One of the most talented, moving, and inspirational singers in American music is the phenomenal Ruthie Foster. More than nearly any other contemporary American singer, she expresses, exercises, and exemplifies what Craig Werner calls the “gospel impulse.” In my new essay for Splice Today, I write about the importance of Ruthie Foster’s music, and the deficit American culture suffers for not giving her a bigger platform to share with the world her unique and powerful voice and vision. Read it here. Ruthie Foster’s new single, “Singing The Blues.”
My publisher, Bloomsbury, recently interviewed me about my upcoming 33 1/3 book on Metallica’s self-titled record, more commonly known as The Black Album.
Recently, I wrote some critical essays for the Daily Beast. The first was on the comeback tour of Garth Brooks. I had the opportunity to interview Brooks for the essay. We discussed his music, his evolving role in country music, and music culture in America. Brooks was a boyhood idol of mine – my first musical love. While I still respect and admire him, I don’t have the same love for his music. That being said, I enjoyed his concert, and was thrilled to meet him. Read the essay here.
Shortly after interviewing Brooks, I had spoke with Sean Jablonski, the creator of the USA series, Satisfaction. Satisfaction, unlike much of American entertainment, intelligently and maturely deals with the complexities of adult sexuality. Jablonski and I had an interesting conversation about his show, sexuality, American culture, happiness, and his own Buddhist inspiration. Read the essay here.
After the sad death of soul legend, and rhythm and blues, funk master Bobby Womack, I immediately wrote a tribute. Not only was Womack one of my favorite singers, he was also a passionate and powerful advocate for mutual pleasure – sexual democracy – in romance.
Unlike rap and unlike rock ‘n’ roll, but very much like the tradition of soul that formed Womack in the womb of musical greatness, his sexual testimony is one of mutual pleasure. It is an expression of masculinity that gains lasting, body-aching, and spirit-raising pleasure only if the man is comfortable and confident in the assuredness of giving a woman pleasure.
Read the rest of the essay at the Daily Beast.
A few months ago, the editors of The American Conservative flattered me with an invitation to write an essay on the the career and politics of John Mellencamp, and consider why so many Republican politicians play his songs at campaign rallies, when he is a liberal.
The essay – “Rock for Republicans? How the GOP Misunderstands John Mellencamp’s Heartland Ethic” – appears in the newest issue of The American Conservative, which has a focus on localism.
Mellencamp writes what he calls “plainspoken” lyrics. There is no other songwriter who moves me to think, feel, and reflect deeply on my life and my community more than Mellencamp. As I attempt to explain in the new essay, his politics, however, are complicated. There is no doubt that he is a leftist, but “his is a community-based leftism that distrusts bureaucracy and hates paternalism, yet believes in social assistance for the poor, sick, and hungry, the widows and orphans that the Bible identifies. Mellencamp inhabits common ground with libertarians on social issues, and he is a consistent opponent of war and foreign intervention, but he does not believe that an unfettered free market will solve every social problem.”
Mellencamp’s firebrand version of antiwar, left populism is exactly what is currently missing from the ivy league, elitist, and impotent liberalism of the mainstream media, the Democratic party, and the sanitized neighborhoods of lefty chic where people believe the world’s biggest problems are plastic bags, inadequately sized bicycle paths, and indoor smoking.
Next year the University Press of Kentucky will publish my book All That We Learned About Living: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp. In the book, I will elaborate on Mellencamp’s politics and further draw out interpretation of how his music embodies many important ideas about the American story.
Politics will make up only one chapter of the book, as it is comprehensive and covers Mellencamp’s entire life, but readers who enjoy my essay for The American Conservative, should look forward to additional reading next year.
In a capitalist culture and free market society, it is hard to make the argument that any business people should voluntarily charge less money for their product or service than people are willing to pay.
Multimillionaire rock and pop stars leave themselves vulnerable to criticism, however, when they claim to represent and sing for the common man, and present themselves as populist defenders of the dignity of everyday people.
It has become the norm for popular bands and artists to charge hundreds of dollars for admission into their concerts. The current model of exorbitant fees exists only because of the greed of the superstars, and the masochism of fans who pay the absurd costs for a two hour performance.
In my new article for The Atlantic – “Kid Rock, Progressive Hero: Why He’s Right to Charge $20 Per Ticket” – I condemn the avarice of The Rolling Stones, Jay Z, and other major musicians who suck every ounce of blood possible from their fans, and I reserve special ridicule for U2, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen, who charge over $100 for tickets, while they sing about helping the poor and bash the greed of politicians and corporate CEOs.
There are few exceptions to the practice of gouging music concertgoers. Garth Brooks enforces a $25 maximum for his ticket prices, despite incredible demand. Brooks has broken records in Missouri, Tennessee, and Canada in the past five years for fastest sell out times. Dave Matthews explains that if he charges $30 per ticket, he will break even on major tours. So, he charges between $40 and $50.
Kid Rock has emerged as a new exemplar of compassion and selflessness in his business policies by co-headlining a tour with ZZ Top, and promising that no ticket will cost more than $20. He is also lowering T Shirt prices from the laughable industry standard of $40 to $20.
