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A Rational Conversation: Do We Need New Old Soul Music?

Leon Bridges' polished retro-soul aesthetic has earned him fans who appreciate his devotion, as well as critics who find his approach hollow. Erin Margaret Alison Rambo/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Erin Margaret Alison Rambo/Courtesy of the artist

Leon Bridges' polished retro-soul aesthetic has earned him fans who appreciate his devotion, as well as critics who find his approach hollow.

Erin Margaret Alison Rambo/Courtesy of the artist

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop-culture consciousness.

This summer, Leon Bridges released Coming Home, his debut album. Interest around the Texas singer continues to build, with most dates of his upcoming headlining tour of North America selling out and the recent announcement that he'll open for Pharrell Williams in London during the Apple Music Festival. While many obviously appreciate Bridges' devotion to the musical approach and personal style of soul artists from the 1950s and early '60s (most notably Sam Cooke), others have found the approach hollow. Why listen to someone so intent on creating the sound of the past when so many crucial musical and political changes have pushed that sound forward?

To discuss the subject, Ducker spoke with Emily Lordi, an assistant professor in the English department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She's written extensively about black music, including the book Black Resonance: Iconic Female Singers And African American Literature and the upcoming installment in the 33 1/3 series about Donny Hathaway's album Live. She is also presently working on a book about the literary and musical history of the concept of soul in black culture.


If someone you know says to you, "Hey, you should check out this new album I heard by this soul singer who sounds just like they are from the 1960s," does that sound appealing or not appealing to you?

That's not entirely appealing to me. The slightly longer answer to that question is that I would be curious to know whether this was a purely retro soul production or whether it was more of a neo-soul type of thing. The distinction there is that retro soul seems to be more about paying homage than innovating; it's more about the beautiful imitation. Whereas I see neo-soul as returning to that moment in order to build upon it and make something new that's both musically and politically resonant for the contemporary moment.

I'm in the same camp as you, but playing devil's advocate for a little bit, should we be more appreciative of the craftsmanship of retro soul? Is it impressive that they are able to re-create that sound so completely?

I try to think about it on a case-by-case basis. In an earlier email, you referenced Raphael Saadiq's 2008 album The Way I See It, and I was definitely impressed with the craftsmanship of that on all levels — from the composition to the engineering to the production. There's a certain kind of energy to that album that impresses me, in part due to the variety of different kinds of soul music that he seems to be reviving and paying tribute to. We get Philly soul, we get Motown, we get the Muscle Shoals sound. There's the richness and diversity of the soul tradition. That's impressive. I find Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings impressive in a similar way; it's kind of hard not to like somebody who sings like Mavis Staples and dances like James Brown and has this incredible story to go along with it. But again, there's also incredible craftsmanship that goes into the work of an artist like D'Angelo, who I think is not only paying homage to certain soul predecessors, but is also really building upon their work.


How do you feel about what Leon Bridges is doing?

I haven't listened to the whole album, but I have many thoughts. The thing about Leon Bridges that I have been thinking about is his investment in 1950s and 1960s soul music, the moment before soul music's radical political turn. There's this moment in the '60s where black musicians have to decide which side they're on: Are they going to stick with more conservative, seemingly apolitical love songs? Or are they going to go for the explicitly political, socially engaged type of productions? This is everybody from Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye to James Brown to Sly Stone to The Temptations to Marlena Shaw. They are turning out these really powerful political records. For me, hearing Leon Bridges, I wonder what it means when his vision of soul kind of turns the clock back on soul's more radically political moment.


I wanted to mention his video for the song "Coming Home." When I first saw that video, I just felt sad. There are no people in the video. There's him and there's the white lover and there's the barber, but it seems like the only way that his feel-good vintage nostalgia can work is by absenting all the people from this urban landscape of the Jim Crow South. The video literally absents the social component from the music by depopulating that landscape. Especially at a time where Selma is released and we're seeing our own version of this brutal, state-sanctioned anti-black violence, it's hard to see this image of a black man moving through the Jim Crow South without thinking of some of these other scenes of violence. Even the shot of him sitting at the lunch counter, it kind of evokes and erases the history of the sit-in. The history of anti-miscegenation laws are also there and not there at the same time with the white lover — they are in private, but they also come out into public spaces. You wonder, "Where are the people who might have been upset about that relationship?" Even the barbershop, which is a traditional space of black male camaraderie, we only see Leon Bridges there. His barber is white, for some reason. It's a very curious representation.

