When words fail: Alternative R&B, radical codes, and the power of language

Aug 18, 2014

How to Dress Well is one of several artists categorized as Alternative R&B. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

by Ellen Mayer

Music is a universe. It’s huge and it’s constantly shifting. 

Not only that, the experience of music is highly contextual, personal, and sensuous. Consider, then, the daunting task of music writers: To reconcile this huge musical universe with the limited words we have in our lexicon.

Language shifts and expands — but nowhere near quickly enough to encompass music’s constant spasms of growth and change. As a result, the existing language for discussing music often feels insufficient. I’m talking, of course, about musical genres.  

Few words exemplify the twisted disconnect between language and music so aptly as Alternative R&B.” R&B stands for rhythm and blues, a genre invented in the 1950s to replace “race music” as the term for music made by and for African Americans.

At the time, there was no material musical difference between rock and roll and R&B. The distinction was almost purely racial, not musical. Music executives established these terms as marketing categories, used to segment (and segregate) musical audiences. Nevertheless, music writers and listeners quickly accepted the distinction between these two genres as both a musical and racial fact, and we now consider black rock artists a novelty despite overwhelming historical evidence that black people invented the form.

On the other hand, contemporary R&B is not quite so segregated. Music writers regularly use the term to describe music by white artists from Justin Timberlake to How to Dress Well, a solo project from the singer-songwriter Tom Krell.

How to Dress Well’s third album, What Is This Heart, came out in June, but music writers have remarked upon Krell’s R&B influence since his debut in 2011. Often in the next sentence, they would categorize the musician alongside a handful of other artists (Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd) in an exciting new musical movement. Alternative R&B is the broadest and most malleable name for this new sub-genre, though other writers opted for click-bait names like R&Bummer or, most notoriously, PBR&B.

I hate this term. PBR&B reduces music to its ancillary function as a social signifier. It also reduces music writing to mere lifestyle branding. It’s just a little more succinct than simply writing, “this music is for hipsters.”  Or, as Jozen Cummings wrote in the Awl, “It’s a nice way of saying it's R&B that white people like.”

Though it’s less blatantly brand oriented, Alternative R&B similarly implies the “hipster” lifestyle and, by extension, a white audience.

When we use these euphemistic genre lables we are talking around the continued racial implications of the R&B moniker. At the same time, we cease to talk about the music itself.

In March, Pigeons and Planes published a list of the 10 best Alternative R&B songs “out right now.” Of course the list included the first single off How to Dress Well’s new album. It also included Miguel, FKA twigs, Kelela, and Janelle Monae.

The trouble is that these artists have very little in common.

How to Dress Well’s ghostly falsetto bears no resemblance to Miguel’s warmer, lustier vocals. In turn, Miguel’s straightforward pop structure has zero affinity with the otherworldly music of FKA twigs.

Krell has discussed his frustration with the R&B label in many recent interviews, and Ocean rejects the genre entirely, believing that writers only use the term to describe his music because he’s black. Even Eric Harvey, the music critic who coined PBR&B, is quite critical of the genre. He tweeted the term as a joke and regrets its subsequent adoption in the music blog lexicon. (Harvey does a really nice job of summarizing both the flaws and the etymology of his franken-genre from the 1950s to present-day in this article for Pitchfork.)

So why do so many thoughtful music critics continue to use such absurdly inadequate umbrella terms as Alternative R&B?

Writers like Eric Harvey know the genre’s racial history and they also must know that they are lumping together an incredibly diverse range of artists. Harvey notes in his article that few genres actually stand up to scrutiny but, he explains, “They make large amounts of music easier to talk about (and, by extension, sell).”

When it comes to music writing, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing. Our job is to write about music, not around it. All of these thoughtful music critics should know better than to use genre labels as a kind of shorthand and expect — or hope — that the readers are in on the code.

What if readers don’t know better?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the average blog-reader is stupid. Rather, I’m pointing out that words are more powerful than we sometimes let on.

The words we choose have a power of suggestion that can shape how we collectively experience music. As Frank Ocean pointed out in an interview with the Quietus, the term R&B can misdirect his listeners:

I've never read a lyrics sheet, from Marvin Gaye to Usher, that looks anything like the lyrics on “Novacane” or the storytelling on there, and that's because I didn't take that kind of storytelling from R&B. I took it from hip-hop. If you listen to that record and you don't at least give a little bit of the props to hip hop and what came from that, then you're limiting it. And that's why I always say that about the genre thing, because that's what it does. When you say 'it's that', you listen to it in certain way. And you might not necessarily miss it, but it's just inaccurate, and you'll miss a couple of things, contextually.

Ocean is totally right. Though these inadequate words might make music easier to talk about, ultimately they also make it harder to understand.  When we let these words become our shorthand, we stop saying what we mean. If we do that long enough, we might eventually stop knowing what we mean. We might start believing in Alternative R&B’s fabricated affinities because they’re simply convenient. And in doing, so we might shave away all the things that make an artist challenging and strange.

In this internet age, the music writer’s role has evolved into a curatorial position — helping listeners siphon through and make sense of the incredible overflow of music content. Often, writers do so by constantly coining sub-genres as new hybrid musical styles emerge (shoegaze, chillwave, etc).

The result is a kind of linguistic inflation.

Sub-genres are now so plentiful they are almost meaningless and often absurd. I’m not suggesting that any serious music writer must do away with genre labels entirely. I’m not sure that’s even possible. But considering how powerful and potentially harmful they might be, genres certainly should be handled with care, used sparingly, and with clear acknowledgment of their limits and their histories.

I'd also like to suggest an alternative approach to music writing, a craft that can be creative and vital in its own right.

Genres ultimately purport to aggregate artists that are alike. As writer-curators, our job is more exciting — and ultimately more helpful in the massive sea of new music — if we highlight musical unlikeness rather than likeness.

In 2010, when How to Dress Well released his first album, he wasn’t exciting because he sounded like Miguel or The Weeknd. He was exciting because he drew melodic influence from artists like Shai and Bobby Brown and then made something totally unfamiliar and unlike anyone else.

When we surrender to this unlikeness in music, we find ourselves in uncharted territories of sound, to which words have not yet been assigned. This is the point at which music is its most challenging. It’s also where the writer has the greatest chance to shake off limitations of language and make meaning in new ways.

We’re stuck with the words we have, but we can, like the very best musicians, create something new and bright and enlightening with old material.

Ellen Mayer is living the intern life at Chicago Public Radio. In her spare time she listens to lots of good music and thinks hard about its sociopolitical implications. Then sometimes she writes her thoughts down for websites like Pitch. Catch her on Twitter for #millenial musings and loads of hip-hop retweets @ellenrebeccam.

On Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 9:35 AM, Alex Kapelman wrote: Hey Austin, Just posted something written by Ellen Mayer, who's an intern for Curious City, if you're interested in posting it on KBIA's site. It's a semi-longform piece. http://hearpitch.org/post/95092118677/when-words-fail-alternative-r-b-racial-codes-and-the And to make life a tiny bit easier on you, here's the html:

by Ellen Mayer

Music is a universe. It’s huge and it’s constantly shifting. 

Not only that, the experience of music is highly contextual, personal, and sensuous. Consider, then, the daunting task of music writers: To reconcile this huge musical universe with the limited words we have in our lexicon.

Language shifts and expands — but nowhere near quickly enough to encompass music’s constant spasms of growth and change. As a result, the existing language for discussing music often feels insufficient. I’m talking, of course, about musical genres.  

Few words exemplify the twisted disconnect between language and music so aptly as Alternative R&B.” R&B stands for rhythm and blues, a genre invented in the 1950s to replace “race music” as the term for music made by and for African Americans.

At the time, there was no material musical difference between rock and roll and R&B. The distinction was almost purely racial, not musical. Music executives established these terms as marketing categories, used to segment (and segregate) musical audiences. Nevertheless, music writers and listeners quickly accepted the distinction between these two genres as both a musical and racial fact, and we now consider black rock artists a novelty despite overwhelming historical evidence that black people invented the form.

On the other hand, contemporary R&B is not quite so segregated. Music writers regularly use the term to describe music by white artists from Justin Timberlake to How to Dress Well, a solo project from the singer-songwriter Tom Krell.

How to Dress Well’s third album, What Is This Heart, came out in June, but music writers have remarked upon Krell’s R&B influence since his debut in 2011. Often in the next sentence, they would categorize the musician alongside a handful of other artists (Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd) in an exciting new musical movement. Alternative R&B is the broadest and most malleable name for this new sub-genre, though other writers opted for click-bait names like R&Bummer or, most notoriously, PBR&B.

I hate this term. PBR&B reduces music to its ancillary function as a social signifier. It also reduces music writing to mere lifestyle branding. It’s just a little more succinct than simply writing, “this music is for hipsters.”  Or, as Jozen Cummings wrote in the Awl, “It’s a nice way of saying it's R&B that white people like.”

Though it’s less blatantly brand oriented, Alternative R&B similarly implies the “hipster” lifestyle and, by extension, a white audience.

When we use these euphemistic genre lables we are talking around the continued racial implications of the R&B moniker. At the same time, we cease to talk about the music itself.

In March, Pigeons and Planes published a list of the 10 best Alternative R&B songs “out right now.” Of course the list included the first single off How to Dress Well’s new album. It also included Miguel, FKA Twigs, Kelela, and Janelle Monae.

The trouble is that these artists have very little in common.

How to Dress Well’s ghostly falsetto bears no resemblance to Miguel’s warmer, lustier vocals. In turn, Miguel’s straightforward pop structure has zero affinity with the otherworldly music of FKA Twigs.

Krell has discussed his frustration with the R&B label in many recent interviews, and Ocean rejects the genre entirely, believing that writers only use the term to describe his music because he’s black. Even Eric Harvey, the music critic who coined PBR&B, is quite critical of the genre. He tweeted the term as a joke and regrets its subsequent adoption in the music blog lexicon. (Harvey does a really nice job of summarizing both the flaws and the etymology of his franken-genre from the 1950s to present-day in this article for Pitchfork.)

So why do so many thoughtful music critics continue to use such absurdly inadequate umbrella terms as Alternative R&B?

Writers like Eric Harvey know the genre’s racial history and they also must know that they are lumping together an incredibly diverse range of artists. Harvey notes in his article that few genres actually stand up to scrutiny but, he explains, “They make large amounts of music easier to talk about (and, by extension, sell).”

When it comes to music writing, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing. Our job is to write about music, not around it. All of these thoughtful music critics should know better than to use genre labels as a kind of shorthand and expect — or hope — that the readers are in on the code.

What if readers don’t know better?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the average blog-reader is stupid. Rather, I’m pointing out that words are more powerful than we sometimes let on.

The words we choose have a power of suggestion that can shape how we collectively experience music. As Frank Ocean pointed out in an interview with the Quietus, the term R&B can misdirect his listeners:

I've never read a lyrics sheet, from Marvin Gaye to Usher, that looks anything like the lyrics on “Novacane” or the storytelling on there, and that's because I didn't take that kind of storytelling from R&B. I took it from hip-hop. If you listen to that record and you don't at least give a little bit of the props to hip hop and what came from that, then you're limiting it. And that's why I always say that about the genre thing, because that's what it does. When you say 'it's that', you listen to it in certain way. And you might not necessarily miss it, but it's just inaccurate, and you'll miss a couple of things, contextually.

Ocean is totally right. Though these inadequate words might make music easier to talk about, ultimately they also make it harder to understand.  When we let these words become our shorthand, we stop saying what we mean. If we do that long enough, we might eventually stop knowing what we mean. We might start believing in Alternative R&B’s fabricated affinities because they’re simply convenient. And in doing, so we might shave away all the things that make an artist challenging and strange.

In this internet age, the music writer’s role has evolved into a curatorial position — helping listeners siphon through and make sense of the incredible overflow of music content. Often, writers do so by constantly coining sub-genres as new hybrid musical styles emerge (shoegaze, chillwave, etc).

The result is a kind of linguistic inflation.

Sub-genres are now so plentiful they are almost meaningless and often absurd. I’m not suggesting that any serious music writer must do away with genre labels entirely. I’m not sure that’s even possible. But considering how powerful and potentially harmful they might be, genres certainly should be handled with care, used sparingly, and with clear acknowledgment of their limits and their histories.

I'd also like to suggest an alternative approach to music writing, a craft that can be creative and vital in its own right.

Genres ultimately purport to aggregate artists that are alike. As writer-curators, our job is more exciting — and ultimately more helpful in the massive sea of new music — if we highlight musical unlikeness rather than likeness.

In 2010, when How to Dress Well released his first album, he wasn’t exciting because he sounded like Miguel or The Weeknd. He was exciting because he drew melodic influence from artists like Shai and Bobby Brown and then made something totally unfamiliar and unlike anyone else.

When we surrender to this unlikeness in music, we find ourselves in uncharted territories of sound, to which words have not yet been assigned. This is the point at which music is its most challenging. It’s also where the writer has the greatest chance to shake off limitations of language and make meaning in new ways.

We’re stuck with the words we have, but we can, like the very best musicians, create something new and bright and enlightening with old material.

Ellen Mayer is living the intern life at Chicago Public Radio. In her spare time she listens to lots of good music and thinks hard about its sociopolitical implications. Then sometimes she writes her thoughts down for websites like Pitch. Catch her on Twitter for #millenial musings and loads of hip-hop retweets @ellenrebeccam.

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