It is important to acknowledge that it is not the “champions of the working class” or “social justice” advocates, like Springsteen and Bono, who are taking a pay cut to help more fans afford their concert experience, it is the registered Republican, Romney supporting, Kid Rock.
As I explain in the article, it is my hope that Kid Rock’s new tour will embarrass other rock and pop stars into lowering their ticket prices, if only so that their anthems of liberal outrage don’t provoke enough laughter to drown out the drumbeat. I also hope that it will encourage more music fans to reward bands that respect them, and punish those that don’t.
Neil Young charged $200 for his latest tour, and when he played Chicago last summer, I asked my friend who owns an independent record store in Northwest Indiana why he wasn’t going to attend the show. He answered with words to live by – “I’m not throwing money at the feet of millionaires anymore.”
My new February column at PopMatters takes a biographical and analytical look at the life and career of Sylvester.
Sylvester was one of America’s greatest singers, and he, unfortunately, remains one of American music’s best kept secrets. He came up through the church and infused all his music with a gospel fire – from disco to jazz; from rock to soul.
As mush as his music offers listeners enjoyment, his life offers Americans insight into courage, creativity, and integrity. Sylvester was flamboyantly gay, but did not quite fit into the gay minority. He was a transvestite, but did not quite fit into the transvestite minority. He was black, but did not quite fit into the black minority. He was a Christian, but did not quite fit into any Christian minority. He certainly never fit into any majority.
My new column – “Queen of Disco: The Legend of Sylvester” – tells the fascinating and moving story of Sylvester. Anyone interested in American music, unorthodox Christianity, or the development of social progress since the 1970s, should read it.
I discovered Sylvester’s music after watching a documentary on his life aired by the television network, TVOne. I’ve long been a fan of Prince, and after hearing Sylvester sing, scream, and shout in his trademark falsetto, I realized that Prince had been ripping off Sylvester’s vocal style for decades. Because of the obscurity of Sylvester, Prince was able to successfully pull of the heist, and escape from the scene of the crime, undetected.
A reader who follows some of my writing emailed me with surprise and confusion over where Sylvester fits into my musical palette. He seems like an unlikely choice thrown into the mix with John Mellencamp, Warren Haynes, and Bob Seger, but the most resonant lesson of Sylvester’s life is that an interesting person – and a good life – evades category.
Sylvester’s spirit spoke to me, and with a voice as beautiful and big as his, who could resist?
Dr. Craig Werner is a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin who was written several books – two of which are essential to understanding the power of black music in American life: A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America and Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul.
Most of the courses he teaches are about black music and African-American literature, but right now he is offering a seminar on the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Dr. Werner recently read my book, Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen, along with the handful of articles I’ve written about Bob Dylan’s too often overlooked Christian music. He invited me to visit Madison, Wisconsin and speak to his students.
I was thrilled to accept the invitation. I arrived in Madison on Monday November 12th, and met with Dr. Werner for drinks at a local blues club called The Harmony Bar and Grill. After getting to know each other much of our conversation focused on the problems that result from contemporary culture’s insistence on compartmentalizing the human condition. There is a self-defeating tendency to separate the mind, body, and spirit into three independent entities when a realistic view of life and a healthy approach is to understand that the soul and the intellect – the spiritual and the sexual – are always interconnected. Life is at its best – its most terrifying and thrilling – when the interplay is at its most intense.
Dr. Werner’s book A Change is Gonna Come explains and articulates this idea with the predicate of black music in a way that provides new understanding, insight, and clairvoyance. In jazz, blues, and soul – from Ray Charles to Mary J. Blige – there exists the exercise of what Werner calls the “gospel impulse.”
Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are rare in that they are white artists who imbue their work with the gospel impulse, and that they both submit everything to an ongoing process of sacralization. Springsteen often takes concepts from the Catholicism of his childhood and simply removes the capital letter. The phrase “sanctity of life” comes from the Catholic church, but Springsteen transforms the phrase into a catholic principle by making the body sacred, friendship sacred, community sacred, and sexuality sacred. The socio-spiritual quality of Bob Dylan’s Christian music – songs that divide between angry gospel and love songs to God – shows the same inspired and inspirational determination.
During my visit with the students I explained that one of the functions of great writers – whether they are working with a guitar or a notebook, a keyboard or a keypad – is to take something that everyone is thinking about and articulate it with a language that allows everyone to realize they’ve been thinking about it and then go out and talk about it.
Werner’s writing on the gospel impulse does exactly that. He defines it as “the belief that life’s burdens can be transformed into hope and salvation. It is the promise of redemption.” He goes on to elaborate:
At its best, the gospel impulse helps people experience themselves in relation to rather than on their own. Gospel makes the feeling of human separateness, which is what the blues are all about, bearable. It’s why DJs and the dancers they shape into momentary communities are telling the truth when they describe dance as a religious experience.
The gospel impulse half-remembers the values brought to the new world by the men and women uprooted from West African cultures: the connection between the spiritual and material worlds; the interdependence of self and community; the honoring of the elders and the ancestors; the recognition of the ever-changing flow of experience that renders all absolute ideologies meaningless….
