Thursday, May 08, 2014

RRC Extra No. 47: Mary J. Blige

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SLIP SLIDIN’ AWAY… Danny Alexander writes: Researching the book I’m writing on Mary J. Blige for University of Texas Press,  I’ve been puzzled by the precipitous drop in her album sales after 2006’s multiplatinum The Breakthrough. Her strong follow up, 2007’s Growing Pains, sold half as many records, and her sales have declined steadily ever since. 2011’s My Life II: The Journey Continues, was not just a worthy sequel to her 1994 classic My Life but contained great potential for hit singles. It opens with five of the hardest-hitting tracks she’s ever recorded and closes with three gorgeous ballads, while in between there are duets with Drake and BeyoncĂ©. But somehow that record sold the least of any studio album in her career and didn’t produce a Top 40 single.

At first, I just presumed she’d aged out. After all, the oldest African American woman sharing the radio with her in 2011 was BeyoncĂ©, a full decade younger, and the white woman getting significant airplay who is closest to her age, Pink, is eight years her junior.  But then I compared the Year-End Singles charts from the year of My Life’s release with the Year-End Singles charts the year My Life II came out. In 1994, 37 of the year’s top records came from records featuring women and 24 of those songs featured Black women artists, almost a fourth of the most popular singles on the pop charts.

             Seventeen years later, when My Life II came out, the Year End Singles chart included only three Black women—Janelle Monae (singing a few lines behind .fun), Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. Where Black women held onto their new share of the charts in the 90s and the early new millennium, over the past ten years their presence has shrunk as dramatically as Blige’s sales. Only a half dozen different Black women (most often on duets with other artists) have made these charts in the past five years.

            Again comparing that to 1994, then the music came filled with a torrent of Black women, including Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Dionne Farris, Des’Ree, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Brownstone, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, Crystal Waters, Da Brat, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim, Xscape, Queen Latifah and SWV. 

In the 90s, much of what was happening on the pop charts was tied to social and cultural movements, whether it was gangsta or Black nationalist or young country or the punk impulse suddenly rising to the surface with grunge. It’s hard to see any such signs of cultural movement on the charts today—most obvious would have to be the punky white teenage girl pop acts, and then there are the folkies, and Macklemore’s argument with rap. But those forms seem individualistic, atomized, not particularly connected to one another. There’s not a single voice that seems to stand for the working class women Mary speaks so forcefully to and for. In a sea of surface sonic perfection, Mary J. Blige comes across as real, playing to the women from around the way who fill her shows and saying to them, “I’m here for all the women who work at Wal-Mart."

            Race is an unscientific concept and counting colors and genders to find a story seems a crude way to take the measure of a complex and vibrant art form. Still, the story of popular music has always been filled with and often defined by the voices of Black women, voices too little heard elsewhere. It begins with many forgotten names, from churches and juke joints, soon represented by the likes of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Billie Holiday. Once rock and roll takes off, a steady stream of Black women artists--Ruth Brown, Tina Turner, Etta James, Lavern Baker, Martha and the Vandellas, and Aretha Franklin—fuel the music of the Civil Rights era and set the table for some of the brightest lights of the 70s and 80s. As if they heard Janet Jackson’s call for “Control” and took her at her word, Black women doubled their numbers on the charts in the mid-90s and hung onto that share for a decade, while making space for more Black men and, eventually, a greater number of white women.

            So what happened in 2006 to reverse those gains? It certainly can’t be ignored that American Idol launched four years before, screening out artistic diversity in terms of showboating histrionics. And no doubt the change also has something to do with YouTube’s launch the year before (ironically, inspired by a PayPal employee’s search for Super Bowl footage of Janet Jackson’s breast). The digital analysis company Big Champagne declared YouTube the world’s number one distributor of music the year My Life II came out. At the same time, former MTV, Six Flags, and Century 21 CEO Bob Pittman, dubbed “the wonder boy of branding” took over Clear Channel radio (and, in essence, terrestrial radio), promoting it with a major music festival devoted to the iHeartRadio phone app, described by one of his cohorts as “Live Aid without the charity.” As the potential for democratic distribution of music exploded, the most focused front for such distribution,  radio, has grown more reactionary. In a market guided by conformist network talent shows, YouTube fads and superstar concerts dedicated to corporate greed, what interest is there in Mary J. Blige’s audience? For that matter, what interest is there in the ideas that once made mainstream R&B so vital—the complicated demands of relationships, the necessity of dealing with the consequences of one’s actions, and the hopes and dreams of those used, abused and unheard?

There was a time when those ideas poised to guide us to higher ground. I’m thinking of a great video made for Mario Peebles’ 1995 Panther movie of Joi’s song “Freedom.” The video features a choir of women—twelve across and five deep—almost all with hits on the pop charts. The singers offer an “a-whoop” over the rolling bass line and present shimmering sustained notes of light after lines like Mary’s opener—“Turn us loose, set us free, from these chains that bind me,” all of this intercut with shots of the civil rights struggle. The jubilation and strength that fills the screen—and every note of song—reflects a new world being born. Twenty years later, as beautiful a moment as it is, the feel of that promise betrayed makes it hurt.

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