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Social Studies

Stamp of Approval

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 2/14/2007

You know what is tickling me to no end? The wholesale acceptance by black radio of Robin Thicke and his smooth-ass song "Lost Without You." I mean, this cat is everywhere. BET, VH1 Soul, Steve Harvey's morning show--everywhere. The reason it's so funny is because it just seems completely spontaneous. It's like black folks all had a meeting and said we were going to give Robin Thicke "The Tap." And by The Tap, I mean it looks like the young singer has already gotten the coveted Teena Marie Stamp from the black audience. What's that? Well, I've found that, while most modern white musicians' various and sundry efforts are just lumped under "rock," black listeners tend to grade certain other white music in two distinct ways, with the very rare third category deserving of The Tap.

Yes, yes, I understand that terms like "white music," "black music," and "black listeners" imply sweeping generalizations based on stereotype and assumption, and that the use of these terms reflects a generally lazy rhetoric. I get it. Hell, I've written about it. But I also only get 800 words to do this, so cut me some slack. You know what I mean. This is neither scientific nor all encompassing; this is based on what I've observed in my own travels. So let's just pretend I'm over here listening to the unique and varied black music of Bad Brains and Chocolate Genius while I'm writing this and keep it moving. Now, where was I?

So, yeah, you got your two levels of stamps that black listeners give out to most white artists, with the first being the Pat Boone/Elvis Stamp. The former half of the category refers to white artists who, as the name implies, perform a bad, watered-down version of black music and whose only real attribute is that, well, they're white, so the record companies think (often correctly) white people will support them. And, honestly, most white listeners eventually tend to be a little embarrassed by these artists--more recent examples include Michael Bolton and Vanilla Ice. Then, of course, there's the Elvis Stamp, which almost needs no explanation. As with the Pat Boone Stamp, black listeners tend to look at these artists with some disdain because we feel that a large part of their success with a black style of music is, again, linked to their whiteness. What makes this disdain a little frustrating is that, like Elvis, these folks are actually pretty talented, and outside the political context, you want to like them because good music is good music. This is the segment of the presentation where I show slides of Eminem and Justin Timberlake.

The funny thing about the James Taylor Stamp is it's the exact opposite of the Pat Boone/Elvis Stamp. If you get the James Taylor Stamp, there's nothing that R&B-ish at all about you and, outside of a couple of blips here and there, you aren't played on black radio, yet your albums end up on the record shelves of a fair number of black folks. Taylor, the Police, Steely Dan, Queen--these are all white musicians who, through some weird American pop-cultural viral phenomenon, have this crossover appeal. It's kind of like how everyone, regardless of color, knows the words to "The Gambler." You know who's gotten the crazy James Taylor Stamp here lately? John Mayer. It's hilarious how many people I know who rock some John Mayer like he's Maxwell or something.

Which leaves us with the coveted Teena Marie Stamp. If black people give you Teena Marie status, you might as well be black. In fact, there was a meeting in about 1983 where black America just adopted Teena Marie. The only other white act I can think of that gets even close to the black love that Teena Marie gets is Hall and Oates--maaaaybe Michael McDonald. And while, technically, Paul Wall is white, we've claimed him to the point to which he's more scared of the police than I am. (OK . . . not really.)

Obviously, you can do alright without this particular stamp of approval--I'm pretty sure Timberlake makes out OK--but, like anything else, if you want it, you want it. That damn Joss Stone has been pleading her case for years now, and, with one song, Robin Thicke has sung his way into black America's heart. So, here's to young Robin. Have a seat, have a sandwich, and let me show you the secret grip!

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