Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Adele, R&B, & a Century of Generic Purity

This article from The Atlantic is...Interesting.   I'm not going to write about the Club Music as/not as R&B aspect much, because I don't know much about club music.  What I want to work with is the over all notion of generic purity that a debate like that necessarily contemplates, and, Stephen Merritt's reaction, originally from the LA Weekly,  to Adele's popularity : 

"I like Adele, though I have some reservations about why people like her," Merritt said. "She really has a lovely voice, but I only get suspicious when people get excited about British people who sound like American black people."

"Basically she sounds like Anita Baker," Merritt continued. "And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker. And I think about the whole, with the racism, when people love when British people sound like American black people." 

Any genre is going to periodically go through points when it synthesizes and hybridizes, and, if it has listeners still attached to some vision of its past, its also going to have, in response to those moments, calls for purity and a return to essentials.  

As the original self-claimed popular  "black music" genre, the one that uses the prideful term that took over from "race records" and "the harlem hit parade" in 1947 (a term that was coined by a Jewish staff writer for Billboard, Jerry Wexler, who went on to become a partner in Atlantic Records) R&B exhibits a lot of tension around notions of generic purity.  Part of what black artists and producers and entrepreneurs have been trying to do with the idea of what R&B means, for decades, is to push back against white appropriations of black folks musical labors.  Overall, this is a good thing, but it gets sticky when white folks start producing really good music that speaks to the purer (and often older) notions of what defines the genre.  And this has been happening for a good long time too.   When Stephen Merrit says he gets suspicious of people getting excited over British people singing like American black people he's basically saying he's suspicious of  a huge chunk of the history of rock and roll post-1963.

I find Merrit pretty annoying (tho that whole "Stephen Merrit is a racist because he doesn't like hip-hop thing seems bogus) but this is not simple territory.  There's probably something to the idea that if Adele was black, then the mass of white folks who buy her records wouldn't have found as much to identify with in her music.  And, because her sound is part of what black folks, at least since the soul revolution in the 60s, have loudly and proudly claimed as a "black sound," then that matters because it speaks to the racialized conditions of the market.  You can say that our ears ought to be colorblind, and that's true, but you can't just wave away 100 years of egregious exploitation of African American musical labor.

 On the other hand, Merrit's comments also imply that a (white) British R&B performer is necessarily suspect, even tho she's singing music that she could easily have grown up surrounded by, and loves, and finds expressive of her feelings.  And this suggests that there are, somehow, natural musical paths for black and white folks and that we should be skeptical and suspicious when they step off of those paths.  And, the exploitation of black musical labor that I cited above is founded on a century of marketing that whole idea: that there are "black sounds" and "white sounds."   And, Adele is coming to this game so late, after The Righteous Brothers, Van Morrison, Teena Marie, etc. and is doing such an old-fashioned, musically conservative reading of the form, that its fair to ask whether people who aren't music mavens even hear what she's doing as a particularly "black sound."

The reality is much more complex than the market driven idea of "black" and "white" sounds.  There are musical traditions that have been maintained and innovated largely by one racial group or another, and the musical traditions maintained and innovated by black Americans have been tremendously influential, and those influences and innovations have been unevenly rewarded.  But the notion of racially pure musical traditions has always been a marketing lie, although its one that encouraged and created further racial separation in the practice of music making.  The bluegrass banjo is a black instrument.  Howlin' Wolf's wolf-call came from his attempt to  imitate Jimmy Rogers' yodel.  Etc.  

Sunday, February 12, 2012



This is a placeholder post, because having a video come up on my homepage seems to be making Chrome very slow.  I will try to find something more interesting to put up here later.  I've also simplified the design to a generic blogger template.  I don't like it much but I wasn't crazy about the last one either.  Look for a retooling in the near future.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Alabama Shakes

I'm just going to post a song by this band everyday until...something happens, I don't know what.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Whole World

Alright.  I am finishing up writing 19,000 words and change about authenticity and the blues, and just realized that, in some ways, this video says it all.  Well, maybe not all of it, but what it does say it says more succintly.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Phonographic Revivalism

Note: I'm trying to get something right in the chapter I'm working on, and sometimes it helps to lay it out in a few paragraphs here, so, here:

As a musical form, the blues is often defined and discussed in terms of authenticity.  There is the blues, the real blues, the deep blues, and  the real deep blues.  There is the race-haunted question of whether white folks can really play the blues, which could also be a way of asking of only black folks can play the blues, a questions which may have started out as the assertion that black folks could only play the blues, since early record producers considered blues the only viable commercial form for African American musicians, and usually refused to record the full repertoire of early "blues" artists.  And of course there's pianist Henry Thomas's assertion that "Although they call it the blues today, the original name given to this kind of music was 'reals.'  And it was real because it made the truth available to the people in the songs."  Thomas is voicing here both a feeling felt among black musicians and audiences, and part of the ethic that has made the blues an attractive form to write about for progressively minded academics.  He's also performing some signifyin' on the fact that many musical pieces widely considered "blues" were actually called "reels" by their original audiences.