What that suggests to me is that the coolness of the video depends on divorcing soul from its actual social milieu. If you're interested in soul, that has historically meant some kind of racial struggle — a social struggle, consciousness-raising, a desire to say it loud, "I'm black and I'm proud." To rally young black people who are young, gifted and black. It's not that everybody has to be radical. It just makes me wonder, "What does soul mean without it?"

Right. The decision is especially jarring given current events. And in contrast, you have D'Angelo saying that he had to finally put out this album, which people had been waiting almost 20 years for, because of what's happening right now in the United States.

Exactly. It has this very radical critique of the moment. More generally, the interesting soul music seeks an interest in that moment. In some cases, it returns to the unfinished work of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. In other cases, it's a desire for the vibe or the feel of the moment, but without the political work that it entails.


Neo-soul kind of fell out of favor in the first years of the new millennium, around the same time retro soul became cooler. A lot of people on neo-soul's forefront went off into their own worlds, and who was left were people who weren't necessarily the most innovative. Neo-soul kind of became corny and people started to just associate it with incense and silly hats.

It's interesting to think about it as a succession of sorts. When Questlove [of The Roots] talks about that moment, he describes it in more personal terms. If part of the idea of neo-soul was to avoid the machinations of the music industry and return to these ideas of community, live instrumentation and the social and musical elements of this musical era, people weren't quite ready for the massive success and the industry demands that come with that. People like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu and D'Angelo — in Questlove's account — sort of freak out and leave or are driven off the scene. It's so interesting to think that something more imitative and less innovative comes in to fill that space.

You mentioned this decisive point in soul music in the 1960s where artists had to decide if they were going to be political or not. Were there artists who decided to stay apolitical after that moment that stayed relevant?

Sure, an example of a group that remains lyrically apolitical would be The Supremes, whose carefully stylized presentation — as Gayle Wald points out in her new book It's Been Beautiful: Soul! And Black Power Television nonetheless remained central to Motown's mission of black self-empowerment.

With what Leon Bridges is doing now and the context he exists in, do you see any potential for him to have a politically engaged or radicalized moment later in his career?

There is always that potential, as we've seen with an artist like John Legend. But for Bridges, such a turn would require a shift out of the nostalgic retro mode and into an engagement with the political, social and musical landscape of the present.

Do you think retro soul suffers because it often seems to pretend to be in a world where hip-hop doesn't exist?

I do, because what does that mean? That means turning back the clock and pretending that not only does the music not exist, but also that the social energy that hip-hop represents didn't happen.

I guess what this comes down to is, do we need new old soul music? There's something about this new music that seems so devoted to complete reproduction that just makes me want to hear the original stuff. It's almost a turn-off.

I know what you mean. I wouldn't say that it's specific to soul music. Every genre of American music has its eras of revivalism, or certain strains of revivalism, that continue across various time periods. It's a folk movement or a blues revival or traditional jazz or country and bluegrass. There are always people in every genre who are keeping that legacy alive, though there isn't always an audience for that. But in regards to soul, I think that soul signifies many things to many people, and sometimes it's that social/political component, and sometimes it speaks to more musical issues of black instrumentation (complex arrangements and virtuosic musicianship), and a premium put on emotional expressiveness. Those are all things to value for a music lover. But I don't know, I'm kind of with you. I don't want to listen to something that sounds like Marvin Gaye when I could just listen to Marvin Gaye.


It might partially come down to the fact that it's called "soul." The idea of trying to recapture "soul" is weird. I imagine the musicians are thinking, "This is the music that speaks to me, and I want to evoke that same feeling through the music I create." It's a unique sound, and I don't know if it ever can really be recaptured.

