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Musical codes

A reader asks me about a genre term in pop:

How do you feel about the word ‘urban’ used to describe broad yet distinct genres of music? […] The genres grouped under ‘urban music’ have been music created by predominantly black musicians; was the label ‘black music’ more appropiate or was/is a change needed, considering not all the musicians involved now are black or even grew up or live in urban environments?

What has urban music actually meant in the past? Plato warned against innovations in the lyre and flute music played in Athens. Charles Dickens complained about the cacophony of barrel organs beneath his window that prevented him from writing for more than half an hour. The music of Luigi Rossolo and other “futurist” composers of the early 20th century was “urban” in excelsis, inventing new musical machines to imitate the sounds of the industrial metropolis . . .

The sound of buskers – whether on lyres, barrel organs, acoustic guitars, violins, or accordions – has long been another quintessential constitutent of the “urban” soundtrack. And in modern cities you will find people making all kinds of music – folk, classical, trance, heavy-metal and so on. Many musicians in the west gravitate to the big cities because that’s where the audiences and the opportunities lie. In this sense a vast swathe of contemporary music is “urban”.

So why has “urban” come to mean only hip-hop/R&B – a set of genres, as my correspondent notes, normally associated with black musicians? Obviously a replacement was needed for the term “black music” once the commercial success of artists such as Eminem or The Streets meant that the genres could no longer be considered exclusively or even mainly “black”. But why should “urban” have been chosen to replace it?

The MOBO awards in the US get round the terminological problem by giving prizes for “music of black origin”, which are open to non-black artists. But the truth is, of course, that all of rock’n’roll and jazz are of “black origin” if you look back far enough.

Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that early critics of jazz were aghast at the intrusion of the sexualized noise of the “jungle” into the civilized (white) metropolis. Does the term “urban”, then, conceal an updated echo of this complaint, a sorrowful abandonment of the territory of what it imagines as predominantly black inner cities, an admission of defeat and occupation by the Other?

  1. 1  SW  July 17, 2006, 5:43 pm 

    Well, anyway, it surely was not my own incompetence that lost my last two entries onto Unspeak. So, just imagine the following points written up as a full course blomment, garnished with examples, and served on a platter of beautiful prose.

    1. “Urban” may be not be the echo of a complaint, but an appropriation of “inner city” and “ghetto”, a positive re-working of a negative connotation. A response, then, and not a complaint.

    2. “Urban” may not be entirely racially determined, although certainly when “urban” is held up against “suburban”, the racial overtones are there. “Urban” may be held up in comparison to “Country” – urban peeps vs country folks. The contrast between rural and urban, South and North respectively in the U.S., has vast social, economic and cultural significance not limited to race. Suburbanites may be the largest consumers of Urban music, but Urban may be establishing a difference not between itself and the Suburbs (i.e., between white and black), but between itself and Country (i.e., hip peeps and ignorant poor folk).

    3. Race is neither sufficient nor necessary for understanding, appreciating or producing music, and racial mythologies of all sorts get mapped onto a complicated history (consider Rick Rubin’s role, by way of Def Jam). On the other hand, one does not want to deny or whitewash the role of race. But “urban” does a better job of conjuring up the sweltering cosmopolitanism, the multi-ethnic potentials of a genre, particularly one that has produced not only black performers, and not only Eminem and The Streets, but also M.I.A. and the whole sub-genre of reggaeton.

    4. It is unfortunate that Plato, Dickens and the futurists did not live long enough to hear the Geto Boys. (Note their name.) Plato would have been nodding and snapping his fingers along to “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta”; Dickens would have been throwing signs and mouthing the words “pussy-eatin’, cock-suckin’ pranksta”; the futurists would have wholeheartedly rejected the cacophony of streetcars and any sort of fascism if they have heard “a word from our President . . . Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta / Gettin’ voted into the White House”.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  July 17, 2006, 6:48 pm 

    “Urban” may be not be the echo of a complaint, but an appropriation of “inner city” and “ghetto”, a positive re-working of a negative connotation. A response, then, and not a complaint.

    Nice point.

    Urban may be establishing a difference not between itself and the Suburbs (i.e., between white and black), but between itself and Country (i.e., hip peeps and ignorant poor folk).

    Yes, but don’t the Strokes, for example, partake of the same difference?

    Dickens would have been throwing signs and mouthing the words “pussy-eatin’, cock-suckin’ pranksta”

    Without a doubt.

  3. 3  SW  July 17, 2006, 7:20 pm 

    Regarding the Strokes – interesting point.

    Yes and no. In terms of their image, they partake of the same difference: they are certainly an “urban” band insofar as they are a quintessentially post-VU, post-Ramones New York band, re-working what is acknowledeged to be the sound of a city and very much adopting the look of the city – white t-shirt, tight jeans, leather jackets and shades at midnight. At the same time, their music is probably closer to rockabilly than hip hop, and so – arguably – more country than city. (A difficult point to argue if one sees punk as an extension of rockabilly, because then you are arguing that punk is a rural aesthetic – but, in any case . . . )

    Perhaps it shows that any distinctions – urban vs rural, black vs white, peeps vs folks – are based on profoundly insufficient categories. If you choose race or location or whatever, you are left with an imaginary genre, one that excludes many who have contributed essentially to it. So perhaps the best way to identify a type of music is not based on who is producing it, but what it does to your body or evokes in the audience: trance, rock and roll, blues. And speaking of Rock and Roll, here is an explanation of why The Strokes are not “urban”. . .

