Solange: Retro-Soul from the House of Knowles

September 17, 2008

Following on yesterday’s post on disco, I’m entering the world of R&B-disco-pop, in the form of Solange Knowles.  In typical pop fashion, Solange’s new album blends a number of styles, but most notable about it is that she is taking the retro-soul-female-singer niche to the mainstream black audience.

Earlier this year, I attended the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference.  At the panels on race, one topic seemed to reign supreme: the retro-soul revival.  Most of the panelists–heavy-hitting rock journalists, critics, and academics–debated this revival in terms of race, noting that it has been both produced and consumed by white people.  Mark Ronson, fancy-pants rich kid producer, Svengali to Amy Winehouse, curator of albums that sound just like those back in the day, bore the particular brunt of much of the criticism.  And I can see that–there’s always something irritating about some rich, white kid ripping off someone else’s culture, whether that’s Billburg hipsters appropriating the trucker hats and full beards of the redneck or Ronson’s faithful, yet fixed-in-time, recreations of soul music.

Nonetheless, one significant thing that was brought out in those panels was the question of audience.  The people who have bought Amy Winehouse’s music (and especially those who dig further into the retro-soul category) are generally white, middle-class kids, judging by the audiences at her shows (back before her visa was revoked).*

All of which brings me to Solange Knowles, and how she is a very different representation of the retro-soul world than either Ronson (who did work on her album) or notorious trainwreck Winehouse.  As we all know, the Knowles parents have firmly represented their clan as responsible, hard-working, Christian, and united together.  This is also an iteration of blackness that has resonated with mainstream pop audiences–black and white–since Motown, whose owner Berry Gordy, Jr. forced his young singers to take dance, manners, and elocution classes.  The Knowles family may have controlled Destiny’s Child with an iron fist in a velvet glove, but they ensured that the group was popular with a wide audience.

In the case of older sister Beyonce, the connection with that history of black pop was implicit, at least until Beyonce starred in Dream Girls.  Now, on Solange’s new album, Solangel and the Hadley Street Dreams (2008) it’s much more fully on display.  In promo photos for the album, Solange looks like a young, more exotic Diana Ross:

Solange Knowles

Solange Knowles

And the press surrounding it often notes this relationship to classic black pop, such as a review in the Boston Globe:

This is such a smartly executed, classy set of songs that’s miles away from the hoochie pop being turned out by young female R&B vocalists these days.

(Of course, that above review is equally problematic, in that it once again irritatingly associates black women with “hoochies.”)

Or this one, noting that Solange is using the album to recover a negative public image:

Steeping an album in classic Motown and other R&B sounds of the late ’60s and early ’70s may not be the wildest maneuver in 2008, but throughout Sol-Angel, there is a kind of frolicsome adventurousness that is singular and undeniable, even when Solange lets loose with the sourness and addresses her false public image.

Her video for “Sandcastle Disco” especially draws on the Motown connection, but also on the current soul revival.  It presents her in front of a white band of dudes (who look a lot like The Jam, especially the blond guy with the Weller haircut; come to think of it, this video looks a lot like several of The Jam’s videos), with two black, female backup singers.  Despite the fact that most soul groups were integrated–both Motown and F.A.M.E. studios in Muscle Shoals had black and white players–the current revival features mostly white, male instrumentalists.

While I do think that it’s a little weird that her backing band in the video is all white and Justin Timberlake’s touring band is all black, I think that Solange has something different going on than a Svengali such as Mark Ronson pulling the strings. She already did that with her schizophrenic first album.

Instead, she seems to be capitalizing on and blending the history of black pop music, from Motown to disco to latter-day R&B in ways that smartly reposition it for a bigger audience–one that includes not just hip, white college kids playing the obscurity game but also audiences who listen only to the Top 40 and who listen primarily to “urban” stations.  It may not be as faithful a recreation of soul as the Dap Kings, but it instead fuses past (Lamont Dozier!) and present (Boards of Canada! Cee-Lo Green!) forms of pop music into something sparkly, fun, and of the moment.

Of course, there are bigger questions here about class, race, and musical audience.  But for right now, I’m just going to take off the academic hat and listen to a good pop song.  Which “Sandcastle Disco” is.

*Strangely absent from these discussions:  Gnarls Barkley.

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