Soul was very much of its moment. It obviously drew from the past, and it drew from everybody's experience of growing up in church and singing gospel music. Soul artists brought that into the secular realm, that sense of these big vocals and performative energy in the live setting — the lay-it-all-on-the-floor drama and physical vigor of the performance. That kind of legacy, and the way that kind of legacy is made to speak for very particular moments in the '60s and '70s, is not possible to capture. Soul really does become a gathering place for black people.

The way that I think about it, in my work, is I read more about the music and the way that soul gets deployed in different situations: Who has soul? Who doesn't have soul? What does it mean to have soul? It consistently means something about having struggles and trying to make your way through a world where it's harder to be black than it is to be white. But that there's a certain payoff to that, and soul is what you get for having gone through the fire in that way. To divorce the crux of soul music — whether you're a black or white or whatever artist — from that real inventive, group-affirming work, there's something lost in that translation.

Could the benefit of retro soul artists be that they serve as a gateway for some listeners to discover the older artists that the music is referencing?

It seems to me that people who were raised on Sam Cooke are not going to be excited about Leon Bridges, but I do like the idea of him functioning as a gateway. Now, that's a gateway for listeners, but in terms of practitioners of the music, I also wonder — this is a slightly different issue — whether or not young artists have the same kinds of resources they need to really move the music forward. We often see in the history of the record business that the real innovation comes from musical networks, whether that's jazz or hip-hop or soul. It's Otis Redding working with the Stax house band, or Muscle Shoals backing Aretha [Franklin], or Earth, Wind & Fire (all the people within that band and all the people they collaborated with). The Soulquarians, D'Angelo and the Vanguard, and the Wondaland collective with Janelle Monáe are more contemporary examples. The public music education programs around the country are part of this conversation, too. What kind of public and other kinds of resources are around to young musicians today that make that kind of innovation possible?


How important is it that there be black audience members or black listeners for a soul artist? I read something about Leon Bridges on, and there was a part where he mentioned how his audiences are predominantly white and he says that when he performs his song "Brown Skin Girl," he'll ask, "Where my brown-skinned girls at?" and there will be hardly any of them in the crowd. It's kind of played as a joke in the article, but it's kind of weird, right?

Yeah, it definitely worth noting. It's tricky, because you don't want to get into these rigid notions of authenticity and suggest that he's not authentic just because he has a majority white fan base, but I think that is relevant. One thing again that the "Coming Home" video does is that it suggests a dream of integration that has already been realized, suggesting that there's no problem with him being with this white woman in the context of the totally depopulated world that exists in that music video. The dream of integration without the struggle would be more appealing to those who have been beneficiaries of the concept of the post-racial America. The soul-revival thing can swing either way. It can suggest that we really are in this era of post-racialism that Obama's election ushered in, or it can suggest a real rejection of that idea, and that we need to return this prior moment to figure out what that movement still has to teach us. I don't know enough about the audiences for Sharon Jones or other retro soul artists, but I do think the question of who this music is resonating with is definitely relevant.

We're making Leon Bridges carry the burden of a lot of stuff in this conversation, but how important should it be for artists who are interested in retro soul to try and establish a black following?

I don't know what kind of assumptions would go into that calculus. I do think there is a broad national base of interest in soul music. I just want to broaden the landscape to acknowledge the recent biopics on people like Ray Charles, James Brown, Nina Simone, and the weird Muscle Shoals documentary that I just learned Johnny Depp wants to turn into a TV series. Then there are all these recent albums inspired by soul artists, like Meshell Ndegeocello's album of Nina Simone covers, Leela James has an album of Etta James covers, John Legend's Wake Up, even Lalah Hathaway, whose recent stage show was in some ways a tribute to her father Donny Hathaway's Live album.

Soul is definitely an industry across racial lines — and inter-generationally, as well — but the issue of cultivating a black audience, specifically, is a tricky one. I think of it less as a personal issue and more in terms of structures or systems that are in place to allow people to do that. A Leon Bridges 40 years ago doesn't have a choice as to whether or not to engage black audiences — that's his bread and butter. It's either sink or swim, depending on their approval or lack thereof. Whereas now it's interesting to think he can be groomed as a soul artist. People like Questlove are important here, in that there is a certain kind of racially authenticating work that goes into having a stamp of approval, but that's different from going out and having to tour and have your work vetted by black DJs or black record-store owners.