The Black Snob

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Rants: Feel My Pain

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This week in real life “Snob News” I took dear Mama Snob to see “Cadillac Records.” Despite her disdain for all profanity (and the fact that she hadn’t seen a film in a theater since “Harlem Nights” back in 1989), she wanted to see the film because she is a fan of the blues, hardcore.

Mama Snob spent much of my formative years teaching and torturing my sisters and myself with blues music. Everything from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (who’s doppelgangers were in the film) to B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor (who is actually R&B if you ask my mother), ZZ Hill, Denise LaSalle and Koko Taylor. Some of it I grew to love. Others I still can’t stand to this very day. (I truly do not want to pitch a wang-dang-doodle all night long. Or put on my “wig hat,” as LaSalle suggests on one ditty.) But watching the film and, most notably, Beyonce Knowles’ portrayal of Etta James reminded me of what separates great art from great pop art.

In the film, Beyonce is playing Etta James, a woman with a distinct, passionate voice that hits you emotionally to your core. Some of her songs are joyous. Some are gospel. Some are blues. All hit with an undercurrent of suffering.

Beyonce is a perfected R&B/Pop princess with a pristine, over-worked voice who can kill stylistically, but has never moved me emotionally. Basically, her acrobatics are amazing, but she could also be the T-888 of pop singers.

She has been successful in moving me to the dance floor. That’s been a capability of hers since I was in college and someone would throw on “Bills, Bills, Bills.” She’s the queen of the “all-sass, all-the-time, independent/strong black woman” song. The “I’m so awesome and don’t need your tired ass” song, that — as I’ve mentioned before — is more science fiction than reality in relationships. Yeah, sometimes you get to wave it in a guy’s face and sing “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it,” but most of the time it’s just you, drunk, at home, watching “Mo’ Betta Blues” for the millionth time wondering why-oh-why won’t Denzel Washington come to your house and beg you to save his life?

Did I ever stand in your way, Denzel? Did I ever try to stop you from doing what you wanted to do!?! The only reason you’re here is because you can’t play anymore!

As I watched Beyonce emote her way through the film (and she tried to emote her little ass off), there was something not quite right. Knowles admitted that she really had to dig deep as an actor because of Etta’s anger and inner turmoil, (Etta had it rough and really, really liked liquor and smack, etc., etc.) At the end of the day, she came up with a convincing facsimile of suffering, but I never, for the life of me, believed in that suffering.

It’s not that I don’t think Beyonce has inner drama. Everyone does. Everyone has doubt and failings and pain. My argument is that Beyonce does not want you to know of this drama, any real drama, that is. She’s closely guarded with an even more tightly guarded image. She is more about being the fantasy of what she thinks you want her to be (cue “Sasha Fierce!”) rather than revealing anything of character.

In “Cadillac Records,” Adrian Brody’s character, Leonard Cohen, argues with Beyonce’s James’ lack of emotion in her initial takes of the song “All I Could Do Was Cry.” He makes the point that the song is about a woman watching another woman marry the man she loves. James’ digs deep and finds that pain, albeit it’s not about being dumped by a long-lost love. A scene later you learn about her being the neglected, bastard child of a white man.

Beyonce does good work with the scene, as she does with her few scenes in the movie (the film rushes in so many huge personalities that no one seems to get any justice as a character, including Etta James). But the scene underscores the point that it really doesn’t matter when the song is about pain. The pain has to be real for the song to have meaning. And that’s what separates someone with a wonderful voice who makes an outstanding pop artist from a true artist.

A true artist brings the pain.

I don’t have to convince you that original Fugee’s member, musical genius and lost child, Lauryn Hill has issues. We all know, homegirl has issues. But often, when I wanted to think of a modern song, like Etta James’ classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” or Issac Hayes’ cover of “Walk On By” that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry, I think of Hill’s “Ex-Factor.”

