Friday, October 9, 2009

friday music -- "motown by white people"

Why do white people so often prefer black music when it's performed by white people?

Exhibit A: the following commercial, which appears to be authentic, and was posted at YouTube with the title "Motown By White People."

In light of yesterday's post on Harry Connick, Jr.'s denunciation of white-Australian minstrelsy, I'm tempted to ask if this group's work is a form of "blackface" as well. However, aside from how the men in this commercial, who call themselves The Blenders, are not literally wearing blackface, I suppose the distinction to be made between the two sets of white performers is something like "mockery" versus "admiration." Which is not to say that there aren't all sorts of more subtle, complex problems with the ubiquitous white appropriation of black music.

In addition to addressing that topic if you like, let's use this post as an open thread. Link away to other posts if you think we should read them, including your own, talk about whatever strikes you as worthy of chatter, but do play nice -- no spitting, please.


  1. Yuck! I know this isn't supposed to be a critique of their actual singing capabilities but I can't resist. I'm failing to see the Motown or the soul in their singing. They're...not good.

    So- the question... "Is it mockery or admiration?" I don't have a definitive answer. I believe they seriously think they're doing Motown soul because it's an actual full-length CD, not like a CD full of parody-style songs. I haven't bought a CD in an age, so that may just be faulty logic. But on the other hand, they are so far off that I can't believe someone thought "Motown" and not "Easy-Listening" when they heard them, or put them together, or whatever they did. So I'm stuck.

  2. What kind of a crazy person prefers motown sung by white people? Ick.

  3. This is not a form of Black Face, it's more like Black Replace(my own made up term), which (although distinct) is equally as offensive and damaging as black face.

  4. >I'm failing to see the Motown or the soul in their singing.

    Perhaps that's exactly what white people like about it. It's the same songs, but sung more in a style that they like. And personally, I don't really see anything (morally) good or bad about their music taste here...even if it's not my cup of tea.

  5. To me they just look like a Motown tribute group that had enough money to record a CD and buy a late night commercial to sell them. They probably do weddings and bar mitzvahs. They do border on parody, but of white people trying to be soulful rather than of black people. It reminds me of an old SNL skit of a commercial just like this, white glee-club type kids singing the blues in a very white way.

    (Also, some of the songs these guys sing were written and performed by white folks--Carole King, Michael McDonald, Stephen Stills.)

  6. This post reminded me of Elvis; the fact that he got "discovered" because the record folk were looking for white guys who sing like black that the white audience could have "black music" without promoting black musicians. Elvis was such a bigot himself, that when he heard of the comparisons of his singing-style to black people, he reworked his style to make it more white-sounding.

  7. "...the ubiquitous white appropriation of black music."

    Let's not forget that there isn't any appropriation of black music by white people that isn't also matched by an appropriation of white music by black people. Leaving out traditional musical forms like african drumming or irish folk music that predated this country, there isn't any "American music" that isn't a hybrid product of the cultures of the two races.

  8. Yes Vick, it's always SO important to jump in with the Arab Trader Argument, isn't it? It feels just like . . . hmmmm . . . yes, that's it, absolution!

  9. Only 3 of them are white.

  10. Doesn't this bring to mind the quote: "White people try and steal everything."

    And that's all I see on this youtube video. They don't understand how the oppressive culture brought forth the music, and once they see it as having a marketing success, capitalize off it. When I think about all the white people who listen to old school hip hop music now, I imagine them not paying a dime or lifting a finger to support it then.

    Music is a universal thing, so I can understand the universal relating to lyrics, but when it's presented by the wrong people at the wrong time, it's not music for society, it's influence is corruptive even considered dangerous. Today It seems as though they can't learn from the music, its message, its people because, "that was then and this is now."

    Black face runs deep here in America.

  11. Explains the popularity of Eminem, Asher Roth, Amy Winehouse, and most recently -- Mayer Hawthorne :x

  12. @macon - The arab trading thing misses my point. I'm not saying instances of stealing cancel each other out - I'm saying be honest and give credit where credit is due. For example, I have no problem with calling jazz "black music" - but to be honest and fair, there would be no jazz without those amazing, pioneering black musicians and there would be no jazz without white, european formal music theory.

    Same goes for every American music form. The instances of appropriation go both ways and are often morally neutral.

    Saying that I'm objecting to what you said about "white appropriation" because it makes me feel absolved implies that you wrote it to try to make white people feel guilty. Why is that important to you?

  13. Because they want to take credit for everything good. That's why.

  14. @Vick
    You might want to do a little research, Jazz, Blues and Ragtime are the only true Born in American Music. Everything else is imported.

