RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For the past few weeks, Code Switch, our team covering race, ethnicity and culture in America, has been hosting a conversation online about romance. As part of the project, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji brings us this story just in time for Valentine's Day about popular songs focusing on interracial attraction.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: The first thing that jumped to my mind when we decided to do this cross-cultural romance series was music. So I took to Facebook and Twitter and asked for song submissions. And you sent songs about love across borders, racial lines, songs with a socially conscious message, songs that fetishize women of color and songs about racial harmonies that were, well...
JASON KING: Trite as can possibly be. She's got jungle fever. He's got jungle fever. She's gone white boy crazy, black - I mean, it's just really not very sophisticated.
MERAJI: That's Jason King, music critic and associate professor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. I also invited NPR's music critic Ann Powers to chime in.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Anxiety and desire across racial lines is really one of the fundamental subjects of American popular culture and American music specifically.
MERAJI: And she points to old musicals with plots or subplots dealing with cross-cultural romance; in "South Pacific," "West Side Story," "Showboat."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANT' HELP LOVING THAT MAN")
SHIRLEY BASSEY: (Singing) There ain't no reason for me to love that man.
MERAJI: Jason King says look to the '60s and early '70s for a handful of hip-hop songs about love across racial lines.
KING: Songs like "Society's Child" by Janis Ian that were socially critical, dealing with the problem of interracial dating and what kind of sense it is and maybe even sophisticated point of view.
(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "SOCIETY'S CHILD")
JANIS IAN: (Singing) When we're older, things may change. But for now, this is the way they must remain.
MERAJI: Both critics agree those kind of pop songs don't chart today. Twenty-five year old pop and R&B artist Auburn could only remember one and it's almost as old as she is.
AUBURN: (Singing) I don't matter if you're black or white. Yeah, I remember that one. I don't know any more.
(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "BLACK OR WHITE")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) If you're thinking about my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white.
MERAJI: Auburn is African-American. She grew up in East St. Paul, Minnesota in a heavily Asian neighborhood and she dates Asian guys.
AUBURN: Normally, I'm very attracted to Asian guys. Not to say I'm not attracted to black guys or white guys or any other type of guy.
MERAJI: She says gets a lot of shade for her dating preferences so she wrote a song about it, "My Baby."
(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "MY BABY")
AUBURN: (Singing) I know people look at us and they wonder why we're attached, our skins don't match. But I'll say, yo, that's my baby.
MERAJI: Auburn says she worried about backlash but was surprised by the outpouring of support from people who said they could totally relate.
AUBURN: I don't know why more people don't sing about it because there are a lot of interracial relationships. I mean, a lot.
MERAJI: Jason King says writing a pop song that delves into the complexities of cross-cultural romance today is tough to squeeze into a three minute, 45 second sellable tune. He says, one, we're way beyond the black/white binary, two, the heightened tragedy around dating outside your race has tempered, and three, we're more sensitive to these issues, so what worked before won't fly today.
KING: It's got to be more than just a kind of trite sentiment saying can't we all just get along, can't we all just have a good time. There's got to be something more to it.
MERAJI: And Ann Powers says that's tough because pop music is having a decadent moment; more partying, less politics.
POWERS: There's this idea or fantasy in popular music that you can be whatever you want to be and we're not even going to talk about how difficult that is in the real world, and I think the way pop music is dealing with race, for better or worse, is part of that.
MERAJI: Both Powers and King agree, we're not past our interracial love anxieties, but like most things, pop music is cyclical. They say we could see song writers pick up the challenge in the future. Now let's hope we get something to replace "Jungle Fever." No offense, Mr. Wonder.
(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "JUNGLE FEVER")
STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) I've gone white girl crazy, she's gone black boy hazy, we're each other's baby, we're in love.
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
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