Rants: Feel My Pain

This week in real life “Snob News” I took dear Mama Snob to see “Cadillac Records.” Despite her disdain for all profanity (and the fact that she hadn’t seen a film in a theater since “Harlem Nights” back in 1989), she wanted to see the film because she is a fan of the blues, hardcore.

Mama Snob spent much of my formative years teaching and torturing my sisters and myself with blues music. Everything from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (who’s doppelgangers were in the film) to B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor (who is actually R&B if you ask my mother), ZZ Hill, Denise LaSalle and Koko Taylor. Some of it I grew to love. Others I still can’t stand to this very day. (I truly do not want to pitch a wang-dang-doodle all night long. Or put on my “wig hat,” as LaSalle suggests on one ditty.) But watching the film and, most notably, Beyonce Knowles’ portrayal of Etta James reminded me of what separates great art from great pop art.

In the film, Beyonce is playing Etta James, a woman with a distinct, passionate voice that hits you emotionally to your core. Some of her songs are joyous. Some are gospel. Some are blues. All hit with an undercurrent of suffering.

Beyonce is a perfected R&B/Pop princess with a pristine, over-worked voice who can kill stylistically, but has never moved me emotionally. Basically, her acrobatics are amazing, but she could also be the T-888 of pop singers.

She has been successful in moving me to the dance floor. That’s been a capability of hers since I was in college and someone would throw on “Bills, Bills, Bills.” She’s the queen of the “all-sass, all-the-time, independent/strong black woman” song. The “I’m so awesome and don’t need your tired ass” song, that — as I’ve mentioned before — is more science fiction than reality in relationships. Yeah, sometimes you get to wave it in a guy’s face and sing “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it,” but most of the time it’s just you, drunk, at home, watching “Mo’ Betta Blues” for the millionth time wondering why-oh-why won’t Denzel Washington come to your house and beg you to save his life?

Did I ever stand in your way, Denzel? Did I ever try to stop you from doing what you wanted to do!?! The only reason you’re here is because you can’t play anymore!

As I watched Beyonce emote her way through the film (and she tried to emote her little ass off), there was something not quite right. Knowles admitted that she really had to dig deep as an actor because of Etta’s anger and inner turmoil, (Etta had it rough and really, really liked liquor and smack, etc., etc.) At the end of the day, she came up with a convincing facsimile of suffering, but I never, for the life of me, believed in that suffering.

It’s not that I don’t think Beyonce has inner drama. Everyone does. Everyone has doubt and failings and pain. My argument is that Beyonce does not want you to know of this drama, any real drama, that is. She’s closely guarded with an even more tightly guarded image. She is more about being the fantasy of what she thinks you want her to be (cue “Sasha Fierce!”) rather than revealing anything of character.

In “Cadillac Records,” Adrian Brody’s character, Leonard Cohen, argues with Beyonce’s James’ lack of emotion in her initial takes of the song “All I Could Do Was Cry.” He makes the point that the song is about a woman watching another woman marry the man she loves. James’ digs deep and finds that pain, albeit it’s not about being dumped by a long-lost love. A scene later you learn about her being the neglected, bastard child of a white man.

Beyonce does good work with the scene, as she does with her few scenes in the movie (the film rushes in so many huge personalities that no one seems to get any justice as a character, including Etta James). But the scene underscores the point that it really doesn’t matter when the song is about pain. The pain has to be real for the song to have meaning. And that’s what separates someone with a wonderful voice who makes an outstanding pop artist from a true artist.

A true artist brings the pain.

I don’t have to convince you that original Fugee’s member, musical genius and lost child, Lauryn Hill has issues. We all know, homegirl has issues. But often, when I wanted to think of a modern song, like Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” or Issac Hayes’ cover of “Walk On By” that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry, I think of Hill’s “Ex-Factor.”

“Ex-Factor,” on its face, can be taken as a brilliant love unrequited/love denied ballad, but it doesn’t stop there. As Hill explores deeper and deeper into the song and lays out her blueprint of pain, it becomes very apparent that this song doesn’t have to be about a crappy boyfriend or a wayward husband or a married man who won’t leave his wife for you. By the end of the song it is a plea for undying love, the kind you’re supposed to get from the first man to ever love you — your father. And once you cross that threshold suddenly the song is about abandonment — by anyone. Did your mother abandon you? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Did you grow up and age out of the child welfare system? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Were you abused as a child? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Did you spend 35 years as a housewife, raising five kids to find out that your husband has another woman and another five kids, secretly, on the other side of the country? Cry! Ex-Factor is for you.

Hell, you don’t even have to be a woman to cry during Ex-Factor. Just be from the land of broken toys. Be the neglected. Be the rejected. Once you get to the end where Hill pleads, “you said you’d be there for me” over
and over she could be singing Pslams for all I know, wondering where is God and why He abandoned her. That’s how universal, yet specific, her vocal pain is.

And what does Knowles have? “If I Were A Boy?” a song, I HATE WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING. It’s a nice enough song. But it’s not particularly deep or painful. It basically entails that if Knowles were a man all she’d do is drink and hang out with guys without question. The video doesn’t hit any harder, which didn’t seem to relate to gender politics at all if you ask any guy whoever had a girlfriend cheat on him with a co-worker. It also resonates if you’re a man who has been routinely emasculated by the woman you love. (BB once sang how he gave you seven children and now you want to send them back!) These things are pretty common place. If anything, I thought the video was about gender equity among cheaters.

Women! We can cheat too! Except, we always have! So never mind!

And, gee. I think Gwen Stefani and the rest of No Doubt addressed this issue better on “Just A Girl” back in 1995. Or Leslie Gore on “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964. Or hey, how about less than two years ago, by Ciara, on a track called “Like A Boy,” a song I actually enjoyed despite it being a blatant Aaliyah rip-off, down to the baggy pants, hair weave and wonderful pop n’ lock routine. At least on the somewhat gimmicky, but fun single it was about being angry that the rules of sex and sexuality were different for men and women. Both Ciara’s and Beyonce’s songs tread similar gender role themes (staying out all night, turning off your phone, etc.) But Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy” is a sappy, whiny “This Used to Be My Playground”-esque ballad about pseudo-feminism.

Ciara is doing her best Leslie Gore of, “how would you like it if I did it to you, huh? You wouldn’t like that would you! We totally aren’t going to prom now!”

And it’s not like Ciara has a catalog of pain to draw back on (that I know of). But she makes it work. Largely because it’s a revenge fantasy, not about how awesome Ciara is and that she could do that to a guy, but that she WISHES she could do that to a guy. Never once does she say, “Screw this. I’m converting to being an ass.”

And I’m not a big fan of Mary J. Blige, but I call feel the capillaries bursting on every one of her tracks. When she sang that she couldn’t be without you, I believed she could not be without that person. Same went for “No More Drama,” another song which makes me cry despite my best efforts, because, in the end, you are responding to her raw emotion, her appeal to wanting to leave a tumultuous life behind and be the person she wants to be.

Some people say Beyonce wants greatness, hence why she chases those who already have it (see James, Etta). I can’t blame her. A lot of us do. This would also explain why at the last few of Grammy Awards she sang with Tina Turner and Prince as if their true measure of pain and “fierce” would rub off by osmosis. She’s obviously a hard worker, but no amount of hard work can fake pain. When Prince sang “When Doves Cry” you may not have known what the song was about in 1984. Maybe you still don’t. But you know he’s broken up over something. A woman. His parents. God. Himself. Ultimately, for me, the song is about obsession. But, sex, Jesus or obsession are good fallback explanations for nearly every Prince song.

Turner is the same way. She didn’t even write “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” yet the emotions, the sound, the pain were all Tina’s. No amount of wonderful song writing can create that.

I’m not saying Beyonce needs to get in a dysfunctional relationship, be abandoned by her family, pick up a drug habit (or several drug habits), become completely disillusioned by fame and moved to the islands, become a conflicted Christian who went pop or go nutbar on me but the great ones give up some pain. There’s really no way around it. Without the pain, you’re just a more charming Mariah Carey who can actually dance. Or worse, Janet Jackson with better vocals.

Both Mariah and Janet have outstanding pop careers. And if you want to be a wealthy, beloved, popular singer, you’re on their heels of catching and surpassing them in sales and accolades. But Whitney, the trainwreck everyone roots for, you will not. Beyonce Knowles can’t convince me she knows the blues. It’s her only real flaw as a performer. Her kryptonite. But she shouldn’t feel bad. It’s a pretty common flaw among pop singers. Usher can kiss Dead James Brown’s ass all he wants. He’ll still sound like someone said “just push play.”

