1. The Coasters, “Poison Ivy”
Pop music has a long history of songs that obliquely reference sexually transmitted diseases with a wink, a smile, and a strained metaphor—Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” being a prime example—and The Coasters’ 1959 hit “Poison Ivy” would fall into that class, if not for the fact that its writers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, confirmed its inspiration in their 2010 autobiography Hound Dog. “Pure and simple, ‘Poison Ivy’ is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease—or the clap—hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top Ten,” writes Leiber. It’s possible to interpret “Poison Ivy” through a less sordid lens, as simply an ode to an irresistible but emotionally destructive woman, but once it’s revealed, the subtext becomes text, and there’s simply no other way to construe lyrics like “She’s pretty as a daisy / But look out man, she’s crazy / She’ll really do you in / If you let her get under your skin.” Calamine lotion isn’t going to help with that.
2. Woody Guthrie, “VD City”
Known for writing about everything from Communism to the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie never shied away from singing about social issues—including what was then called VD. Guthrie reportedly wrote several VD-themed songs—“VD Day,” “VD Waltz,” “VD Blues,” and so on—for the U.S. Public Health Service in 1949. None of them became barnburners, but Bob Dylan picked up “VD City” and re-recorded it in 1961, and Dylanologists have said that its images inspired at least one of his songs, “Desolation Row.” That makes sense, considering Guthrie’s way with a grim phrase. In “VD City” alone, he sings of “human wrecks,” “lost faces,” and “a whirlpool of raving insane,” all driven to desperate poverty and sadness since their skin’s gotten “worse than lepers” and “millions now burn in the fires.” Now those are some uplifting lyrics.
3. Kool Moe Dee, “Go See The Doctor” Kool Moe Dee’s self-titled solo album came out in 1986, but its five-and-a-half-minute leadoff track sounds even older, with its minimalist beat and Moe Dee’s somewhat stilted flow and corny rhymes. (“If I see another girl and I get an erection / I’m walking in the other direction.”) But it earns a pass for its classic line “What have I done stuck my dick in?” (sampled in Ice Cube’s “Look Who’s Burnin’”). Kool Moe Dee meets a woman on the street who’s DTF without the whole date charade of wining, dining, and talking about “the birds and the bees in my waterbed.” But like a Christ figure who went too far with his own Mary Magdalene, Moe Dee emerges three days later “drip drip dripping and pus pus pussing.”
4. Ice Cube, “Look Who’s Burnin’”
Ice Cube hits up his neighborhood free clinic for “20 free jimmy-hats,” but gets a booster shot of schadenfreude in this track from 1991’s excellent Death Certificate: “The bitch from up the street,” who had previously scorned Cube’s advances, has gone from “Miss Thang,” to “Miss Gonorrhea.” She hooked up with a college student, not realizing that “he probably fucked the whole university”—just one of the many zingers Cube scores in the song. He and producer Sir Jinx drive the theme home with nearly a dozen well-chosen samples, from that “Go See The Doctor” line mentioned above to Boogie Down Productions’ “Jimmy” and Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” Although she’ll get a shot of penicillin for this latest escapade, Cube suspects her time is running out: “A bitch like you’ll be returnin’ with the H-I-V, R.I.P.”
5. 88-Keys featuring Redman, “The Burning Bush”
88-Keys’ 2008 debut, The Death Of Adam, is a concept album about the nightmarish elements of sex and relationships, from unwanted pregnancy to erectile dysfunction (shockingly, it wasn’t a big hit), so venereal disease ranked high on its list of relationship horrors. On “Burning Bush,” the producer-turned-rapper turns the spotlight over to guest Redman, who shares a painfully hilarious story about contracting syphilis from an anonymous, Ecstasy-addled hookup. Redman, in his indelible turn of phrase, claims she “burnt me and then disappeared like Hoffa,” then invokes Kool Moe Dee’s advice to go see the doctor.
6. Frank Zappa, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”
Even the shortest, dumbest song on Frank Zappa’s 1979 rock opera, Joe’s Garage—the smirking toss-off “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”—is given a high-minded background story. During a 1978 show in Munich, Zappa informed the audience of the song’s inspiration—a question posed by his road manager—and that the “type of the words in this song are really stupid, so therefore, we have a really stupid arrangement.” Set to “pseudo-English pomposity, with fake drama thrown in on the side, smothered in tico-tico,” the music is bloated and masturbatory, yet primal—in other words, the perfect accompaniment.
7. AC/DC, “The Jack”
If any rock singer can speak about STDs with authority, it’s the late Bon Scott of AC/DC. Infamous for his promiscuity—and for immortalizing his flings in AC/DC classics like “Whole Lotta Rosie”—Scott acknowledged the negative side of sleeping around in “The Jack.” Riding a grinding blues riff, the gravel-voiced lothario uses one of his favorite devices, the extended double entendre, to equate a poker game with a case of gonorrhea (known in Australian slang as “the jack”): “She’s got the jack and who knows what else?” he quips, having finally met his match in the lechery department. “She gave me the jack / She’s got the jack, and it hurts.”
