In April of this year, I took my mother to see Diana Ross in concert. Ross, at 67, looked and sounded beautiful, and my mom and I sang, smiled, danced, and cried all night. My mom first became a fan of Diana Ross at the age of eight, and first started singing the Motown Diva’s songs to me when I was in the crib. Being together, my mom at 55 and me at 27, and hearing excellent live renditions of the same songs that played when she made me breakfast before I went to school, was an emotional experience.
Ross’s songs, from the classic Supreme hits to the 1995 dance-gospel anthem, “Take Me Higher”, filled the concert theater with joy, energy, and uplift. Her catalogue of work is about love, romance, and finding reason to feel good in a troubled world. It’s challenging to find the contemporary equivalent of Ross or the contemporary equivalent of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, or Whitney Houston, and it’s stupefying to consider what contemporary pop songs future parents will sing to their children.
John Blake writing for CNN, recently scrutinized modern R&B and asked, in the words of Donny Hathaway, “Where is the love?” He wrote, “Songs on today’s urban radio playlists are drained of romance, tenderness and seduction. And it’s not just about the rise of hardcore hip-hop or rappers who denigrate women. Black people gave the world Motown, Barry White and “Let’s Get It On.” But we don’t make love songs, anymore.
There may be no quality more important to intimacy and the development of a healthy personality than sweetness. It takes true courage and strength to live and love sweetly, but urban music, with notable exceptions like Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott, has moved from sweetness to the poisonous substitutes of cool and tough. The most popular hip hop music is abrasive, and its purveyors, even as they age, show no sign of softening. After Beyonce gave birth to his child, Jay Z spoke publicly to crush the ugly rumors circulating that he was so moved by becoming a father to a baby girl, he would no longer use the words “bitch” and “ho” in his music. He reassured the world that he would continue to depict women as heartless animals and vulgar sex objects.
Drake is often praised as the exception and example of appreciation for women with genuine love and emotional vulnerability, but for every song like “Look What You’ve Done” – a tribute to his mother – the rapper, likely in order to preserve an image of toughness – has to sing, “Bitch I’m the man, don’t you forget / The way you walk, that’s me/ The way you talk, that’s me,” as he does in “Shot for Me”.
It isn’t exactly Al Green singing, “Let’s stay together / I’ll be lovin’ you whether times are good or bad / Happy or sad” or Bill Withers’ riendship commitment communicated in “Lean On Me.”
While hip hop remains bellicose and confrontational, pop and rock music has become more cynical and superficial. Arcade Fire cites no one more than Bruce Springsteen as their influence and inspiration. On Springsteen’s breakout hit, “Born to Run, ,he sang, “Someday baby, I don’t know when / We’re gonna get to that place we really wanna go / We’ll walk in the sun.” On Arcade Fire’s breakout hit, “Wake Up”, they sang, “Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up / We’re just a million little god’s causin rain storm / Turnin’ every good thing to rust.”
Springsteen may have titled an album Darkness On the Edge of Town, but on the same album he sang that he believed in both “the promised land” and “the faith that can save me.” Suburbia on Arcade Fire’s Suburbs is broken and beaten not unlike the rust belt of John Mellencamp’s records, but there is no “I cannot forget from where it is that I come from… I cannot forget the people who love me” that Mellencamp expressed on his hit, “Small Town”.
Singers such as Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj offer materialism and hedonism as the only sedatives to a cruel world. The exception, Adele, sings of genuine emotion with unguarded feeling, but she sings only of heartbreak and the depression that results from it “We could have had it all…tears are gonna fall.” John Blake asked “where is the love?” Equally appropriate questions are “where is the joy?” and “where is the romance?”
Nikki Jean (press photo / photographer unknown)
I asked pop and R&B singer and songwriter Nikki Jean those very questions over the telephone a few months ago. Jean’s wonderful first album, Pennies In a Jar, features songwriting collaborations with, among others, Carole King, Burt Bachrach, Lamont Dozier, and Bob Dylan.
The 28-year old Jean is currently writing songs for her second album and playing shows in America again after spending months touring in Australia and Japan. When we spoke she was in Japan, but our conversation began with her taking me back to her home of Philadelphia. Her first band, Nouveau Riche, played what she called “very dark music” and one of her first loyal fans – a young woman named Shiloh – committed suicide. At that point, Jean decided to change her music and reevaluate her artistic priorities.
“I decided I didn’t want to reinforce people’s sadness. You can’t listen to Smokey Robinson and say, ‘I’m going to go jump off a bridge.’ We can choose. A lot of people would say it’s not our responsibility as artists, but we can choose. I choose to put out something positive.”
