For all you relatively new Snob readers my blog has not typically been all politics all the time. Things were a bit more balanced with the racial issues, the pop culture, the who is “sexy” definitions, occasional blog post series and rant. But I tend to write about what I’m excited over, so naturally that would be Sarah Palin striking out on softballs like “what’s your favorite newspaper” and “name a Supreme Court decision you hated other than Roe v. Wade.”
Seriously. I can name a few off the top of my head that I hated (Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Hazelwood Central High School case that determined that high school students didn’t have the right to free speech and a later case involving a kid with a joke sign — blunts for Jesus — that backed that decision up, etc., etc. Maybe John McCain should have picked me!)
But that’s besides the point. I want to talk (write) about something I’ve been thinking about for the past three days and that is the phenomenon of white people who sing like black people.
Now there have always been white people who have tried (successfully and unsuccessful) to mime the sounds of rural Southern blues guys and gals or the upbeat tenors of the Northern soul stars of Stax and Motown. And who can blame them? Along with American Folk and country music, the blues’ twangy, pickin’ and grinnin’ cousin, black music (spirituals/gospel, blues, jazz, soul, funk, R&B and hip hop) is American music. When four guys in Liverpool, England wondered what America sounded like they weren’t thinking of Woody Guthrie and John Phillip Sousa.
Early rock n’ roller and chronic music theft victim Little Richard will gladly tell you that they, Disney and everyone else ripped him off.
I realize that some of the popularity of black music had to do with the fact that originally it was frowned upon to even admit to listening to it outside of, say, Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat and the occasional Nat King Cole medley. But a lot of it had to do with the impassioned moaning, ululating style of singing that typically comes from the diaphragm rather than the throat (like in opera), the use of percussion and our love for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to sing about. From secret instructions in songs about the Bible on how to get away on the Underground Railroad to ordering you to “Pitch a wang dang doodle all night long” while dancing in a sexually suggestive manner.
Black music brings people together so it’s only natural that a lot of white people, especially those who either grew up influenced by black rock n’ roll of the 1950s or grew up watching MTV, would want to sing like the artists they admire the most. The TV show American Idol is living proof of that. I’ve heard numerous critics lament that the only style of singing the show tends to respect or reward is the screeching, belting, warbling, overwrought power ballads that thread the Aretha Franklin-Whitney Houston-Donna Summer-Celine Dion-Mariah Carey singing continuum.
I’m sorry, fellow music snobs. Trying to emulate Aretha or Etta James or Big Momma Thorton or Betty Wright became mainstream amongst female singers somewhere around 1968. The popularity of Mary J. Blige and Beyonce only reaffirm that the masses like their pop with a lot of black diva in it.
But there was a time when the “white sings black” paradigm was more of a novelty and often didn’t involve someone who actually “sounded” black.
Like I’d never mistake Paul McCartney for Jackie Wilson, Mick Jagger for James Brown or Rod Stewart for Sam Cooke. (Not that I’m knocking any of these fellas for trying as I like The Beatles and love both The Rolling Stones and Stewart.) Elvis Presley got closer. If you can get over the fact that he basically took what every successful black bluesman in Memphis was doing and did it when those same black bluesmen could not get on national television and suggestively pump their pelvises for money, you can really enjoy the irony of Elvis crooning “In the Ghetto.”
I swear, first time I heard this song when I was twenty it was the biggest “WTF” of my life, I kid you not.
But of this particular era Janis Joplin probably came the closest, raising the level of incredible with “Piece of My Heart,” followed by a cadre of 1970s acts including Alicia Bridges, Average White Band, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees, a pre-“Say No Go” Hall & Oates and a disco Rod Stewart on a near career respectability wrecking “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”
Marie was the first white singer signed by Motown and performed tracks with Rick James. McDonald (who’s
unusual singing style almost anyone can do a serviceable parody of) has put out excellent soul and R&B and even had the balls to take on Patti LaBelle in one of the greatest love duets of the 1980s, “On My Own.”
Marie and the former Dobbie are immensely talented, yet despite their skills the number of white people singing like black people diminished greatly after the 1970s, leaving Marie and McDonald among the few, the proud, the only white R&B singers.
Then something very strange started in the mid-1990s.
At first it was just a few wanderers with mixed results. Like the soulful cool of Lisa Stansfield and the one-hit-wonder that was Jon B. The vanilla flavored alternative to New Edition — New Kids on the Block.
Celine Dion showed up fresh from Canada with her huge pipes giving Mariah Carey a run for her time on the charts. Then after a plethora of pop boy bands and pop tartlets burst onto the scene, an explosion of white people singing soul and R&B seized the stage.
Christina Aguilera begat P!nk. P!nk begat Justin Timberlake. Timberlake begat Robin Thicke. And then came Jojo, Joss Stone, Anastasia, Amy Winehouse, Sia, Adele, Duffy, James Morrison, etc. A lot of these individuals, no surprise, are British carrying on and perfecting a musical tradition.
These weren’t just white people who liked to sing with black people (see George Michael, Elton John, Madonna, Boy George or Annie Lennox). These are white people who sounded almost indistinguishable from their Negro contemporaries. Obviously growing up with a love for old soul and the new, they committed themselves to mastering the attitude and style with mixed cool points from African Americans.
A lot of the Brits get a general pass. Mostly because they’re somewhat divorced from our little racial drama here in the US and their music is often not marketed to an urban audience because they’re singing classic soul/R&B. As for the Americans, there’s a constant debate going on. Black people like Christina Aguilera generally and P!nk has moved away some from her original R&B debut, going rock.
But, you can’t bring up Timberlake or Thicke without a fight breaking out. Timberlake is sometimes seen as “the great pretender,” the slippery, arrogant individual who cool hyped his way into black music, hiring the best black producers to make up for his shortfalls as a falsetto singer. Others just enjoy Timbaland’s production and Timberlake’s interpretation.
Thicke is often lumped in with Timberlake, but his falsetto is far superior with more clarity and control. He sometimes gets points for his pure workmanship (and some give him a pass for having a black wife).
But when you’re a white American trying to make it in the R&B world with a black audience, not just white people, you’re going to catch some additional scrutinty. We’re the arbitrars of the cool and we take ownership of it. You sing, we decide if you’re in it for the love or the exploitation. Because that’s what it comes down to. Black people are forever concerned about being ripped off. Just as Little Richard still cries out for his lost earnings, so many black people are protective of their art, not wanting to see it coopted by individuals who show no love.
The fact is, the market doesn’t care.
Americans love black music no matter who is singing it. Therefore Justin Timberlake doesn’t have to meet “black” standards. By black standards he’d be fighting it out with Ne-Yo, Trey Songz, Mario and Omarion to get some airplay after Usher Raymond and R. Kelly. (If he would get signed to a label at all.) His sin was that he didn’t meet the “standard.” He wasn’t as good or better than any black performer warbling. He was passable, but assisted by his own fame as the most talented singer in his former boy band. This is different from P!nk and Aguilera (especially P!nk) who both stuck to a more pure pop/R&B format, with P!nk directly going for a black audience when she first debuted.
In the end, things are much different now from how they were when Elvis coopted black style and made himself “The King.” Hip hop is so authentically black that white rappers are actually at a terrible disadvantage when trying to get signed and promoted. And black performers now dominate The Grammys and the American Music Awards.
Aguilera has some incredible pipes, but she has to exist at the same time as Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. Even relative newcomer Keysha Cole could give Aguilera a run for her money. And black people shouldn’t worry as much about whether or not Robin Thicke is a poser. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and our people created one of the most imitated art forms in the world.
Let the white people si