3/12/12

Opinions and Rants #38: Soul Music Erosion


Okay, get ready. I'm not only going to sound like a disgruntled old codger, but I'm also in danger of sounding a bit racially insensitive.  However, I've been loving the hell out of some old Soul Train episodes that have been airing, and I just can't keep it in any longer.... Black music used to be so much better. There, I said it.

Granted, all music IMHO used to be so much better. But, the case of R&B and soul just seems particularly tragic.  A lot of my feelings on this issue I'm sure come from the fact that I'm not African American, and thus am just hopefully confused.  I can understand why rock music has all but died; however, the loss of anyone comparable to Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder or Isaac Hayes just leaves me scratching my head. Why?

A few points:

1.  The Vocal Group Performance

The standard routine of matching wardrobes and synchronized dancing was the norm since before The Temptations.  Groups like The Spinners and The Jackson 5 were nothing short of captivating. Now, you only see this among boy bands, as lily white as the wind-driven snow.  This type of performance is a time honored method - it's effective and compliments the vibe perfectly.  What happened to this style? Was it hijacked by white money making machines like New Kids on the Block and The Backstreat Boys, or was it just abandoned?

2. The Ghetto Blues

Every black artist from the seventies had as its center the plight of the ghetto. Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City", The Spinners "Ghetto Child" and Mayfield's "Little Child Runnin' Wild" are among my favorites.  You got the impression that they were delivering a message, one steeped in a reality felt by a majority of black audiences.

Now, all I freaking hear is about how much money an artist has.  You're rich? Good for you. But who really fucking cares?

3. The Voices

Whether it's the sharp synchronized perfection of the Temptations or the breathtaking emotional vigor of Al Green and James Brown, the voice mattered.  It wasn't that showboating melisma displayed on American Idol - this shit was real.  When Barry White and Isaac Hayes said they wanted to make sweet love, you knew they meant it.  My favorite voices of all time (of any race or style of music) are Roberta Flack and David Ruffin. You could easily add PhilippĂ© Wynne and Aretha and not hurt my feelings a bit.

What happened to these voices? What happened to the messages from the ghetto? What happened to those vocalists, dancing in unison decked out in their funkiest finery?

Don't tell me there's still vestiges still out there, if only I'm willing to look hard enough. I'm sure there are.  But the point is, it's gone from the mainstream - it's become relegated to the fringe.  And that, to me is a shame.  Hip hop has a place in the tapestry of African American music history; however, the feeling I get is that, in its climb to prominence, it killed and buried the styles of black music that I loved.

Is there anyone out there that can set this 40+ year old white man straight? I'd love to hear it.

29 comments:

  1. I think it happened because blacks saw hip-hop as their first own music, exclusive to black culture and black spirit only. All previous styles borrowed elements of white music or "white" preaching (even if we go back to spirituals and blues). Soul artists might have sung about ghettoes, but their appeal was inclusive, they were part of mainstream (white) music machine; and white artists succesfully explored their own versions of soul (in the 60s it was Dusty Springfield; in the 80s it were Culture Club, Marc Almond, George Michael).

    Hip hop was meant to be a purely black experience, more authentic, African, more savage, if you will (of course, it was picked up by whites, as well, but to this day it's viewed predominantly as an expression of black culture). Hip hop is the product of the back to africa movement that sprang in the 1930s and reached its zenith in the 60s. So eventually blacks abandoned all the styles that they shared with whites (jazz, blues, rock'n'roll, soul) and embraced one that was strictly about black self-identification.

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    1. The Blues and Jazz WERE a purely black experience.It was subsequently adopted by the mainstream and further modified and adapted for wider audiences .The Blues is the mother of all modern music.

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  2. I will say I agree with you Gilligan on some points. But.... There are some new artist you may have not heard of, for instance Anthony Hamilton, D'angelo, Maxwell,Goapelle,Lalah Hathway, Leela James and a whole group of artist from the Neo-Soul genre. But all in all mainstream black music is terrible.

