“. . . So a product of Rhythm and Blues and Motown, of Los Angeles, glitter and his own childlike innocence sold 9 million records. Off the Wall was a masterpiece and it was a natural crossover. Yet, with a subtlety few noticed at the time, top-forty radio, CBS and Michael Jackson himself began describing the singer as a universal artist, a pop performer. That ethnic stuff wasn’t necessary, and in the eyes of production directors, promotion executives and the artist, it was self defeating. Jackson’s sales were so remarkable that he’d never have to cross over again . . . It was economic integration. It was the Black American dream.”−george (I988, p.l68)
How does George’s depiction of the Black American dream impact black reality, particularly in the eyes of today’s black youth? How do they feel as they watch their musical culture become a viable part of mainstream popular culture through adaptation, modification, and acculturation? Although crossing over has been widely discussed in popular music research,1 there has been no research that specifically focuses on black youth’s perceptions of crossing over.2
Historically, black musical style has always been a significant element of American popular music. Colonial society’s favorite social entertainment was music and dancing with musicians of that period coming from all groups and classes.
(Southern 26) The market value of slaves with musical talent increased because black musicians often provided music for dance gatherings. On special occasions, such as weddings and funerals, slaves were sometimes allowed to sing spirituals with their masters. (106-107)
The mid-nineteenth century for Black Americans was an important period of transition from slavery to freedom. As the anti-slavery movement took hold of the country anti-slavery songs were sung by black and white supporters. After the Civil War, true black minstrels evolved, joining the troupes of white men who covered their faces in burnt cork and sang in an exaggerated black style. Audiences, black and white enjoyed the black caricatures, comic patter-songs and stylized dancers. (259-269) A century later, the importance of black styles to the American pop mainstream continued unabated. The Cold War period, (from the Korean War to the end of Eisenhower’s first term, saw a shift in jazz style from bebop to cool. (Kofsky 30) Cool jazz became popular in it’s efforts to “whiten” the music by taking out elements of its black roots. This was said to make the music more “legitimate” and respectable to white middle class audiences. (33)
The rise in crossover listening has also been attributed to the change in American living patterns after World War II. (Hamm 407-408) As large numbers of rural blacks migrated North to find work, they developed into a concentrated urban market. Covers of black rhythm and blues recordings by white artists like Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles continued the tradition of musical acculturation in the United States.
During the early 50’s, the music industry began to recognize the crossover trend and exploit it. (Kamin 162) By 1955, there were more than 400 radio stations across the country programming variable amounts of black music and Billboard had added an R & B play list to its sales and juke box charts. (152)
“Rock and Roll” as a new label for “Rhythm and Blues” is probably one of the most well known instances of crossover. Unable to break the negative connection between “Rhythm and Blues” and African-Americans, disc jockey Alan Freed changed the label and the rest is history. (Redd 32) In the 1960s, the “Motown Sound”also fueled the powerful evolution of black crossover music. Berry Gordy calculated very well the popularity of a non-threatening black sound in the middle of the civil rights era reaching for success, rather than black success. (Perry 64)
Probably one of the most important crossover planning efforts came in a 1972 study called “The Harvard Report.”3 This study, conducted in Boston by the Harvard University Business School, helped record companies to institutionalize crossing over for black music. Nelson George writes that the 53-page document presented an overview of the historical development of black music, analyzed the soul share of the recording industry, including independent record companies, discussed the internal dynamics of crossover records from soul stations to top 40, and proposed a plan of action for increased revenue (see “The Death of Rhythm and Blues” 135). Today, mega pop-crossover stars like MC Hammer, Kid and Play, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson continue the legacy of making black musical style an important component of mainstream musical entertainment.
