On George Michael, race and pop
After the death of the singer and songwriter George Michael, at the end of last year, I found myself watching one clip on YouTube repeatedly. It wasn’t a George Michael performance, though I looked at plenty of those, too, but a brief scene from the film Keanu (2016), which stars American comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, commonly known as Key and Peele. In the scene, a mild-mannered suburbanite named Clarence, played by Key, is pretending to be a powerful drug dealer with the ludicrous nickname of Shark Tank. Waiting in a car while a drug deal takes place, Clarence nearly has his cover blown when one of his fellow gang members reaches for his phone to put on some tunes, only to hear George Michael’s hit song ‘Freedom ’90’ come blasting through the speakers.
“This shit sound kinda white,” says Bud, another gang member, his face a picture of scepticism.
“White, white?” replies Clarence, feigning astonishment. “Niggas, this is George Michael right here, all right. This one of the greatest recording artists of all time, man.”
“So, he black then?”
“Yo, you know, he light-skinned.”
As with so much of Key and Peele’s comedy (the duo broke through a few years back with a television sketch show, also called Key & Peele), what makes the scene funny is the succinctness with which it directs our attention to all sorts of complex issues around race. Clarence is a black man trying to conform to a particular image of masculinity – the gangster – that is well outside of his experience. George Michael was a white man whose songs were heavily indebted to genres often thought of as black, such as soul music, that perhaps lay outside of his experience. The scene is a joke about, and a commentary on, the ways in which white musicians have used black music, or performed a version of “blackness”, for themselves; it’s also an upending of racist stereotypes, like the gangster or drug dealer, that have shaped assumptions about black men. If George Michael can be passed off to black listeners as a “light-skinned” black man, and Clarence is an actual light-skinned black man who also happens to love the white musician George Michael, then perhaps the differences between black and white people, our behaviours and our tastes, are not so easily discerned.
During his heyday in the 1980s, George Michael scored several hits in the US on the specialist Billboard charts then known as Hot Black Singles and Top Black Albums. (Today these charts are known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, respectively.) His soul ballad ‘One More Try’ went to number one in 1988 on both the Billboard 100 and Hot Black Singles charts, while Faith (1987) did the same on the corresponding album charts, making George Michael the only white artist to top the Black Albums chart in the whole of that decade. As critic Chris Molanphy observed in a 2014 essay about the history of these charts, the point of them was not to try and define what was, or wasn’t, “black” music. Rather, the charts tracked audience consumption, drawing sales data from a range of record stores and radio stations, often black-owned and run, that specialised in the sale and broadcast of soul, R&B, funk, disco and then hip-hop: genres that also happened to have majority black audiences and a majority of black performers. In other words, George Michael’s music crossed over, into primarily – though not inherently – black spaces.
It’s a reminder that the crossover – a well-worn notion in pop music history – happens both ways. The word “crossover” implies a border, or a boundary; it also implies movement across that boundary. Often the boundary has been perceived as racial; it is common to describe black artists as having crossed over, which means that they have found a white listenership. Little Richard crossed over in the early days of rock ’n’ roll, while one of his musical inheritors, Prince, did the same to spectacular effect in the 1980s. It is far less common to describe white artists in terms of a crossover to black audiences.
As academic Jack Hamilton observes in his recent book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, there has been a marked tendency within commentary on popular music to “rely on a notion of black music as a predecessor, as something old”. Black musicians are described as having crossed over because their first, majority-black, audiences are conceived of as coming prior to the main event, which is the music’s elucidation by white audiences, and white performers. By contrast, Hamilton wants listeners to pay attention to the “interracial crossovers” that have happened throughout the history of popular music, and particularly during the 1960s, which is the focus of his study.
The ’60s was a decade during which Sam Cooke drew on Bob Dylan for his landmark civil rights anthem ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’; Aretha Franklin sang ‘Eleanor Rigby’; The Rolling Stones played songs by Chuck Berry; and Jimi Hendrix covered Dylan. In a particularly interesting chapter, Hamilton traces various musical exchanges between The Beatles and Motown. Though it’s well-enough known that The Beatles covered Motown songs early in their career – With The Beatles (1963) contained no less than three Motown cover versions – it’s less acknowledged that the band kept up an active interest in Motown as their career progressed.
The Beatles’ mid-’60s albums Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966) have often been discussed as the albums where rock, as a genre, threw off its more audible debts to black musicians, becoming “white” in the process. Hamilton wants us to hear these records differently; even the title of Rubber Soul, he points out, is a clue to what The Beatles owed – and knew they owed – to contemporary black music, and particularly to Motown. Paul McCartney’s bass style was heavily influenced by Motown bassist James Jamerson; McCartney would later describe his playing on ‘You Won’t See Me’ (from Rubber Soul) as “very Motown-flavoured”. Meanwhile, his delicate lead vocal on ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ (from Revolver) easily recalled Smokey Robinson, star Motown songwriter and singer with The Miracles.
Motown artists, too, remained alert to what The Beatles were doing. In 1970, two of Motown’s greatest musicians, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, would cover songs by The Beatles. Wonder brought call-and-response vocals and Motown’s signature energetic tambourine to ‘We Can Work It Out’, while Gaye reinterpreted McCartney’s most famous composition, ‘Yesterday’, in such a radical way that you’d barely know it was the same song. Gaye’s version is powerful enough to stand alone, but what Hamilton asks in his book is that we consider these artists together, and recognise the musical conversation that was taking place between them.
