing that breaks up against the microphone, and key coital moments are accompanied by what sounds like the nearby rumble of thunder.

Apart from its technological peccadilloes, Cyborgasm suffers from a more general shortcoming. With the conspicuous exception of gay male sex, the album caters to a wide variety of tastes; whether you get your rocks off listening to simulated phone sex ("1-900-BLOW") or playing desperado-under-the-eavesdrop at a full-force orgy ("The Swing"), you won't be disappointed, and there's even a dollop of S&M overseen by a chipper dominatrix ("Absolute Sadist"). But the equivocal thrill of hearing sex-industry celebrities strut their stuff -- such cult figures as Susie Bright, Mistress Kat, and Annie Sprinkle make appearances -- is made even more equivocal by the fact that many cuts are solo performances that either attempt "interactive" erotica or devolve into X-rated monologues.

The interactive offerings -- full of gaps for listeners to fill (as the liner notes explain, "you're not just listening to sex, you're having it") -- are little more than interesting experiments weighed down with narrative trappings, not aerodynamic enough for arousal. And the monologues are even more problematic. "Dirty Fare," a taxi driver's wet dream written and performed by Jon Bailiff, shunts along predictably, like bargain-basement Bogosian cross-pollinated with the Penthouse "Forum." The auteur approach bottoms out on Don Bajema's "Blue Light," a miserably overwritten chunk of sci-fi tripe replete with cryptic descriptions and limp surrealism. Though some of the solo pieces work as drama, even the best among them -- Annie Sprinkle's charming "Circus Whore," which wouldn't be out of place on a Bongwater LP -- hardly seem capable of inducing cyborgasm.

Thankfully, only about half of Cyborgasm is devoted to such solo shots, and the group performances that make up the balance of the album fare better at working up a sweat. Even the ho-hum "Virtual Love" (so vacuous it could be a bootleg of the JFK, Jr./Daryl Hannah Hawaiian vacation) is sufficiently voyeur-friendly to tinder a few sparks. And after listening to "Daddy's Grrrl," you'll never again be able to whistle "Family Affair" with a straight face. The most successful track on the entire album, the lesbian fantasy "Pink Sweatboxes," makes excellent use of an extended conversational intro, generating an interest in the characters that intensifies the heavy-breathing payoff.

Fascinating for its larger implications -- who are the target audiences for each piece of ear-otica? what sexual stereotypes remain intact? A Cyborgasm ultimately can't get it up as pornography. All the groaning and slurping in the world won't light you up if you're not in the mood, and if you're in the mood, why settle for a soundtrack? The audio porn industry will no doubt find its groove, probably by developing more compelling storylines and better exploring interactive possibilities. For the time being, however, those interested in recorded sex are advised to stick by that old punk saw -- Do It Yourself.

Cyborgasm can be obtained for $20 from Algorithm, 2325 Third St,
San Francisco,

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Ben Greenman