A Brief History of White Boy Soul
Mayer Hawthorne is a terrible, terrible rapper.
Should you decide to hear "Haircut" drop a quick 16, be forewarned. But the man has pipes. The sharp-suited crooner showed a deep knowledge of black music — especially Stax and Motown soul — on last year's How Do You Do, walking the tightrope between sincerity and pastiche.
Hawthorne pulls it off, and in celebration of the feat, we've outlined a anbridged history of white boy funk and soul.
Mayer Hawthorne is scheduled to perform Friday, July 6, at Comerica Theatre.
1973: You can keep the Average White Band. In 1973, Elton John rode the soul train to hits like "Bennie and the Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." At a time when the rest of pop music was lost in American Bandstand hell, Elton was the anti-ABBA, embracing black rhythms as freely as he broke out in a fucked-up falsetto. That third chorus on "Bennie and the Jets?" Good Christ.
1981: With "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," Hall & Oates made the wait in the dentist's office a little more pleasant. Receptionists nationwide were quickly schooled in these MOR faves' toothy adult-contempo, but their historical impact shan't go unheeded: 1981's Private Eyes washed away the distinctions between white and black music into a winning, grinning blur. Funk and pop were one and the same, as were R&B and New Wave. (Mind you, this was three years before Phil Collins and Phillip Bailey made desegregated magic on "Easy Lover.") Although sung from a male POV, their songs tended to be graceful in broaching topics of relationship. "Maneater" meditated on the modern bachelor's anxiety like no one before or since.
1997: Without Daft Punk, there is no Chromeo or Justice or Basement Jaxx, and the architecture of dance music as we know it crumbles. While 1997's Homework was rougher and more linear than the later, greater Discovery — where the duo realized its illusions of grandeur for the first time — it had the salty bite of vinegar and the kick of pre-disco popular black music. A year later, they outdid themselves with "Music Sounds Better with You," the nearly seven-minute 12-inch that called for togetherness using a lift from Chaka Khan's "Fate."
2006: Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds was a portrait of pop music's polyglot future: '50s teen idolism on top of '70s glam on top of Morris Day on top of French House on top of scat on top of onomatopoeia. Until Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy usurped it two years ago, FS/LS was the benchmark for pop extravagance — ensconced comfortably in the record's lacy, winsome tracks is Timberlake's blue-eyed croon. "What Goes Around . . . Comes Around" and "Until the End of Time" are too heartbroken to exact revenge at the source of their heartbreak. And "My Love" and "Damn Girl" are worn with dapper style. This is, to quote Jay-Z, Sinatra at the opera.
2011: After the woodsy retreat For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon shed his bearded isolation and love of autumn-morning folk for an album writ larger: last year's eponymous Bon Iver. Where For Emma mined the traumas and follies of young love, Bon Iver rejoiced in floaty R&B tracks that thundered like pew-side gospel. For Emma was self-contained and destined to be outgrown, no matter how easy on the ears. Bon Iver turned private healing into a celebration, with songs that march to Phil Collins horns, honeyed synths, and a deep, funky pulse.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.