Is everybody a “Soul” artist now?

“Soul,” through no fault of it’s own, has become to music what “high fiber” is to food or “eco-friendly” is to cars.  In other words, it is a term that is being used by folks to sell more of something – here, CDs and mp3s – whether or not the description has much to do with reality.

Life and language certainly go in cycles, and it wasn’t so long ago that “Soul” wasn’t exactly a sound with which new artists wanted to be associated.  At the turn of the century, “Soul music” was a reference to a genre that, as far as commercial radio was concerned, was at least a dozen years past its time.   But, popular or not, for most folks “Soul” had a relatively identifiable meaning, referring to a style of music that developed, mostly in the US, from the genetics of Gospel music and rhythm & blues, with secular themes of love and fun.  It was also defined by regions of the country, from Memphis to Chicago to Philadelphia to, of course, Detroit. Sure, it continued to change and grow, but the term “Soul” had a foundation and truly meant something.

Now, it seems everyone from classic rockers to speed rappers are going out of their way to call themselves “Soul” artists. With a website called SoulTracks, we’re easy targets for this marketing, and weekly we receive the music of 10-20 artists, a big portion of whom aren’t even in the ballpark of what we would label as right for our website but who are determined to label themselves  as “Soulful rock,” “Hip-hop/Soul”  or more brazenly as “Pure Soul,” even though they may sound more like Barry Manilow than Barry White.

I guess Soul Music can take this as a compliment, because it is clear from the materials we receive that these acts, whatever their true style, all throw in the “Soul” adjective to give themselves the appearance of depth.  As one indicated in an online debate regarding the Dream’s recent controversial statements about white singers and Soul music, “I think that it is ‘Soul Music’ whenever someone sings from their soul.”  While I can appreciate the earnestness of this young singer, his definition would cover just about everything except McDonald’s jingles and the “Happy Birthday” song from the waitstaff at Applebee’s. And I’m cynical enough to believe that he is in the minority, and that more often than not the “Soul” label is a reflection of a time of decreasing CD sales where artists and publicists are trying to get attention from as broad an audience as possible…even if it means labeling as “Soul music” anything this side of Gregorian Chant.

I’m not trying to put artists in stylistic boxes and I understand that some of the most exciting acts of today straddle genres like Soul, Jazz, Pop and Hip-hop – and I love many of them. But we all do give stylistic labels to music and have some expectations from those labels when they are used by others; those descriptions help us wade through the morass of new music that is out there and give us a way to find artists whose music meets some kind of aural expectation. So, c’mon, while we don't want to stifle anyone's creativity,  let’s have a little “truth in advertising”:  Megadeath is not a jazz group, Lady Gaga is not a Gospel singer, and the flannel-shirted, naval-gazing, folkie hipster whose CD is sitting on my desk is definitely not “Soul.”

By Chris Rizik


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