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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Renee Graham On The New, Blue-Eyed R&B

Allen Stone is one of Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham's favorite R&B singers. (Lonnie Webb)

Allen Stone is one of Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham’s favorite R&B singers. (Lonnie Webb)

Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham has noted a trend recently: for the most part, the biggest acts in mainstream R&B music are white men.

Robin Thicke has his huge hit of the summer, “Blurred Lines.” Justin Timberlake has his album “The 20/20 Experience.” There’s also Mayer Hawthorne and Renee’s personal favorite, Allen Stone.

In the past, “blue eyed soul” might have been viewed with derision.

But Graham says nowadays “people just want to hear good R&B — they don’t really don’t care who’s making it, so long as the music’s there.”


  • Renee Graham, pop culture critic for Here & Now. She tweets @reneeygraham.





ROBIN THICKE: (Singing) If you can't hear what I'm trying to say, if you can't read from the same page, maybe I'm going deaf. Maybe I'm going blind. Maybe I'm out of my mind.

CHAKRABARTI: And that's the song that's been dominating the charts this summer, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." It's topped Billboard's Hot 100 for 10 weeks. The song is being compared to Marvin Gaye's 1970s hit "Got to Give It Up." Last week, Thicke - along with Pharrell Williams and Clifford Harris, Jr. - filed a pre-emptive lawsuit to stop Marvin Gaye's family from saying that "Blurred Lines" copies Gaye's song. Well, let's take a listen and see what you think.


MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I used to out to parties and stand around, 'cause I was too nervous to really get down.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, "Blurred Lines" also has HERE AND NOW's pop culture critic Renee Graham thinking about who's been making mainstream R&B music in recent years. And she joins us in the studio to talk about it. Renee, good to see you.

RENEE GRAHAM, BYLINE: Good to see you, too.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's talk about "Blurred Lines" and "Got to Give It Up." Do you feel that there's some copying or flattery going on there?

GRAHAM: A little derivative, perhaps? Yes, I do. The funny thing about all this is in an interview that Robin Thicke gave to GQ, he actually said he was in the studio with Pharrell and said: Wouldn't it be great to make a song with something like that groove? Because "Got to Give It Up" is one of his favorite songs. Now, he says this, and now is saying, no, no, no. This is my song. I didn't rip off Marvin Gaye's song. But, you know, it sort of sets up an interesting idea between sort of classic R&B and current R&B.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, Renee. So here's a situation where, as you said, there's a comparison between classic and current R&B. But what's really going on here? Is there a trend, do you see?

GRAHAM: Something really interesting happening in R&B right now is, for the most part, the biggest male R&B singers in the country are white. Now, white men have always existed in R&B. That's not new. But mainstream R&B at this point, if you had to look at it, the two biggest singers are Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake. And there are lots more in the pipeline who are coming up, and it's really an interesting thing that's happening right now in contemporary R&B.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, they have a phrase for this.

GRAHAM: The phrase, which goes back many years, is blue-eyed soul. And some people thought it was pejorative. It really isn't. What it really referred to was the idea of white people singing in black idioms: soul, funk, R&B, jazz, in some cases. But most of the idea was that it was white people singing music more traditionally associated with black people.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. And there have been so many of them...

GRAHAM: Oh, there've been...

CHAKRABARTI: ...through the years.

GRAHAM: ...forever and ever. You can go back into the early '60s. I mean, you know, there was a remarkable woman named Timi Yuro, who had a song called "Hurt." And not only was she a white woman, everyone thought she was a black man.


TIMI YURO: (Singing) I'm so hurt to think that you, you lied to me.

CHAKRABARTI: But, Renee, this issue of blue-eyed soul, I mean, I feel like it's been around forever. And in the past, it seemed to me that it was white artists being derivative of R&B for a white audience. But that's not what we're talking about now, necessarily, is it?

GRAHAM: That's certainly not the case now. The thing now is people just want to hear good R&B. They don't really care who's making it, so long as the music is there. Now, what's different is in the 1970s, white artists who were putting out R&B records tended to not put their faces on the cover of the albums, because they wanted the music to be judged on its own merits and not by the color of their skin. And that happened with Bobby Caldwell, who had a huge hit in the '70s called "What You Won't Do for Love."


BOBBY CALDWELL: (Singing) What you won't do, do-do for love. You've tried everything, but you don't give up. In my world, only you make me do for love what I would not do.

GRAHAM: Now, people don't really seem to care, which is actually a good thing. You know, I think one should be allowed to make whatever music they want to make.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's go back to the artists who are making R&B now. You mentioned one of them, Justin Timberlake. There was a lot of excitement earlier this year when he released the "The 20/20 Experience." So let's listen to one of the songs from that album called "Take Back the Night."


JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Oh, I want to do something right. But we can do something better. Ain't no time like tonight, and we ain't trying to save it for later. Stay out here living the life, yeah. Nobody cares who are tomorrow. Come on, now. You got that little something I like, a little something I've been wanting to borrow.

CHAKRABARTI: All right, Renee. So, first, what do you think of Timberlake? Let's just get that out of the way.

GRAHAM: Well, history will show I am not the biggest Justin Timberlake fan.


GRAHAM: However, he has remarkable staying power. He will adapt to whatever he needs to be. And very early on, when he began his solo career, he latched on to the popular hip-hop artists, the big hip-hop producer Timbaland, and he crafted this sort of new soul sound, except what you're going to hear in this song, it's not a new soul sound at all. That sounds like it could've been an outtake from Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall."