The gospel impulse consists of a three-step process: (1) acknowledging the burden; (2) bearing witness; (3) finding redemption. The burden grounds the song in the history of suffering that links individual and community experiences….We don’t choose our burdens; we do choose our responses.
Musicians grounded in the gospel impulse respond by bearing witness to the troubles they’ve seen, telling the deepest truths they know….The word “witness” works partly because the burden involves history, power. There’s an evil in the world and…lots of it comes from the Devil. Call him sex or money, hypocrisy or capitalism, the landlord or Governor Wallace, but the Devil’s real. You deal with him or he, maybe she, will most definitely deal with you…Gospel promises, or at least holds out the possibility, that tomorrow may be different, better…Whatever its specific incarnation, gospel redemption breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation. No one makes it alone. If we’re going to bear up under the weight of the cross, find the strength to renounce the Devil, if we’re going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we’re going to have to connect. The music shows us how.
Without planning on it when I originally received the invitation to speak at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to add my own ornamentation to the tree that Werner built for his students. I played the Springsteen song “Human Touch” and discussed how, in the school of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, Springsteen presents sexuality as a sanctuary from a troubled world. It is not only physically stimulating, but also spiritually edifying. It is sacred – not a hedonistic tool used for manipulation that goes toward conquering another person for the purposes of your own pleasure nor a sacrifice made on the altar of a church’s doctrinal demand.
I also played “Shot of Love” by Bob Dylan and explained how it represents and expresses a form of spiritual combat. Surrounded by sin and social injustice, Dylan cries out that he needs a “shot of love” rather than submitting to the pressure to conform to a materialistic order or fighting fire with fire by engaging in the same kind of hate and hostility that he condemns. He has faith in God, but he isn’t optimistic: “What I got ain’t painful / It’s just bound to kill me dead / Like the men who followed Jesus when they put a price upon his head.”
I once watched Dr. Cornel West explain at St. Sabina Church on the southside of Chicago how listening to certain forms of music – blues, gospel – can make you a better person. I believe that is true, because I’m a product of it.
Conversation can also make us better – intellectually, spiritually, and morally. Dr. Werner’s contribution to a national conversation, and his inclusion of me in it, has made me better. I hope that my contribution to the conversation in his classroom has made his students better.
The newest installment in my monthly column for PopMatters is up. In my new essay, I use the concert experience of a true American treasure – Smokey Robinson – to write about music history, the enduring power of Motown, and the joyful and playful sexuality that Smokey expresses. In the essay – “The Way You Do The Things You Do: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson” - I make the argument that “In his golden years, Robinson is more convincingly and excitingly sexual than nearly every young performer who will join the parade of sensationalistic imagery on the MTV VMA awards,” because, “He always understood and continues to understand that sexuality is best enjoyed when it is playful, romantic, passionate, and generous.”
One of the most sad and tragic elements of contemporary American culture is the removal of playfulness, intimacy, and most of all, fun from sexuality. Two warring factions of extreme viewpoints – I’ll call them the Bible Belt and Breast Implants crowds – have reduced sexuality to an ideological prop and a method of conquest. Whether the vulgarity of hip hop, pornography, and much discussed “hook up” culture seeks to conquer a partner for the purposes of ego orgasm or the puritanism of virginity pledges, abstinence only sex education, and censorship aims to conquer sexual impulses for the purposes of political orgasm, sex no longer looks free and fun.
Smokey Robinson is not only one of America’s greatest living songwriters and singers, but he is also an avatar of an alternative form of sexuality – one that embodies the ethic of reciprocity – one that seeks to share pleasure – one that is fun, but also one that is spiritual.
Many of my columns at PopMatters have elevated the joy of the black musical experience. I’ve written about Mary J. Blige, Shemekia Copeland, Ruthie Foster, Diana Ross, Nikki Jean, and now Smokey Robinson, in an attempt to demonstrate that the joyful swirl of sensuality and spirituality surrounds the best of black music and imbues it with a form of magic – magic that makes the listener feel more human.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to believe that Smokey Robinson is one of the greatest exemplars of this tradition, and that he is, at this point, the most important living popular American musical performer. His influence is immeasurable and inarguable. He, along with Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, represent the last living legends of Motown. The soul-pop music of their era, which also hit the airwaves from Chicago (Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Kahn), Philadelphia (Teddy Pendergrass, The Ojays), and Memphis (Al Green, The Staple Singers), possessed a spiritual joy that sustains those performers and their audience. It combines the influence of the church and the club to create a live experience that is beyond anything else on the modern stage. The professionalism and excellence of those performers shoots through the loins, quickens the heart, and shakes the soul.
“The Way You Do The Things You Do: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson” touches on all these issues and ideas, but it is most about the “sex education” of Smokey Robinson. “Doesn’t it feel good to feel good?” he asked the audience towards the end of his show. It is a question of both simplicity and profundity, and it is one that many people – obsessive porn users, careerists who treat sex as a blocked activity on an itemized calendar, and young people terrified of intimacy – need to look in the mirror and ask.
Fun, romantic, and intimate sexuality needs rescuing in American culture, and Smokey Robinson offers a lifeline.