Thursday, June 3, 2010


From over at

Is America's 'Race Music' Past Hurting Janelle Monae?
How a segregated music industry makes it almost impossible for genre-busting musical talent to succeed.

By: Latoya Peterson

Kitschy, socially conscious singer and songwriter Janelle Monae has all the tools for a successful debut music career--interesting and dynamic production, a melodic singing voice, an interesting look, a new dance--and one of hip-hop's heavy hitters (Big Boi, of Outkast fame) as her mentor and co-collaborator. So why hasn't her new single torn up the airwaves? Is it because the world isn't ready for Monae's tuxedoed swagger and retro-meets-R&B supersonic sound? Or is it the music industry's stubborn adherence to narrowly defined genres, coupled with monopolization of the airwaves?
As an independent artist, Janelle Monae's fresh sound may actually be her downfall. Since her music crosses conventions, a logical conclusion would be that the Atlanta-based singer/songwriter has a broad appeal. Unfortunately, thanks to a system where music is market tested and distilled down to appeal to just one demographic, ''innovating'' means ''liability.'' Our current state of musical affairs stems from America's racial past.

Before euphemisms like ''urban'' took hold, music was strictly divided among racial lines--black music for black audiences, white music for white audiences. These boundaries began eroding in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as music consumers would twist the radio dials in search of their favorite sound. However, as racial boundaries fell, new barriers sprang into place. The music business began tightening its model for ''success.'' Instead of allowing artists to organically flourish from record to record, the industry started favoring bands that would churn out hits. And musical artistry has suffered for it.

In The Hip Hop Wars, scholar Tricia Rose discusses the commercialization of music, and the influence that consolidation has had on playlists, noting, ''Commercially established major-label acts, because of their visibility and notoriety, are easily packaged for a national audience and easily transportable across regions. Thus they dominate their genre specific playlists across the country'' (p.19). In conjunction with overall control of media shifting to just a handful of companies, this move effectively discouraged stations from taking risks with their content. While most regions have been able to hold on to a small hour or so in the daily programming to promote local music and local artists, the vast majority of airtime is dedicated to artists who have the backing of major labels, artists who fit a certain type of sound.

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