REWIND: Top R&B songs through the decades show it’s less a genre than a label

The Weeknd

The Weeknd performs at Golden Gate Park during Outside Lands on Aug. 10, 2018. Joaquin Cabello/STAFF.

Welcome to the second month of RIFF Rewind’s ongoing Black History Month!

As an aside, I found out last week that June was Black Music Month, which is something I legitimately did not know when I started writing columns about Black music. But apparently the last four columns actually did have a legitimate excuse! Which is gone now, because it’s July and I’m still doing it, but still.

Anyway, this week’s column was going to be about reggae. Unfortunately it turns out I don’t actually know enough about reggae to write an entire column and I don’t want to disrespect the genre by faking it so that will have to wait until I do some reading. This means it’s time for the long-threatened column about why the term R&B is musically meaningless!

R&B is not a thing in any real sense. Rather than being a distinct genre unto itself, it’s a term invented by record companies in the 1950s to mean “Black people music.” Whatever genre is popular with white people during any given era becomes R&B when performed by Black people.

Don’t believe me? Well let’s take a journey through the ages…

Sam Cooke — “Twistin’ The Night Away”

I already went into how white people stole rock and roll from Black people, in that they took the genre away from Black people entirely and didn’t let them use it anymore. But Black people continued to make the same music… it was just R&B now.

This song? That sounds pretty much indistinguishable from rock and roll records from the late ’50s? It’s an R&B song because Sam Cooke is Black. When the extremely white Rod Stewart covered it in 1972 on his album Never a Dull Moment it suddenly became a rock song.

Marvin Gaye — “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”

Back in the ’60s and early ’70s there was not a minimum amount of time you had to let pass before you covered a popular song.

In September of 1967 Gladys Knight and the Pips released “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” It went on to spend six weeks on top of the Billboard R&B chart. Just over a year later, in October 1968, the version in the YouTube video above by Marvin Gaye was released and spent seven weeks atop the R&B chart.

In July of 1970 East Bay natives Creedence Clearwater Revival released Cosmo’s Factory, an album that included an 11-minute version of the song. While the song itself never made the charts, the album was considered blues rock.

A Taste of Honey — “Boogie Oogie Oogie”

By the mid-1970s, R&B no longer meant “rock and roll but performed by Black people.” Instead, R&B was “disco but performed by Black people.”

This song? The disco song that was heavily featured? R&B. Same genre as “Heard it Through the Grapevine” in the last entry.

Also R&B were “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, “Le Freak” by Chic, and “Boogie Fever” by The Sylvers. But not on the R&B chart? “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, which was instead listed on the Hot Dance Club Play chart.

You get three guesses what the difference was.

TLC — “Creep”

Eventually disco met its catastrophic and hilarious end and, after drifting around a bit, by the ’90s R&B had been redefined again to mean “pop music but performed by Black people.”

In 1995, TLC’s “Creep” was No. 1 on both the Billboard R&B chart and the Billboard Hot 100, which tracks pop songs. In fact, 39 of the Billboard Hot 100’s 52 top songs were by Black artists, as compared to all 52 top R&B songs.

The Weeknd — “Blinding Lights”

Today the R&B chart is now the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, because Billboard just gave up trying to hide that there’s a separate but equal Black people chart. It also split it up into rap and R&B sub-charts, and the current No. 1 song on the R&B side is The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” for a 15th straight week.

Remember: “Blinding Lights” is the same genre as “Boogie Oogie Oogie” is the same genre as “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Which means either the word genre has no meaning, or that genre is not defined by the actual music.

To be fair, though, of the 27 weeks with a No. 1 R&B song so far this year, Black artists have only held the top spot for 22 of them. The other five weeks were claimed by “Yummy” by Justin Bieber and “Intentions,” which is also by Justin Bieber. It doesn’t get much less Black than Bieber, but whether that’s progress toward musical equality or the early stages of Black artists losing the “R&B” label like they lost rock and roll is to be determined.

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