It was an exchange that was forgotten almost as soon as it happened. By the end of the ’60s rock was understood to be almost exclusively white, while more and more active black musicians had been subsumed under the label of soul. (The racial binary left musicians who were neither black nor white, such as Mexican-American guitarist Carlos Santana, by the wayside.) And what was “soul”? In a 1967 essay, black writer and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones) described contemporary black music as coming “straight back out of traditional black spirit feeling”. He valued “expression and spontaneity”, dismissing musical arrangements that “get more complicated in a useless sense, or whitened”.
Baraka’s motivation, shared by other black critics, stemmed in part from an understandable desire to protect black musicians from economic and artistic exploitation in a largely white-owned industry. In the same essay, he warned against white musicians who “take from us all the way down the line”. He also insisted, rightly, on emphasising popular music’s roots in the musical practices of African people enslaved in the US; his landmark study Blues People (1963) was testament to this critical effort.
But equating black music with “spontaneity” and white music with “complicated” arrangements also created its own problems. Unlike the Billboard charts, which tracked buying patterns among audiences, this was a far trickier attempt to locate “blackness” and “whiteness” inside the music itself. Baraka is not the only critic to have tried, then or now.
These attempts have tended to backfire mostly upon black artists, and Motown itself is the classic example. Motown song arrangements were sophisticated, featuring string sections and instrumental flourishes that reflected the skilled jazz training of many of the label’s in-house musicians. Because of this, and because of Motown’s immense commercial success among diverse audiences, the label has repeatedly been criticised for the creation of insufficiently black music. In his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988), Nelson George describes the public character of Motown’s owner, Berry Gordy, as “an affirmative, unthreatening symbol of black capitalism”. The “capitalism” part is right – the music industry is a business, first and foremost – but “unthreatening” is harder to determine. Crossover itself, of the kind that Gordy’s label excelled at, often has been the threat, because it upsets our assumptions regarding who should be playing, or listening to, particular musical genres.
And yet, contained within the critiques of black writers such as Baraka and George is a legitimate fear of what happens when we ignore the fact that black and white people have different experiences of the world, and may therefore hope, or even expect, that musicians will communicate with them in different ways. We might call this difference historical consciousness; the lives of black and white people – and brown people, for that matter – are shaped by drastically divergent circumstances. Popular music has reflected these disparate but parallel realities; soul did so in the 1960s, and hip-hop, in particular, continues to do so today. The problems occur when we elide material circumstances in favour of a fixed racial essence, an inherent “whiteness” or “blackness” that musicians, and audiences, are expected to adhere to. It is this elision that the comedians Key and Peele try to make apparent again, which is, in part, why I kept returning to that film scene after George Michael’s death. It made plain in two minutes the issues that cultural critics have spent decades trying to disentangle.
George Michael had something of an afterlife at this year’s Grammy awards, staged in February, an event that also ended up serving as an all-too-stark metaphor for popular music’s long history of racial inequality. Adele performed Michael’s 1996 song ‘Fastlove’; given that she’s a white British singer who, like Michael before her, owes much to black American soul music, the line of transmission from one performer to another was apt. (That said, the orchestral arrangement of the song, and her downbeat vocal, didn’t do much justice to the slinky, sexy original.) Adele also took home an armful of Grammys, including Album of the Year for her 2016 release 25.
This was an honour that many people – including Adele herself – believed should have gone to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It did win a Grammy, but for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Unlike the Billboard R&B charts, this category is determined on the basis of sound rather than sales data; introduced in 2013, it exists to award “artists whose music includes the more contemporary elements of R&B”, among other genres. That’s a broad description of what an artist like Beyoncé does, though given that contemporary R&B is more or less contiguous with the sound of contemporary chart-topping pop, the category distinction seems mean, if not redundant. It’s also worth noting that every nominee in the category since its inception has been black, which may reflect what Grammy voting members expect to hear, as much as what they actually find.
When 25 was announced as winner of Album of the Year, the final award of the evening, Adele was tearful and clearly nonplussed. “I can’t possibly accept this award,” she said. “My artist of my life is Beyoncé.” For a moment it seemed as if she might simply hand over her Grammy to Beyoncé, who was in the front row – but she didn’t. She did address Beyoncé directly: “The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering, and you make them stand up for themselves.”
“Though it is rarely ever a good idea for a white woman to invoke her black friends as proof of anything,” commented critic and academic Brittney Cooper, “Adele’s remarks seemed to come from a genuine place of understanding the power of particularity.” Lemonade has meant different things to different listeners, which is part of its power, but the particularity of its address to black women has also seemed to consign it, at least in the world of the Grammys, to a rung below the one that Adele can occupy. “Often we become inaudible,” Beyoncé had remarked during her own acceptance speech, where she also referenced the roots of her album in “deep Southern culture”. Her comments seemed to prefigure her loss to Adele; despite the fact Beyoncé is by far the pre-eminent figure in contemporary pop music, Album of the Year is a space that her music has not been able to enter, not so far.
Adele’s discomfort may have been clumsily expressed – both women seemed acutely aware that they were living out a moment that pop history would not remember fondly – but her response was also a sincere attempt to reckon with differences between listeners, and to acknowledge the boundaries between white and black musicians that have too often confined the latter to limited expectations. If we can learn to better acknowledge those differences, while also avoiding the temptation to believe that musicians, and their listeners, can never communicate across the boundaries that history has set for them, then we might stand a chance of hearing pop music differently, and hearing it better.