Glastonbury and Proms season is always a good time for me to sit around catching up on BBC live coverage via iPlayer and finding inspiration for blog musings, even if my efforts to justify it as research for my music career don’t really hold water.
Here’s something about how we think of music in the 21st century West. We’ve got very good at labelling ever-more-specific genres, sounds and groupings. There’s a separate post to be written on why and how that continues to happen, but I’m going to be good and leave it on one side. Let’s just take the fact as read.
And doubtless that has its uses, in terms of describing music (useful when promoting it, selling it, hiring bands, finding like-minded individuals, etc.), organising music shops and download lists (why browse through 2 000 ‘metal’ bands when you could jump straight to ‘melodic postgrindcore’ and find the six you’re looking for?), and from a more corporate Orwellian point of view profiling and targeting audiences, or rather purchasers.
But, as musicians, I’m not sure that it is a useful tool. Certainly for anyone interested in big trends, in what the common threads of some of those sounds, or even those ideas and looks are, in trying to pull out specifics to use somewhere else, in trying to perhaps position their ideas, or the ideas their looking for, within a wider tradition, microlabelling is counterproductive. Precisely because it splinters and subdivides, rather than unifying and giving a sense of descent, linkage and commonality.
What we’re not all that good at is having words for bigger conglomerations – metagenres if you like. ‘Rock’ is pretty much the only really good example, something that fairly satisfactorily covers a massively wide range of largely guitar-led, largely loudish and fastish and rhythm/accompanying figure-driven rather than melody-driven music over something like 60 years and counting.
But there are others that would be very useful to have. ‘Jazz’ is already such a wide term that some people find it more or less meaningless. But it would be useful at times to be able to think about a wider tradition of music heavy on improvisation, controlled dissonance and syncopation that would include jazz and blues and shade over into inter-war Broadway, jam rock (Miles Davis had an intense mutual influence on The Grateful Dead) and probably more.
And there’s a crucial lineage for thinking about a surprising amount of very good contemporary music, and surprisingly effective and natural collaborations and crossovers, which doesn’t have a term behind it at all that I’ve identified. It’s quite hard to even write about without risking sounding racialist or worse, so please read the following paragraphs with more of an eye to my argument than hairtrigger terminology.
I think the musical roots of this tree are in gospel. I mean, you can trace gospel back into lots of things and it’s very interesting, but it’s a sensible place to start this story in terms of sounds and practices and effects. From gospel, with startlingly little intervention besides a wholesale change from religious to secular lyrics, comes soul. It has an intensity that was probably partly borrowed from rhythm and blues / jive / rock’n’roll even – but that spectrum had been covertly cross-feeding without either side being willing to admit to it for probably decades by the time recognisable ‘soul’ started to be made. You only have to listen to those hammering pianos, swelling Hammond organs (much more affordable and available than a pipe organ for independent charismatic churches in the South!) and perching on the border of singing and shouting to realise that I’ve deliberately made this sentence applicable to either side of the sacred-secular divide.
And then what’s interesting is that lots and lots; and lots … and lots of music, very broadly though very far from exclusively descending from black US communities, comes out of that pool of sounds and remains essentially compatible with all of its cousins if you bring them together, at least the better-crafted and more durable instances. Rock-n-roll, of course, went off and did its thing, mostly in loose company with the blues, but I’m talking about the soul branch, if you like.
Soul, of course, gives birth to funk, and they are never clearly differentiated from the start. But DJs playing funk (and the whole fertile world of African-American performance speech, mostly essentially poetry, mostly at least partially improvised; and the material conditions of 1970s housing projects) inspired, then invented hip-hop almost by accident. Meanwhile funk/soul in a more music industry world evolved through disco and heaven knows what else to give rise to RnB (in the modern sense of the word) and half a dozen other ‘urban’ genres – which, in this century at least, crosspollinate merrily back and forth with the more speech-and-recording-manipulation oriented world of hip-hop, rap and its variants and derivatives.
The point at which the continuity of the whole lot becomes visible is when some of the chronology gets jumbled by the arrival of neo-soul in (I think) the early 2000s. People like Joss Stone went out of their way to sound as mush like their idols as possible – in some cases down to recording in the same location, mixing and mastering entirely on analogue tape, doing everything in live takes rather than overdubs and splices. As a bit of a novelty fad turned into a lasting genre (along with its most creative and effective proponents), strict turn-back-time practice changed to more flexible ‘enjoyment of the good’.
And then it turned out that you could mash up this apparently slightly middle-class, self-conscious poised music with ‘raw, gritty’ urban stuff and it came out with neither of them sounding strangled.
Mark Ronson first came to fame as a DJ, and remains often associated with the electronic realm of producers and samples (indeed, he still works a lot as a DJ). But in the cover of (Merseyside retro indie rockers the Zutons’) ‘Valerie’, he produced one of neo-soul’s once and future queen Amy Winehouse’s greatest hits.
Pharrell Williams comes very much from an urban context, and is not neo anything, simply contemporary. His ‘Happy’ will probably go down as one of the runaway hits of the decade. But one of the most insightful critical comments on it I’ve come across said that it ‘could have been written any time in the last 50 years’. I think it’s true. The production and to some extent the arrangement are of their time, more or less. But the underlying song, with its blue note seventh chords, call-and-response chorus, euphoric trumpet-call high notes from the male lead voice, and verse-chorus structure, could have come out of 60s Motown without sounding much different.
Rather tellingly, when Paloma Faith (less often labelled as ‘neo-soul’, but it would be a largely accurate description) did her co-composition with Williams at Glastonbury, she introduced it saying ‘you might not realise this, but this song is actually a collaboration between me and Pharrell Williams’. And in truth you wouldn’t necessarily realise it. It’s a good song, but it doesn’t stick out of her set from her solo compositions – it’s another uninhibited, well-crafted, energetic reworking of the materials of funk and soul into the worldview of a realist-optimist young woman from scummiest millennial Hackney. I imagine it would sound pretty much equally natural (though very different, and probably without the (self-?) choreographed backing singers and horn section) if she did it as a guest in a Pharrell gig.
There are other areas I could look at – the whole question of the interaction of British and American (and other) ‘folk’ and singer-songwriter traditions; the counter-example of ‘classical’ as metagenre, and its more often ignored sub- and subsubgenres; the country ‘family’, its distinctions from and interlinkings with other US-based popular streams. But I’ve perhaps written enough, and I certainly should be getting some sleep. Suffice to say this topic not only intrigues me but is, I think, played out in a great many collaborations and fusions producing exciting music – from The Mothership Returns, to Faith and Williams, to the String Project in the current Pieman era …