“Ex-Factor,” on its face, can be taken as a brilliant love unrequited/love denied ballad, but it doesn’t stop there. As Hill explores deeper and deeper into the song and lays out her blueprint of pain, it becomes very apparent that this song doesn’t have to be about a crappy boyfriend or a wayward husband or a married man who won’t leave his wife for you. By the end of the song it is a plea for undying love, the kind you’re supposed to get from the first man to ever love you — your father. And once you cross that threshold suddenly the song is about abandonment — by anyone. Did your mother abandon you? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Did you grow up and age out of the child welfare system? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Were you abused as a child? You may cry while listening to “Ex-Factor.” Did you spend 35 years as a housewife, raising five kids to find out that your husband has another woman and another five kids, secretly, on the other side of the country? Cry! Ex-Factor is for you.

Hell, you don’t even have to be a woman to cry during Ex-Factor. Just be from the land of broken toys. Be the neglected. Be the rejected. Once you get to the end where Hill pleads, “you said you’d be there for me” over and over she could be singing Pslams for all I know, wondering where is God and why He abandoned her. That’s how universal, yet specific, her vocal pain is.

And what does Knowles have? “If I Were A Boy?” a song, I HATE WITH EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING. It’s a nice enough song. But it’s not particularly deep or painful. It basically entails that if Knowles were a man all she’d do is drink and hang out with guys without question. The video doesn’t hit any harder, which didn’t seem to relate to gender politics at all if you ask any guy whoever had a girlfriend cheat on him with a co-worker. It also resonates if you’re a man who has been routinely emasculated by the woman you love. (BB once sang how he gave you seven children and now you want to send them back!) These things are pretty common place. If anything, I thought the video was about gender equity among cheaters.

Women! We can cheat too! Except, we always have! So never mind!

And, gee. I think Gwen Stefani and the rest of No Doubt addressed this issue better on “Just A Girl” back in 1995. Or Leslie Gore on “You Don’t Own Me” in 1964. Or hey, how about less than two years ago, by Ciara, on a track called “Like A Boy,” a song I actually enjoyed despite it being a blatant Aaliyah rip-off, down to the baggy pants, hair weave and wonderful pop n’ lock routine. At least on the somewhat gimmicky, but fun single it was about being angry that the rules of sex and sexuality were different for men and women. Both Ciara’s and Beyonce’s songs tread similar gender role themes (staying out all night, turning off your phone, etc.) But Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy” is a sappy, whiny “This Used to Be My Playground”-esque ballad about pseudo-feminism.

Ciara is doing her best Leslie Gore of, “how would you like it if I did it to you, huh? You wouldn’t like that would you! We totally aren’t going to prom now!”

And it’s not like Ciara has a catalog of pain to draw back on (that I know of). But she makes it work. Largely because it’s a revenge fantasy, not about how awesome Ciara is and that she could do that to a guy, but that she WISHES she could do that to a guy. Never once does she say, “Screw this. I’m converting to being an ass.”

And I’m not a big fan of Mary J. Blige, but I call feel the capillaries bursting on every one of her tracks. When she sang that she couldn’t be without you, I believed she could not be without that person. Same went for “No More Drama,” another song which makes me cry despite my best efforts, because, in the end, you are responding to her raw emotion, her appeal to wanting to leave a tumultuous life behind and be the person she wants to be.

Some people say Beyonce wants greatness, hence why she chases those who already have it (see James, Etta). I can’t blame her. A lot of us do. This would also explain why at the last few of Grammy Awards she sang with Tina Turner and Prince as if their true measure of pain and “fierce” would rub off by osmosis. She’s obviously a hard worker, but no amount of hard work can fake pain. When Prince sang “When Doves Cry” you may not have known what the song was about in 1984. Maybe you still don’t. But you know he’s broken up over something. A woman. His parents. God. Himself. Ultimately, for me, the song is about obsession. But, sex, Jesus or obsession are good fallback explanations for nearly every Prince song.

