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?
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 Philippé 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.