The pop-crossover black music phenomenon is, therefore, a distinct and integral part of the popular music scene and the creation of such music is a complicated process. There is, of course, no guarantee that music will cross over, but it seems that if specific elements are included and if it is promoted in a specific way the potential for pop-crossover success is high. Perry notes the many significant changes in black music style in the United States suggesting that these changes (hip hop styles and rhythms, white rock, the advent of new technology and popular radio and video formats) ultimately means greater access to the mainstream by black artists.(55)
Contemporary radio formats serve as major promoters of pop-crossover music, as well. Disc Jockeys represent a human connection between the artist and audience. Research has shown that the disc jockey’s acceptance and promotion of a song is a pivotal point for the audience’s enjoyment and ultimate acceptance and hearing favorite songs on the radio can also improve popularity and crossover potential.4
The recent explosion of music videos is still another significant factor in today’s pop-crossover market. Many studies have proven the tremendous crossover appeal of music videos.5 According to Sonja Peterson-Lewis and Shirley Chennault many black music videos today are using mixed casts and rock star associations to specifically appeal to crossover audiences (111-112).
Black music and experience have shaped mainstream popular music in many ways through crossover dissemination. This ethnographic study examines the issue of crossing over in relation to the perceptions of a culturally and economically specific sample; low-income black youth. It explores their understanding of three specific crossover arenas within the commercialized music industry. First, black and white artists changing their image and sound to appeal to different musical audiences. Second, the crossing over from sacred to secular within the gospel music genre. Third, the use of black popular music in commercials and films to crossover between specific media.
This paper evolved from a three-year ethnographic study of musical experience within black adolescent culture. The study was conducted with the Upward Bound/JTPA program at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas between June 1986 and December 1989. The sample consisted of 54 black junior high and high school teens participating in a series of activities related to issues in music. The sample was almost evenly divided by gender with 48.7% male and 51.3% female. The responses presented in this paper are taken from a combination of research actitivities: personal interviews, open-ended worksheets, and group discussions with these youth.
In an effort to better understand the pop-crossover movement in relation to today’s black cultural experience, this study explores the ideas of critics and scholars in relation to the perceptions of these black youth. This research serves as a necessary addition to our information about musical perceptions and experience among youth. It provides a realistic picture of the impact of the pop-crossover phenomenon moving beyond the assertions and interpretations of critics and scholars to speaking directly to the audience’s perceptions.
What does pop-crossover mean to these kids? Is crossing over for black and white artists good or bad, in their opinion? Why? What are some of the ways they recognize that black or white artists are crossing over? To what extent are black artists allowed to change their image and sound? How do these youth feel about black gospel music crossing from the sacred to secular arena? Finally, how do they perceive the efforts of other media products like commercials and films using black popular music to cross over?
PERCEPTIONS OF POP-CROSSOVER MUSIC
As many black artists strive to cross over an anti-crossover controversy grows. It was in the 1960’s that the commercialization of black music as pop crossover music was first called “selling out” (Harron 179). Various critics have blasted the effort. Halper expressed concern that the term “crossover” itself has come to represent a stigma for black music (“Radio” BM-5). She explains that the concept implies inferiority, suggesting that the black artist is not acceptable unless his or her music is accepted by white audiences (“Crossover” 10). Negative attitudes about music that is “too black” are discussed by Kirby because he feels many radio stations accept pop-crossover music because it is diluted of much of its black flavor (BM-3). And, according to Lockwood the business of popular music is losing its soul because of too much formula and too little conviction (9).
There is also concern from black artists themselves over the growing movement to cross over at any price, it seems. Frankie Beverly, the lead singer with Maze, feels there is too much emphasis placed on crossing over. He believes his music, as a music from the heart, can move people to a greater extent (Ivory 53). Mtume equates “crossing over” with “crossing out” because it often means a separation from the black community. He illustrates his point with the example of black artists who commit “plastic perjury” (surgery) calling it a symbol of self-hate (“Mtume” 37). Popular, hard core rapper Ice T says, crossing over is “a money thing.” He adds that a lot of black artists change their whole rap from one album to the next because they think they have to come up with another image to sell records (Quick 57). Chuck D, of the hard-core rap group Public Enemy, discussed crossing over from te opposite perspective. He suggested that white rappers could succeed in crossing over to black audiences if they are real about what they do and who they are, rather than faking and fronting (Dery 93).