One of the positive songs she puts out is the Lamont Dozier co-write, “My Love”. Dozier, of Holland-Dozier-Holland, wrote many of Motown’s biggest hits including “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You”, “This Old Heart of Mine”, and “You Can’t Hurry Love”, gave Jean the classic Motown sound to accompany her lyrics that declare, “When I’m with you / That’s who I want to be / It’s what you do for me / That’s why I’m giving you my love.”
Motown came up often during the discussion, and Jean questioned if the sonic resurgence of Motown will ever summon the spirit of Motown. “There seems to be no place in art or public discourse for just being sincere and sweet. It’s sad because little kids are growing up listening to this music. What will they have to pass on to their children? We may bring back the sounds, but it is different, because music used to unite us. Motown was the sound of young America. Black and whites agreed on it, and it was fun. Now what are we uniting around? If we’re all uniting to sing Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” that’s a little different than uniting to sing “Imagine”.
“My Love” shows vulnerability and tenderness in its declaration of love for a romantic partner, while the song that Nikki Jean co-wrote with Paul Williams, “Patty Crash, ,makes a best friend the subject of the same emotions. She sings, “You’re just past perfect / Far from flawless / You’re like my favorite song that I sing all day / When I’m with you I can say anything.”
I complimented her on the melodically fun composition, and also pointed out how its willingness to show such sweetness is rare. At that point, she made an acrobatic adjustment from songwriter to social critic.
“People don’t write sweet songs anymore, particularly American artists, because we live in a climate of fear, and when you don’t feel safe you aren’t willing to make yourself vulnerable. Young people know that they can go to school, work hard, but Social Security may not be there for them. Someone on Wall Street might ruin their life. They could get hit by a drunk driver, have their insurance maxed out, and go bankrupt. They can vote for candidates they believe in, and see them do nothing they promised. All of this seeps into the consciousness deeply. So then how can you write a sweet song?”
Jean’s question is a good one and her sociopolitical analysis of the shifting trends in pop music became even more resonant when she offered a cultural comparison between popular songwriters of the current decade and the popular songwriters of the ‘60s in response to my simple and obvious question, “How, then, did you write sweet songs?” “I wanted to do it, but I had help. I had help from people who came from an era when sad, cynical songs didn’t sell,” she said, ” Sweet heartbreak songs sold, but it didn’t work to be sad. They came from an era when their parents lived through the Great Depression, and then they were able to experience prosperity. They had leaders like JFK and Martin Luther King. They had hope. What did we have growing up? 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crash, Bush.”
Even the songs that do not directly reinforce the growing cynicism, anger, and disappointment in the institutional failure and social misery that dominates the headlines and damages the outlook of young Americans manage to communicate hopelessness and joylessness. Big Sean’s “Dance” and Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” may sound fun, but all they offer is the mass escapism of manipulative sexual conquest, empty materialism, and superficial success.
One of the functions of pop music is to reflect the popular mood of its time. If it’s ever to qualify as art, however, it must also transcend the times. Jean traced the line between Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” – two songs that became anthemic to the civil rights movement and black power movement. Pop music, despite its name, is capable of challenging the assumptions of its era. Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Going On” when surround by strife and The Beatles sang “All You Need is Love” when surrounded by violence. Pop music should not merely raise brand awareness in slick advertisement campaigns; it should also seek to inject the culture with love, hope, and joy.
The late David Foster Wallace said that at this point in American history, there’s nothing easier to sell than cynicism, because most people are aware of the forces of failure that produce the cynicism. He explained that the test for great writers under the current cultural climate will be to remind readers that they are fully human, and in doing so, risk looking sappy or overly sentimental. The challenge is finding the courage to be joyful, hopeful, or in a relationship context, vulnerable and romantic.
The cultivation of artistic bravery requires the radical vantage point of rebellion. Nikki Jean’s beautiful album, along with the work of singer/songwriters like Allen Stone and Esperanza Spalding demonstrates that there are still artists with the courage to show sincerity in an age of irony, show hope in an age of cynicism, and show joy without bragging about the luxuries of wealth and fame. They are building audiences, and it is important that they succeed, because as Jean pointed out, “If music isn’t enjoyed widely, it just isn’t pop music.”
The most important idea that Jean learned from working with such legendary writers was that “In the world, if you look there’s beauty everywhere, there’s inspiration everywhere. It’s just about what you choose to try to see.”
Novelist and jazz critic Stanley Crouch said, “There is nothing more serious than joy when it is about the right thing.” Seeing beauty and inspiration instead of picking the low lying fruit of dread and cynicism is the recognition of Crouch’s simple, yet profound truth. It is a truth that pop music, because it is meant for fun, can elevate and emphasize, and in doing so, help give young Americans the strength, faith, and most importantly, love to internally defeat the narrow vision for a short life sold by a seductively empty status quo.