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Napster University: Blue-Eyed Soul 101

by Rachel Devitt

Napster University: Blue-Eyed Soul 101


For the entire month of September, Napster is offering our Music 101 course, a 30-day deep dive into everything from early jazz to the rise of hip-hop to the hottest new global sensations. Each day we'll provide you with a fascinating new listening experience and a quick education on the origins and significance of a different musical genre, subgenre, scene, trend or fad.

All music genres are, frankly, tenuously defined at best, subject to the push and pull of era, locale, industry interests, fan movements and the individual listener's opinion. And many (if not most) genres are, at least partially, racially defined: The very concept of genre in pop music has its roots in the "race records" of early industry demographics. But blue-eyed soul perhaps best embodies those wiggly, wily elements of the semantic gatekeeper we call genre. Arguably, there are no aesthetic qualifications that set it apart from plain old soul. Ostensibly, it's just soul music performed by white people -- across time and various subgenres, from early R&B to Southern soul, early-'90s neo-soul to this decade's retro-soul.

But its lack of true definition doesn't mean blue-eyed soul isn't worth considering as a genre. For one, exploring the music of these artists reminds us that soul music was invented by and continues to be the provenance of African American artists: Soul music is steeped in the struggles, the oppression (and fierce responses to oppression), the particular blues of black people in the United States (and to some degree, abroad). So when a white artist makes soul music, it is different, removed from the sociocultural contexts that have traditionally given soul its soul.

And those sociocultural differences do produce some sonic differences, as well: Dusty Springfield, for instance, may have gone to Tennessee to immerse herself in Southern soul and record Dusty in Memphis, but even "Son of a Preacher Man" still bears the featherweight mark of her roots as a British folk and girl-group-style pop singer. George Michael's blue-eyed soul is layered with elements of his synth-pop stardom and his artistic interests in torch songs and jazz. On the other hand, blue-eyed soul is also home to artists like The Righteous Brothers and Teena Marie, whose mythologies include many stories about audiences and industry types being surprised to learn they were white.

It's also crucial to remember that American pop music history is, in no small part, a history of white artists taking up and taking over musical styles that originated in African American culture and getting much more commercial reward for their efforts. And pulling off a contemporary R&B sound or incorporating bits of vintage soul can lend serious musical authenticity to white pop stars who might want to distance themselves from, say, a boy band past (looking at you, Mr. Timberlake) or a familial association with cheesy white-bread sitcoms (hi, Robin Thicke). The same kinds of crossovers aren't always available to black artists, who are often pigeonholed into "urban" genres.

So perhaps, rather than an exploration of the particular sonic and stylistic elements of a very specifically codified genre, it's best to think of this sampling of blue-eyed soul as a kind of social experiment. We can listen to the records below and really think about their relationship to the music being made by black artists of the same era, their place in the larger world of soul music and their role in the overarching history of pop. And if that starts to prove taxing, well, these are pretty great albums on their own, too.

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