8. Shel Silverstein, “Don’t Give A Dose To The One You Love Most”
Entire generations have grown up on Shel Silverstein’s children’s books, like the heartbreakingly sweet The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece, or his mildly naughty poetry collections like Where The Sidewalk Ends. But people who first encounter him in early childhood are often surprised to find out about his extensive career in adult material, from writing hits for Johnny Cash to drawing cartoons for Playboy to cutting his own albums full of songs about sex, drugs, crime, and craziness. Silverstein’s 1969 album Freakin’ At The Freaker’s Ball includes songs about unexpectedly seeing his date in a porn film (and masturbating in the theater), a sadist’s loneliness after his masochist girlfriend leaves him (“I got nothin’, nothin’ to hit but the wall”), and the importance of not passing the clap to a significant other. “Don’t Give A Dose To The One You Love Most” is a raucous anthem for the free-love generation, and like so much of Silverstein’s work, it’s funny, just a little coy, and dirty in a playful, self-satisfied way all at the same time. Silverstein employs the same hoarse, giggling half-shout he brought to his ’80s recordings of children’s poetry, but amped up to hysterical levels, as though he and all his background singers have been drinking all day and are about to break for an orgy—though presumably one with proper protection factored in.
9. Tom Lehrer, “I Got It From Agnes”
One of Tom Lehrer’s earliest songs was also one of his last to be professionally recorded; “I Got It From Agnes” was a staple from his ’50s nightclub performances, but it didn’t appear on a studio album until 1996, when Rhino reissued his previous studio recordings with “Agnes” as a bonus track. The song is deceptively simple, just a string of connections between friends who are so close, they share everything—“I got it from Agnes / She got it from Jim / We all agree it must have been Louise who gave it to him…” and so forth. But in a perky, wink-wink ’50s kind of way, Lehrer is clearly talking about an unspecified STD that’s making the rounds—one he’s willing to pass on to the listener as well, as the punchline points out.
10. Mentors, “Herpes Two”
Few figures in music history are as rightly reviled as Eldon “El Duce” Hoke, the late singer-drummer of the thuggish metal group the Mentors. As the world’s foremost—and hopefully last—proponent of so-called “rape rock,” El Duce took shock-rock to a whole new low with his misogynist anthems, of which “Herpes Two” is a prime example. “I don’t want your Herpes Two,” he grunts tunelessly over squealing guitars, “And if you give me your Herpes Two / Bitch, I’m gonna kill you.” From there, the song’s references to oozing blisters and female anatomy get repugnantly explicit—with El Duce apparently not realizing that he himself was, in essence, an open sore on humanity.
11. Eminem featuring Obie Trice, “Drips”
The different perspectives Eminem and Obie Trice display in their respective verses on “Drips,” from 2002’s The Eminem Show, are an object lesson in the cycle of temptation and regret that comes with unprotected sex. Obie Trice spends the first half of the song depicting, in explicit and sometimes disgusting detail, the myriad ways the object of his affection breaks down his defenses, before he realizes “my dick was unprotected, and Dr. Wesley telling me I really got that shit.” Then Eminem blazes in to go apeshit at the same woman, who cheated on him with Trice, before going to the clinic himself. And while Em presumes it’s AIDS, he admits he’s been “paranoid at every little cold that [I] get,” and runs out of the office before the doctor can tell him one way or another what it is. Judging from the chorus—“That’s how dudes be getting sick / That’s how dicks be getting drips”—it’s just a case of good old-fashioned gonorrhea, but this certainly wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Mathers has overreacted.
12. GG Allin, “Needle Up My Cock”
Before dying of a heroin overdose in 1993, punk legend GG Allin dabbled in just about every form of excess, perversion, and abuse imaginable—usually while he was onstage. Compared to smearing himself in blood and feces, though, the sentiment behind his song “Needle Up My Cock” is almost quaint: “Got it from her, and I’ll give it to you,” he sings, speaking of the gonorrhea he caught from a groupie, “Bring along your sister, ’cause that will make it two / ’Cause she’s got the crabs, and I want them too.” He saves his most searing lines, though, to refer to the treatment he must undergo—namely the eponymous needle. Ever a man of artistic integrity, Allin takes great pains to ensure that “Needle Up My Cock” sounds about as pleasurable as the procedure it describes.
14. Tiny Tim, “She Left Me With The Herpes”
The late novelty goof Tiny Tim tiptoes through more than the tulips in “She Left Me With The Herpes,” but in his world, sex isn’t even necessary for infection: Just by touching things in his own bedroom, Tim accidentally shares the disease with his pets and a litigious maid who picks it up while cleaning. Sure, his first-ever tryst left him scarred for life, but it isn’t all bad: “Even roaches won’t come near / Mosquitoes will not bite me ’cause they sense my blood’s not clear!”
15. Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, “Official STD Song”
Venereal disease is a scary thing, what with its oozing sores and potential permanence and all. Luckily, Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and David Liebe Hart put together a little ditty to take the edge off. “Official STD Song” might be targeted at servicemen and women frequenting some of the world’s most unsavory brothels, but really, it’s for anyone who needs a little safety reminder before they “grease the trolley pole” and “stick it in a donut hole.” Better yet, why not “pleasure yourself with your hand,” and thus “stay out of sex command?”