THE READING ROOM: A Deep Look into ‘The Meaning of Soul’
What is soul music, and what are its origins? What is the relationship between Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Ann Peebles, Beyoncé, Marvin Gaye, and Janelle Monáe? Is there a logic to soul music that transcends the limitations of genre markers and marketing descriptions? Emily Lordi’s brilliant new book, The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s (Duke), asks these questions, and others, as it illustrates the forces that have shaped soul music over the last 50 years as well as the ways that various artists embody the meaning of soul music through their particular musical styles. One of the beauties of Lordi’s book is her intense listening and exploration of the songs to illustrate the similarities and the differences of soul music over time.
Lordi opens her book with a reflection on Gladys Knight and the Pips, focusing on the song “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” Although the earliest incarnation of the group can be traced to 1952, and though they signed with Motown in 1966, the group’s greatest success came only in the early 1970s. As Lordi points out, “The group’s trajectory registered the historical changes of a people in transition: from the segregated Jim Crow South to the exploitative urban North, from the ambivalent gains of the civil rights movement to the ongoing struggle of Black Power.” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” illustrates both Gladys Knight and the Pips’ weariness and their resilience, and it’s the latter that, for Lordi, characterizes the logic of soul. Lordi observes: “Despite the song’s interracial production (hit makers Barry Goldberg and Gerry Goffin wrote it, and white musicians played the instrumental track), its sound and sentiment are coded as black, due to a mix of racial signifiers: Knight’s textured, church-raised voice; the gospel drive and intensification; the blues-like lyric that seeks solace not in God but in oneself; the Motown polish; and the economical string arrangement typical of upwardly mobile soul — lush enough to appreciate, but not to luxuriate in. Here, struggle yields black resilience. This is the logic of soul. That logic shaped a cultural sensibility that was bigger than soul music but that was especially audible in the music due to the commentary that shaped its social life.”
The most consistent feature of soul discourse, writes Lordi, is its “recuperative logic, whereby suffering is made to pay off. People who had soul believed in — had to believe in — the value of pain, and they showed how it could be alchemized into artistic expressions of deep feeling. Both the belief and its creative expression secured one’s place in a community of other black people who understood that suffering had meaning and who lived that understanding through a life-affirming style. What the discourse of soul gave people, then, was an assurance that even their most chilling experiences of grief did not isolate them but rather connected them: with their contemporaries, to be sure, but also with a procession of ancestors whose personal griefs were unknowable but whose historical traumas were rendered increasingly present through national discourse about slavery.”
Listening deeply to the music of various artists and focusing on musical practices, Lordi vividly illustrates many of the moments in soul music in which this logic is enacted. She devotes chapters to “transformative cover versions of popular songs; vocal ad-libs and falsetto singing; and false endings that trick listeners into thinking a performance is over. While these practices did not all begin with, and are certainly not exclusive to, soul music, they did enact with particular clarity the logic of overcoming that was politicized and racialized in the soul era.”
For example, in her chapter on ad-libs, Lordi focuses on the ways that Aretha Franklin “creates erotic sociality even when she is not singing about love or sex, because her ad-libs themselves often generate a pleasurable tension that her fans experience together. We might call this an erotics of friendship — or, in church parlance, of ‘fellowship.’ We hear this dynamic on Franklin’s ‘cross-back-over’ album Amazing Grace.”
In her chapter on falsetto singing, Lordi observes that Minnie Riperton brings such a sound to center stage. Perhaps Riperton’s most familiar song, on which her falsetto soars, was “Lovin’ You” (1975), though she also sang with the Chicago soul group The Rotary Connection. Lordi describes Riperton as the most “most dramatic pop falsettist of her era.” Riperton could “use her falsetto in myriad ways: to generate atmospheric effects and adornment (a function akin to that of Hayes’s singers); to create dialogue with instruments as various as a string section (“Les Fleur”), electric guitar (“Reasons”), and harmonica (“Our Lives”); to bring a seductive or aspirational longing to her lyrics; and to amplify or liquidate words. In all cases, her falsetto marked a refusal to shout and an embrace of an expansive, often buoyant interior life for which Riperton sought both musical and social space. … Through her falsetto, as well as her often self-composed lyrics, Riperton contributed to these feminist efforts [of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, for example] to make more space for black women’s interiority, both its pleasures and demands.”
Lordi’s vibrant writing, her close listening, and her provocative questions challenge our conventional notions of soul and encourage us to listen carefully to familiar songs in fresh ways. The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s is essential reading for anyone interested in history of soul music and in the deep ways that culture and music shape each other. It’s not too much to say that Lordi’s book is one of the best of the year, for it helps us to think deeply about music and its reflections of society and its impact on society.