71 thoughts on “Rants: Feel My Pain

  1. researchbuff: It’s hard to get things greenlit for black actors period, so Hollywood, being lazy, casts the same folks over and over hoping for cash to jingle out of everyone’s pockets. So some of it’s Berry and Beyonce, but a lot of it is the system which is limited in who they consider risk worthy, bankable actors. A studio, who would be putting up the funds for the film, may balk at someone they consider a lesser known despite their talent (see Wright, N’Bushe). Black actors in general get so few roles, so you don’t have situations like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or “The Departed” where an actor can start out developing a role for themselves, but passing on it and giving it to someone else. (In the case of The Departed, Brad Pitt originally produced the film with the intention to star, but passed the role over to Matt Damon.) But tons of films are being produced, independent and major studio, starring white actors, so, by virtue, there are more known entities, hence, a studio wouldn’t balk at losing a Pitt, but gaining a Damon.But lose a Berry and you have …??? And this isn’t just a black actress problem (although it’s very pronounced with black actresses). Actresses of all races have horrendous times getting decent roles. The few available are all being monopolized by the same five people (Kate Hudson, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon). And Berry isn’t even a guaranteed money earner, she’s just a household name. Like Beyonce.Studios are simply buying the brand.If they had any sense, they would nurture talent instead of waiting for talent to bite them in the ass, but this is how Hollywood prefers it when it comes to black people. You make a name for yourself first (re: Tyler Perry) and then MAYBE we’ll give you some money to make your little film.Maybe.Black men have it slightly better (but not by much). I can at least name five or six black actors who can “open” a movie by Hollywood’s definition — Denzel, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Eddie Murphy and sometimes Morgan Freeman. Seven if you count Wesley in the 90s before he ruined his career. But actresses have always had it bad with “the girlfriend of the hero” being the number one role for women and most black actresses NEVER get cast as the girl who gets loved up or needs to be rescued. Not even Berry. We usually get “Brittany Murphy’s BFF.” I think Kerry Washington has played that role five or six times now. So, I think this is more Beyonce capitalizing on Hollywood’s lazy system, not so much of her or Halle hogging the parts (when there seriously are no parts. Berry has an Oscar. What is she in right now? Is she even working?)There aren’t any parts and the film industry has no imagination and WILL NOT take “risks” (real or perceived) on black talent.What would be great if black entertainment types banded together and came up with their own production/studio house to churn out better quality films and more parts to prove to Hollywood there is a market for the “unknown” black actors. But until then … Prepare to see Beyonce in EVERYTHING from now until she’s not hot anymore.

  2. Snob, you seem surprised that the 'chosen ones' like the Beyonces' of the world are vapid, soulless and robotic. You have to DIG DEEP to find real beauty and talent amoung the tripe marketed to the masses. Most folks are lazy. They don't even TRY to find quality artists. How many people here regularly go to independent cinema or venture out to tiny lounges to see and support real artists? Given the responses you received to the Beyonce-alternatives…well I say the alternatives even suck, and it's indicative of the taste level of your posters. If Lauryn Hill is the only artist you can scare up, that says a lot.I can tell you guys grew up post-MTV, and didn't have the luxury of LISTENing to fantastic artists, and never SEEing them. Most music was on vinyl with a hole in the middle, and the artist's name & record company emblazoned on the label and, well, that was it. I grew up in a time where they didn't have to peddle someone 'recognizable as talent.' That was left for the consumer to figure out on their own. Those artists could never get signed today in the shallow, looksist, hopelessly-perfectionistic, artless society we live in.I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm accustomed to seeking out artistry and not having ad-execs market a handful of so-called artists to me. Posters seem to be content to do without real black artists. How many of you support black filmmakers in the beginning stages of their careers (to MAKE a film?) How many of you go to out-of-the-way art galleries the minute a black artist has an exhibition? I can tell you for a fact Snob, so many of us ask these questions but don't realize the cause/effect connections. Much of the time we say, we want this or that, but our actions dictate who we support. You can't talk about the lack of great black films, while you're out buying bootleg DVDs. You can't argue about the depiction of black women in film when you support Tyler Perry.Anyway, this is a topic I can go on and on about. I'll stop here for now.

  3. Black Snob, you’re speaking my language now. You know what’s funny. When Angela Bassett tried to have that conversation about the quality of roles offered to black actresses, what happened? People felt that somehow she was berating Berry. Unfortunately, there are a number of conversations that we refuse to have because we don’t want to be labeled as haters. Bravo, I agree with your post.

  4. Wonderful analysis on Ms. Knowles. She has always bothered me, by the amount of attention she garners from fans and the media. I don’t knock her talent as a singer. But she needs to stay away from film. She always comes across as either wooden or very plastic to me.