For all of this concern with realness though, the history and historiography of the blues is largely and loudly defined in relation to recordings, aural mediations of "real" performances.  As noted above, commercial recording practice shaped the basic parameters of the genre.  When John Hammond Sr. went looking for the recently deceased Robert Johnson in 1938, and couldn't find him, Hammond played Johnson's records at Carnegie Hall instead, an act of near-literal phonographic revivalism that I'd argue qualifies Hammond's From Spirituals To Swing concerts as the beginning o of the blues revival.  Two decades later, decades in which documentarian recordists like Alan Lomax compiled field recordings of blues players as part of his folklore studies the Robert Johnson LP King of the Delta Blues Singers became an integral artifact of the early 60s blues revival, and played no small part in the establishment of the name "Delta Blues" as a generic term, whose history fused documentary and commercial recording practices.  And, three decades after that, the release of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings as a CD boxed set inaugurated another blues revival, one marked by the emergence of festivals, tourist destinations, and of course, the "Million Dollar Juke Joint" House of Blues Franchise.  If we want to, we could even continue to pin blues revivals to advances in consumer recording and replay technology by noting that 2003, the congressionally mandated "Year of the Blues" was marked by the release of several blues films, including of course Martin Scorsese presents The Blues, a 7 film series whose title should remind us of the canon-making power that these advances in duplicable media hold, particularly when presented by a prestigious interlocutor like Scorsese, or Lomax, or Hammond.

Martin Scorsese present The Blues premiered on PBS and was, later in the year, released in a handsome DVD boxed set.  Several other blues films released in 2003, like Robert Mugge's Last of the Mississippi Jukes, and the re-released Deep Blues also by Mugge, The American Folk Blues Festival Series, You See Me Laughin', The Howlin' Wolf Story, and more, went straight to DVD.  This allowed consumers to mark the 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy's encounter with "the wierdest music I ever heard" in a Tutwiler train station, from the comfort of their own homes.  it also marked an early high point in the distribution of such films via physical discs, as that format soon began to receive intense competition from streaming video.  Perhaps there will be another blues revival soon, to mark this new form, thopugh it really hasn't been very long since the last one.

All of this-the notions of documentary authenticity, of a blues and a past that is always vanishing, ineffable and barely and imperfectly preserved, the fascination with the obsolete, the vernacularization of commercial media, and especially the need to mediate old and ever-disappering forms of mediation in new formats, comes to bear on a video like this:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Please don't make me face my generation alone!"

Is that a great line or does it just sound like its supposed to sound like one?  It works just fine in this song:

 Is this band (fun.) huge?  They seem like they should be.  Watching this video, I'm struck by the way that,for me (and I imagine other members of generation video ground zero), the pleasures of watching a music video include a nostalgia for the unsatisfying.  This video is filled with images--like the band performing (for who?)* in the warehouse or the chase through the streets--similar to ones which I remember thinking ranged from cheesy to almost working when I watched them in the afternoons after school in 1983, but which now, at least when well executed and combined with a song I like, elicit a thrill of recognition: "yes, that's how you do that."

*They're playing just for themselves, that's how you know they really mean it.  It's just what they'd be doing anyway, acting out exactly what you need to feel right now.  No, they don't even need a sound system.

Anyway, my rock and roll friends can laugh, but I think this band is kind of amazing.  Here's a few more cuts: first a live version of that song, "All the Pretty Girls."

One thing that's interesting, watching this performance after the studio video: Part of the reason that the band is playing in the warehouse, for themselves and for the viewer's pleasure, which become one and the same, is that its actually very hard to film and record a live musical performance of a pop or rock band in such a way that reminds people effectively of the live experience.  For a variety of reasons. The in-studio style performance, as in the radio station video, has its own aesthetic, and I can't comment on it effectively because I am so fond of it.  In such a situation, a well recorded sound will also sound a lot like what you would hear in the room; bands will be relaxed but still honestly in performance and doing so in a room that is supposed to contain recording equipment; you can hear what's going on in the songs, etc.

And then there's this song, "Be Calm."  The epic.  The studio version is here.  More than worth a listen.  Below is a live performance in front of an audience, filmed by an audience member.

The last one is interesting.  I think that its power depends on both the poor production values, and its attention to the performance itself, which puts the viewer in the position of enacting the filmmakers engagement with the performance, an engagement whose verisimilitude is underscored by the shaky camera, the tiny sound, and the clear focus on that singer.  There's a few videos I've found like this, and down the road I want to look at a few of them together.

Tonight we'll finish up with one more from fun., their Christmas song: