With the recent death of Natalie Cole came all the expected superlatives. Gone was one of the most elegant, most refined and classiest singers of a generation, as most articles described her – and appropriately so.
In online comments posted in response to my own tribute to the legendary songstress, she was praised for never having to dress down or parade “half-naked” on a stage to sell her talent. Her talents were mostly centered around her voice and the incredible things she could do with it.
That comment and others like it were clearly backhanded digs at the popular contemporary artists who’ve made a living while seemingly relying more on their inelegant talents and less on their ability to do what good singers do best: sing. It’s a constant refrain that continues to be that bright white dividing line between most singers – particularly women – of the current generation and those whose time passed a long time ago.
So whatever became of the elegant singer? You know…that lady who exuded class, style and beauty with her every move on just about any stage she dignified with her presence? Whatever happened to that era when a record label’s A&R (artists and repertoire) department felt that beauty wasn’t just skin deep, but had to be developed from within?
What happened to that time when refined beauty was more about style and class than shock and crass?
Now, I’ll acknowledge that “beauty” is a relative term and – as the saying goes – is in the eye of the beholder. But even singers with a fragile kind of beauty – non-classic beauty that could be erased with one wrong turn of the makeup pad or eyeliner pencil – embodied the kind of charm and presence that would make their grandmothers proud.
In an earlier time, classiness was something singers strived for. Heck, record labels even paid professionals to teach their artists how to attain it. Motown legend Berry Gordy famously subjected his artists – most notably the Supremes – to “finishing” school so they could carry themselves in the glamorous way that other stars did during their day.
Let’s face it, Diana, Mary and Flo were inexperienced, unworldly teenagers from the Brewster Projects in Detroit when Gordy took them on. He wanted those girls – who would eventually be performing in Las Vegas showrooms and doing Royal Command Performances in Europe – to act less like what they were and more like the accessible, sophisticated and elegant women they would eventually become.
And the Supremes weren’t alone. Their image creation was more the rule than the exception…a rule that would govern for decades and be adhered to by other ’60s and ’70s singing greats like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Marilyn McCoo and, of course, Cole.
In the 1980s and ’90s, those acts were followed by equally image-conscious artists like Whitney Houston, Sade, Stephanie Mills, Regina Belle, Anita Baker, Miki Howard, Ángela Winbush and En Vogue, just to name a few.
Those singers were musically diverse, yet they all had one thing in common: the ability to project a certain sophistication that only enhanced their musical gifts…gifts, mind you, that were the focal point of their performances. Despite what bad things may have been happening behind the scenes in their personal lives (drugs, bad marriages, physical or emotional abuse, career missteps or in-fighting), you wouldn’t know it when they showed up on stage, unless their pain somehow poured out of their music.
Projecting a mature, cultivated image meant everything then, both in how singers carried themselves and in their costume. Gowns and elegant dresses had not yet given way to camisoles, string bikinis, and bustiers with big pointy things projecting from them.
And get this: with all these musicians’ exceptional singing talents came the ability to sell records…lots of them. All of the names I’ve mentioned so far regularly scaled the upper reaches of the Billboard R&B charts, and several of them were fortunate enough to crossover to pop.
Back in their day, the ability to project elegance and top the record charts were not mutually exclusive concepts.
That is in sharp contrast to today, where class and sophistication have been erased and are almost shunned in pop and R&B music culture. In their place are crassness and vulgarity. Today’s most popular women singers are just as comfortable dropping f-bombs or celebrating their physical “assets” (either on stage or on record) as women of yesteryear were singing songs about love and wearing long flowing dresses with non-revealing neck and hip-lines.
Today, if an artist like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, or any of their pop counterparts like Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande or Iggy Azalea, can twerk or shake her ass – an ass we can clearly see by the way – in a music video or at an awards show, then that artist stands a much better chance of going viral on YouTube and selling millions of records than her more refined counterpart who simply chooses to display her vocal talents and model herself after her more traditional foremothers.
This is not a knock on artists like Rihanna or Beyoncé, who are clearly products of their environment with plenty of other talents at their disposal. Heck, some might even consider Beyoncé as being among the elegant singers now – she certainly has played the part on occasion – and ten to 20 years from now when she’s doing the Vegas circuit, we may be nostalgically including her when asking this same question about music’s elegant past.
But today, it’s clearly about her inelegant performances – at least as I’ve defined it for this article – and their huge positive impact on her video streams and record sales that keep her from being a full-time member of the club.
And speaking of viral music videos, maybe it was the advent of that medium that led us to this place. In the 1960s and ’70s, when TV variety shows and music outlets like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” were the only game in town, singers followed the age-old tradition of showing up on stage, singing or lip-syncing their most popular tunes, giving as professional an interview as they could muster, and projecting their best overall images while doing it.