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So then what is new in terms of latest generation of blue-eyed soul singers? If it's not the music itself, is it who's listening to it?

GRAHAM: Well, I think part of it is who's listening to it. I mean, I don't know that the people who are most attracted to Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake are necessarily, you know, familiar with Stevie Wonder - classic Steve Wonder music, or Michael Jackson or Marvin Gaye, for that matter. I think that does make a difference. It's easy to sell something to people as new if they don't know the original.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. So, Renee, let's talk about some other artists who've grabbed your attention. For example, Mayer Hawthorne.

GRAHAM: Mayer Hawthorne, he's been around for a while. He's from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he kind of bristles against too many comparisons to older soul artists. But he's from Michigan, so he's kind of got, you know, Motown bread into him. And his latest soul album just came out. It's getting some attention. It's getting some critical acclaim, and it's very much in that same vein of the sort of modern soul singer. And we'll hear a little bit now of "Her Favorite Song."


MAYER HAWTHORNE: (Singing) But when she gets home, she puts her headphones on. She plays her favorite song and fades away. And when the music's on, well, she can do no wrong. And she feels safe and calm, and it's OK. And she's saying...

CHAKRABARTI: So, Renee, do you have a favorite out of this current crop of R&B singers?

GRAHAM: Out of this current crop, for me, by far and away, is a young singer out of rural Washington named Allen Stone. You know, he's not slick. He doesn't have the looks of Timberlake or Robin Thicke. However, I think he's got the best voice. He didn't really discover soul music until he was in his teens. He was raised with sort of very strict, religious parents, didn't get to hear any secular music, and listening to Stevie Wonder kind of changed everything for him. He's put out a couple of albums. His last was a self-titled album that came out last year. And now we're going hear a little bit of "Contact High."


ALLEN STONE: (Singing) Are you looking for peace of mind? You won't find it in your status line. What are you trying to prove? Whose mountain are you trying to move? I fell for it, too.

GRAHAM: What I really like here is how clean the sound is. There aren't a lot of extra singers. There's not a lot of technical wizardry going on. It's just clean horns and nice drums. It's a really polished, but uncluttered sounded.

CHAKRABARTI: So you mentioned that, for example, Justin Timberlake, he has staying power - or at least so far, right? He's been around on the scene for a while. Do you think that same staying power might extend to any of these other artists we've talked about?

GRAHAM: You know, only time will tell. But I think what's going to make the difference is they're going to have to learn to innovate. They can't just imitate. But what they are doing, which is important, is filling a void, because there's been a bit of a void in R&B. The singers like Robin Thicke are keeping that tradition alive. I think that's really important. But to thrive, they're going have to innovate.

CHAKRABARTI: All right. So give us a track to go out on.

GRAHAM: We're going out on Allen Stone's, as I said, the best in the lot. The track is called "Sleep."

CHAKRABARTI: We've been talking about the latest crop of R&B singers with HERE AND NOW pop culture critic Renee Graham. Renee, thanks so much.

GRAHAM: Thank you.


STONE: (Singing) I never get sleep, sleep, sleep. No, I just reach, reach, reach. I can feel...

CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Robin Young's back tomorrow.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • R&B Lover

    All good artists mentioned. We as listeners are familiar with old school R&B, and its that taste that keeps us listening to the new stuff.

  • TGfNPR

    “In the past, “blue eyed soul” might have been viewed with derision.” Does this include the Righteous Brothers and Lydia Pense? Two favorites of mine in the ‘way back’ of my youth! Will check out these new voices.

  • Seamus

    This segment bothered me. It followed a feature with Congressman John Lewis talking about his 1963 March on Washington speech, as the last of 10 speakers standing. So heavy, so moving. He closed by talking of us being one people, and the need to eliminate that which divides us…then Here and Now follows with this feature, which strikes me as egregious – both this term that began during that same time of segregation, and especially the timing and nature of its use here. Renee Graham attempts to brush off the term’s relevance today, but by using it as the premise of the feature she appears to do the opposite. She says she’s not a fan of Justin Timberlake, but implores these artists to innovate in order to maintain relevance – which is exactly what Timberlake is doing, a fact that further crumples Graham’s credibility. Surely Allen Stone appreciates the deserved push, but even in gratitude he must wince at again being put in the white-boy box. Does Charley Pride sing “black-eyed country?” Yo-Yo Ma, “yellow classical?” In my opinion, there is no place for cultural dividers in music, as music is arguably the most unifying activity we know – we need to ditch these dividers in music if we hold any hope of dismissing their overall relevance. NPR & Here and Now, you are able and expected to hold your bar higher than this piece.

    • it_disqus

      It bothered me a little too, but it was a thought provoking topic. I kept thinking about rap. On one hand you have Vanilla Ice, a rich white boy who jumped on the band wagon to get paid. On the other you have Eminem who lived where the music comes from as much as anyone of any color. I think some people still appreciate an artist who lives the music vs one who performs the music. That’s what I took away from the story. Don’t copy it. Live it, make it yours and move it forward. I will still dance when Ice Ice Baby comes on tho.

  • it_disqus

    How do you talk about white people having success singing black music and not mention Elvis?

  • sankato

    A discussion of blue eyed soul without mentioning Daryl Hall or the Righteous Brothers? Love Mayer Hawthorne and will check out Allen Stone.

  • donalda

    Blue Eyed Soul was never viewed with derision to my knowledge. If it wasn’t for white folks singing soul music, black artists would never had experienced fame and the money that comes with that. However, I do find it troubling that white people experience more popularity than blacks singing the music they originated. Isn’t that odd? I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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