Turner is the same way. She didn’t even write “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” yet the emotions, the sound, the pain were all Tina’s. No amount of wonderful song writing can create that.

I’m not saying Beyonce needs to get in a dysfunctional relationship, be abandoned by her family, pick up a drug habit (or several drug habits), becomes completely disallusioned by fame and moved to the islands, become a conflicted Christian who went pop or go nutbar on me but the great ones give up some pain. There’s really no way around it. Without the pain, you’re just a more charming Mariah Carey who can actually dance. Or worse, Janet Jackson with better vocals.

Both Mariah and Janet have outstanding pop careers. And if you want to be a wealthy, beloved, popular singer, you’re on their heels of catching and surpassing them in sales and accolades. But Whitney, the trainwreck everyone routes for, you will not. Beyonce Knowles can’t convince me she knows the blues. It’s her only real flaw as a performer. Her kryptonite. But she shouldn’t feel bad. It’s a pretty common flaw among pop singers. Usher can kiss Dead James Brown’s ass all he wants. He’ll still sound like someone said “just push play.”

Written by blacksnob

December 29, 2008 at 8:15 pm

The Retro Kids Do Have Day Jobs

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I’ve regularly posted befuddlement at The Retro Kids wondering what they did for a living (besides go to NYC parties) and if their high top fades and braided gold chains were meant as a homage to the Hip Hop style that existed before the industry started pumping millions into the Rap Industrial Complex. Or if they were making fun of folks of my generation (teens and preteens of the late 80s through the 1990s).

Where they making fun of The Snob and my long hair, fully curly and crunchy to the side (with a banana clip — of course, circa 1990, wearing a vertical stripped dress* to my sixth grade banquet where I was one of the two keynote speakers. Where I unveiled my hard earned dancing skills (I practiced in the basement for weeks with my more agile little sister, Deidre the Baby Snob, who went on to be a theater and dance major.) There at the banquet I busted a mean Roger Rabbit to some Bobby Brown after the award’s dinner at Hazelwood East High School. Because I can’t tell if the Retro Kids are making fun of that. That night was not funny to me.

Since kindergarten I’d been teased mercilessly for being different. By sixth grade everyone had calmed down and accepted me for who I was. I’d sat on my “cute” pair of glasses the night before the banquet and rather that wear my old hideous pink/purple plastic old lady specs from the fourth grade I went to the thing blind and specs-less. To my shock, everyone responded to me like I was the hottest chick in the room. I was “that girl” from the cheesy movies where you take off the glasses (and develop somewhat of a figure) and suddenly I was hot. That begot four years of bitching to my mom to get me contact lenses. So that night of 90s tackiness is a night of wonderfulness for me. Don’t mock it, Retro Kids. Other than that — Rock on. (From kanYe West Blog, via reader Whitty)

*I have got to dig up that picture. I swear to God. I was the hottest 12 year old in the game that night. I wouldn’t feel that way again until college in my sorority days. (Left: My seventh grade ID from the former Kirby Junior High School in St. Louis County. Check them bangs. I was the hotness and no one even knew it.)

Also, scary. I can still do all those dances in the video. I made Baby Snob teach me all of them. Baby Snob has crazy skills. She had the Janet Jackson “If” video dance down pat. It was incredible, but she’s always been awesome in that way. She’s the official “Hot Chick” of the Snob sisters.

Written by blacksnob

October 5, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Politics Break: White People Who Sing Like Black People

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For all you relatively new Snob readers my blog has not typically been all politics all the time. Things were a bit more balanced with the racial issues, the pop culture, the who is “sexy” definitions, occasional blog post series and rant. But I tend to write about what I’m excited over, so naturally that would be Sarah Palin striking out on softballs like “what’s your favorite newspaper” and “name a Supreme Court decision you hated other than Roe v. Wade.”

