This essay first ran in Culture 11.
The title of Michelle Williams’ forthcoming R&B album is Unexpected— though judging from the first video, there isn’t actually all that much to be surprised about. As an entirely rote processed beat bangs away, Williams repeats the title “We Break the Dawn” over and over while wearing a short, tight dress and slinking around with a posse of yummy and shirtless male dancers. Oh, and there are lots of jump cuts. I guess that would have been novel thirty years ago.
So the title’s just a case of the usual marketing hype? Well, not exactly. “Unexpected,” refers, not to content, but to career trajectory. Williams became famous when she joined Destiny’s Child in 2000. As a member of the hugely popular R&B act, she wore preposterous dresses and sang about bumping, grinding, sex, and dissing those men while throngs of cheering fans stared at Beyoncé’s cleavage. Then Williams turned around and released her solo debut “Heart to Yours” in 2002 — a very fine contemporary gospel album, complete with guest appearances by Shirley Caesar and Mary Mary. After another solo gospel outing, and one more Destiny’s Child release, “Unexpected” is, finally, her solo R&B debut.
Country singers do this sort of thing all the time, of course. Throughout his career, Johnny Cash would pray to Jesus in one track and murder his woman in the next, and hardly anyone batted an eye. But in the world of black music, shuttling between sacred and secular as Williams has done is a lot less common and a lot more fraught. For African-American audiences living in a segregated America, the gospel/pop line was about more than just faith. It was about loyalty to your people — about whether you were going to stay true to your oppressed community, or kowtow to the ofays who were, often quite literally, trying to kill you.
Changing your musical style wasn’t just an unfortunate marketing decision; it was an exercise in betrayal, sin, and damnation. As such, black audiences and artists took it very seriously indeed. In the early 50s, the gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe lost much of her fan base when she started performing in secular clubs — even though she was still singing Christian music. Then there’s Sam Cooke, who started his career as the gospel superstar lead singer for the Soul Stirrers. In the late 50s, he moved to secular music and never looked back — though “A Change Is Gonna Come” had gospel tinges, Cooke’s pop music rarely, if ever, touched on his faith.
Contemporary R&B follows in his footsteps. Virtually every R&B artist shouts out to God first thing in his or her liner notes, but that spirituality is kept tightly under wraps on the albums themselves. Even performers that do express their faith more explicitly do so with a certain care. At the conclusion of her 2005 album “My Story,” for example, Na’sha thanks her God while defensively dismissing those who told her it would be bad for her career to do so. Similarly, on their breakthrough “The Writings on the Wall,” Destiny’s Child sings “Amazing Grace” — but only at the very end of the album. Faith is fine, apparently, as long as you save it for the last track.
This nervous tension between private faith and public salaciousness can have unfortunate repercussions. Several African-American stars have been so torn by the perceived conflict between their faith and their music that they abandoned the latter. At the height of his popularity in 1957, for example, Little Richard turned to God and renounced rock and roll, tragically scuppering his career. In less extreme cases, the intensity of the sacred/secular binary can result in a painfully intense refusal to notice what one is doing — a kind of aphasiac hypocrisy. Item A here is Destiny’s Child single “Nasty Girl” in which the super-group famous for its plunging necklines, ascending hemlines, and borderline-hooker-wear upbraided their peers for dressing like sluts. “Nasty put some clothes on,” they harmonized, “You make it hard…for girls like myself who respect themselves/And have dignity….” Translation: I’m out here in my underwear, but it’s classier underwear than yours.
So the firewall between God and mammon has undeniably wreaked a certain amount of personal and aesthetic damage. But overall, it’s effect has been predominantly positive. White musical forms have had much looser definitions of selling-out, but that hasn’t allowed them to dispense with authenticity. On the contrary, the fact that nobody really knows who is real, or why, has resulted in music which is compulsively, and often rather idiotically, conservative. Country music gets slicker and slicker as it fetishizes an eternal rural past,; rock gets older and older as it fetishizes an eternal Baby Boomer moment of youthful rebellion.
There are certainly black musicians who are mired in nostalgia (and yes, I’m talking about you, Wynton.) Overall, though, African-American music is relentlessly forward-looking. Jazz, rock and roll, funk, disco, hip hop…the zeitgeist moves and you stay with it. Keeping it real, when it’s an issue, tends to be about being cool, or tough, or funky, not about being true to the past.
And a big part of the reason for that is, precisely, that for these artists, there is no past. You don’t explore your roots — you rip them off for gimmicks, and jack them for beats. Little Richard used gospel vocal techniques he learned from the amazing Marion Williams, but he couldn’t be Marion Williams, or even really reference her without some dire consequences. For him to look backwards was not to be validated, but to be turned into a pillar of salt.
If Richard had been able to look behind him, it’s doubtful he could have transformed music the way that he did. Similarly, if Destiny’s Child were more invested in their Christianity, they probably couldn’t have embraced the hip hop delivery and serious bitchiness which allowed them to create some of the most ravishing and influential pop music sounds of the last decade. Beyoncé brings the gospel fire on tracks like “Say My Name,” but — like Ray Charles, Aretha, and many others before her — it’s the way she ruthlessly subverts her religion for secular ends which paid dividends, both literal and aesthetic.
To be rootless is to have no fallback position; it’s a dangerous, exciting, and potentially very creative place to be. That’s not to say that every crass commercial move is going to be great art — Michelle Williams’ new album, alas, looks very much like a dud. But it is to suggest that, as has long been the case, if you want to bet on the future, you should place your money with the sell-outs.