How do you like that white chocolate?
According to units sold, America apparently loves it. White soul man Justin Timberlake sold approximately a million copies of his new album The 20/20 Experience in its first week — his highest first week gains to date. His totals are outpacing his black contemporaries.
Why is the question? There’s little difference in delivery between his black peers. Is there a visual preference for whiteness? At least one scholar thinks there is.
Imani Perry has a point in regards to how racialized standards of beauty harmonizes with the undeniable appreciation for black artists’ sonic gifts. She claims Justin Timberlake is adored because of his talent and because of our internalized notions of beauty.
I bought the Timberlake album, and I consider it a good piece of work. You can hear Michael Jackson all over it. Sad, but true, MJ wanted to look like Justin when all other artists want to sound like him. But there is a fear of the white takeover of soul.
However, the popularity of “ratchet” artists illuminates another wrinkle to the argument. Anthony Nathan describes ratchet music as a sub-genre of rap that is raunchy by nature and obnoxious by choice. Trinidad James of “All Gold Everything” fame is a foil for Justin’s “Suit and Tie.” Trinidad James has no interest in authentically representing beauty. You have to see it to believe it, but I believe ratchet artists are rewarded financially, emotionally, socially and politically to be“ugly.” And our negative conceptions of stereotypes support buffoonish imagery projected by many black artists.
Ratchet may be new, but the phenomena isn’t. I still cringe whenever I hear the Biggie line, “Heart throb never, black and ugly as ever.” This line has been unpacked like an overnight bag, but it provides an important lens into the American psyche. Biggie’s velvet voice gave him every right to snatch beauty from the likes of Timberlake, Elvis and Brad Pitt. However, the notorious one gave the people what they appreciated.
Without question, white and black artists swap style and form. As a result, black and white artists share a peculiar bond. For male artists, sexism permeates through their work.
The other white guy’s video exemplifies the point. Robin Thicke’s, Blurred Lines video featuring T.I. and Pharrell displays women dancing topless in bikini bottoms while the men, fully clothed, admire their musical harem. Hip-hop has played the pimp for music since hair bands met sheers. However, Blurred Lines does what hip-hop has been itching to do for years — normalizing sexism. Is Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell’s presence in a raunchy, chauvinistic video a sign of a post-rachet America? Nevertheless, Robin Thicke will legitimate it as art, hipsterism and sexy.
Still, white R&B and hip-hop performers will always trend high. But the star of Adele and Justin doesn’t mean whites have captured soul music. The origins of soul music can’t be stolen. So let’s not get carried away with notions of a white takeover of R&B. I worry more when artists peddle stereotypes. Our communities need artists to uplift a different standard of beauty particularly of black folk. We need a higher standard. We need standards, period.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (Twitter: @andreperrynola) author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.