Listening to Adele's New Album
How soul music became "soul music."
It's fitting that Drake—the bar mitzvahed son of a white-Canadian, Jewish mother and an African-American father—has become a darling of hip-hop. Raised in an affluent Toronto neighborhood, his artistic legitimacy has nothing to do with a typical hardscrabble back story, which suggests we're beginning to view the performer in a manner similar to the way we view the novelist, whose books are accepted as works of the imagination, not autobiography. So perhaps we're evolving. Perhaps we're looking to meet the singer in a more neutral space, where one's voice can float freely, unhinged from received narratives. After all, musicians are no longer born out of a particular milieu; they're born on the Internet, out of nowhere.
For Americans, this is a new way of perceiving American music, which, for decades, has often collided with, and subsequently been bound to, the hopes and dreams and frustrations of a certain race or class or culture or cohort. For example, the cultural critic Gerald Early writes in One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture: "In 1964, when Motown released Martha and the Vandellas' 'Dancing in the Street,' urban riots were becoming the sine qua non of black frustration," and "Few blacks accepted the song on its face, insisting that it was a metaphorical theme song for black unity and black revolution. To Motown and Martha Reeves, of course, it was just another dance song."
When Berry Gordy began to cultivate the Motown sound, his intention was to create brown music—hyper-calculated and intended to appeal to the entire color spectrum. He was motivated by success and knew that he had to appeal to everyone's sensibilities while allaying their racial anxieties. His mission, though inextricably linked to history, was to stand outside of history. His concern, ahead of its time, was style, and, as Early explains in his book, he appealed "to American youth through music that neither bleached nor blackened."
Which brings me back to Adele. England has always had a unique relationship to black-American music. Before the blues were accepted by whites living on Main Street, USA, it had to go to Great Britain first, where, as the story goes, bands like the Rolling Stones appropriated the form and sent it back over the airwaves to a new, willing audience that was suddenly given the courage both to listen and to play the music.
This was possible because England had the benefit of sharing a common language with the States while standing at a comfortable remove from its complex social circumstances and neuroses. English people were free to have a genuinely aesthetic experience with American music and so were able to view it as a set of stylistic options or gestures from which they could pick and choose. That English singers seemed to have no hang-ups about borrowing these American voices is not surprising, as the English, I think, have always had a better idea of the multi-voiced nature of performance than Americans. They were able to view the blues as theater, which it was, and still is. For them, it was never a matter of genetic code, which is, perhaps, Shakespeare's enduring legacy.
But, anyway, here's the news:
Adele has released her second album, 21, the follow-up to her Grammy-winning 19. Whether or not it's good is beside the point. I can, however, tell you this: Like the first record, it has nothing to do with "soul."
Mike Spies is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.