    I might pose this as a question: why is it that Rock’n’Roll, which clearly has a racially complicated history, is less difficult to identify and has a name that has not been seriously contested for fifty years (give or take twenty years of the Civil Rights Movement)? Is it because it simply does not partake of the rural/urban difference, coming as it does from Honky Tonk, blues, jazz, boogie woogie, gospel and Appalachian folk songs – and thus encompasses both rural and urban and therefore everybody? Once the racial barriers were torn apart – including by such multi-racial bands as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sly and the Family Stone – there was nothing but the unifying greatness of Rock’n’Roll, rocking our souls. And surely, as evidence of the universality and perfection of Rock and Roll as the predominant cultural product of the twentieth century, I would offer up its perfect utterance, a word that is entirely unsusceptible to the prying, slicing analysis of Unspeak: A-Womp-bom-a-loom-op-a-womp-bam-boom.

  4. 4  Mags  July 17, 2006, 8:22 pm 

    MOBO just creates a different problem. But y’all almost miss the point anyway. Why do so many new musical forms come with a new terror about sexuality? Jazz, Rock&Roll, the Waltz, Hip Hop? Maybe that’s what being smuggled in: sex.

  5. 5  Steven Poole  July 17, 2006, 9:12 pm 

    Perhaps the Strokes are closer to rockabilly than hip-hop, but only in the sense that they are closer to Venus than to Jupiter.

    Mags: perhaps urban sex is just sexier than rural sex? But then we have to come to terms with expressions such as “a roll in the hay”.

  6. 6  Mags  July 17, 2006, 10:23 pm 

    You evidently haven’t seen any Russ Meyers films. Not that I have, either. But I do know they’re full of buxom lassies gamboling across fields. And what do you think Hamlet was talking about when he told poor Ophelia he was interested in “country matters”? You must live in a city if you think the polluted air and gray concrete encourages sex.

  7. 7  Steven Poole  July 18, 2006, 12:19 am 

    Remember that Paul MacCartney sang “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”, when he could have sung “Why Don’t We Do It In the Furrow?” or “Why Don’t We Do It In the Tinkling Stream?” He surely had a point.

  8. 8  DF  July 18, 2006, 1:49 am 

    In its infancy, be it not forgot, rock’n’roll was often referred to on American radio stations as “race music”. The allusion was to African-Americans, of course, but the term was used to include white performers working in the genre, in particular Elvis. The term “Urban music” is similar. It means the styles of music that are most associated with African-Americans (in the minds of advertisers at least), which are presently R’n’B, hip-hop and their derivatives. It can include non-white performers within those styles. It is just a sanitised version of “race music”.

    This corporate phrase, which has become widespread because it is convenient for video channel programmers and, as I mentioned, advertisers, has nothing to do with the larger and more interesting question as to whether any piece of music really is “of the city”, as opposed to the suburbs, the country, or whatever. On that score, Outkast are more urban than Deep Purple. But Eminem is more urban than OutKast, though not as urban as the Strokes. Or the Pet Shop Boys.

  9. 9  SW  July 18, 2006, 6:26 am 

    You appear to be very unreliable on this matter! Nobody I know has ever forgotten that Rock and Roll was once actually called “race music”. The rejection of this nasty term was partly due to the quite simple fact that it simply wasn’t an accurate label.

    First, “race music” was not accurate because what Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Cash and others were doing may have had substantial roots in what black artists were doing before them, but they were still revolutionary on their own terms. Only the most boringly conventional fans of Rock and Roll still stick to the whole “They were just white guys stealing black music” spiel. Lewis and Little Richard and Ike Turner and Perkins and Berry and Cochrane and Elvis were part of a movement that transcended racial categories: detractors tried to reduce them to a racial denominator, by using a term that failed miserably. Terrifyingly, Rock and Roll was cultural miscegenation, the ultimate transcendence of “race”.

    And second, what was really at stake was not race – dare I say it – but good old fashioned sex. The pumping pelvic thrusts, the wild-eyed whooping of steamy country boy Lewis (a racist motherfucker, too), Little Richard’s invisibly obvious explosion of queer: it is arguable that their raunchy sexuality helped substantiate the term “rock and roll” over “race music”. Does that make sex more or less transgressive than race? A difficult question to answer.

    But the point is this: “race music” may have been a term used for “rock and roll” but it is not synonymous with “rock and roll”. It was a misunderstanding of rock and roll, a last ditch effort to deny rock and roll’s very transcendence of cultural anti-miscegenation. And the term was oblivious to what was most obvious about rock and roll, and so a failure to see that rock and roll was heralding in the sexual revolution. Like not seeing that Little Richard was . . .

