Come Back, Comeback Soul
It’s interesting that the most recent comments on this blog have been addressing David “rumors” – whether from back in his Idol days or currently, on Twitter, as everyone tries to predict his next direction post-Mormon Mission.
However, one of the most interesting rumors (to me at least) that I had heard during David’s Idol season had to do with his “soul music” tendencies and his and his team’s deliberate attempts to move away from these as he tried to advance in the competition.
Yes, I had heard a rumor suggesting that, after the popularity of “Imagine” (compared to his prior week’s performance of “Shop Around”), #Manincap and Co. decided to push David’s “inspirational” persona over the “soul man from Utah” persona since, they allegedly calculated, this was a more strategic way to advance in the competition, given American Idol’s mainstream audience and voters.
Obviously this paid off since David transformed during the course of the season from a captivating, bouncy teen shooting off a Motown classic so effortlessly in Top 24 week to an awkwardly positioned “white guy” (as he self-deprecatingly acknowledged) trying to sing Chris Brown’s pop R&B hit “With You” during Top 3 week. The judges (and so many others) agreed: R&B “soul” was soooooooo not David’s “cup of tea,” everyone reasoned – as his Top 3 performance seemingly indicated.
And all I have to say is: What the heck happened?
How did David go from soulful and fun “Shop Around” to ballad boy jeeringly mocked for being cheesy when given awful schlocky ballads like “Longer Than” to sing (even though David chose for himself Chris Brown’s song as a reminder of the soulful musical roots that he preferred)?
Alas, if the rumors were true, the plans of David’s “team” have created a quagmire, in which we have a vocal masterclass seemingly stuck with an “inspirational” image that has created unnecessary distance from his “soul man from Utah” persona. The question I’ve always asked on this blog is: Will David ever get his soul back?
See, that’s the real musical damage that Idol has done: in an effort to cater to “mainstream” tastes, one often has to “sell one’s soul” (quite literally).
So, here’s the thing: regardless of these strategies (and I know some of David’s fans don’t like to think of our idol as “calculating” – but let’s be real: one has to be to even acquire something as lofty as Idol runner-up status), David’s “soul” tendencies often leak out at unexpected moments. Like when he let loose towards the end of “Angels” at Tulsa, or when he caresses the word “alma” (Spanish word for “soul”) in “Contigo en la distancia,” or when he adds those gospelesque, testifying runs in a Christmas carol like “Joy to the World,” or lays on a smooth lower register in “This Christmas.” And how about that falsetto in “Beautiful“? And need I mention his a capella version of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky“? And for all the jeering he got for taking on Chris Brown on Idol, he offered a far superior rendition when he dueted with Jordin Sparks on “No Air.”
I could go on. I hear in David’s “Voice” that soulful soul, which had been banished and is so waiting to breath air. Whether it’s Idol or his “mainstream” fans or maybe his “inspirational” and “religious” audience expecting David to “stay in a safe lane,” I so want him to move out of it and to engage the risks soul music often requires: improvisational style, unexpected runs and changes, the deep desire to “never play the same note or tune” the same way (which is why David never sings a song the same way, which of course is why everyone values the joy of hearing David perform live).
Besides, without David embracing his “soulful” tendencies, we’re left with wannabe “blue-eyed soul singers” like Justin Bieber (gag me!) and Justin Timberfake (slightly more tolerable but nonetheless irritating).
These white boys of course don’t hold a candle to real blue-eyed soul singers like Michael McDonald, Robin Thicke, or the late Teena Marie (someone who I didn’t even know was white until I saw her on TV when I was a kid!). But why these pop stars tend to be much more successful than authentic singers (and therefore more marketable) is their swagger.
Justin Timberlake, more than that other Justin, certainly has this in spades, and his performance of “Suit & Tie” is all about “dressing up” R&B even while relying on the “street dressing down” that hip-hop offers with his collaboration with Jay-Z.
Let’s not forget that Justin Timberlake went from the Mickey Mouse Club to boy band N’Sync. He needed “black music” to make him cool, which is why so many black audiences haven’t forgiven him (thanks for that link, D-Rat!) when he left Janet Jackson hanging in the wake of the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” controversy. Janet Jackson was worth collaborating with for “cool points” but not worth standing by, even though it was his offending hand that revealed her breast to the world!
JT subsequently came off as a user and exploiter, not unlike his fellow Memphis resident, Elvis Presley, who basically stole from black music while being pronounced “King of rock-n-roll.”
Racial politics and music are complicated. On the one hand, Elvis Presley, as a “cool white kid,” was needed to make black music accessible in a racist society like 1950s America. After all, it can be argued that, without Elvis Presley, we could not have had the popular demand for the music of Motown and R&B soul that came later in the 1960s, music that influenced rock musicians like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and of course later R&B singers and even hip-hop, which started out by sampling soul music.
These developments would also, of course, influence David’s own soulful style. And, perhaps like an Elvis Presley, JT is being positioned, once again, as a “cool white kid” making classic R&B more accessible in this age of hip-hop and electronica. His 20/20 Experience album has certainly brought back a sound that has been missing for a while, and which Beyonce actually tried to bring back with her 4 album. But if JT succeeds in selling R&B more widely, when Beyonce couldn’t, what does that tell you about white male privilege?
So, I can’t be continuously mad at a JT for facilitating the production, the distribution, and the popularity of soul music. I just would like folks to recognize the difference between “swag” and real “soul.”
Our beloved David is probably never going to get the “swagger” thing down, but that’s what I love about him. He’s not going to pretend to (unlike some other Justins I can name). But all he has to do is open his mouth and let the Voice testify.
JT performs “soul,” David represses his. Perhaps, though, JT can help create an environment in which “comeback soul” does make an official comeback, performed by authentic soul singers. When that climate is reached, perhaps David might one day release his inner “soul man.” I know he’s still got it in him.