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March 6, 2011 1:50 PM   Subscribe

How Soul Music Became "Soul Music." A writer takes the occasion of the release of Adele's new album, 21, to explore the popularity and implications of the young British soul singers. "Because if we're truly living in an age that defies stereotypes and explodes clichés, where distances of all kinds have been virtually obliterated, then everything—timbre, blue notes, pronunciation, timing, diction—is available as stylistic options." posted by beisny (36 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
...once again proving that the British absolutely dominate the field of pop music (at the very least, on a per-capita basis).

The London Folk scene has also been impressively productive over the past few years, producing acts such as Noah & The Whale, Laura Marling, and Mumford & Sons (who recently received some well-deserved recognition from their performance at the Grammys). I can't think of any particularly notable US folk groups that have broken into the mainstream indie canon in the last decade apart from Fleet Foxes...

Great post. Thanks.
posted by schmod at 2:02 PM on March 6, 2011


I have no idea what that essay is trying to say, but whatever it is, I'm pretty sure I disagree.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 2:04 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, overthinking on a grand scale. "21" is incredibly awesome, might be the best record of the year, regardless of influences or genre.
posted by jbickers at 2:08 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


For me, these ride a fine line between heartfelt r&b numbers in the old tradition, and less than classy imitation of something done better long ago. But I'll still take most of it over the alternative stuff that populates the pop charts.

Also I'm sad that in a conversation about modern British interpretations of American soul, there is no mention of artists from the "electronic" side of the spectrum like Jamie Lidell or James Blake into the conversation.
posted by p3t3 at 2:13 PM on March 6, 2011


Why would a piece be titled "Listening to Adele's New Album" when it provides no indication that its author has spent any time doing so?

Spies makes some compelling-enough points about aesthetic conventions, autobiographical readings-into of popular music (and particularly Black music), and British musicians' relationships to Black American cultural forms, but ends up coming off as a total shit by trying to pass it off as a record review. Also, referring to a group of women in their twenties as "girls" in the first sentence doesn't really inspire confidence.

FWIW, I found 21 less prone to pastiche than Adele's first album, if similarly hit-and-miss in other regards (though I'll allow that the hits hit hard).
posted by wreckingball at 2:15 PM on March 6, 2011


This was particularly interesting to read right after having watched Spike Lee's brilliant filming of Passing Strange, a rocking musical (or is that a concept album as a stage show?) about a black man from South Central (not the 'hood part) who, after having some experience with black church music (in which he hears rock and roll), ends up leaving the US and living in Amsterdam and Berlin, becomes involved in the punk scene there, sells himself falsely to the others in his collective as being hardcore ghetto, and finally finds his own true course in life once he returns to the US.

The search for authentic identity is the main thrust of that piece, and I see the author here struggling with the same themes.

Is it somehow inappropriate for these young british white women to be adopting the stylings of soul music? I certainly don't think so. But then, music is an odd thing all around. There certainly aren't many black rockers. But a lot of the powerhouse jazz figures from the past were white, having taken on the style of black performers that founded and popularized the form to begin with.

I think at its core, this article is having some problems with the word "soul". It seems to skirt pretty close to low-level racism by suggesting that "soul" is something which only black people have, and anyone white who attempts to move into that artistic expression only has "style". It seems to be sort of the music criticism equivalent of saying "white men can't jump".
posted by hippybear at 2:20 PM on March 6, 2011


I'm very sorry, but this article kinda ticked me off. Whatever the author is trying to say, he is very confident about it I will give him that.

I'm trying to understand this, but he says good things like they're bad, and mentions bad things as if they were good. Or I could just be really confused.

He disses Aretha Franklin and the entirety of (black American) soul music as being too heavily tainted by America's preoccupation with race and class. He reduces soul music to what (he claims) white Americans get out of it and how they interpret it. What black people think about it is..irrelevant here? He proclaims popular soul music dead, and this is touted as a good thing. Apparently the British understand soul music (and the blues?) better because they can capture the theatricality and artistry of it, since there's no racism or class-ism in Great Britain to undermine the music.