  5. Thank you so much for the Breakdown on Beyonce! I think that Ms. Knowles can sing, and has genuine, world class talent, but she isn't my go-to girl when I need to hear real, true, bodice bursting, tears running down my face emotion from a vocalist.(With that in mind,I'm going to seek out Lauryn's "Ex-Factor". It sounds like my type of song.)Aulelia, I absolutely love Shirley Bassey, too, however I disagree that there are no other massive black R&B singers who are relatively young out here (England). You will have heard of one 20 year old Alexandra Burke by now, and the world will get to know her name, too, soon enough.That young lady has the vocal cords, the charisma, and the looks. It has been quite a while since I heard a voice that I kept wanting to hear over and over again. Having heard and seen her go toe to toe with Beyonce singing "Listen" on TV's X Factor a few weeks back, I was surprised -and very pleased! – at how Alexandra not only held her own, but gave more than a hint of how things are going to be changing soon in the league of top women singers. She's just finished 2008 with the biggest selling record of the year, broken European download records and topped the Christmas charts with Leona at 2, and Beyonce at 3. And she's only been out here for about, what, 3 weeks or so. Also, she was just singing live a couple of hours ago from the O2 Arena, as a guest of Elton John (love him), and that audience just ate her up. She has longevity written all over her.I revisited my "Dreamgirls" CD, and, well, listened to "Listen" again. Alexandra sings it as it it was written for her and her alone. Can't wait to hear more from this young lady.

  6. Love Mo’ Better Blues, Denzel at his finest.My little neice and nephews love her and one had the nerve to say that Bey was to them what Whitney was to us. So young, so ignorant. Anyway, enjoyed the post. Anywhere else and this discussion would have dwindled down to haters versus stans with a lot of name calling in between.

  7. (Without reading any other comments…)Oh Leslie Gore… I was just watching “The First Wives Club” today (that’s my default movie when my non-cable TV is churning out a bunch of BLEH). I’ve had “You Don’t Own Me” stuck in my head all day…Good stuff 🙂

  8. Great post and analysis. I’m new to the blog and have been reading anonymously but I had to add my two cents.Beyonce as Etta James was miscasting at it’s best (worst?) She was miscast in “Dreamgirls” as well but that’s a whole other story. I must add another sit down, pour yourself a stiff drink and cry song. “Sit Down and Cry” by Aretha Franklin was never released as a single (I don’t think), it’s on one of her albums, and it never fails to leave me in a sodden heap on the floor.Keep up the good work.

  9. Wow! This is really excellent writing.And I totally agree with you about Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” (and almost any down-tempo track on that amazing album.) Another person who could sing (and write!) with real pathos is Tracy Chapman. Every song on her debut album is chilling.

  10. Let me spread some info here since people seem to be completely unaware of what is going on with this chick.It is really nice that the people that mention she is a great singer and the best pop star in the industry also conveniently forget to mention how she got there. First of all she is NOT an artist she is a BRAND like McDonald. A lot of money has been spent (bought) to get her success. Lying about writing songs to get credit, stealing of complete songs, law suits that go a mile long, fraud going on behind the scenes to make her appear successful and basically the copying of other singers or celebrities that have done the hard work to create their craft. It’s really cute of some people probably (stans) to quickly glance over that. If you have to do so much dirt to even become famous what is the point.Well all i have to say to everyone here who thinks she is a real artist, you might want to do some research on her and find out the REAL reason why she’s not saying anything and it has NOTHING to do with being private. Two reasons!1- she’s a moron, she doesn’t have the intelligence to conduct a normal interview because she didn’t even finish high school. A lot of effort has been put to have her do as little non-scripted interviews as possible to hide this fact. Since education has never been placed high for her and her family, the point has come where she can’t fake it like in the music industry. Acting is about being honest with yourself and not letting you ego control your emotions (see jennifer lopez, madonna). Unfortunately she and her family and quite delusional and really think she can act. This is going to be one hell of a train wreck because of their stubbornness to see that. 2-like i said there has been so much dirt and fraud going on behind the scene to make her APPEAR successful that she has to be very careful about what she says. Unfortunately for her she is NOT a hustler but a MORON so she is not able to be smart enough to not let her mouth run all kinds of nonsense. Which is why she got busted numerous times.I can tell from different blogs that more and more people are starting to find out about her dirt but right now those are just little pieces of the puzzle. Once the media or someone else picks up on ALL the dirty methods she and her family have done to get her where she is, it is going to be GAME OVER!In my honest opinion that is going to be her real karma. The one thing that she is going to want (which is become an icon) is something she will never get!You can’t be an icon if your whole career was based on lying, cheating and most important taking work from other artists and making it your own.That only makes you a copycat AND a fraud. And THAT what people are going to remember her by when everything is revealed!Also just one more thing.People need to stop saying she is the only black actress chosen in Hollywood. She is NOT and putting her name against Halle Berry is an insult to an Oscar winner.She has only been offered small roles (AS A SINGER!) up to dreamgirls. She has NEVER opened a movie by herself and has always hid behind other actors, so this whole she is putting butts in the theater talk is nonsense. And after dreamgirls she is now BUYING ROLES AND CASTING HERSELF!!!!. She is not in high demand she and her team are just making it seem that way but as i was talking about KARMA earlier on that will make no differents, she can’t act, doesn’t have enough people that want to see her act (cadillac records) and she WILL continue to flop until it becomes painfully clear she is way out of her league. Thank god acting is a skill where there is just no way to cheat.