    “Urban”, on the other hand, appeals to notions of the technology of the city, identification with the hood, and to the feverish cosmopolitanism of modern Hip Hop – yes, predominately black, but with plenty of room for Eminem, a white boy who plays with his whiteness and, dare I say it, his blackness; with M.I.A.; with reggaeton, the inescapable Latin hip hop beat of New York in the Summer. In “sanitising” race – or by diminishing the centrality of race – “Urban” is a name that suggests that location is more important than race. A radical suggestion! It is also a proposal that explains a lot more than the cod biologies of race. Music again becomes about a place you are from, your place, your home, your homies, your hood; the sounds are the ones you grew up with, remembered hearing on the streets when you were a kid, which you are now improving on (appropriate given that the generation producing the music now grew up in the 1980s and 1990s).

    Just pause to think here about how in both Urban music and Country music the theme of locale and location recurs – think, for example, about New York City Boys and West End Girls; or, if you prefer, Okies from Muskogie. Is “Urban” so specific that you can create an hierarchy of urbanity or countryness? Probably not – but it might be interesting to try. As you do.

    Doesn’t that make “Urban” very different than “race music” and not just a “sanitised” version of it? Evidently, the two terms are doing very differnt things, each responding very differently to the music they are purporting to describe.

    Appeals to disdain for the Corporation and Advertisers are always inadequate, however rock’n’roll such appeals may be. Advertisers often steal terms, rather than generating them, and when they do steal terms, they often do not fully understand those terms even as they propagate them. When they create terms, they can unleash very successful meme monsters or they can utterly fail to capture a zeitgeist. They are in dialogue with the culture, and sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t; sometimes they make the culture, sometimes they desecrate it.

    – Written from near where Seventh avenue meets Broadway.

  10. 10  DF  July 18, 2006, 5:44 pm 

    The word “urban” does, of course, conjure up images of technology and cosmopolitanism. But the industry term “Urban Music” does not conjure up many of the artists who are imbued with those qualities. It has “plenty of room” for Eminem, sure. But is has no room at all for a band as quintessentially technological as Kraftwerk, or a singer as cosmopolitan as Rufus Wainwright. If the Pet Shop Boys turned up at the Urban Music Awards, it would be explained politely to them that there had been a very grave misunderstanding.

    Sometimes marketing terms are reclaimed, and take on a streetlife of their own. But the fact that “Urban Music” continues to exclude so many “artists of city” suggests to me that it has not transcended the rather cynical usage for which it was designed.

    By the way, Sinatra is more urban than Springsteen, who is more urban than Bon Jovi.

  11. 11  Steven Poole  July 18, 2006, 5:49 pm 

    But Guns N’ Roses are more urban than Nirvana, who are more urban than Def Leppard. Where does that leave us?

  12. 12  SW  July 18, 2006, 6:31 pm 

    The _insufficiency_ of Urban I long ago conceded, in just the same way as I would concede that Rock and Roll does not adequately cover Dion, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Dusty Springfield, Bruce Springsteen, The Moonglows, ZZ Top and The Clash, all of whom are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – a commercial enterprise, to be sure, and not the most elegant guardian of “Rock and Roll”. But it is clear that there are some shaggy edges to the definition of Rock and Roll that do not turn the whole thing into a meaningless blur. Ditto Urban. And it remains true that however commercial and insufficient, “Rock and Roll” as a term has some rich interpretations, as do “race music” and “urban”. And it’s not as if “Rock and Roll” falls apart simply because a prominent figure like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t really fit into the category: even if they are the epitome of Rock and Roll.

    Just as you can ask who is more Urban, so you can ask who is more Rock and Roll? The Sex Pistols or Del Shannon? Which permutation of Dylan is most Rock and Roll? These are not bad questions, and ones that do not suddenly sink “Rock and Roll” into a mire of uncertainty.

    Where do questions like this lead us? To sentences that somehow bring together the genius of Nirvana and Guns’n’Roses with the excremental Def Leppard.

    I do, however, love imagining the look of disappointment on Neil Tennant’s face as he is turned away at the Urban Music Awards. Can’t you just see him turning back to the Bouncer, an enormous man clasping a clipboard and wearing a fur coat and trilby – Neil turns back to him and says, “Please. . . ?”

  13. 13  DF  July 18, 2006, 7:12 pm 

    1. The Sex Pistols
    2. The “Saved” period

  14. 14  Cultural Snow  July 23, 2006, 7:20 am 

    “Urban music” is predominantly, but not exclusively, black. It does, however appear to be exclusively working-class/underclass. While fear of the other is often expressed (or not expressed) in racial terms, is that not because racial and class boundaries are often, if not identical, pretty damn close?

    The Strokes are geographically urban, but they don’t make urban music. Because they’re posh boys, not because they’re white boys.

  15. 15  Gadget man  March 28, 2007, 4:08 pm 

    I say let them call it Urban music. Categorising music is an absolute nighmare and if they already have a category name, leave it. It’s just a name. How much goes into the Rock/Pop section HMV or whereever.
    And if you tell someone “oh i heard this great band the other day” and they reply “what syle of music is it”, how often does finding the right category pose a massive problem… doesn’t help with so many bands drawing influence from so many styles.

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