Beyonce, Etta, and rock's generation gap

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Beyonce Knowles, who plays Etta James in the upcoming movie "Cadillac Records", was profiled in Sunday’s New York Times.  Here are some thought-provoking excerpts:

As she learned the history of Chess Records — which added amplification and urban sophistication to the Delta blues on recordings by giants like Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and helped to usher in the rock ’n’ roll era with artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — Ms. Knowles said she felt an extra obligation to the project as a musician.

“I realized what an important story it was, especially for my generation,” she said. “We don’t know where rock ’n’ roll came from, we don’t know that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones got their inspiration from people like Muddy Waters and Little Walter.”

Jump to:

When she returned to finishing the album, Ms. Knowles said she was being drawn to songs and sounds that had previously been off-limits for her. “The music I made before and after the movie were very different,” she said. “I was a lot more bold and fearless after I played Etta James, because of course some of the character stays with you. Some of the music I would have been afraid to make, I wasn’t. I got more guts, more confidence as a human being."

And finally:

Above all Ms. Knowles hopes that she will be able to look back on this moment as a turning point, both personal and professional. “When you’re a pop star, it’s a little conservative, you always have to stay in a box,” she said. “You have fans that are 5 and fans that are 65, there are so many people that want so many things. But Etta James was the queen of rock ’n’ roll, soul, R&B, jazz — she did it all, and she always made it her own. After playing her and singing her songs, I thought, it’s time for me to challenge myself and do whatever I’m inspired to do."

First, I say bravo for Ms. Knowles.  I actually want to see "Cadillac Records" and her portrayal of Etta James and, more importantly, I’m intrigued enough to hear her album, particularly since she’s bucked the trend of pop artists having a ton of guests on their albums.  In fact, she has none: It’s all her.

On the other hand, I take this piece as instructive on the extent to which Black life remains largely circumscribed.  Here’s a young woman who’s known the world over–according to the article between her solo efforts and those with Destiny’s Child, she’s sold 75 million albums–but she’s just now giving herself permission to explore "songs and sounds that had previously been off-limits to her."  Who put them off-limits?  Her management?  Her label?  Her family?  Her community?  And to what extent did she self-censor?  The latter is almost always a factor of what influences you have around you

If she’d never done this movie, we’d probably be getting another rehash of stuff she’d done before.  (Side note: At this point, I have no idea what this new album sounds like, or whether or not it’s more of the same or anything new.  All I have is some hope.)  But I’m feel confident to say that she’d certainly have no connection to where she stands on the continuum of Black music, and I’m doubtful that she’d be open to the greater possibilities for her music at this point in her career.  Okay, maybe she would, but there’s nothing to suggest that 1) she knew what questions to ask or 2) that anyone around her–management, label, family, husband Jay-Z–was thinking about anything beyond the next Top 10 hit.   To paraphrase Jay: Nobody was trying to be intervenin’ with the sound of her money machinin’.

But this is the promise of the new Black imagination.  Where her curiosity can find itself connected and fed by a larger community of people who have been engaged in the kind of creativity she’s just now discovering.  That will prevent her from leaving one vacuum, just to enter another.   

That also means that, as a community, we’ve got to applaud Beyonce for taking a step in this direction.  Not without constructive criticism where it’s warranted, mind you.  And remember, the other promise of this new age we’ve entered, is that maybe, just maybe, artists of color will take chances to develop and explore in the same way that, say, Woody Allen or David Byrne have been done.

That would be true artistic equality.

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  • http://www.lainad.typepad.com Lainad

    Thanks for this, Rob.

    As a person way closer to 40 than 30, it still surprises me when I hear someone say that they grew up not really knowing about a certain genre of music.

    “I find the ‘off-limits’ thing amusing. Recently, I had a friend tell me that even though she respected me, she thought that my passion for extreme metal a bit disturbing. “I’m sorry, I just think of racist white people when I hear that stuff.” I think that perhaps that is what Beyonce was touching upon. There are a number of people who see rock and all of it’s sub-genres as being ‘white’ ‘negative’ and /or ‘angry’ music.

