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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Whatever happened to black music?

Music, as Tolstoy said, is the shorthand of emotion. Great music can transport you. It can make you feel sad, or romantic, or joyful, or nostalgic.

When I was a teenager, Motown music used to make me feel euphoric. Or it would fill me with an inchoate longing (okay, I was a turkey). Sometimes, the music would evoke both emotions at the same time.

There were many great black performers back then.

It's amazing how many great songs The Supremes had. (I'm having a hard time finishing this post because I got sidetracked by a Youtube Supremes thread, and it's hard to write while absorbed by music, which stimulates a different part of the brain.)

The Temptations were similarly prolific. The Four Tops, ditto.

Whenever I would hear The Jackson Five's ABC at a high school party, I would feel like getting up to dance (as I said, I was a turkey).

Jr. Walker and the All Stars produced lots of similarly great dancing music.

To this day, listening to Clarence Carter's Slip Away makes me want to screw up my face in an expression of sublime bliss and sway to the music (okay, so I'm still a turkey).

Otis Redding's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay has pretty much the same effect. (People never look dumber than when they're moving to music, but that doesn't stop me.)

I just listened to a Sly and the Family Stone album yesterday, which sparked this post. My favorite Sly song, Hot Fun in the Summertime, still brings back that sense of inchoate longing. (It also now evokes a strong feeling of nostalgia for my youth, a time when I actually experienced very little of the "hot fun" Sly describes; my sense is that when one does have it, the inchoate longing disappears).

Watch a youtube video of Jackie Wilson singing Lonely Teardrops, his signature hit. He was the first of the great singer/dancers.

Sam and Dave's Soul Man was another song which just infuses your body with its rhythm. (A beat alone can't accomplish this, by the way; it must be accompanied by a tune.)

Tina Turner's River Deep Mountain High is one of the all time great rock and roll anthems, a piece which actually reaches the grandeur it aspires to.

Stevie Wonder was another incredibly prolific artist.

Marvin Gaye may have been the greatest of all. His music encompassed two completely different styles, both of which he was great at. I challenge you to listen to Got To Give It Up and not move to the music.

Today's black "music," rap and hip hop, are simply not music. Melody is the essence of music, and it's entirely missing from these genres. Neither high volume nor aggressive lyrics can disguise that fact.

Listening to Motown when I was younger always made me feel jubilant. Today, hearing rap "music" just makes me feel like turning off the radio.

Listening to Motown and looking at the album covers was part of what caused me to go through my own wow-black-people-are-cooler-than-white-people phase (which lasted for about six weeks when I was 14). These days, hearing rap blasting out of a nearby car makes me want to move to Vermont. Or maybe Iceland.

I don't think it's purely a function of my age. Listening to the old Motown tunes still fills me with admiration for the genius that went into them. And watching Youtube videos of the old performers brings back memories of how I used to admire their tightly syncopated moves. Watching a video of today's rap performers makes me wonder why anybody would ever pay to see that? Rappers are truly the modern artists of the music world: no talent, but lots of attitude.

A lot of people's main complaint about rap music is that the lyrics are misogynist and racist and promote violence. My take is, anyone who would let his attitudes be shaped by rap music is pretty much of a writeoff to begin with. But please, at least give me my offense melodically.

It sometimes happens that you get a tune stuck in your head, so it just endlessly loops around and drive you crazy. (That happens, just so you know, when the song is interrupted before finishing. If you want to exorcise the tune, play it again and let the song finish.) But that doesn't happen to me with today's music. And the reason is, today's songs have no hook. There is a beat, but no melody.

The same is true, to only a slightly lesser extent, with white music. Whites only perform rap in a very derivative way, but even with mainstream pop, the melodies just aren't as catchy. When was the last time you got a Taylor Swift tune stuck in your head? I can go into a gym these days, and if they're playing modern music, I can walk out halfway through a song and there's absolutely no chance the tune gets stuck in my brain.

Maybe I should be grateful.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing me back in time. My favorite album was Diana and Marvin. I remember listening to it over and over again. Listening to the CD now evokes those same feelings, and brings back memories, of days long gone.

John Craig said...

Thank you for reading. Most of the music I've bought myself in the past few ten years has been for purposes of reawakening old feelings.

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to white music??

John Craig said...

Good question. I alluded to that at the end of the post, that's definitely gone downhill as well. I think white music, at least pop music, hit a peak of sorts in the 1960's, during the heyday of the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, etc. The difference between white pop and black pop is that whites have descended into bland, relatively tuneless wailing, whereas blacks have descended into rap, which presents an even starker contrast.

Anonymous said...

you must have not heard the latest taylor swift

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for reading this far back. You're right, I haven't. (I assume you're being sarcastic, sometimes it's hard to tell over the internet.)