This is yet another one of those articles that references "we" but I don't know who "we" are supposed to be. Take this point about Drake:

It's fitting that Drake—the bar mitzvahed son of a white-Canadian, Jewish mother and an African-American father—has become a darling of hip-hop. Raised in an affluent Toronto neighborhood, his artistic legitimacy has nothing to do with a typical hardscrabble back story, which suggests we're beginning to view the performer in a manner similar to the way we view the novelist, whose books are accepted as works of the imagination, not autobiography. So perhaps we're evolving. Perhaps we're looking to meet the singer in a more neutral space, where one's voice can float freely, unhinged from received narratives.

I'm sorry, but who exactly couldn't appreciate hip hop unless there was a "hardscrabble back story" attached? This is so shallow. Not only does he not understand Drake (whose A-list status stems from his production talents, and whose African-American family contains black music royalty which counts for something), but he seems to be saying black people in America who have created and loved so much soul music are primitive in their understanding of soul music. I mean "soul" music.

Berry Gordy is singled out for praise because he understood that music should be highly calculated and concerned with style, not substance, or...wait, what? That's not even wrong.

On preview, hippybear I read the article very differently than you. I don't think he is saying it is inappropriate for these white British women to "[adopt] the stylings of soul music". On the contrary, he seems to be saying that what they do is better because it's not weighed down by all of the history and emotion that taints American soul music. And he is arguing that "style" trumps "soul". Which, fine, but he didn't have to be so racist about it.
posted by Danila at 2:27 PM on March 6, 2011 [14 favorites]


I can't think of any particularly notable US folk groups that have broken into the mainstream indie canon in the last decade apart from Fleet Foxes...

Old Crow Medicine Show?
Avett Brothers (who, I remind you, was on the same Grammy stage as Mumford And Sons)?
Band of Horses (well, to a point; Grand Archives is folk-ier)?
Ray LeMontagne?

And with Jessica Lea Mayfield (rightly) about to break out, there's another potential candidate.
posted by dw at 2:28 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


When did Slate hire away all the Atlantic contrarian writers, anyway? All I hear is how the Atlantic is suddenly good again while every damn article on Slate nowadays is pointless skepticism crafted to get angry people to click 'n' comment.
posted by dw at 2:33 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also Josh Ritter.
And from a different part of the musical spectrum, Gillian Welch.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:34 PM on March 6, 2011


And from a different part of the musical spectrum, Gillian Welch.

She doesn't fit the "last decade" requirement (given Revival came out in 1995). But speaking of, could someone please poke her and Dave Rawlings with a sharpened stick until she finally gets a new album out? It's been 8 YEARS already.
posted by dw at 2:37 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't think of any particularly notable US folk groups that have broken into the mainstream indie canon in the last decade apart from Fleet Foxes...

what
posted by Avenger50 at 2:37 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I forgot Laura Viers. Erin McKeown just slides outside the "last decade" window by a year (Distillation came out in 2000). And Laura Gibson's been hovering close to breaking through, too.

Anyway, no, not just Fleet Foxes.
posted by dw at 2:41 PM on March 6, 2011


This reminds me of Mos Def: "...Elvis Presley ain't got no soul" - I never really agreed with but I know where he is coming from. Elvis stood on the shoulders of (unwilling) giants and many of his fans thought he was simply that tall. But I feel that I can I enjoy "Tears Dry On Their Own" while at the same time lamenting the ignorance of someone who's oblivious to the "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" reference/sample.
posted by beisny at 2:46 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The London Folk scene has also been impressively productive over the past few years, producing acts such as Noah & The Whale, Laura Marling, and Mumford & Sons

I think the real gems of the current British folk groups are The Unthanks. The Testimony of Patience Kershaw is one of the most wonderful songs I've ever heard.

They aren't very London though...
posted by dng at 2:50 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hilton Als once said of Aretha Franklin: "Her big black sound appealed to whites because it was easy to grasp; she sounded just the way white people imagined a black woman would sound—plaintive but feisty, indomitable but sad." This is not so much a critique of Aretha as it is the narrative suggested by (or projected on) her music; it's an argument against caricature.