    Because of Beyonce’s age, I guess I can understand why she might have been not aware of the historical legacy of blacks in rock music, which, if translated to how ‘urban’ or black oriented publications and media outlets completely ignore black rock – until some band, like TV on the Radio is validated by white….er, mainstream media first.

    Funny, last night I watched this awesome Doc on thrash metal, and was surprised at how many bands I knew and how many albums I owned from the 80 hardcore / punk / metal scene. None of these bands were in the mainstream – even Metallica, back then – but if you didn’t want to conform and were looking for something different, that’s what you were into. BTW, it still amazes me how many Black, Latino and Asian metalheads were in the scene back then.

    Rob, I’ll probably be hitting you up via email soon. Thanks again for the great post.

  • http://www.boldaslove.us Rob Fields

    As ever, I really appreciate your comments, Laina. As someone who’s past 40, I find her lack of knowledge of rock disturbing. I mean, I’m not surprised. But, I think it says a lot about our educational system. More importantly, I think it says a lot about those people around her. Her parents must be in their 40s or 50s, right? What did they listen to around the house when Beyonce and Solange were growing up? On the other hand, let’s not judge. After all, the story within our community is very familiar: Folks focused on survival and getting to somewhere better often leave a lot of things behind as they move forward. In many cases, it’s a matter of practicality. You only take what you can fit in the car.

    On the other hand, this is the downside that’s inherent in many examples of Black creativity, as Nelson George once noted: We’re so busy innovating, but we’re much less focused on preserving the things we’ve created. As a result, forms get lost, or are picked up by others with a more curatorial bent. Some of us then look back at these “artifacts” and don’t recognize them as ours.

    That’s the work to be done: Reforging those cultural connections because, clearly, Beyonce will be in a position to be a better artist–and maybe a better person–because of it.

  • yvahn martin

    so often when artists try to branch out and develop new styles or ideas, they are dismissed and receive a terrible lack of support not just from fans who are not willing or loyal enough to the artist to support their evolution, or from the businesspeople who don’t stand behind them when it’s time to expose audiences to the new work. (granted it has to be good, but so many times it’s not given a chance either way.) or maybe it’s just too far from home base and people really don’t get it. either way, it stays out of the limelight.

    take for example the movie Shadowboxer, directed by Lee Daniels, a black man who was a producer on Monster’s Ball. critically acclaimed, but they released it in the summer, when everyone is doing action films, not arthouse. and it shortly went straight to dvd.

    likewise with Idlewild, which I think was absolutely brilliant, but that even some self-proclaimed hip-hop “heads” had never even heard of. much less the white community. was it the absence of actual white people in the film – i only counted 3 – that caused it to get shelved so quickly? (it only did $5 Mil at the box office first weekend, $12 Mil to date, lifetime of the film and a grand total of $70,000 internationally, although that’s not surprising as “urban” films generally do horribly overseas.) okay, it wasn’t oscar-worthy but certainly better than anything tyler perry can cook up. but those silly stereotypes sell!

    *sigh* this is why I can’t get on messageboards. i get too heated! lol.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robfields Rob Fields

    To quote Barack, Yvahn: Don’t get mad, vote. In this case, it’s up to each of us to evangelize in our own way the things that we feel passionate about. Because you’re not the only person who feels that way. You’ve just got to make enough noise and for long enough so that others of likemind can find you and you find them. The good thing is that technology has, in some important ways, leveled the playing field. So now it’s about finding the niche that your product, service, art, etc., speaks to and making sure you engage them to the fullest extent possible. Mass is cool, but not necessary, if you can keep your cost in line.

    But you bring up a good point: First, the “product” has to be excellent. Then, it’s got to matter in the marketplace. Without those two conditions, we don’t change the conversation about how challenging art can have a place in this culture. Some further thoughts here: http://www.boldaslove.us/2007/12/on-excellence-1.html

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