Forty-one participants completed open-ended worksheets concerning their perceptions of pop-crossover music. Almost half of these youth (17 or 41.5%) did not recognize black music crossing over as a separate component from the creation of popular music. For example, Ardell couldn’t define pop-crossover music, he said: “It’s all good music” and James agreed adding, “Pop music is all the same.” Three primary categories evolved from the 24 respondents that did recognize a difference. First, they described the mixing of music and stylistic variations (11 or 26.8%). Second, the artistic, technical and production changes that take place within the music was considered important (8 or 19.5%). Third, the conscious effort made by black artists to reach more diverse audiences and the audience enjoyment were cited (5 or 12.2%).
Only a couple of these respondents (2 or 5.3%) considered crossing over a bad move for black artists. Dwane felt that the artists would lose their identity and forget their community, and Tyrone added, “Such a move would take the blackness out of the music.” Many participants thought crossing over was a good move (15 or 39.5%). For example, Mikell said, “Crossing over would help the artists to make more money,” and all of the participants, including Mikell, saw making more money as a good thing. Shanna expressed dominant attitude among the group, “Pop-crossover music gets blacks noticed for the good things they can do, rather than the bad.” A majority believed that crossing over actually produces mixed results (21 or 55.3%). For instance, Tishana felt that the artist would expand (musically), but still lose his or her culture. Terry was supportive of the financial success, but concerned because “The artist’s image and sound would change.”
There is a mature understanding among this group when it comes to pop-crossover music. They recognize that crossing over means changes for black and white artists. On the worksheet, the most significant changes cited were changes in musical style (16 or 39%), the artist’s image (8 or 19.5%), and the mixing of races in videos and songs (6 or 14.6%). For example, Kevin wrote, “Black artists crossover most often by changing their lyrics and sound,” while Cassandra said that she’s noticed that many black artists are putting white people in their videos to get them to cross over.
Although this group basically supported pop-crossover efforts they also indicated that there is a limit to their acceptance of such efforts. In another group discussion with 21 respondents, this limit was discussed in relation to the amount of promotion a song can receive. Too much radio airplay can take a record over its limit and a popular song can quickly become unpopular. One example was the popular song, Head to Toe, by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. Tamika said, “They (friends or media) played it everyday and it didn’t sound that good,” Sanny agreed saying, “It was played too much on the radio,” and Lee felt that Head to Toe and other pop songs all sound the same and are played to death.
Evidence of limits placed on their acceptance came up in a couple of personal interviews, as well. Messages in rap songs raised questions, especially where well known crossover rap artist, Hammer is concerned. Terri felt messages were important. She said, “Hammer’s music is soft and his messages corny.” Also discussing Hammer’s crossover style, Rana explained, “Hammer’s messages are not very powerful, they’re more like reflections.”
Crossing over from the opposite perspective was also addressed in this study. On a worksheet completed by 45 participants perceptions of the Beastie Boys, the first popular white rap group to cross over were examined. Some felt the group rapped allright and should be allowed to produce rap music (9 or 20%). For example, Elaine said, “Artists should be allowed to just be artists,” Nicole suggested that the group should be able to rap if they want to, and Mumba added, “The fact that they are white doesn’t bother me.” Most participants had mixed responses about the Beastie Boys as rappers (17 or 37.7%). Sanny said, “It’s okay, but they shouldn’t take it for granted”and Andre wrote, “They’re good, but they will make people jealous.” Other participants did not like the idea (12 or 26.6%). When discussing why she did not support their music, Tishana explained, “They can’t be black no matter how much they try.” Terry felt, “The image they projected in their songs was not a good one, white or black,” and James added, “The group is not real because they have no real experience.”
PERCEPTIONS OF A POP-CROSSOVER LEGEND
As a pop-crossover phenomenon Michael Jackson’s accomplishments are legendary. His Thriller album, which is now in the Guinness Book of World Records, sold more than thirty million copies. The white, sequined, left hand glove was idolized by fans all over the world. And his “Victory Tour” was one of the most controversial and financially successful in history (Cocks 54).
