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.”