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Picture for White Funk, Blue-Eyed Soul (Page 2)

White Funk, Blue-Eyed Soul (Page 2)

But Jamie Lidell is the keystone for this mix. In four and a half minutes, he melts down the essence of Golden Age soul—Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield—and reconstructs it, Frankenstein style. What’s amazing is that such an artificial exercise can sound so authentic. His Photoshop Soul could have played on the radio in 1967, and no one would have been the wiser. I can't figure out how he does it, except that he's so vocally and emotionally committed that even his clunkiest lines sound and feel essential.


What's most interesting about Lidell and his ilk, however, is not the unifying themes of their oeuvre, but the things it lacks. Generally speaking, where's the celebration, hope, and sense of community and liberation that arises from classic soul music? Many of black music's white practitioners are full of the angst, doubt, recrimination, and regret that seems better suited to Joy Division and The Smiths than to Al Green and Aretha Franklin. There is a strain of miserablism and a sense of insularity and inward-facing regard that characterizes white soul and sets it apart. As much as white artists take cues from black culture for coolness, sexuality, and power, they keep missing the parts about how people need each other and what we can accomplish when we get together.


This sense of community is hidden in the white soul mix to the same extent it has been hidden in musical and cultural discourse all along—in this vein, it could be termed "gay soul." The music, tone, and lyrics of such gay and ambiguous artists as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, Arthur Russell, and Beth Ditto of The Gossip reveal the power of soul music to reverse the outsiderness that shows up in the translation of the black idiom to the white experience. Soul music has always been explicitly hetero-normative, both in terms of lyrics and imagery. There is less room for ambiguities in soul music than there is in other genres of pop music because soul has always documented, lamented, and negotiated the relations and rivalries between the sexes. However, none of this prevented black, female disco divas from becoming psychic stand-ins and advocates for gay males during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and no one will ever be able to explain the power of Madonna. But for an openly gay artist to take on the tropes and themes of soul is significant because it implies an attempt to connect the often isolated experiences, fears, and desires of white, gay men and women to the shared suffering and liberation of the black musical tradition. Moreover, it can also speak to specific and subjective experiences. For example, Beth Ditto’s reading of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” infuses a ballad of sexual discretion with the real, sometimes life-and-death need for discretion in her small-town American South of Searcy, Arkansas.


My mix's title, Something Isn't Right..., is an apt description, not only of its content, but also of my continuing reservations about such a project. Does the white appropriation of black cultural forms need a showcase, much less an articulation or defense? Elvis, of course, embodies this dilemma better than anyone else could. His inclusion here is based not on any evidence of theft or minstrelsy, however. This live run-through of “Suspicious Minds” is taken from a period of his musical career almost universally regarded as tired, rote, and inauthentic. It's the fat, sequined Elvis in the making. Which is why the obvious spontaneity and joy of this performance is so striking.


The upshot it that whites can take the funk, and whites can break the funk, but whites can’t really fake the funk. When the tape rolls, you either have it or you don't, so you better damn well have it. And, please, don't call me whitey!

-- Robert Mead, 05/07/2007