Jackson cuts across all boundaries of taste, style, and color. According to Cocks, the spirit of his music is the motor of pop and his message says soul is for sharing, not segregating (54). Grizzuti-Harrison believes Michael’s success is partly because of his unthreatening image. She believes that the essence of his appeal is that he’s all things to all people (142). Jackson’s style reflects contrasting messages. He is innocent and decadent; brilliant and naive; exciting and shy; young and experienced; representing fantasy and reality. Many critics feel he is trying to escape his ethnic heritage by changing his looks. They attribute his actions to confused identity, a loss of reality and incompetence.6
Although Jackson was loved and admired by many of these respondents, the general consensus in a group discussion consisting of 43 students was that he has taken his personal changes to an unacceptable extreme (39 or 86.7%). The major cause of concern seemed to be his androgynous image. It was evident that his unorthodox changes were not readily accepted by this sample. Dwane explained, “Michael Jackson is losing his black identity and heritage by changing his nose, lightening his skin, and wearing make up.” In other words, Jackson’s musical changes were not at issue, it was his personal changes that were problematic for these kids. Most participants agreed that men looking like women or women looking like men was not a good thing (26 or 65.1%). Tishana said, “It is a bad trend and people should be what God made them.” Sean suggested, “An artist like Jackson is a role model and he must have a positive image for kids to look up to.” Finally, Natasha added, “If God wanted it that way he would have did it like that.”
PERCEPTIONS OF POP CROSSOVER GOSPEL MUSIC
It was the emergence of the successful 1968 recording of Oh Happy Day by the Edwin Hawkins Singers on the top ten pop charts that lit the way for record companies to look seriously at pop-crossover gospel music. (Maultsby 20) In a black cultural context, Bumim defines gospel music as being governed by an underlying religious or spiritual intent. She says it is only when the religious dimension of gospel is lost or negated that the real meaning and significance of the music is lost. (60) If the definition of pop-crossover gospel indeed includes spiritual intent, Curtis May field could be cited as one of the first pop-crossover gospel successes. According to Garofalo many of Mayfield’s most popular hits, such as Keep on Pushing, Amen, People get Ready, We’re a Winner, and Choice of Colors are spiritually oriented cautiously moving from a sacred to secular audience. (94)
As black gospel artists create religious music with specific contemporary sounds, pop-crossover gospel is becoming big business. Maultsby discusses the commercialization of black gospel as exploitation. She argues that the music industry recognized the economic potential of gospel and explored strategies to market it to cross-cultural and non-Christian audiences. (23) Despite much criticism, various gospel singers (i.e. Clara Ward, Delia Reese, and the Dixie Hummingbirds) performed in night clubs and theaters. Gospel night clubs emerged such as “Sweet Chariot” in Manhattan in 1963. (Maultsby 23-24)
A major problem in crossing over from sacred to secular as cited by Dinwiddie is how the record companies often use the same formula marketing strategies for religious songs as for the secular product. (17) He expresses concern that the audience may become confused between spiritual music used for ministry or for entertainment and between the musical experience as physical pleasure or spiritual blessings. (18) One prominent example illustrated by George was how A and M Records specifically focused several of their pop crossover gospel efforts on the dance market and their first hit for Tramaine Hawkins, Fall Down Spirit of Love, was actually promoted and played in nightclubs. (“Inspirational” 57)
To explore the perceptions of this sample concerning pop-gospel music, 42 students watched Al Green’s popular gospel video, Everything is Going to be Alright, answering worksheet questions and discussing their perceptions. There was a split on the issue of whether or not pop-crossover gospel is sinful; some of the kids said yes (10 or 23.8%), but others said no (15 or 35.7%). According to Margret and Sonja, “God’s music is a music of the church and should not be mixed with other musics.” On the other hand, many thought it was acceptable. Letisha wrote, “You’re suppose to serve the Lord the way you want as long as it’s real” and Mickey explained, “Pop gospel music is a way to get younger generations to listen to the music.”
A majority of the group thought that dancing to pop-gospel music was acceptable. (26 or 81.2%) Mumba explained, “Dancing shows spirit and rejoicing,” while Kevin felt, “It is okay as long as you’re lifting the name of the Lord.” Elaine added, “Dancing can be found in church and the bible.” However, when asked if pop crossover gospel should be played in a nightclub environment the group split again. Almost half said no (18 or 42%), and the other half said yes (20 or 47.6%). Mikell felt, “The meaning of the song is the same no matter where it is played,” while Nicole and Nishone agreed that such an environment was inappropriate and disrespectful to the Lord. Finally, Raquel asked a very pertinent question that seemed to put the issue in perspective for the group, “If he (God) is everywhere, why can’t his music be?”
