Thursday, May 14, 2009

Exceptionally Unexceptional: American Pop Culture and the Black Aesthic

No matter what channel you are watching on television it seems that there is some sort of new "American Idol" type of talent show premiering. It has gotten so bad now that even the early morning shows, have talent competitions. Just recently the "TODAY Show" offered viewers a chance to sing with singer/actress, Jennifer Hudson and now they are working on their own "America's Got Talent" auditions.

Similarly, last week Oprah joined in the fun with her own version of "America's Got Talent" calling her show "The World's Got Talent". Joined by American Idol's Simon Cowell, Oprah featured several acts from around the globe culminating with the first American television appearance of Chinese singing sensation Jane Zhang. Zhang has gained international acclaim for her voice. I listened intently to see just what the fuss was about. Before she performed video clips of Zhang singing Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You" were aired where she hit every note. I was impressed somewhat with the range, but honestly I was not blown away with her voice.

Once she did perform one of her own songs to a resounding ovation, Oprah asked Zhang about her influences and she mentioned that Mariah Carey was a big inspiration to her. She recalled a story of hearing the song "Hero" for the first time, which really spoke to her. As I listened to the heart warming story I couldn't help but to think to myself that Zhang was a talented singer, but not the phenom that she was being billed as. She did more mimicry than anything else.

Right after her performance Oprah had a Indian dance team of Suleman Mirza and Madhu Singh, who were trying to create a meeting of Eastern and Western cultures through performance. What it was was, however, was a dead on Michael Jackson impersonation that had some traditional elements of Indian dance.

No need for more examples, but my biggest gripe with these so called talent competitions is that they repackage the black aesthetic largely, the same way that whites have been doing since the nineteenth century in minstrel shows.

What I see from some of this so called "exceptional" talent is mimicry or even reappropriation of the highest order, from a Chinese singer who sounds like a blend of Minne Ripperton/Mariah Carey to a Indian brother who dances so much like the "King of Pop" that he would likely think he was looking in the mirror. Yes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but it takes real "talent" to sing with your own voice. Michael Jackson started out copying James Brown's moves, Prince has borrowed a great deal of his showmanship from Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles in the very beginning of his career was imitating the great balladeers of his era until he sang and wrote from his own spirit.

Among contemporary artists, check out Justin Timberlake, Josh Stone, or even Robin Thicke--if they were African American, they would just be "good singers". Even the so called "blue eyed soul" of the eighties which is personified with Hall and Oates, Simply Red, or Tina Marie (though I know many of us have given her a plaque in the Hall of Soul Music) though heavily influenced by African American music made their mark because they had a "black sound." That does not take away from their work in my view, I'm still a fan of some of their music.

However, Oprah, Simon, Paula Abdul, Entertainment Tonight, and the rest of the plethora of popular culture media outlets, don't repackage something I can see on the streets and churches of Philadelphia, Memphis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, or even in my hometown of St. Louis and tell me that these folks on television "got talent". They may have some, but in my book they are exceptionally UNEXCEPTIONAL.

Just as a parting shot, check out Patti Labelle singing "You Are so Beautiful" with the raspy voice of Joe Cocker (he was the Michael Bolton of the 1980s)...I think this proves my point.


Anonymous said...

I watched this episode of "Oprah" and felt the SAME thing! The phenomenon of capturing America's "talent" is gaining momentum, perhaps because it counters the depression coming from these dreadful economic times--it gives the country something to hold on to. Perhaps.

However, I don't think that your reflection addresses (1)cultural definitions (marginalized/dominant)of "talent" and (2)the responsibility, authority, or agency of Black people over our aesthetic...But first, I have two questions:

-Should I be flattered because the Other(s) looks to and mimics my history to showcase their "talent"?

-Or should I be worried because society praises them for doing so?

I'm anxious to hear(read) your response...

Just a person with an Opinion said...

Stating these talent shows are by any means equivalent to minstrel shows is a stretch. In this case mimicry and mockery are not the same things. So with this as a starting point, I’m having a hard time understanding your gripe as well as what really makes these people unexceptional at this stage.

I do however agree with your viewpoint on talent. One can’t officially embrace the title “talented” until he finds his own voice. These shows are displaying entertainers in their beginning stage. If some of our very own great entertainers have broke grounds imitating those they admire then these shows are onto something. I see it as a measuring system, gauging if you will. Is it a sad account for other cultures to be given the title exceptional for being able to compete or even be compared to our aesthetics? I don’t think it is. It’s a benchmark and a high one at that. Just as some of the artists you have named who are exceptional; now that they are in the genre they are in…as if the talent was coming from a black person…they are just good. Not unexceptional, just good talent wise.

Right now it takes nothing away from us. I will revisit this once I see the other's imitate the likes of Little Wayne. said...

Hey there,

That video of Patti from the archives is just soooo amazing!

Just when I think that I have seen all of Patti's fabulousness.....

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

notice said...

They call us monkeys and ape our style, those crazy kids. You gotta laugh at it, it's so blatant.
I remember noticing the grammy's were really black one year, then the next year very white & blond.
Lauryn Hillarious!

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