Things Kpopalypse dislikes in music – R&B

Regular readers of the Kpopalypse roundup series and also the best/worst lists for each year have noticed a pattern forming.  Kpopalypse generally dislikes k-pop songs with R&B influences.  Why is this the case?

Not liking any particular musical style is of course completely fine and requires no justification.  However for those who would like to hear some reasons anyway for their prurient entertainment purposes, I have collected them below.  I hope you enjoy this completely self-indulgent post where I shit on one of k-pop’s favourite genres.

So what the fuck IS R&B, anyway?

The term R&B stands for “rhythm and blues”, supposedly.  “Rhythm” meaning a strong focus on the beat (especially beats 2 and 4 of a 4 beat bar) and “blues” referring to the vocal melodies being sung in a blues-like manner (using pentatonic scales derived from gospel).  Which sounds fine until you realise that a description like that is vague enough to encompass everything from Black Sabbath to Patsy Biscoe to L’il Wayne.  So let’s go a little deeper into what R&B is, why Kpopalypse hates it, and why you might like to hate it too.

Reason why Kpopalypse hates R&B #1 – R&B is RACIST

R&B started in the USA in the early part of the 20th century, and the original term for it was “race music” with R&B singles being called “race records”.  This interesting terminology was apparently brought into popular currency in the music industry by white country musician and record label staffer Ralph S. Peer as a marketing term while he was a talent scout for Okeh Records.  Here’s some art that was used by Okeh Records for promotional purposes that shows this interesting marketing terminology along with some subtle matching imagery.

“Race records” didn’t actually denote a musical genre at all – if you were black, according to record label marketing wisdom your music was “race music” and that was that, regardless of what it sounded like.  It also didn’t just mean that the music was by black performers, but that it was specifically marketed for a black audience.  In other words, the record label were saying to black people “here you are, darkey – you’ll like this, because someone with the same skin colour made it, and skin colour is what matters, right?” and also simultaneously to white people “you won’t like this music made by dirty negroes, why don’t you listen to some of our other nice music made by upstanding white folks”.  That way the whites could have their white music and the blacks could have their black music… because why would white people want to listen to black music?  This racially-segregated music system worked fine for a while and all was well in the world as long as black folks didn’t mind sitting at the rear of the bus, drinking from different water fountains, the occasional lynching and having people draw them really badly.

Then World War II became a happening thing, and all that inconvenient and unpleasant Nazi stuff became well-known across America.  Seeing racist policy carried to its logical conclusion birthed a gradual snails-pace awareness among people in power in America that maybe racial discrimination and segregation perhaps wasn’t the optimal way to go about running a cohesive modern society.  Also, in an even more confusing and unexpected turn of events, many white people started to become interested in music made by black people, so marketing black music only to black people now represented a lost potential income that it previously did not.  Management folks running music labels started to notice these changing cultural currents and discuss them in their boardroom meetings – “hang on… we’re not as extreme as those Nazi guys, I mean, we don’t want anyone to think that we hate the artists on our label or anything.  After all, we need to make money off of them – where would we be without them?  Maybe we should rethink our brand so we can adapt to this odd new racial equality trend that seems to be building steam and maximise our revenue”.

Gradually, “race records” as a term to categorise music was seen as culturally out-of-step and discreetly phased out, replaced by the softer-sounding “rhythm & blues”.  It was a dog-whistle term through and through – everybody knew what it really meant, “modern music by people who may have dark skin and African ancestry” which was exactly what “race records” also meant, but it now just wasn’t as directly stated.  This satisfied the music industry’s requirement to not be seen to be openly racist (which could cut out a large chunk of their potential growing income), while at the same time not actually having to feel obliged to change anything concrete about the way that they conducted business, lest it create a backlash from the more intolerant parts of American society.