The acceptable nature of pop-gospel music can be connected to how the student’s family views religion. Most of that session’s participants said that their families were only somewhat religious (21 or 46.6%), many said their families were very religious (19 or 42.2%) and only one (2.2%) felt her family was not religious at all. Most of the respondents reported that their perceptions about dancing to pop-gospel and whether pop-gospel should be played in nightclub environments would correspond with their parents beliefs (26 or 61.9%).
PERCEPTIONS OF PROMOTIONAL CROSSOVER USE
If the record company’s role is to sell a music product, then popular music as a part of other media products represents brilliant business savvy. Black Americans comprise over 200 billion dollars in spending revenue today (Dates 421). Dates says that with the belief that music is a universal language companies began to use black popular music to sell products and as a result, the music in many commercials has become specifically black oriented. Black music is often used in the background when there are no blacks in the commercial. For example Chevrolets use of several Motown hits, the Pointer Sisters singing Jump for a Bounce commercial and the Platters favorite Only You matched with Amorall Wax (438). The Artists image has also proven successful with his or her music such as Michael Jackson and Ray Charles for Pepsi and the rap group Kris Kross for Sprite (437). The six commercials cited most often on the promotional worksheet by participants were Coke (24 or 22%), Pepsi 22 or 20.1%), McDonald’s (15or 13.8%), Wendy’s 12 or ll%), Burger King 6 or 5.5%), and the California Raisins (6 or 5.5%).
What is the impact of black popular music, as part of the commercial, upon the audience’s reaction? To explore this question, a group of 42 participants viewed the California Raisins commercial on video, and listened to a cassette of Marvin Gaye’s 1968 version of the song, I Heard it Through the Grapevine. When the respondents were asked to discuss which version they liked best and why, everybody chose the California Raisins commercial as their favorite. Despite the fact that there was very little difference between the two songs (except for the commercial aspect), many of the group said that the new version (the Raisin’s version) was better (23 or 54.8%). Raquel noted, “The commercial version sounded better and had more energy.” Sonja thought the beat was faster, while Simone said the beat was slower. It was Sanny who finally recognized that the best part of the song was the commercial and the group agreed wholeheartedly.
The background music in film creates a specific mood, provides a corresponding rhythm, interacts in various ways with visual editing, and provides cues to link that music to other cultural texts (Bums and Thompson 11). By providing a foundation of black popular music that interacts with the editing of visual images the cross over effort serves as a cue to link specific black cultural texts. Black pop-crossover music as part of popular film, therefore, enables the movie to connect to these youth. On another worksheet the respondents easily named three movies which used pop music to help them sell. Not surprisingly, the top three cited most often were those movies with musical storylines: Purple Rain (16 or 16.7%), Under the Cherry Moon (9 or 9.4%), Krush Groove (9 or 9.4), Beverly Hills Cop I (8 or 8.3%)and Beverly Hills CopII (5 or 5.2%), and Soul Man (7 or 7.3%).
In a group discussion that followed, the respondents were asked to explain why many of today’s commercials and movies were using current black popular music and black oldies. Most understood that these kinds of music would help to sell the product (33 or 78.6%). Dwane suggested that such songs could make the product more popular. Simone believed, “The popular feelings for the song could be transfered to the film or commercial” and Kevin agreed adding, “The song was already popular so it could attract more attention for the commercial or film.”
While advertising was seen as important for selling products, the majority of the group also indicated that advertising was limited in its ability to influence their purchasing habits (27 or 64.3%). Andre explained, “If I want it I’ll buy it.” Nicole said, “It’s not the music that counts for me to buy something.” And according to Elaine, “The product might not be a good one so I’d have to try it regardless.”
The group perceived crossing over as definitely linked to success. They acknowledged the need and accepted the fact that changes must occur to accomplish such a goal. The style and content of black pop-crossover music illustrates an adaptive approach to the accepted mainstream norm, yet also depicts the growing acceptance of black musical style and experience in popular culture.
