No Radio Free Lunch!

A blog about pop music and everything else by Eric D. Johnson

No Radio Free Lunch (Blog)

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.
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One comment on “No Radio Free Lunch (Blog)

  1. Eric D. Johnson
    August 5, 2014

    Looking aback over this older post, there’s also something else in Stephen Merrit’s comments that I should have noticed. He consistently says “British people” when he means “British white people. The comparative construction he’s actually posing, per his full sentences,is “British white people” vs/sounding like “American black people.” But he says “British people”, because, you know, “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack.” Nice vanishing trick Stephen! You just made, or helped keep, hundreds of thousands of people, as well as Britians colonial past, invisible!

    Now, I’ll admit that, when I first saw Quadrophenia at 15, I was pretty surprised to see Jimmy the Mod running with Black Britons. I knew, intellectually, that there were black folks in Britian. But, they didn’t fit into my conception of “Britishness.” But, I was 15. Nobody was running my quotes in the LA Times. I fthey had been, I would have been a damn sight more precise than Merrit was.

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This entry was posted on July 6, 2012 by in No Radio Free Lunch Bog.
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