Seriously. I can name a few off the top of my head that I hated (Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Hazelwood Central High School case that determined that high school students didn’t have the right to free speech and a later case involving a kid with a joke sign — blunts for Jesus — that backed that decision up, etc., etc. Maybe John McCain should have picked me!)

But that’s besides the point. I want to talk (write) about something I’ve been thinking about for the past three days and that is the phenomenon of white people who sing like black people.

Now there have always been white people who have tried (successfully and unsuccessful) to mime the sounds of rural Southern blues guys and gals or the upbeat tenors of the Northern soul stars of Stax and Motown. And who can blame them? Along with American Folk and country music, the blues’ twangy, pickin’ and grinnin’ cousin, black music (spirituals/gospel, blues, jazz, soul, funk, R&B and hip hop) is American music. When four guys in Liverpool, England wondered what America sounded like they weren’t thinking of Woody Guthrie and John Phillip Sousa.

Early rock n’ roller and chronic music theft victim Little Richard will gladly tell you that they, Disney and everyone else ripped him off.

I realize that some of the popularity of black music had to do with the fact that originally it was frowned upon to even admit to listening to it outside of, say, Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat and the occasional Nat King Cole medley. But a lot of it had to do with the impassioned moaning, ululating style of singing that typically comes from the diaphragm rather than the throat (like in opera), the use of percussion and our love for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to sing about. From secret instructions in songs about the Bible on how to get away on the Underground Railroad to ordering you to “Pitch a wang dang doodle all night long” while dancing in a sexually suggestive manner.

Black music brings people together so it’s only natural that a lot of white people, especially those who either grew up influenced by black rock n’ roll of the 1950s or grew up watching MTV, would want to sing like the artists they admire the most. The TV show American Idol is living proof of that. I’ve heard numerous critics lament that the only style of singing the show tends to respect or reward is the screeching, belting, warbling, overwrought power ballads that thread the Aretha Franklin-Whitney Houston-Donna Summer-Celine Dion-Mariah Carey singing continuum.

I’m sorry, fellow music snobs. Trying to emulate Aretha or Etta James or Big Momma Thorton or Betty Wright became mainstream amongst female singers somewhere around 1968. The popularity of Mary J. Blige and Beyonce only reaffirm that the masses like their pop with a lot of black diva in it.

But there was a time when the “white sings black” paradigm was more of a novelty and often didn’t involve someone who actually “sounded” black.

Like I’d never mistake Paul McCartney for Jackie Wilson, Mick Jagger for James Brown or Rod Stewart for Sam Cooke. (Not that I’m knocking any of these fellas for trying as I like The Beatles and love both The Rolling Stones and Stewart.) Elvis Presley got closer. If you can get over the fact that he basically took what every successful black bluesman in Memphis was doing and did it when those same black bluesmen could not get on national television and suggestively pump their pelvises for money, you can really enjoy the irony of Elvis crooning “In the Ghetto.”

I swear, first time I heard this song when I was twenty it was the biggest “WTF” of my life, I kid you not.

But of this particular era Janis Joplin probably came the closest, raising the level of incredible with “Piece of My Heart,” followed by a cadre of 1970s acts including Alicia Bridges, Average White Band, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees, a pre-“Say No Go” Hall & Oates and a disco Rod Stewart on a near career respectability wrecking “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.”

Then along came two who, by far, are the black people’s most beloved blue-eyed soul singers — former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald and Tina Marie.

Marie was the first white singer signed by Motown and performed tracks with Rick James. McDonald (who’s unusual singing style almost anyone can do a serviceable parody of) has put out excellent soul and R&B and even had the balls to take on Patti LaBelle in one of the greatest love duets of the 1980s, “On My Own.”

Marie and the former Dobbie are immensely talented, yet despite their skills the number of white people singing like black people diminished greatly after the 1970s, leaving Marie and McDonald among the few, the proud, the only white R&B singers.