  11. I am no huge fan of Beyonce but she is what she is — a pop star. It is no deeper than that. To try to ascribe to her a depth she shouldn’t necessarily have or to lament the fact that she isn’t more than she is a exercise in futility. I applaud her because she is doing her thing. She is dancing and signing and striving and working her ass off. What she is doing may not be to your taste but she is what she is.She shouldn’t be blamed for taking a role that she was offered and given the opportunity to strive even more. The blame, if there is place to blame anyone, is the Hollywood system. Like Snob mentioned above Hollywood as a system in casting for films is incredibly shortsighted and lazy. They don’t want to find and nurture talent, they want a sure thing (someone people already know) or they want lightning in a bottle. If it were up to them Angelina Jolie would be in every movie (and imo she’s not that great of an actress either).In regards Halle Berry — Halle is not a power broker in Hollywood. She never appears on the power broker lists. She is the most recognizable black actress but even she herself continues to mention that she is still subject to racism in Hollywood. If you want to point fingers to black people who are in a position of power to nurture or introduce new talent then look to Oprah or Shonda Rimes (who continues to piss me off that she doesn’t bother to cast any other black actresses on her show but has a revolving door of young, nubile white actresses).

  12. I totally agree with Anonymous no.81 about Alexandra Burke. Alexandra really held her own against Beyonce when singing but let her self waaay down by blubbing all over the place and kissing Beyonce’s arse. (Seriously find it on youtube – X Factor 2008 final, girl should have just said “Beyonce, hook me up and be my friend, pleeeeeease!) That girl has some soul in her and knows what it means to SING not just give a show, unfortunately Beyonce doesn’t seem to understand that the former needs to be mastered if you’re gonna be giving shows in 20 years. When she’s 55 and can no longer rock a pair of knickers and a sparkly top and call it an outfit, how many people will be lining up to hear her warble through “Green Light”?

  13. I agree with the Anon who said not to blame Beyonce, blame the Hollywood casting directors. That being said, I refuse to watch Beyonce play Etta. It is a totally preposterous and impossible thing for me to pretend like America’s Favorite Black Pop Princess has even a scintilla of the soul and life that Etta had. Great breakdown, Snob!

  14. You broke things down quite well. And I’m glad that I’m not the only one who has such a strong hatred for that got-damn “If I Were A Boy”. I just disagree with one small thing – you have to love Mary J. Blige LOL! I love her music. It reaches to the deepest recesses of my soul. Tina, Chaka, Aretha, Mary, Faith, discombobulated Lauryn, Whitney, Anita, Mavis, etc….. you ccan just feel them throughtout every fiber of your being when they sing. Beyonce, on the other hand, is shallow and superficial. She’s like cotton candy – a lot of fluff and no substance. She reminds me of a friend of mine actually, who happens to love Beyonce.I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who is annoyed by Beyonce.

  15. I’ve never been a fan of Beyonce but I can’t be mad at her attempts of shielding her real self from the world. Lauryn Hill gave up her pain and spoke truth and now everyone has something to say… she’s crazy for having so many kids, insane for walking away from a red hot career, a maniac for shaving her locs, loopy for her husband. Beyonce’s misguided way she’s just trying to protect herself. Which in the end is futile because now we criticize her cuz she won’t give us enough to criticize. Of course the sacrifice she makes is real passion, intensity, and grit in her music.

  16. Wow…this has to be one of my favorite blogs of yours to date. You actually brought me to tears, the way you described where the emotion in the songs come from, the underlying father issues, family issues, etc…you are so on point. This was beautifully written and so deep! I love it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top
%d bloggers like this: