For the ECONOMIST: IT IS easy to understand why soul music is enjoying a revival. Faced with cuts in social spending and a sluggish economy, listeners in Britain may find solace in Adele’s throaty songs of heartache. Two wars, a recession and rising education costs in America have been more than enough to get people singing along with Aloe Blacc’s hit song “I Need a Dollar”. Adele’s two albums have earned her eight Grammy awards and chart success on par with the Beatles and Michael Jackson. “I Need a Dollar” went top-ten worldwide, became the theme song for HBO’s show “How to Make it in America” and rocketed Mr Blacc to fame.
Artists like Adele (pictured) and Aloe Blacc are pop singers who embrace or borrow elements of soul, an American genre originated in the 1950s that grew out of the blues, R&B and African-American church music. The emotion and pain of original soul is inextricably linked to America’s brutal history of slavery and racism. Music labels like Motown and Stax popularised the sound with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Propelled by the civil-rights movement, soul music went mainstream by the early 1970s with artists such as Al Green and Isaac Hayes. Then the rise of disco eclipsed its success.
“Soul music was and is a culture and it was and is a good way of life,” says Tim Sampson, spokesman for the Memphis-based Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “I think people want that again. Authenticity is making a real comeback, and it’s obvious that people are interested in talent.”
Music by Adele and Mr Blacc is hook-based and geared for mainstream radio play, but it has just enough grit and style to set it apart from the shrink-wrapped pop ballads from the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. Listeners who laid into Lana Del Rey for her botched Saturday Night Live performance are greedy for Adele’s raspy voice and soulful embellishments. Both sensing soul’s widening appeal and helping to drive it, Stax Records revived itself in 2007, and soul stars such as Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones of Booker T and the MGs have released new material. The Dap Kings, a soul revivalist band, created Daptone Records to support soul artists and has been touring and releasing soul records for more than a decade. The band backed Amy Winehouse, and continues to deliver a tight retro sound for Sharon Jones, a funk and soul singer whose anachronistic perfection deserves more attention.
In a restless, post-Arab spring, post-Occupy world, soul may be the new punk, albeit with less snivelly angst and a beat you can dance to. Unlike much of country music, which expresses disappointment in life and love with a twang of resignation and a nod to alcoholism, soul tends to convey stories of shattered dreams and lost love with a more robust upbeat. Ultimately soul is about having a good time despite the hard times.
Neil Sugarman, who co-founded Daptone Records and fronts the soul band The Sugarman 3, says, “Even with her big pop hit ‘Rehab,’ it was honest to Amy [Winehouse]. It was real. That’s the essence of soul music. It’s honest. That combination of having a great grooving rhythm section, and someone singing who’s in touch with their being, whether it’s sad or happy.”