Then something very strange started in the mid-1990s.

At first it was just a few wanderers with mixed results. Like the soulful cool of Lisa Stansfield and the one-hit-wonder that was Jon B. The vanilla flavored alternative to New EditionNew Kids on the Block.

Celine Dion showed up fresh from Canada with her huge pipes giving Mariah Carey a run for her time on the charts. Then after a plethora of pop boy bands and pop tartlets burst onto the scene, an explosion of white people singing soul and R&B seized the stage.

Christina Aguilera begat P!nk. P!nk begat Justin Timberlake. Timberlake begat Robin Thicke. And then came Jojo, Joss Stone, Anastasia, Amy Winehouse, Sia, Adele, Duffy, James Morrison, etc. A lot of these individuals, no surprise, are British carrying on and perfecting a musical tradition.

These weren’t just white people who liked to sing with black people (see George Michael, Elton John, Madonna, Boy George or Annie Lennox). These are white people who sounded almost indistinguishable from their Negro contemporaries. Obviously growing up with a love for old soul and the new, they committed themselves to mastering the attitude and style with mixed cool points from African Americans.

A lot of the Brits get a general pass. Mostly because they’re somewhat divorced from our little racial drama here in the US and their music is often not marketed to an urban audience because they’re singing classic soul/R&B. As for the Americans, there’s a constant debate going on. Black people like Christina Aguilera generally and P!nk has moved away some from her original R&B debut, going rock.

But, you can’t bring up Timberlake or Thicke without a fight breaking out. Timberlake is sometimes seen as “the great pretender,” the slippery, arrogant individual who cool hyped his way into black music, hiring the best black producers to make up for his shortfalls as a falsetto singer. Others just enjoy Timbaland’s production and Timberlake’s interpretation.

Thicke is often lumped in with Timberlake, but his falsetto is far superior with more clarity and control. He sometimes gets points for his pure workmanship (and some give him a pass for having a black wife).

But when you’re a white American trying to make it in the R&B world with a black audience, not just white people, you’re going to catch some additional scrutinty. We’re the arbitrars of the cool and we take ownership of it. You sing, we decide if you’re in it for the love or the exploitation. Because that’s what it comes down to. Black people are forever concerned about being ripped off. Just as Little Richard still cries out for his lost earnings, so many black people are protective of their art, not wanting to see it coopted by individuals who show no love.

The fact is, the market doesn’t care.

Americans love black music no matter who is singing it. Therefore Justin Timberlake doesn’t have to meet “black” standards. By black standards he’d be fighting it out with Ne-Yo, Trey Songz, Mario and Omarion to get some airplay after Usher Raymond and R. Kelly. (If he would get signed to a label at all.) His sin was that he didn’t meet the “standard.” He wasn’t as good or better than any black performer warbling. He was passable, but assisted by his own fame as the most talented singer in his former boy band. This is different from P!nk and Aguilera (especially P!nk) who both stuck to a more pure pop/R&B format, with P!nk directly going for a black audience when she first debuted.

In the end, things are much different now from how they were when Elvis coopted black style and made himself “The King.” Hip hop is so authentically black that white rappers are actually at a terrible disadvantage when trying to get signed and promoted. And black performers now dominate The Grammys and the American Music Awards.

Aguilera has some incredible pipes, but she has to exist at the same time as Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. Even relative newcomer Keysha Cole could give Aguilera a run for her money. And black people shouldn’t worry as much about whether or not Robin Thicke is a poser. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and our people created one of the most imitated art forms in the world.

Let the white people sing.