When music videos exploded in popularity in the 1980s, it became clear that women – and singers in general – could no longer simply stand holding a microphone (elegantly dressed mind you) and belt out a popular tune. Artists became more and more outrageous in their appearance and performances. The Cyndi Lauper and Madonna models set in, and other singers had to follow suit to keep up – even in the R&B field. In the video era, the elegance found in singers like Whitney Houston (who early on still gave us classy, old-fashioned microphone-in-hand stage performances with her videos) was quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Accelerating this change may have been the songstress who was Whitney’s biggest competition during their ’90’s prime, Mariah Carey. She began her career with a series of beautifully crafted, musically focused singles (“Vision of Love,” “Love Takes Time,” “Someday,” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry” – all #1 Hot 100 hits) and with her label marketing her as a mature, ballad-centered songbird.
By the end of the decade, however, Mariah had pioneered the trend of pop artists collaborating with some of the most unlikely, street-reared hip-hop stars (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Jay-Z), and with that transition evolved a sort-of unrefined “thug-love”* imagery that pop starlets have been cultivating ever since (see last year’s pairing of Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar for the #1 hit “Bad Blood,” or any one of Ariana Grande’s recent hip-hop collaborations as notable examples). [*The term “thug” is used loosely here as I certainly don’t equate Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar or the others to being thugs, especially in today’s society where the term is being used indiscriminately to describe young black men, but I digress.]
As Mariah’s status as hip-hop’s biggest pop purveyor grew, her outfits diminished in size. Dresses became shorter or non-existent, cleavage became more prominent, and legs and hips became some of her best-known assets.
To many devoted MC fans, none of this detracted from her status as a well-adjusted, stylized songbird. But elegance slowly eluded her as the decade progressed.
Since the ’90s, hip-hop has become the mainstream R&B music genre and, with it, glamour and elegance have given way to shock and crudeness. Part of this has been out of necessity, as times have clearly changed since the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
For instance, reality TV and daytime talk shows are now pop culture mainstays that have turned up the ratchet factor, particularly for women. In the 2000s and beyond, at least in pop culture, women are more appreciated for being in-your-face and aggressive than for being refined and demure.
Women’s roles in society have changed as well. They are in far more positions of authority and power today than they were 30 – 50 years ago. They have held more top positions in government and in corporate America than ever before.
Their relative roles in the household have changed too. As these roles have changed, women have taken more control over their images and how they want to be seen in society. Appropriately, men don’t have as much a say in that today as they did before.
As a result, music and the people who create it for us have had to adjust right along with those changes. Occasionally, more recent R&B stars like Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, Vivian Green, Lalah Hathaway and others still maintain an old-school gracefulness about themselves, but they’re certainly not enjoying mainstream success (at least not to the level that Natalie, Dionne, Diana and Whitney were during their heydays).
Still, ladies like Scott, Sullivan, Hathaway, Green and others have stood their ground as musicians and not succumbed to the lure of pop’s instant gratification by taking off their clothes for the camera or otherwise sacrificing good taste in their recordings or in their performances.
But that stance has come at a cost. Just this past fall, there was a five-week stretch where only one black woman, Nicki Minaj, even graced the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart…and that was with just one song.
The other artists I named who project more refined images by comparison haven’t even come close to the chart recently. Jill Scott hasn’t reached the Hot 100 since 2011, and hasn’t ranked higher than #97 since 2001. Vivian Green’s last Hot 100 hit was “Emotional Rollercoaster” in 2002. Jazmine Sullivan hit top-five on the Adult R&B chart last year with “Let it Burn,” but she hasn’t reached the Hot 100 since 2010. And Lalah Hathaway has never reached the Hot 100.
Sadly, the Hot 100 needs another release by Rihanna or Beyoncé to return this type of diversity to the top of the chart.
This kind of feast or famine situation clearly illustrates what images consumers value when it comes to their artists and music purchases.
But does it have to be that way?
One could look at the recent astronomical success of internationally acclaimed artist Adele and make a case that all is not lost for female artists who choose elegance over ratchetness. Adele’s image is one of classic chic, with songs that don’t evolve from the gutter. Her recent TV late-night talk show appearances have revealed an unexpected sense of humor and a sense of realness that make her accessible to adults and kids alike, while not detracting from her otherwise dignified worldly image.
Adele, who turns 28 in March, exudes a type of elegance and maturity that musicians many years her senior and some more than twice her age (Madonna) have never attained. And she’s selling boatloads of records in doing so, even if the image she projects may be just that, image.
With her growing success, could Adele’s image be the new model that redefines what singers and music have to be in order to make it in this industry? Could the record-breaking success of her album, 25, be a turning point for the return of elegance in artistry and song?
Or are the artists who are slowly leaving us, like Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, and too many others to mention, the last vestiges of what was truly an elegant era in music…an era when artists like those could give us great music, sell millions of records and be classic role models all at once?