Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music

by Mark Harris

22 December 2004


In the beginning—say, around 1980—God created music. He sorted it into nice, neat categories, like adult contemporary, funk, and barbershop quartet. And it was good. Man, however, had other designs. Everyone wanted his own sound. Soon came amalgams like jangle pop, reggaeton, and neo-prog. And the Lord said, “Are those even words?” But the Lord did some deep-breathing exercises and proclaimed, “OK, I can deal with that. Free will and all.” Then Man started to change the original genres that God had ordained. Adult contemporary became country, funk became pop, and barbershop quartet became a joke. And God said, “Me dammit!” Or that’s how I envision things went. Over the last couple of decades, the alignment of popular musical genres has shifted. What used to be called hip-hop is now R&B. What used to be R&B is now jazz. What used to be adult contemporary is now country. What used to be rock is now punk. How am I supposed to invest in a genre when it won’t stand still? “You’ve got hip-hop in my R&B!” “You’ve got R&B in my hip-hop!” I used to step into a music store and immediately know where to go for the sound I wanted. Now, I need a copy of Billboard and some sort of GPS device. As a kid born in the ‘70s and coming of age in the ‘80s, music became a pastime worthy of my allowance near the end of the Carter Administration. My musical addiction was then merely a simmering curiosity. My listening selections were typical of an adolescent boy of the time: Thriller, Disco Duck, those 33 1/3 read-along records (I liked The Hobbit), and The Best of Air Supply. Then came 1988. With talent like Stevie B, Escape Club, Johnny Kemp, and Rick Astley throwing themselves at me like stones at a leper, how could I resist their melodious call? But stretching out beyond the reach these luminaries was one Robert Barisford Brown. Bobby Brown’s career—and let’s face it, life—highlight, Don’t Be Cruel, sparked my musical obsession. Little did I know that in purchasing this album, I was triggering a shift in the sands of music’s grand design. Looking back, it’s easy to see now what happened. Brown, with his snaggletoothed braggadocio and ballsy style-over-talent stratagem, hypnotized the public with the uber-hip “new jack swing” sound. Though largely attributable to producer Teddy Riley (whose lasting legacy will, for better or worse, always include Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker”), it was Brown who brought the style to the mainstream. New jack swing was basically R&B with a hip-hop attitude. The beats were bigger, the delivery more aggressive, the swagger more pimp-like. It hit a nerve with people who wanted the aggression of hip-hop without all the death. So Bobby Brown gave it to them. He rapped on the title track of Don’t Be Cruel, and that breakdown in “Roni”—“She’ll make the toughest homeboy fall deep in love” ... It all seems so clear now. Since the release of this album, it’s as if music has shifted up one notch on the “scale of jiggy”, throwing everything out of whack. This effect—which I call “jiggification”—has wreaked deep, and I fear irreparable, damage to music as a whole and, more significantly, to my pocketbook as a whole. How many times do I have to buy an R&B album, only to find it full of hip-hop beats and references to women with “dumps like a truck?” Granted, learning 64 euphemisms for a woman’s ass can come in handy, but, really, wouldn’t 63 suffice? I even feel the pain of my country brethren. I remember when country was country. I couldn’t name an Alabama song to save my life, but I could look at them and say, “Yup, they’re country.” Plucking their banjos, scrubbing their washboards, and blowing in their XXX moonshine jugs, that’s what I enjoyed seeing ... or am I projecting? All that separates a country song nowadays from an adult contemporary song is a cowboy hat and a twang. Today’s genres go something like this:
  • Jiggy country (formerly adult contemporary)
  • Jiggy jazz (formerly R&B) 
  • Jiggy R&B (formerly hip-hop) 
  • Jiggy hip-hop (formerly gangsta rap) 
  • Jiggy punk (formerly rock ‘n’ roll) 
  • Jiggy rock ‘n’ roll (formerly pop) 
  • Jiggy pop (Ironically enough, formerly new jack swing)

Adult contemporary as a genre has vanished, since there’s nothing you can jiggify to become adult contemporary. The only less-jiggy genre would involve lutes and wassailing. All of the big stars have gone the way of the 8-track. Celine Dion has left for Las Vegas. Michael Bolton is waiting tables in Malibu. Phil Collins is now officially a Disney character.

I never liked jazz growing up, but then again, jazz never sounded like Norah Jones, Anita Baker, or Will Downing when I was a kid. Maybe I was a jazz fan all along. I grew up listening to R&B crooners like Regina Belle, Phil Perry, Vesta, Glenn Jones, and Randy Crawford, only to find them now signed to jazz labels. If I wanted to find Anita Baker in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I’d go to the R&B section of the store. Now, although her music hasn’t changed a lick, she’s on Blue Note. I’m suddenly a jazz fan, and I never knew it. Shouldn’t I get to choose my own favorite genres? Or at least shouldn’t someone inform me of my shift in taste? A newsletter would be nice.

It’s gotten to point where anything slow that doesn’t have a jiggy beat is considered jazz. There are no more gentle “quiet storm” jams anymore. I want my Peabo! Today’s ballads have more sexual innuendo than a Kinsey report, usually rapped by someone whose first name is Lil’. If I want to hear something mellow on the radio, I have to tune to a “smooth jazz” station and subject myself to Muzak versions of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited.”

Labels are largely to blame for the confusion. It works in their favor to corner to the “confused listener” market. Case in point: I recently got my hands on a pre-release copy of Brenda “Piano in the Dark” Russell’s new CD. It was released on the Narada Jazz label and contains a song called “It’s a Jazz Day”, yet the back cover states in stark, capital letters, “FILE UNDER: R&B.”

It’s this sort of muddlement that leads records stores to shrug their shoulders and shove everything into a vague “black music” section. They insure themselves against musical shifts by grouping the music in the broadest categories possible. Like race. If you’ve ever flipped through the CD shelves and found Michael Jackson next to Mahalia Jackson or Ray Charles next to Chingy, you know what I mean.

And God help you if you listen to reggae. Ponce de Leon had more luck looking for the Fountain of Youth. Depending on the store, you could find a Bob Marley CD in World, Pop/Rock, R&B, Rap, Latin, or when all else fails, Reggae. And even then you’ll have to sift through dreadlocked non-reggae acts like Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Tracy Chapman, or the soundtrack to Whoopi Goldberg’s latest movie.

When I go to the music store now, I allot a good eight hours. When security makes me check my backpack at the door, it turns into a big scene. Like they’ve never seen someone bring in a can of Sterno, a Bowie knife, a flashlight radio, an inflatable mattress, a spare generator, and a mini fridge. Maybe the Sherpa was too much. Next time, I’ll hide in a bathroom stall around closing. That way, I’ll have all night to browse at my leisure without someone asking, “Can I help you?” or “If you don’t buy something soon, I’m gonna call the cops.” Who am I kidding? Music store employees are too cool to ask if they can help you find something. Besides, they know what a can of worms they’d be opening if you actually took them up on the offer.

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