Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Greatest

Since I got that unexpected CD last Friday, I decided to read up on Annie Lennox a little, and there are a few sites which quote VH1 which, I guess, called her "The Greatest White Soul Singer Alive." That's really cool and I'm sure she should be flattered. But it makes me ask questions.

The first question is, who's the greatest dead white soul singer?

The second question is, isn't such an attribution a little racist?

I refuse to say I'm not racist, because I think everyone is, in some way they're usually blind to, and plus, anytime I've ever heard anyone say, "I'm not racist . . . " the next thing to come out of their mouths is usually something that makes me want to push it back in there. I will say that the racism of which I am conscious drives me crazy and makes me really angry, but I don't usually find myself objecting anti-white racism because I don't usually notice it, and plus, I'd rather try to stick up for somebody else, I think. Maybe that's racist . . .

Anyway.

I guess I'm just asking. I'm not trying to dispute the veracity of the claim regarding Ms. Lennox. I'm just trying to unpack the implications. Which might be something like, "She's not quite as good as a black soul singer, because let's face it--she's not black. And she's unusual, because let's also face it--not many white people can sing soul."

This may or may not be true, but it seems to me that it would be better to be known as one of the greatest soul singers alive and skip the ethnicity part, than to be set apart because of skin colour. I'm pretty sure there are more white than black opera singers, but I'll bet no one says so-and-so is the greatest black opera singer alive. If they did, I think that person might be (and would have a right to be) offended, as if one's ethnicity should determine whether or not one can excel in a certain art--as if it should dictate whether or not we should be surprised that they did. It's just plain condescending. I'll bet no one set Seiji Ozawa apart for being Asian, but for being a great conductor, whether or not the music he was conducting originated in Europe or Asia or someplace else.

8 comments:

Christianne said...

Your train of thought here made me laugh out loud at least twice as I followed it along. I love the way you think, girlie, and the way you express those thoughts in written form. But what else is new? I've been telling you to write a book for ages now. :)

Annelise said...

Amen to Christianne's comment....

Pete Juvinall said...

The heart that the question comes from really has two meanings. To call Lennox the greatest white soul singer alive really started from a need to showcase her in a genre not dominated by whites; e.g. she's entered into the genre and she's really good.

However, in saying she's the 'greatest' white soul singer implies what you said; certain ethnicities are somehow better at doing this than others.

End result: the meaning just doesn't come across. Thank goodness for editors :).

chris said...

I rather suspect that it's far less calculated than that (or far more - depending on how you want to look at it :-)

Given the recent popularity of young white singers who 'sound black' it's probably just a marketing ploy to try and place Lennox as a sort of musical elder statesperson figure.

jasdye said...

i'd like to throw my hat into the fray here, jenn.

first, in regards to soul music: it is a Black music form. more so, i would say, than blues or jazz. the style was birthed - and for the most part remains - w/in the experience and context of a marriage between the African-American church-ly and African American worldly experiences. its designers and marquee players have always straddled that fence: ray charles, james brown, aretha franklin, solomon burke, marvin gaye, solomon burke, sam and dave. it is also a type of music about struggle and survival, being wrapped up in the African-American identity.

it is a complete anomaly to see someone not from that experience thriving in that realm. it's a bit more like seeing a Black traditionalist country music star (both charles and burke have thrown their hats into that ring), wherein pretty much every other singer of that stripe is White, poor and southern, moreso than a Black opera singer. there have been plenty of opera singers that are Black (i've probably seen an equal number of Black and White opera singers, amazingly. but then again, i've only seen a handful) and the inroads into that genre started generations ago, from what i gather.

secondly, racism is about power. it is not disempowering annie lennox to say that she's the greatest White soul singer alive, largely for the reasons listed above. i'm sure that ms. lennox brought in her own style and flair to the genre (as the genre is largely about style and flair, really, everyone has, except for michael bolton. that talentless a** monkey.) as well as her own experiences and struggle. Jenna 6 is a struggle to understand what institutional racism still means in this country. annie lennox, although a worthy singer and a less divisive discussion springboard, is not.

thirdly, VH1 is full of it. did van morrison die? if not, annie has to relinquish her spot on that throne.

(sorry the reply is bigger than the post...)

Jenn said...

Wow. This is just, like, The Greatest! I actually have some discussion and differing interpretations and perspectives going on here! Thanks, everybody.

I probably don't actually know enough about what I'm discussing to be able to respond in kind to the three guys who just commented with such insight, but I think you all have valid points (even if they don't all agree). How's that for being wussy?

In more detail:

I don't think I'm really questioning whether Soul is a Black genre--and I appreciate Jasdye's giving me a little more background, because seriously, I know nothing--except that I like it. I also think that the traditionalist country music thing is a better analogy--I was just having trouble thinking of one. I guess I just still think it's a little sketchy to imply that someone of one skin colour can't do well, something that originated with people of another, even if it isn't likely.

I'm also not sure I 100% agree that racism is only about power, although I would be prepared to concede that that's when it actually matters. This is why I don't plan on writing to VH1 and getting them to modify their statement. Well, that, and that I don't really take them too seriously, either. It just made for interesting discussion. See?

jasdye said...

btw, if they do modify their statement, they need to put Joss Stone's name up there somewhere. and then say that they made a mistake and their fact-checker was
on vacation and didn't correct them to the fact that Morrison is still alive.

and i would still disagree in that i don't think they were saying that annie lennox is pretty good... for a white woman, but rather that she's pretty darn good at doing soul music as a white woman. very different.

but that's my perspective.

what i'd like to hear (to open up the floodgates a bit more and b/c i'm convinced that christians and whites in particular need to open up to dialogue about racism and its role in this country) is your definition of what racism is.

shalom.

Jenn said...

Jasdye--that interpretation makes more sense to me. And I'm with you on the Joss Stone thing. Although I do not own any of her CD's. (Of course, I didn't get any of them for free, either.) Ditto van Morrison.

The jury is still out regarding whether "chris" will re-comment here with further info on his own alternate interpretation of the VH1 statement. It might be good if he did.

I fully endorse your question about a definition of racism . . . but I'm afraid I'm going to wimp out on you. Not because it's about racism per se, but because I have difficulty defining anything. This may have something to do with the fact that I actively resisted my mother's injunctions to me when I was a child, to look things up in the dictionary, which means that I navigate life and lexicography more by feel and intuition than actual science. But also I don't like trying to define things like racism because I'm afraid I'll talk myself into a corner and say something which, when taken to its logical conclusion, I don't mean, or which has too many exceptions and out-clauses in my own head.

I'm sorry to be a spoil-sport. I definitely agree that racism is a problem in this country which most white people (including myself) have trouble getting a grasp on and are reticent to grapple with. And I was impressed with your own blogpost recently. I just don't think I've got a definition for you.

But if anyone else here wants to offer one, by all means, go to it!

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