Sunday, January 22, 2012

Martian Genres

When I hear Bruno Mars sing I picture him leading Journey through a particularly soulful version of “Separate Ways.” The timbre in his voice seems so well suited for Journey’s catalogue that it feels like he and Steve Perry were cut from the same sweetly melodramatic cloth. Both of their voices manage to be appealing even when singing the most conventional or lugubrious lyrics. Bruno Mars, unlike Perry however, is associated with “Urban” music, which is a polite way of saying black music.

Associated but he doesn’t quite seem to fit. He has sung catchy choruses in successful R&B and hip hop singles by B.O.B., Travis McCoy, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, and Snoop Dog and Wiz Khalifa (see below). Despite this visibility though, you can’t say that his solo music sits comfortably in those traditionally African-American genres. His singles are oddly unclassifiable crooner tunes that would seem out of place if not for the universality of their sentimentalism or the production value that makes them sound completely up to date even if to people with a sense of music history they sound like they’re from an earlier era of pop.

Ill fitting music this, not beyond genre but not in it either. Much like Bruno Mars himself. He is ethnically ambiguous: neither black, white, Latino, or Asian but also all of them at once. He is a half-Puerto Rican, half-Filipino, Hawaiian-born former Elvis impersonator. I have no way of quantifying this but it seems to me that somehow his racial ambiguity makes his generic ambiguity more palatable. Because we can’t place him racially, it makes it easier to accept his generic indeterminacy.

I’m not sure how deep the connection is in popular music between racial fluidity and generic fluidity. But it certainly speaks to the unspoken racial boundaries that make up our world. Lenny Kravitz, for example, is a commercially successful artist although he is known for performing in a musical genre not traditionally associated with African-American performers, guitar driven rock. But clearly Lenny Kravitz is mixed-race. Even in our one-drop society, his phenotypic appearance suggests racial intermixture. More than that is his name,“Lenny Kravitz,” which suggests less a decadent rock star than it does a wise-cracking comic from the Borscht Belt. This stands to reason, of course, because he was named after the brother of his Russian Jewish father. This is all speculation and conjecture but I doubt that Lenny Kravitz would be as acceptable a rock star with a more “traditional” African-American name.

We shouldn’t take this too far, however. Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Bad Brains, TV on the Radio, Robin Thicke, and many other performers have straddled the racial/generic divide. Nonetheless, the slight hitch that we feel when confronted with the discrepancy between how a performer looks and the music s/he is performing is eased some by racial confusion.

A caveat: rap metal. No matter who performs rap metal or what kinds of racial and generic boundaries it challenges, I feel about it the way most people feel about genocide: I don’t understand why a good and loving God would allow something like that to happen. Just the worst, most terrible music ever made, rap metal. Nothing justifies or forgives it.

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