THE DEATH OF R&B
who stole the soul?
I know I look like I'm interviewing to be Mark Anthony Neal's publicist but it's not my fault Mark's insanely prolific and notable with his quotables. He recently wrote this essay for Popmatters.com (yes, see, they do have good content): Rhythm and Bullshit?: The Slow Decline of R&B.
First of all, let me just point out that this is what public intellectual work should ideally look like: it's not just about stating an opinion (even a provocative and articulate one), it's also about demonstrating that you've done your homework, that you possess a body of knowledge that you are contributing to, that you pay attention to the larger conversations out there. Hell, I don't meet this standard most of the time but Mark doesn't half step.
The way the essay opens - even with just the title - you might think you're in for another, "music isn't good like it was back in the day" rant but instead, Mark quickly establishes where he's coming from and where he's headed. In short, his essay looks at the structural changes in the music industry since the 1970s and how this has shifted the course of popular music, transforming "soul" - as the embodiment of Blackness - into "R&B", moving away from the black gospel and blues tradition, into a more deracialized, crossover aesthetic. Here's a few choice passages:
- "Hip-hop may have sold out, but at least it has sold out on its own terms. R&B, on the other hand, has sold out on somebody else's, on a pop-chart paper chase."
"The current state of R&B comes not from a sudden decline, but a process more than 30 years in the making.This story begins in 1972, when a few enterprising master's students at the Harvard Business School prepared a study, commissioned by one of Columbia's execs, detailing how the Columbia Records Group could better integrate the then largely independent black music industry into the mix. The now infamous Harvard Report -- officially known as "A Study of the Soul Music Environment" -- has often been referred to as a sinister blueprint aimed at arming a litany of "culture bandits" with the theoretical tools to return black culture to a neo-colonial state." [Note: I need to read this]
"What those MBA students articulated was a no-brainer marketing plan, informed by the commercial success of Motown and the cynical (though not mistaken) view that the Civil Rights "revolution" likely had more to do with the realities that black folk had disposable income and white folk consumed a hell of a lot of black popular culture than anything to do with real structural change in American society."
"The term R&B is essentially a shortened version of "Rhythm & Blues", but as a novice might discern, that which is called R&B bears little resemblance to the musical landscape created by Ruth Brown, Louis Jordan, Laverne Baker, Charles Brown and the Coasters...R&B was essentially a marketing ploy...born out of competing logics -- record companies tried to negotiate the realities of black culture and identity within the history of race relations in America while trying at the same time to reach a wider audience of black consumers and white record buyers."
"As R&B began to be viewed as the quintessence of upscale blackness, the more gritter aspects of black popular music...began to disappear from the program list of some urban radio outlets in the late 1970s."
"...what the report details is the blueprint for the black boutique label -- essentially based on a model of neo-colonialism, where an imperialist power exploits the raw materials and talents of its satellites under the pretense that such satellites are autonomous."