NPR’s Eric Weisbard provides an in-depth look at the modern day radio format, and its subsequent effect on shaping today’s popular music in his book Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music. Excerpts from the text, along with critical feedback from his contemporaries reveal some of the historical intricacies of popular music especially when discussing Black music and unintentional appropriation.
Just a couple of weeks ago, enigmatic Frank Ocean uploaded a stark cover of the Isleys’ 1976 “At Your Best (You Are Love) to his Tumblr. The cover was in tribute to Aaliyah on the anniversary of what would have been her 36thbirthday: The felled singer previously covered the song in 1994 for her debut Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. Ocean’s cover caused a minor generational stir, at least that’s what my ever-contentious Facebook timeline and Twitter feed tells me. Nonmillenial R&B fan/purists delivered critical beatdowns/history lessons to millennials who had incorrectly tweeted and status-updated Ocean’s rendition as an “Aaliyah cover” rather than an “Isley Brothers cover.” The slight, decidedly benign on the scale of pop appropriation, does reaffirm how the Isley Brothers time and again get eclipsed in the historical narrative of the music they themselves create. The 1959 hit “Shout,” a subversive update on the slavery-era ring shout, becomes misremembered as caricature thanks to white frat sleeper Animal House; the 1961 smash “Twist and Shout” becomes quickly overtaken by The Beatles‘ more famous cover. Eric, you demonstrate the complexity of those erasures/appropriations, and you do a good job tracking the Isleys’ wily recalcitrance as musical journeymen over the longue durée. It’s fascinating to consider the larger cultural and political changes that informed black life in America through the lens of the Isleys and conversely, to consider how the Isleys themselves, by way of commercial radio and records, helped inform those changes too — even if they’re sometimes dismissed as thirsty-capitalist musicians rather than benevolent civil rights crusaders.