  15. I think this is the first time I’m slightly (as opposed to fully) disagreeing with the ‘mainstream’ argument here. If we dig deep enough into history, we’ll see that culture isn’t static, nor is it ever ‘pure’ anything. I do find it frustrating when the stronger group appropriates something from a weaker group and then claims it as their own without any credit given to the ‘originators’ in a short span of time. E.g. Power rangers having its origins in Japan, but Americans thinking it’s American, and THEN letting it get to their heads that Americans are just the coolest in the world. Same goes with the Elvis story – letting it get to white people’s heads that they might be superior. It’s the attitude of superiority that I have the biggest problem with.

    But as far as cultural borrowing happens every day in every century. Even uses musical instruments invented in Europe. I’m not saying that the music was invented in Europe. Absolutely not. But we do have to acknowledge that cultures are intertwined. Even the origins of a very traditional Japanese dance, Noh, goes back to Central Asia. (Try telling this to a Japanese and they will be shocked.) The very tendency to define the culture of one group of people as being ‘pure’ this or that denies that cultures are intertwined and changes over time.

    Heck, half the world is wearing jeans now. But I suppose the difference between that and the kind of cultural appropriation that angers people is that nobody is denying jeans were invented in the US.

  16. > it uses musical instruments invented in Europe

    To be sure, it seems some had its origins in the Middle East, and the flute was invented in different continents. But their present form as used in Jazz seems to have come from Europe.

  17. I'm not sure you can make the claim that white people PREFER Motown music done by whites. Assuming that the majority of purchasers on iTunes Canada are white, when I do a search for "Isn't She Lovely" and sort it by popularity, the first five spots are still held by Stevie Wonder. If I look up "Stop in the Name of Love" The Supremes hold positions 1-8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 22, and 45. I would venture to guess that most people prefer the original versions of these songs.

    Though I'm sure the argument holds in other cases, where we're talking about the recent revival of Motown style music, such as (as pointed out by The Takeout Wench) Amy Winehouse.

  18. There's nothing White people like more than Black music that Black people no longer listen to.

  19. I eagerly wait for the day when it will be accepted to listen to and perform music you love because it speaks to you in some way, not because you are the "right" race to be playing/singing it.

    I agree with Victoria - mockery is bad, doing it because it's "other" is bad, admiration is good. If you really love the music, I don't think anyone should stop you from singing it because you're the wrong race to sing it.

  20. These guys suck, but "subtle appropriation of Black music by white people"? What the hell is that? There are many remakes by Black of songs sung originally by White people and the other way around, why is that "appropriation", and not "tribute", or "inspiration"? Some White musicians have done great singing "Black music", just like there are Black opera singers that have done great. I think this is a wonderful thing, I don't understand why you choose to see it as a form of theft. Your attitude seems very biased and negative.

    Cultural exchange is not only normal, but desirable, these are things that actually build bridges between cultures, excuse the cliche. The quality of the remake depends on the talent of each artist, and, as it's obvious with these guys, not everybody has been blessed.

  21. Macon, this is my favourite topic!

    I've got no absolutely no problem with The Blenders or anyone else singing this stuff, even though it kinda sucks. It's admiration, and if they love it, they should do it. However I hate it that mainstream audiences will lap up this bland facsimile rather than the real thing.

    Go back to the 50s and 60s, and so much black music was being outsold by diluted, inferior ripoffs by white artists (Pat Boone, Elvis, The Rolling Stones).

    It continues today - soul, funk, hip-hop, all co-opted and "whitened up" in sound. Just think Eminem, Matisyahu, Justin Timberlake, Limp Bizkit. I know so many indie rock fans who won't listen to any black hip-hop, yet love the Beastie Boys.

    THE book to read on this is "Hole in Our Soul: the Loss of Beauty and Meaning in Popular Music" by Martha Bayles. It's got a massive chunk devoted to the racial and sexual politics of pop.

  22. Oh, and if we're talking about the differences between music performed by black people and that performed by white people, check this out:

    Just to see what happens when black performers cover white performers, who were copying black performers to begin with.

  23. Eurasian Sensation, just because you like those covers doesn't mean anything, just your personal taste. I didn't like any (of the few videos that still work on your page), except Proud Mary (that doesn't even work, but I already knew) and Walk on By.

  24. @ Flipper: cheers, I'll check back and try make sure the videos are working.(If they don't, you could always open youtube and search.)

    Personal taste is fine, and we all have the right to like what we like. What I hoped you might appreciate is that how tastes and artistic expressions can often differ along ethnic/cultural lines. The versions I've posted about are redone in a style which would largely appeal to the aesthetic tastes of African Americans. And I thought it was interesting the way that those songs went against the general trend in music of white appropriation of black styles.

