Someone Racist Like You? Unpacking Stephin Merritt's Comments on Adele Fans

Categories: Commentary, Music

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Photo by Christopher Macsurak, Wikipedia
​Last week, singer Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields created a gossip-blog blip when an interview with LA Weekly revealed his belief that the popularity of Brit vocalist Adele is rooted in a racist fan base. Merritt expressed his general wariness of people who "get excited about British people who sound like American black people."

Rich Juzwiak (of the beloved FourFour and now writing for Gawker) dissected the weaknesses in Merritt's brief argument, acknowledging a history of white artists co-opting black music yet making a distinction between that practice and white women who have been singing soulfully since Whitney Houston changed the pop standard with her gospel-trained voice.

While I agree with Juzwiak on some level, I can see where Merritt is coming from, which is odd because it borders on impossible to flesh out a two-sentence theory that uses this as a rationale: "Basically she sounds like Anita Baker. And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker."

Though Merritt has a checkered past when it comes to racial politics, he brings up a very well-documented phenomenon in American music and pop culture. Despite the colorblind responses he has evoked from blogs -- From Evil Beet Gossip: "Adele is popular because she's an amazing singer with a charming personality who happened to write a beautiful album. That's why people are so excited about her, not because they're a bunch of racists who finally get to hear a nice white lady sing with some soul." -- people tend to forget how we racialize certain types of vocal stylings, even in passing.

Perhaps the labels of "sounding white" and "sounding black" are not as prominently used today (at least in polite company), but the supposedly blanket term "soulful" and it's troubling cousin "blue-eyed soul" are still racially coded. After all, soul music is imbued with racial politics, stemming from black music during times of slavery and Jim Crow, the institutionalized racism of the music industry that allowed for white artists to profit from covers of black artists who were limited to black-only venues and audiences, and the privileged ease of appropriating certain cultural forms in the present day.

Juzwiak's example of Houston changing the pop landscape is an interesting example, considering Houston's physical and vocal "acceptability" among white people that often caused friction between her and some black audiences. Coupled with acceptability is simply our own expectation of what people of certain races are supposed to sound like. The litany of singing competition shows are peppered with offhand comments from judges who tell non-black singers (particularly white or Asian American singers) that they "didn't expect" them to sound soulful just by looking at them.

When a singer defies that racialized expectation it can spark a cultural wave based on novelty. Amy Winehouse's runny eyeliner, beehive, Cockney accent and tabloid worthy personal life were fascinating when compared to traditional images conjured up of demure black girl group singers with whom she closely shared a musical aesthetic. Yet black American frontwoman for The Dap Kings, Sharon Jones, who can outsing and outperform any vocalist 30 years her junior and who was alive and coherent during the heyday of soul, will probably never take over Top 40 radio or Billboard. One can argue that Jones isn't pop (or conversely "exotic") enough for general audiences while someone like Adele certainly has that mainstream sensibility with just a tinge of difference (her everywoman appeal). If that's the case, we're then brought right back to the issue of adapting (some say sanitizing, some say appropriating) a genre deeply rooted in complex racial issues.

Is it just borrowing a growly vocal run, or is it something more? Do our racial expectations of music make general audiences more drawn to a bespectacled, suit-wearing Jewish Mayer Hawthorne more than black artist/producer Raphael Saadiq when they're both putting out throwback soul albums? Do they identify more with Adele's heartbreak anthems than those of Sharon Jones because a young white woman who embraces her normal size is more novel than an older black woman who embraces her age?

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They're important cultural questions to ask, and it's safe to say it's a topic of discussion not posed as articulately as it could have been by Merritt and certainly not developed within the short span of a broad interview. There's so much to mine from his words that focus on white audiences but should be expanded to music fans of color and the nuances of race and music. Do people of color find black soul singers to be more authentic? What about historically beloved white soul singers such as Teena Marie? Perhaps that's a more thoughtful and helpful discussion than generalizing Adele's fanbase as white and racist. As the 2012 Racial Draft trend on Twitter suggests from February, she's got plenty of other fans as well:

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