Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Questions of Genre in Black Popular Music

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Questions of Genre in Black Popular Music

Article excerpt

In the movie The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin plays Navin Johnson, a white man raised by an African-American family in rural Mississippi. The opening credits have barely concluded when it becomes clear that the development of Navin's personality is causing some consternation among his adoptive parents and siblings. He cannot dance, he experiences difficulty clapping in time to the rustic shout-type tune that his family plays on the front porch, and he prefers tuna fish sandwiches on white bread (with extra mayonnaise) and shrink-wrapped Twinkies to soul food. Navin finds his deliverance, however, in a fortuitous exposure to a broadcast of 1970s-era easy listening music--suddenly, he can clap on the backbeat to the neo-Herb Alpert strains emanating from the radio, recognizing through this involuntary response that, somewhere, others of his own kind must exist.

My summary of the opening of The Jerk may seem remote from the title of this article. But the movie's first few scenes present topoi that condense many beliefs and assumptions central to understanding the links between identity and musical genres. The film revels in the absurdity of rigid essentialist stereotypes even as it points to widely shared associations between musical categories and racial demographics. Nature triumphs over culture, and mimesis (how nature and culture become "second nature") lurks outside the frame. Who, after all, associates African Americans with Herb Alpert? (1)

If a generalized connection can be established in The Jerk between racial identity and musical "kind" writ large, then a second anecdote illustrates the ambiguity involved with categorization in practice. On a recent trip to the local HMV megastore, I attempted to find a recording by the Drifters, a group that began in the 1950s with Clyde McPhatter's gospel-derived lead tenor featured against the background of the group's gospel-quartet influenced "doo-wop" vocals. By the late 1950s, the group (with Ben E. King now singing lead) had become a star attraction of the new "uptown," pop-rhythm and blues emerging from the Brill Building in central Manhattan. After I searched in vain for the "oldies section," which I assumed would house the Drifters' recordings, a friendly store clerk directed me to the "R&B" section, and I left with a copy of the Drifters' Greatest Hits. I felt a bit perplexed: the Drifters' first recordings certainly were categorized as "rhythm and blues" in the mid-1950s, and as both "rhythm and blues" and "popular" (i.e., as "crossover recordings") during their Brill Building heyday from 1959 to 1964. But they have little in common with contemporary R&B, which is what I expect to find in the R&B section of the contemporary record store.

Compared with the straightforward, commonsensical relationships observed in The Jerk, my visit to the HMV megastore presented a more tangled web of connections. The logic of this particular HMV's spatial arrangement of categories is not difficult to detect, even if it is rife with interesting and revealing contradictions. Genres associated with the African diaspora--rap, reggae, R&B of all eras, disco--are grouped into one corner of the store along with not necessarily black but still dance-centered genres such as house, techno, drum 'n' bass, and other forms of electronic dance music. Consumers interested in the inconsistencies of this system need only look under "J" in the R&B section, where they will find the Jackson 5, the Jacksons, and Jermaine and Janet Jackson, but not Michael--he's in the Pop/Rock section in the middle of the floor along with his confreres Prince and Jimi Hendrix. (I might add that the floor containing the various genres of popular music is in the basement of the store--Classical and Jazz are "on top.")

Both the opening minutes of The Jerk and my trip to HMV present notions of genre and identity that result either in laughter or confusion depending on how well these notions match the generic codes that we have internalized. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.