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    1. Oh I forgot to mention Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

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  3. It's across the board, but more noticeable in R&B because of rap and hip hop's near total dominance. Cut the funding for music programs in public schools and you no longer have kids learning how to play instruments or getting music appreciation at the elementary and middle school levels. Fill their heads with cell phones, texting, and video games and they're no longer putting in the time it takes to learn an instrument on their own and jamming with friends in the garage. After five years of this, you no longer have Kool and the Gangs, Parliament-Funkadelics or JB's -- you have kids who can only rhyme their limited life experiences over their parents' Kool and the Gang, Parliament-Funkadelic and JB's LPs. Thirty years down the road, there's not even the creative minimalism of ESG to point to; kids don't know what they're sampling from anymore because they're sampling from samples. They're not growing up with jazz, the blues, pop, classic R&B, rock, show tunes, etc. but rap and hip-hop only...and specifically the newest, hottest rap and hip-hop. Something by the Fat Boys, Public Enemy or A Tribe Called Quest will be dismissed as "old school." I imagine Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" or the Chi-Lites' "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)" would be met with total confusion by the average listener today when actual SINGING erupts from the speakers instead of the mush-mouthed rapping or auto-tuned vocals that have been slathered over these tracks in recent years.

    Here's a quote from one of the most infuriating record reviews I've ever read -- Jason Ankeny of AllMusic.com, in his wrongheaded write-up of Dennis Coffey's "Sweet Taste of Sin" album, wrote: "DJs seeking more of the kinetic beats found in volume on Coffey's Sussex releases will be most disappointed, however, as only 'Love Encounter' and 'Gimmie That Funk' feature percussion breaks worth the search-and-rescue effort." Really? A two star review because Mr. Coffey didn't have the foresight in 1978 to include a few more drum breaks for someone else to steal and build a new song around thirty years later?

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  4. It would be nice to hear some of the new artists that capture the spirit of the classic R&B sound. As a 40+ African American who grew up listening to some of the music and musicians of those days, I would prefer listening to them than any of the shallow nonsense that is out there now either in R&B or Hip Hop.

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  5. The last good black band was Living Colour. All this rap shit they sell today is worthless and only promotes the thug attitude those brainless pukes invite.

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  6. Sorry I can't help. I don't listen to anyone discovered after 1979. Didn't like the main 80s artists and can't stand the Autotune Generation.

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  7. It's across the board, not just R&B, modern music is by and large unlistenable dreck. The days of not only Motown but also the Brill Building are done and gone and we are all the more impovrished for this. Part of the problem is the consolidation of labels over the last 25 years, there used to be many, many labels that fostered all sorts of talent and styles of music, now there are basically three large corporations who think that they have distilled what the audience "wants" into a very narrow prism of sound. The diversity is just dead, exchanged for a wall of background noise.
    I truly miss the diversity of sound that i was exposed to growing up in the 1970's, not only the soul and R'n B but also the cheesy white music. I bought a John Denver 2 x lp live set at a garage show a couple years back and taped it over to mp3. You know what hit me when I listened to it?
    How genuinely happy the man sounds.

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  8. Just as Punk stomped over progressive (and even mainstream) rock and smothered it, so has hip hop come along and smothered classic jazz/soul. In both cases, a musical form that values style and posing over musical ability has triumphed. And there's no musical diversity because if you had that, then one form will show up the limitations of the other...and that other is the one that brings the money in.

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  9. Not all whites get it wrong.
    Amy Winehouse's Back To Black was as good a soul album as I've ever heard.
    Shame about the car crash life-style that led to her untimely death.

    On an even sadder note...
    I found myself at a Karaoke talent competition evening last month.
    I heard two astonishing Black women singing (yes, I mean 'singing') .
    Neither of them won of course, it was won by the sticky-thin white blond who sang like she needed her ananoids removing.

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  10. Totally agree, and the sad thing is, when I've seen classic groups like The Platters perform people still go crazy for them and their music. There is a really awesome Motown/70s soul tribute band called Souled Out--I saw them play outside in Boston a couple of summer ago and if anyone gets the chance to see them I highly recommend catching their show.

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  11. Meaningless opinion from a complete Classical-Only outsider who only hears pop music when it rumbles from car speakers:

    Seems to me the same thing happened to white pop music. Rock-n-roll of the '50s and early '60s had melody, harmony, and understandable words. After that, it became nothing more than a recording of a very long industrial accident, or perhaps a series of earthquakes and tornados simultaneously striking the house of a cat hoarder.

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    1. Polistra,
      That is the most succulency stated observation I have heard regarding the current state of music.

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  12. Way back in 2009 I reviewed the Live Aid DVDs and here's a quote from that:
    "Pattie LaBelle gave a dynamic performance and along with Hall and Oats with Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations and Teddy Pendergrass singing with Ashford and Simpson (unfortunately the Four Tops did not make it onto the DVDs) makes one wonder what happened to Black music in the last 20 years. Instead of songs of love and togetherness, now we hear aggressive and degrading songs about hos. "

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  13. I don't have the musical chops to comment as to whys or reasons, so all I can do is agree with your sentiments.

    I miss "70s Blackness" in music, too.

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  14. Good topic and intersting insights. I used to laugh at some of the old Soul Train performances (and outfits) when I was younger, but music from that genre has grown on me over time.

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  15. You hit the nail on the head with " It wasn't that showboating melisma displayed on American Idol - this shit was real". The overuse of melisma nowadays is appalling. In the 60s and 70s, artists like Stevie Wonder,Aretha Franklin and counteless great gospel singers used melisma sparingly and to great effect. Later, with artists like Mariah Carey and YES, Whitney Houston, things got all out of control. It was simply cramming notes into syllables and bellowing simply for the sake of doing it, and because they COULD, rather than in service of the song itself. And, unfortunately, the non-discerning listener, i.e. the "American idol" viewer, will mistake this now-omnipresent, phony, masterbatory dreck, these melodramatic vocal histrionics, for actual emotion. Its a sad state of affairs.

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    1. Oh...my...gosh. This was so eloquently put. This modern form of "singing" drives me batty!

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    2. Last night's American Idol (Oh, God! what was I doing, watching that?) is a perfect case in point. After the guy sang "When I Man Loves a Woman" (and he could sing), the "judges" couldn't stop slobbering over themselves... "When you sang, God shown through your eyes!"

      Oh, crap.

      This young man had a -- basically -- very pleasant voice, hit every note, worked like Hell, and yet, there was nothing there. All that showy, melismatic stuff, and not a bit of emotion (or, dare I say, soul?).

      When Percy Sledge sang this song, you knew the absolute helplessness of the man who loved that woman... whatever she did to him was his fate, the bullet he could not (and would not) dodge. This guy? Who knows? It was just a song. It filled a couple minutes. No one will remember it tomorrow.

      Most certainly, no one will remember it in 47 years.

      Parenthetically, the 16-year-old girl performing -- and strutting -- well beyond the scope of her slight age only made me think of Irene Cara's character in the final scenes of "Fame."

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  16. I have to agree. The music of The Supremes, The Spinners, Jerry Butler, Earth, Wind, & Fire, etc..., is so much better than what passes today for music. I've got a box set of 70's soul music and it blows the doors off anything being recorded today.

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  17. I agree, but I think it's a sinister conspiracy / backlash by New World Order / Bilderberger types. Just as McDonald's steamrolls vast numbers of better eating establishments, corporate power in music production and distribution silences real talent in favor of people and product that it can control for its own sinister purposes.

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  18. I totally agree. Almost all of pop art has become lame to mediocre. Soul music sucks now. Very sad.

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  19. Video Killed The Radio Star. The Reagan Era Golden Children loved their perfectly packaged Britney and Justin SO much, that the record companies will NEVER go back.

    I don't watch any of the so-called talent shows on TV now, because they are so blatant to the kids singing that they need to LOOK the part or risk losing. Jennifer Hudson (who is a huge star now) lost American Idol. She wasn't pretty enough because she was still chubby then.

    It is all very sad, isn't it?

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    1. Reagan caused so many problems that are still with us. The man was a disaster. President Obama is one of the few things better about today's music.

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    2. What the FUCK does goddamn Obama have to do with making today's music better? That's like saying Hitler made our beef taste better. Hippy.

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  20. I believe there were two problems:

    First: Dressing alike and dancing came from Black-Faced Minstrelsy. I could imagine a lot of performers wanted to distance themselves from that.

    Second: Not every black person is from the ghetto. Or form the city. But that was the only image that was ever projected.

    Personally, I think rap is even more insulting. Even if the image of the R&B singers was problematic, the talent was without peer.

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  21. Try the Weeknd or Frank Ocean. They provide a glimmer of hope.

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  22. FWIW, I'm a black woman and I agree with you...

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