I'm so sick of this kind of bullshit. That anyone would walk so close to the line of calling Aretha Franklin some sort of singing Aunt Jemima--famous for no other reason than satisfying white stereotypes about black culture--is just aggravating enough to merit a punch in the face.
posted by jefficator at 2:53 PM on March 6, 2011 [11 favorites]


Joanna Newsom, surely...
posted by kaibutsu at 2:59 PM on March 6, 2011


What an incredibly annoying article.

Also, I feel a bit dirty listening to a lot of this soul revival stuff. (Well, at least rubbish like Duffy - I love Amy Winehouse.) I love soul music, and I love Aretha Franklin, and if she were 21 I doubt she would be reinventing some wheel that started turning fifty years ago. That's one of the many reasons why she's such a raging genius. I'm not saying this new soul music shouldn't exist, and again, I even like some of it, but I don't know. I just sort of lament this backwards-looking tendency in us that makes it so popular.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:09 PM on March 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think the article should have mentioned the term 'blue eyed soul' to give it some historical perspective.
posted by alteredcarbon at 3:27 PM on March 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Over the years, "soul" has become cartoonish, almost invariably tied up with a singular, manufactured idea of "black experience"—think of the movie Precious—which is as reflective of Oprah's tastes as it is a fantasy of liberal-arts students.

"Cartoonish" to whom, exactly? To him? Like a lot of others here, I can't really see what point he's getting at other than the point that soul no longer exists (if it ever did, because it was really nothing but a marketing gimmick created by Berry Gordy), so it makes no sense to say that Adele has "soul."

The guy picks and chooses a lot of interesting quotes by well-known writers to support his argument (whatever it is). But he doesn't get at their context or the history of pop music very adroitly.

And, since he spends one sentence on the album he's ostensibly reviewing, his piece is shit. I don't love Adele, but she's got good chops and players around her and the music has some oomph. What interests me more than her music is that she's now, consciously or not, looking much the way Alison Moyet, another white British singer who also appropriated elements of soul in her music, looked back in the 1980s.
posted by blucevalo at 3:33 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


But speaking of, could someone please poke her and Dave Rawlings with a sharpened stick until she finally gets a new album out? It's been 8 YEARS already.

Well, she and Dave "The Incredible Man With No Ego" Rawlings recorded together as The Dave Rawlings Machine. Which is more than a little hilarious as, when Gillian Welch records a solo album, it features her and Dave collaborating and co-writing all of the songs. When Dave records a solo album, it features him and Gillian collaborating and co-writing all of the songs. Some library science student is going to have both a field day and a thesis about bibliographic identities with this situation.

Gillian also plays a pretty large role, at least vocally, on the latest Decemberists record. I don't know to what degree she was involved with the writing though.
posted by stet at 3:58 PM on March 6, 2011


Oh, this is a review? How strange.

Leaving aside this gentleman's complicated connotations about "soul", the fact that he not once mentions Northern Soul suggests that he doesn't understand the different ways that word might be used in the UK.

What I thought would really get folks riled here was this:

After all, musicians are no longer born out of a particular milieu; they're born on the Internet, out of nowhere.

A sentence deserving of evisceration, no? Is he attempting sarcasm?
posted by Chichibio at 4:10 PM on March 6, 2011


It always amazes me - that beautiful music that comes out of Amy Winehouse.
posted by caddis at 4:44 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Heard Jaimie Lidell's 'Compass' on the Red Dead Redemption soundtrack and was pretty blown away. Seeing him soon. Plan B is another guy doing something similar.

I think as pop music gets more and more artificial there's a yearning for emotional authenticity, whether it manifests itself in emo or soul.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:50 PM on March 6, 2011


I can't really see what point he's getting at other than the point that soul no longer exists (if it ever did, because it was really nothing but a marketing gimmick created by Berry Gordy)

thus doing away with the entirety of the output of atlantic/stax and many indie record companies in the 60s, not to mention aretha franklin, otis redding, james brown, etc etc

you just flunked 60s music 101
posted by pyramid termite at 5:52 PM on March 6, 2011


but then, country music doesn't sound that much different, either, these days - interesting how they took the feel for the verse from edie brickell and the new bohemians ...
posted by pyramid termite at 6:05 PM on March 6, 2011


For Americans, this is a new way of perceiving American music, which, for decades, has often collided with, and subsequently been bound to, the hopes and dreams and frustrations of a certain race or class or culture or cohort.

