Luther Is Drag

The Death of Vandross

by Diepiriye Kuku

22 September 2009


Diepiriye Kuku

The quintessential Soul balladeer passed four summers ago, much to the grand dismay of fans who simply could not get enough. Sure, we have Luther on record, but it was his live shows that did us in; he gave his all, and he was enjoying the music he sang, too. Yet we celebrate his death not by counting our losses, but by focusing on our blessings, and Luther blessed us. So here’s Luther Ronzoni Vandross in a few takes.

Reading: A Soul balladeer being bad.
It’s Over Now is “strange” for Luther whose voice would conjure images of an eternal, selfless romantic willingness to give all for love. Yet this was drag for Luther. He’s a homosexual who sang heterosexual songs—a gender bending performance for effect. He donned R&B music so beautifully that listening to him was also like listening with a fan. Luther loved Soul music, so when he was sassy, Luther got real sassy. He reverted back to himself in a sense.

The song It’s Over Now is a reading—a black queen exposing hateful people to the ridiculousness of being shady. We sharpen our skills amongst ourselves, but a real read most likely happens on the street; board and classrooms refuse to handle the type of trash one speaks when riffing through the streets, clearing the way of hungry, angry people throwing shade, about to get played. Shade needs to be arrested, and when people throw shade, they need to be read their rights. It’s Over Now—those are the terms and conditions when there is betrayal:

You can go now
Keep your voice down
There’s no need to fuss and shout
Use the backdoor
I don’t want no nosy neighbors to see you
Check it out

“Reading” is like this: when someone denies you your humanity, you put on drag to show them the ridiculousness of their behavior. Remember, when people insult, tease, beat, batter and abuse, it’s because of a wound they have suffered. Lacking the tools for dialogue in real life, we seek refuge in the words of the artists or the divine to replace our helplessness when confronted with a situation.

Something’s going on
It’s the middle of the night
And my ESP woke me up

Is this women’s intuition or PMS? Such empathy is often attributed to women in our culture, so when men don this robe, the gender role reversal accesses an entirely new set of sensations. Listeners simultaneously identify with both the protagonist and antagonist.

Between Soul ballads and R&B riffs, Luther had the baddest game going. And since he did do duets, he go to spread his style all over the pop music world while remaining true to his roots, (i.e., expressing himself and not reducing himself to a sexual persona). Moreover, perhaps the ambiguity around Luther’s sexual orientation added to the visual drag that women fans especially adored. Luther wasn’t there to woo them per se, not like a Marvin Gaye or Teddy Pendergrass who literally make love to the microphone, for Luther it’s a tool to make love, not an end.

Luther, the handyman
Falsetto is a classic “instrument” of the male voice to imbue a sense of empathy amidst listeners. In patriarchal terms, he prostrates himself. And despite the anti-feminist women in pop who chant for their “soldiers” in “wife beaters and jeans,” there are voices from men who demand more mutuality among the sexes.

Screaming, shouting, letting loose, and the coup-falsetto are all ways crooners seduce us into taking their side. Hence, “Since I lost my baby,” really becomes a story of us consoling Luther as much as feeling his pain. Unlike sex symbols, which tweet audiences through songs by means of titillation, Soul as a genre (and Luther as a species) exceeds just sexual energy. Luther moves through erotic, fraternal, paternal, maternal, love, joy and pain. His music could not be reduced to titillation.

A House is Not a Home nor is ghetto-fab indicative of liberation. Imagine Luther on stage serenading Whitney and Cissy Houston, sitting next to Dionne Warwick. Luther gazed deeply into his sister’s eyes as this mad man softly crooned a refashioning of her sixties hit in a way that pleased Soul fans so greatly that the song is known for its riffs, not barring even the lyrics. The closest star pair to meet their match would be the Boss and the King of Pop continuing to save souls through the legacy of Black music.

“Luthered,” the Verb
Ever heard “Bad Boy / Having a Party” or “If Only for One Night?” or what about “Creepin’”? Of all those songs, Luther only left one to it’s original arrangement, further indicating that it is real hard to re-make a Stevie Wonder tune, as George Michael and Mary J. Blige met with “As.” But Sam Cook and Dionne Warwick were both open to Luther’s interpretation.

In his interpretation, Luther took full ownership of the music. He loved the music and massaged fans’ eyes, ears, and sentiments with his arrangements, taking the plain, factory-produced, mundane regular pop hit to new, unfounded heights. In short, he lathered these songs, which is more than doctoring them up.

Luther’s only close contemporary in this matter (drum roll, please) is Mariah! Indeed, the comeback queen has had more hits regurgitating oldies than Luther and certainly more pop fanaticism, yet it’s clear that her influences parallel Luther’s.

Luthering a song is wholly different, though may be looked upon as a kissing cousin of sampling. Hip-Hop and House music as genres were born out of sampling Funk. And both Hip-Hop and House appropriated various aspects of Disco. Rappers started spitting when Disco’s beat soothed down, dancers burst out during the break, hot on the floor would literally “break it down,” because, as James said, “You gotta get down to get deep.”

House music appropriated the screams and hollering in Disco, often just speeding up the beats per minute. “Goodtimes” by Chic, followed by “Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugar Hill Gang is probably the most widely known Disco-to-Rap leap. Even Vaughan Mason’s Bounce Rock Skate shows listeners how close Disco is related to Funk, the former watering downs the beats of the later.

Hip-Hop followed the grittier beats and passions; yet there are certainly many such samples as this really is the foundation of the oral tradition. Lesser known is Luther singing with the group Change on the track “The Glow of Love” which also sampled Chic’s song.

This is how the music stays alive, not killing itself over and over in order to be reborn as divine. Soul is not about that kind of sacrifice, so sampling is much more than just copying out of lack of imagination. Frankly, just listen to any of a set of remixes and samples, and then you’ll know the deal. One of my favorite modern triages spanning Funky Soul, Hip-Hop, and R&B is “Stay with Me” by DeBarge, then “One More Chance” by Notorious BIG, and “Foolish” by Ashanti. While all these beats are phat, and dope as samples, this is mere sampling, not Luthering.

It is ironic that one of the best examples of Luthering is a cover of a favorite Luther Vandross dance beat. Fantasia Luthered “Till My Baby Come Home.” Beyond keeping the essential baseline, though replacing Luther’s classic organic organs with a synthesizer (perhaps for lack of budget), Fantasia heads Luther note-for-note. She restrains her riffs to a few Whitney style he-he’s, but the real coup comes at the end. And this is the most solid case for having Luthered this song.

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