Friday, May 9, 2008

Not Just A Phase

It happens every year. Flowers bloom, people open windows to bring fresh air indoors, and I fiend for soul music like a junky craves angel dust. I feel soul might be the most universally accepted form of music, and there’s no better evidence than looking at the 1970s.

After the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, society seemed to be heading in the right direction. Segregation, discrimination, and Jim Crow were supposedly put to rest. The 70s proved that most segregation and discrimination were de facto and probably amplified by America’s economic problems. But throughout history, some of the most important forms of music (rock ‘n roll, hip-hop, punk, folk) emerged as reactions to societal struggles like these. Now granted, soul had been around for decades before the 70s, but it wasn’t until then that we started seeing many of its permutations.

For much of the 60s, soul was more pop than political. Motown made music for the masses, James Brown sang about feelin’ good before he voiced the frustrations of countless inner cities, and Marvin Gaye crooned about how sweet love was until What's Going On in ’71. By the time the 70s rolled around, a lot of soul’s sheen had been stripped off and artists like Curtis Mayfield focused on the social problems that had become unavoidable. But with Mayfield, his effortlessly melodic arrangements could transport you to a drug-filled Chicago alley or inside the home of a struggling family, it simply depended on whether he was using scuzzy guitar or sweeping strings. The culmination of political soul came in the soundtrack to Superfly, which, with Isaac Hayes’ efforts on Shaft, forever linked this musical era to Blaxploitation.

On the flip side of socially conscious soul was the blossoming of plastic soul. This is not to be confused with “blue-eyed” soul (Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Dusty Springfield, et al.), which shouldn’t be classified as “plastic” because of its apparent sincerity. Plastic soul, on the other hand, has a certain level of affectation that acknowledges the strangeness of white people singing black music (especially when guys like Jagger and Bowie just look and sound so damn British). Despite its inherently detached appearance, plastic soul can be quite soulful. The aforementioned Brits did it quite well and Beck’s Midnight Vultures is a modern plastic classic, but sadly there were musicians who took this stuff far too seriously. Footnotes like Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins created yacht rock, which can’t be considered blue-eyed because of its insincerity (or pure schmaltziness) nor plastic because it doesn’t acknowledge its absurdity. But all of this music was fun, which was certainly a nice escape during the sometimes-gloomy 70s.

The infusion of fun back into soul was an inevitable backlash to the serious music of the late 60s and early 70s. A lot of singers found refuge in the hedonistic my-eyes-are-closed-and-everything-is-alright attitude of disco. The energy of danceable soul translated well across the world and focused more on rhythm and positive messages rather than social awareness. Essentially everyone knew things sucked and joyous songs helped people get by. Lately there’s been an emergence of African soul/psych/funk compilations from the 70s and most are quite good. It’s like big treasure chests in West Africa were simultaneously unearthed, giving us the funkiest offerings from Nigeria, Ghana, and Benin. The music is generally more socially conscious and subversive than its American counterparts, but just as danceable.

These are just a few of the many variations (70s) soul has to offer and I advise you delve further into it. The best thing about a soul phase is that when it’s over, the messages stay with you just as much as the catchy, catchy music.

Songs of soul:

Curtis Mayfield - The Other Side Of Town

Curtis Mayfield - (Don't Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We're All Going To Go

David Bowie - Somebody Up There Likes Me

T-Fire - Will Of The People


agingsnob said...

Yacht rock is a truly great term, great term. Nice return to the blogosphere! An exemplary posting of music dorkery, indeed.

M.O.M. said...

Great piece! You should think about submitting it to Rolling Stone-seriously.

P.S. I like Kenny Loggins