WTF, Michael Jackson? Bubbles?
posted by vhsiv at 6:32 PM on March 6, 2011


Contrary to most reading that article, I have no idea what it's about. It sort of attempts, quite lazily, to prick some bubbles, things that obviously bother the writer. He seems to be defending some nebulous concept that it's ok for white singers to sing soul, but some people now call it "soul" but that's not what it should be called anyway. I'm not sure that British white singers singing soul has much to do with notions of blackness in the US as much as retro is very "in" and extremely marketable. About as marketable as white soul singers.
The key quote, for me is this:

Which brings me back to Adele. England has always had a unique relationship to black-American music. Before the blues were accepted by whites living on Main Street, USA, it had to go to Great Britain first, where, as the story goes, bands like the Rolling Stones appropriated the form and sent it back over the airwaves to a new, willing audience that was suddenly given the courage both to listen and to play the music.

That's all well and good, but the soul that we're talking about dates back to the sixties. It's forty years old. He's talking about a reaction that America had forty years ago and but comparing it to the Britain of today. I'm not sure I understand why that's relevant. I mean, I think that most people these days would feel that it's OK for white performers to perform a style of black music that has its roots in the 60s.

So, for me this article is "meh" with a side order of "And your point is?" Still, I'm interested to hear the album. I'd also like to read an actual review.
posted by ob at 7:28 PM on March 6, 2011


He seems to be defending some nebulous concept that it's ok for white singers to sing soul, but some people now call it "soul" but that's not what it should be called anyway.

I'd just call it "Northern Soul" like Chichibio.

but who exactly couldn't appreciate hip hop unless there was a "hardscrabble back story" attached?

Fans of the movie '8 Mile'?
posted by ovvl at 8:15 PM on March 6, 2011


I just classed Adele and the other women mentioned as an extension of the Blue-eyed Soul Brit artists of the 80s, who were themselves successors to the Northern Soul artists mentioned upthread. This is not a new phenomenon nor, I imagine, one that went away, even if it wasn't always in the consciousness of Slate's music writers.
posted by immlass at 8:42 PM on March 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think Northern Soul is the same thing as soul sung by white people (Blue-Eyed Soul) though? I understand it to be a scene rather than a genre, united by a love for a certain subset of black-performed American soul music.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:04 AM on March 7, 2011


The whole thing's a bit contrived. 90% of pop and rock music worldwide is based on African American style vocals, so all this about British people have always had a unique relationship with Black American music is a load of blah - it's how everybody sings.

So there's a bit of a trend for retro soul music and people like it because it's retro and it sounds kind of nice.
posted by Not Supplied at 2:24 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Fair play for posting it. I just don't agree with the author.
posted by Not Supplied at 2:35 PM on March 7, 2011


I can't think of any particularly notable US folk groups that have broken into the mainstream indie canon in the last decade apart from Fleet Foxes...

Sufjan Stevens? The Mountain Goats?
posted by mrgrimm at 3:52 PM on March 7, 2011


I don't think Adele is at all self-consciously trying to be a 'soul' singer. Whatever she's doing, it strikes me as utterly genuine...

I mean, she's still just a kid, basically. Give her a year or two to find her way to a more unique sound.
posted by empath at 4:33 PM on March 7, 2011


Compare Adele to Rihanna at the Brits.

I'm a fan of both, but Rihanna has to work so hard for a tenth of the impact that Adele has standing alone on stage.

Adele just floored me with that performance.

She's just an average-looking girl with no artifice and no autotune singing her goddamn heart out. The fact that it's successful has to do with contrast with all the Ke$ha's and GaGa's on the charts right now and almost nothing to with race, I don't think.
posted by empath at 4:40 PM on March 7, 2011


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