Written by blacksnob

October 2, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Trailer for Biggie Biopic "Notorious"

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This movie has a January 2009 release which isn’t always the best sign. (Although a February release date is a death knell.) The movie features Angela Bassett as Voletta Wallace, Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace’s mother and Derek Luke as Sean “Diddy” Combs. Newcomer Jamal Woolard plays Biggie. I still have a bad “trainwreck” feeling about this and the trailer does not squash that feeling. The director is George Tillman Jr. who helmed both “Barbershop” films, “Soul Food” and “Roll Bounce.” He might be able to pull it off. Maybe they’ll cut together a better trailer that will make me less skeptical. Although, to be honest, I don’t know why this movie is being made. Bad Boy is one of the producers so this isn’t going to be an objective piece of art by any stretch. Any Biggie fans out there planning to watch this? (Black Voices)

Written by blacksnob

October 2, 2008 at 2:59 pm

Songs For Your Moms: Wayne Brady Goes R&B

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Wayne Brady has always been a bit of a conundrum to me.

On one hand he is extremely talented and funny. On the other he can be cloying, annoying and corny. A lot of that has to do with the persona that works best for him on television, but he’s obviously a gifted man with his ability to do improv and the hilarity that was his carjacking, pimping skit he did for Chappelle’s Show a few years back. It demonstrated that Brady was self-aware and knew that the sight of him cursing and threatening prostitutes would be both jarring and ridiculously satirical. Next to “Black Bush” and “Rick James,” it was one of my favorite skits.

That being said, Brady has just released an R&B album. He’s a decent singer and dancer — I’m shocked he hasn’t been on Dancing With the Stars yet. White people love the shit out of him. He reminds me a bit of Johnny Gill, minus all sexual tension. Nice and neutered.

Music provided by Singersroom.com

The song he’s released, “Ordinary,” is very, very ordinary. It’s a generic pop/R&B song with no creativity or modern touches. It sounds like something from the mid-90s that Brian McKnight would have passed on.

Brian McKnight isn’t exactly Mr. Sex Appeal, but he knows how to pick and write a good love ballad and/or slow jam as the anti-R. Kelly.

Other songs have more promise, like the somewhat Motown influenced but modern “I Ain’t Movin” and “You and Me,” but they’re still a little lacking in umph. (You can hear the samples on his Web site.)

I probably won’t buy the album. (What am I saying with the “probably?” I totally won’t buy this.) I like my music with either complexity and inventiveness or I want it to be the slickest and sickest of commercialized pop. “Ordinary” is neither. Senor Baby Wipes, actor Terrence Howard, recently released an album and while he clearly needs a singing coach to improving his breathing control, it’s sonically interesting. I actually downloaded a few tracks. I’m not saying Brady needs to go all fey on an album with string arrangements, flutes and childrens’ choruses, but I think he could have gone a lot slicker and sicker than this. Why waste such good pipes on the pedestrian? His album should be all over-produced power ballads and funky, uptempo dance numbers for your moms.

Not ordinary.

Written by blacksnob

September 23, 2008 at 7:01 am

Better, Faster, Stupider: Kanye Goes Smashy-Smashy With A Ten Thousand Dollar Camera In LAX

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I love Kanye, but … yeah, that diva move did not help him any, but I stand by my earlier assertion. TMZ’s stalkerazzi probably had it coming.

Written by blacksnob

September 12, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Heart to McCain-Palin: No Ripping "Barracuda"

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The McCain-Palin campaign appeared to adhere to the old journalism adage — do first, apologize later.

Seems 70s/80s rock phenomenon and sisterly duo, Heart, did not appreciate their 1977 rock hit “Barracuda” being played in honor of the self-professed “Hockey Mom” of Wasilla, Alaska, Gov. Sarah “Barracuda” Palin.

Oh no. Heart didn’t appreciate it at all:

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart said Thursday night that Universal Music Publishing and Sony BMG have sent a cease and desist notice to the McCain-Palin campaign over their use of ‘Barracuda.’

“We have asked the Republican campaign publicly not to use our music. We hope our wishes will be honored,” the group said in a statement that said they “condemn” the use of the song at the Republican convention. (CNN)

Written by blacksnob

September 5, 2008 at 3:41 pm