  25. I've noticed that a lot of people seem to think that white people should be rewarded for ths sort of thing because they have to work so much harder at it, or something, while musical performances are just effortless endeavors for Black folks.

    As far as people babbling about Black folks appropriating white music forms, that line of thought rather cheerfully rather manages to ignore why enslaved Africans in the US were not able to keep their drumming and many other traditions intact. I guess slave codes and punitive torture and mutilation are bit less fun to think about.

  26. @EurasianSensation: I'm also amazed at your insistence that the songs you chose represent an appeal to the 'aesthetic tastes' of African Americans. Really? Given the intense whiteness of many of the audiences all of those artists performed and recorded for I'm not seeing it.

  27. @ Delux - traditionally, what was considered "black music" had a certain aesthetic, which primarily appealed to a black audience, though obviously it many white folks appreciated it as well. Given that there are a lot more white than black Americans, it is unsurprising that the artists mention played to lots of white fans. But fundamentally the way they play music is grounded in the aesthetics generally associated with "black music".
    Why is that controversial to you?

  28. *note:I cant watch the vid, as I dont have capabilities*
    Firstly, everything should be judged on an individual case by case basis. but for now, we'll just generalize...

    @Vick "Leaving out traditional musical forms like african drumming or irish folk music that predated this country, there isn't any "American music" that isn't a hybrid product of the cultures of the two races."

    now, you can say that, and I wouldn't try to step all over your toes to say you're wrong. I hear what you're saying. I only slightly disagree. With enslaved Africans traditional music and instruments stripped from them for centuries (here in the US), the "hybrid product" was more so an involuntary one(on behalf of the africans). After emancipation, after centuries of america trying to erase what they came here with, they could only logically use the tools (ie, european instruments and the eurpoean formal music theory) that were afforded to them. Everything else was instinct or memory.
    Now I dont say that to discount the "european influence" in "black" music after the emancipation. I say that to point out that when "black" people appropriated european instruments and the like, it was mostly out of nessecity. When it happened the other way, it was either out of mockery(minstrel), capital gain(record industry), or admiration(blue eyed soul? lol).
    Pointing out the "european influence" in jazz is a moot point. With all the music theory and instruments in the world, european classical music, polka, etc, sound NOTHING like jazz. The nature of Jazz(in it's original incarnation)is almost distinctly "black" (improvisation, blue notes, etc). Same with blues.
    Anyhow, I see what you're saying, and you have a good point, but make no mistake; because of the social relationship between "blacks" and "whites" from the inception of the US to the popularization of Jazz and Classic Blues, the appropriation meant different things on both sides.

    but that's in general. Everything should be judged on an individual basis.

  29. One can’t help but think of images of Pat Boone snapping his fingers (off-beat) while putting his best spin o Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti. His bland delivery and the total absence of soul is what attracted whites in the first place. The same would go for New Kids on the Block; Elvis, N-sync and other white boy bands. Blending and borrowing elements of the traditional black style and put a white spin to it. The music is then reimaged with white mannerisms; rendered synonymous with music that’s deemed safe for our children. Black music was supposed to contain musical rhythmic elements and beats supposedly having the power to make white girls swoon for black men sexually, and spur a wave of miscegenation. Better the songs to be performed by our own in a good decent Christian manner than to give over to the lustful crepitations of a sub-species.

    The movie Dream Girls hit home with the fictitious reimagining of Cadillac Car, sung by a white male pop star of the time. Wayne Cochran (the white James Brown) and Elvis were simply alternative interpretations of black singers whites could feel “Safe” in allowing their children to go see. It’s why Vanilla Ice became a millionaire when his black counterparts were still struggling in the genre. White kids flocked to his concerts and felt secure in the fact he was a safer reasonable facsimile to the real thing. It’s why precious little Molly Cyrus is seen as a safer alternative for white parents than attending a Mary J. Blige concert. The fear of blacks and what we represent still shakes some whites to their very core. They’d rather have that good ole-timey music that reminds them of simpler times; when this country was run by a different set of rules.

    Its hard to explain why some whites seem to love their own so much, they can patronize or enjoy something only if it has a white face attached to it. White soul- white gospel- white worship, white love-making in movies; white children in fantasy films. White heroes/heroines, missing white women and children; white prince/princesses- white experts and presidents. Skinny blond white women and starlets; this to me is the legacy of racism.
    I hope I haven't offended any one.

  30. @jonathan

    So those who grew up during the civil rights movement are jamming to wheezy nowadays?

  31. This music is lame. I don't think it's necessarily a white or black thing. Just that they're not talented. The singing, and the background music. It lacks the soulful quality of a vocalist like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Levi Stubbs, or the background music provided by the Funk Brothers.


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