White explains how adolescents strive to form identities and often question authority. Peer groups and friends become important entities of positive support, and as a common strength, music enables them to relate feelings, ideas, and attitudes (67-68). Pop-crossover music represents a crucial component of the self-defined world of the urban black adolescent. For these youth the use of pop-crossover music and style represents an adaptation toward more traditional values of societal status and success.
Black music, during the lifetime of this generation, has always crossed over, to some extent. But today, the line between black and white music is obviously blurred as more artists strive to cross over musical styles and more listeners enjoy a wider variety of musics. It is also obvious that the historical evolution of black music, in this country, involves a reciprocal acculturation process. In many ways, it is reflective this country, involves a reciprocal acculturation process. In many ways, it is reflective of the integrated and dualistic black identity in America. Black pop-crossover music has woven its way into mainstream acceptance through a combination of distinction and adaptation. But what does that mean for the artist and the musical style?
A recent column by Smith discussed Hammer’s decreasing popularity among his audience. He said Hammer’s “Too Legit World Tour” was a disaster as ticket sales were down, fans walked out, and some audience members even heckled him (73). It is also rumored that Hammer lost many of his fans after touring with white rapper Vanilla Ice who apparently exaggerated his background to fit into the image of a true rapper from the “hood” (Small 181-182). A music video by hard core rapper Ice Cube called, Be True to the Game, includes an image that resembles Hammer. Ice Cube refers to that image as a “sell out.” These examples of Hammer’s loss of popularity supports, to some extent, the limits afforded pop-crossover artists by their fans.
Such was also the case with Michael Jackson. His music is enjoyed by many, but his extreme physical changes and androgynous image are often rejected. Wolff suggests that black stars such as, Prince, Little Richard, and Michael Jackson have traditionally used freakishness to transcend and disguise racial barriers and crossover (728). While these kinds of images may entice other listeners, they are not the images that garner popular acceptance among this specific sample.
On the other hand, it was once assumed that pop-crossover artists who are accepted must reflect a normative image including an acceptable dress code, music that maintains a specific popular style or sound, and lyrical content that is understood by a diverse population. Yet hard-core rappers like Public Enemy and NWA are changing the rules as they pick up a more diverse following. According to the Senior Vice-President of Black Music at Columbia Records, Ruben Rodriguez, Public Enemy’s crossover success is unbelievable. Their album, Fear of a Black Planet, went platinum in one week, selling across the board to all demographics and nationalities (Dery 84). Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy explains that the group’s crossover success, despite no specific efforts to change their musical style or message, is a product of the rebellious nature of the music. He says even though black and white adults don’t seem to have anything in common, black and white kids do: the music (Goldman 46).
The commercialization of black gospel music seems to be less of an issue for many of these youth than for the critics and scholars. Their split responses to questions such as, “Is the music sinful?” and “Should the music be played in nightclubs?” is obviously relevant to the level of traditional religious background among their families. As black gospel musical acculturation continues to evolve it is an area that bears watching closely.
It is also interesting that the California Raisins commercial brought evidence of the power that promotional symbols do indeed have in expanding the music market in the eyes of these youth. Since both versions of I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” were musically very similar, the link to a popular visual element like the California Raisins created only the illusion of difference. The perceptions involved illusive changes and the California Raisins commercial was seen as a “better” version. This suggests an interesting link between visual stimulation, and popular music, that warrants further investigation.
As favorite movie themes, catchy commercial slogans, sacred or secular style, the primary sound on radio, and the fiber of music videos, black music continues to evolve. It is impossible to define in specific terms the black pop-crossover phenomenon because it does not remain constant. The popularity of styles, lyrics, and artists are continuously adapted to more effectively translate into pop-crossover sales. However, the perceptions of the black pop-crossover phenomenon explored in this study can be used to better understand the intricacies of music as cultural and social experience. While many critics have cited negative responses to pop-crossover efforts, the youth in this sample understand the need to cross over as a way toward financial success and mainstream status. They respect and admire those artists who can cross over gracefully, but there is a limit to their loyalty and support. This generation of black youth has been raised with black pop-crossover music as a cultural icon, therefore, crossing over is not only accepted, but in many cases, expected.