23 January 2007

to bed with history

this was my proposal for EMP:

Sharon Jones, Daptone Records, and Soul's Constraining Historicality
Sharon Jones was born fifty years ago - in James Brown's hometown, as she's fond of mentioning - but she didn't put out her debut album until five years ago. That record and its 2005 follow-up - both released on Brooklyn-based, musician-run Daptone records and recorded with that label's younger, mostly white house band, the Dap-Kings - consist of gritty, funky, rawly emotive Soul, of the sort that Jones was surely surrounded by growing up, but that has been strikingly scarce since the mid-'70s.

With their vintage-stylized album artwork and choreographed "super soul revue" concerts, Jones and her labelmates might strike some as "retro" novelty performers or niche-based nostalgia-mongers. But the honesty and artistic integrity of their music defies such facile categorization: this is, undeniably, living and contemporary music, albeit music with strong roots in tradition.

Aside from producing emotionally viable art (and fresh sample-fodder for the likes of Kanye West), how is the Daptone stable relevant to the current musical landscape? Despite inklings of resurgent interest, via reissues, feted comebacks, and newly emergent would-be revivalists, Soul still feels Old, inextricably shackled to its historical originary moment. In an age when decades-old genres from garage-rock to synth-pop, substantially liberated from their historical referents, can enjoy renewed artistic and commercial viability, what is it about Soul that sustains its rarified, ossified, antiquated air?

In considering this question, I'd like to examine Jones and her contemporaries in terms of the stylistic parameters of Soul, the historiography of R&B (including the debatable merits of the '90s neo-soul "renaissance"), the effect of changing performance conventions, production techniques and audience-reception models, and those ever-thorny issues of purity and authenticity, to glean what I can about the music's past, present and future.

it didn't get accepted. (sigh...) oh well. neither did dave's, which i thought would (also) have been a fabulous paper - but both of us are probably still going to attend. at this point i'm really curious and excited to read the abstracts for the proposals that did get accepted.

although it would be nice to think that i might still work on writing something formal and/or in-depth about the topics i raised there...well, who knows, maybe i will, but i'll start by trying to blog about them in some vaguely systematic way. or not.

i've been reading peter guralnick's evidently canonical sweet soul music: rhythm and blues and the southern dream of freedom, which i had figured would be necessary background for my paper, but is also something i possibly should have read years ago. i'm already slightly skeptical about guralnick because of something charles hughes said at EMP last year, part of the incredibly intense q+a session after the girl groups panel that i think i never actually got around to blogging about, in response to xgau's insistence that he "name names" about who he was attacking in his polemical paper (which i'd really like to get my hands on a copy of...i'll try asking him again) arguing that modern female pop acts are equivalent (and deserving comparable appreciation) to "classic"-era girl groups.

what i took from that is that guralnick may be something of a curmudgeon and a rockist (or soulist or whatever), which i suppose isn't an especially relevant concern in terms of a book whose scope is explicitly limited to the 1960s. though i'll keep it in mind as i go. so far i have read the introduction, which seems to do a good job of revealing and grounding his biases (as a listener and lifelong fan, but also an admitted outsider to the history he's reporting on, with a number of preconceptions that he'd to a greater or lesser extent debunked since starting his research.)

the introduction also nicely corroborates my conception (which i didn't have space to elaborate on in my proposal) of the short span and decisive endpoint of Soul:

"Soul music was a brief flowering, really. It first peered out in the mid-1950s, like rock'n'roll, as a kind of alternative to assimilation. It came into its own no earlier than 1960, crossed over by 1965 or 1966, and, despite lingering traces of its influence throughout the culture, was spent as a controlling force by the early '70s." [18]

he also offers a convincing depiction (presumably to be strengthened by the actual content of the book) of soul as the unique product of unique [historical, social, cultural, economic, geographic, etc.] circumstances. perhaps less helpfully for my project - or not, since it's helpful to have something to argue against, if that's even what i would to do - he asserts more or less outright that a popular rediscovery or even a stylistic return or would be impossible, because of the unrepeatable conjunction of those circumstances, and particularly because of the unlikely way in which artists who were in some ways "naive," or at least treading in uncharted waters, were able to achieve phenomenal commercial and popular success:

"I've tried to view it...as a combination...of art and commerce in which the music attained its highest level when the marriage was closest and in the absense of which the form cannot be revived today." [p. 19]

(also: "Soul music...was the product of a particular time and place that one would not want to see repeated, the bitter fruit of segregation, transformed...into a statement of warmth and affirmation" [p. 3])

actually, i agree with him; history of course can't be repeated, and an authentic "revival of the form" is unimaginable. and it's hard to conceive of what a "real" soul revival would look like in the contemporary music milieu (even though in some ways it seems like it might be happening) (would it be like the swing and ska "crazes" of the 1990s? - more on those later...) is it possible to distinguish a "true" stylistic revival from a more general return to relevance that would take some other form?

there's a central problem though, and this is where the (alleged) allegations of guralnick's curmudgeonliness come into play: to him "it almost goes without saying that soul was an incomparably greater form (because it was incomparably more passionate, emotionally expressive and individualistic) than its more celebrated contemporaries" [i.e. motown and the beatles...and also, i think implicitly though maybe i'm reading too much into it, greater than any other pop music that's come along since.]

in some ways i'm tempted to agree again, because there is something incredibly powerful and emotionally expressive about southern soul music, which doesn't necessarily make it "greater" than less nakedly emotional pop or rock, for instance, but does seem extremely special. but if the essence of that music is now gone forever, does that mean that degree of expressiveness married to that level of artistry is destined to remain the province of this one brief historical moment, never to be recaptured or equalled?

it seems clear that that's an unacceptable conclusion. and not an especially hard one to poke holes in. but it's still a tempting trap to fall into, and one that seems to be manifested and reinforced by the mythologizing tendencies that prevail in the discourse surrounding soul music.

No comments: