Monday, July 16, 2018
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In this May 2, 1990 photo Prince performs a benefit concert for the family of Charles (Big Chick) Huntsberry in Minneapolis. (David Brewster/Star Tribune via AP)
Popular Music: Transgenre Trending

I’ve had the title of this column in my head for over a month.  Probably came out of all the “transgender” news, tweets and bathroom chatter.  I dunno..just popped out.

What would that mean in the realm of popular music—“transgenre”?

And I thought, it’s when an artist we’ve pigeonholed in one place (rock, blues, folk, hip-hop, EDM…) crosses the double line in our heads, forcing us to hear things differently.  Maybe to think of them differently.  Artistic disorientation.

One of the first things that came to my ears was the extraordinary Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes, whose second album, Sound and Color, turns any preconception about their bond with traditional blues on its head.  This live performance of “Gemini” from their Austin City Limits performance is a sublime mix of R&B, soul, steaming guitar, silence and transcendent vocals, trans-porting the listener to another place.  

Coincidentally, a winner in last week’s AMP Awards for Music and Sound in the Best Use of a Licensed Song category was Apple iPad Pro’s “A Great Big Universe” spot, with Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color” as the soundtrack, a hypnotizing mix of ambient R&B, soul and penthouse grind.

Take me there.  Now.

And I thought of Kendrick Lamar, the sound barrier-breaking wordsmith who’s spit his raps over urban beat jazz (his Grammy performance of “The Blacker The Berry”) and over a Funkadelic kinda groove on the amazing “i."

And brought to my attention recently was relative newcomer Bibi Bourelly, born in Berlin of Moroccan and Haitian descent.  (As a teenager she co-wrote Rihanna’s crazy hit “Bitch Better Have My Money”—talk about a career jumpstarter!)  Now signed to Def Jam, Ms. Bourelly’s rap/sung song “Sally” gets its groove from an infectious tweaked-out rock-a-billy beat.  Get up on it!  Transgenre?  Yea.

And then, word of Prince’s death on April 21st cast a dark spell over the music world, and over millions of fans.  And over my reveries about “transgenre” artists—a trivial pursuit, I thought.  

I saw Prince perform at Radio City in March, 1983, and I’ve never seen anything like that show since.  This crazy kid, wearing panties and a ruffled Edwardian shirt, lowered onto the stage in a giant bed, stroking the neck of his guitar, which was shooting a fountain of cream out of the headstock.  And then, the electrifying performance.

The musical virtuosity more than backing up the outrageous preening, dancing, fore-playing.  Suddenly, Prince’s hits were back on  Billboard’s Top Ten, and all over the radio again.  They sounded fresh, satisfying.  I thought, ‘Fucking genius…how’d he do that?’

Two weeks ago I was coming out of the 59th St. subway station at Columbus Circle, and inside the pedestrian concourse was a white kid with an acoustic guitar, singing a blues song, guitar case opened on the concrete floor.  I was about to pass by, oblivious, even passively dismissive of this performance, when:  a very old black man in rumpled overcoat, hunched and walking with a cane, reached into his pocket, pulled out a dollar bill and put it in the kid’s guitar case.  

Call it a “profiling” whiplash.  All of my assumptions about what I’d just seen turned upside down.  Why the hell did I assume the old black man should be singing the blues and the white kid putting a buck in his instrument case?  I’ll confess, the moment kind of snapped me out of my stalled ruminations.  A personal lesson in the value of the transgenre performance?  I don’t know.  But I thought about Prince again, and his unique ability to jump across genres as easily as a kid skipping rope.  With a strong foundation in funk and soul to bring the house to the dance floor, he could just as easily rock/shred the guitar, pen and perform a bleeding heart ballad, or an anthem for the ages, or get the dirty minds spinning…

Here’s a clip from his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show.  “Purple Rain”, literally in a rain-drenched downpour. 

And from the Purple Rain soundtrack, (I can’t genre-place it) “When Doves Cry.” 

The in-your-face funk of “Get Off” from the 1991 MTV Video Awards.

Finally (hardly) this soulful performance of “Nothing Compares 2U”, the ballad covered by Sinead O’Connor, becoming a top-10 hit around the world.  

Keep your ears open. Dance in peace.

About the author

Lyle Greenfield is the founder of BANG Music and past president of the Association of Music Producers (AMP).  Greenfield has been a driving force behind the AMP Awards for Music and Sound, which debuted in New York City in 2013.

Contact Lyle via email