Anti-black music flyer, 1965

Indeed, large-scale racial segregation in the American music industry’s marketing didn’t end properly until the 1980s saw Michael Jackson become so huge that he was impossible to ignore, and it still lives on in a smaller form today in those record shops with sections marked “urban”, “urban grooves”, “street” and of course “R&B”, that have a whole bunch of artists filed in there with nothing in common except the colour of their skin.  (Sometimes a non-black person gets in there too if they sound enough like the black people already there.)  Therefore R&B is by definition racist, a musical category which has been used to marginalise, segregate and discriminate against black people.

“Oh, but I don’t care about all that boring social justice stuff, I read your crappy blog to get away from all that boring shit.  Can’t you give me some musical reasons why you hate R&B so much?” I see you about to ask.  Well okay then, if I must!

Reason why Kpopalypse hates R&B #2 – R&B is BORING

We all know that R&B is boring as fucking shit (or at least I do – not so sure about you lot), but what is it about R&B that makes it so boring?  As it so happens there’s actually an unexpected musical reason.

While R&B started off as a catch-all crypto-racist genre term for “that spade music”, it eventually evolved its own distinct sound anyway, and while the R&B of today sounds somewhat different to the R&B of its origins, this difference is mainly in the deployment of more technology, the musical/tonal base is the same and in fact has never really changed unless you count the addition of more rappers to break up the singing parts.  The musical roots of what came to be known as R&B music is in blues and the gospel vocal style, whereas other styles of popular music have their roots partly in blues but also partly in the classical tradition, with less gospel influence.  It’s this gospel influence which is key.

Most popular music uses the major and minor scales.  Here’s some major and minor scales.

These scales are presented in five different keys, however the key doesn’t matter when defining the scale type itself.  What differentiates a major scale from a minor scale is the sequence of jumps between each note.  Here, T = tone (two jumps) and S = semitone (one jump).

Major scale – T T S T T T S

Minor scale – T S T T S T T

These are diatonic scales, which means seven notes in the scale before the pattern wraps around.  In scale degrees, from the lowest to the highest note before the scale wraps around, the result is this:

Major scale – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

Minor scale – 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 1

So the characteristic of the minor scale is that the third, sixth and seventh notes in the scale are flattened.

Music students will also know that basic chord triads are built on the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale.  So for major and minor chords, here’s the difference in intervals between notes and scale degrees used:

Major chord – TT TS – 1 3 5

Minor chord – TS TT – 1 b3 5

The difference here is the flattened third degree, which changes the ratios between the notes as well.  The major chord has a characteristic sound which is best described as “happy”.  Most positive upbeat songs start with major chords as the “root” or “key” (the tonal centre around which everything else revolves) and/or feature major chords prominently.  Minor chords on the other hand have a “sadder” sound due to the flattened third, and songs with a more downbeat or moody flavour tend to base their tonality around the minor chord.

But what does this have to do with blues?

The blues scale is actually a pentatonic (five note) scale, with the flattened fifth in the minor scale and flattened third in the major scale being a sort of “bonus note”.

Major blues scale – T S S TS T TS – 1 2 b3 3 5 6 1

Minor blues scale – TS T S S TS T – 1 b3 4 b5 5 b7 1

Creating chords and harmony out of the blues scale is a bit more ambiguous, because as you can see from the above, the major blues scale has the major and the minor 3rd in it.  So what solution works here?  The answer is “either” – songs written with the major blues scale as the base tonality tend to move between major and minor sounds all the time.  Vocalists however, do something even more bizarre, and they do it with both the major and minor blues scale variants listed above – they tend to sing the minor third in both scales a little bit sharp, so that it sits somewhere between the minor and the major third.  This weird deliberately off-key note is sometimes referred to as a “blue note”.  This is where the gospel connection comes in – the blue-note quarter-tone fucking around shit was born in the improvised vocals of early gospel music, where singers would get so fucking carried away singing about the tooth fairy leaving them 20 cents under their pillow or whatever the fuck that they’d not really worry about pitching the notes correctly.

Now as we’ve previously covered, “major = happy/cheerful/good” and “minor = sad/angry/moody”, this is the first, most basic thing that students of music theory learn about the ability of music to convey emotion.  So what sort of emotions does content that isn’t major or minor but deliberately somewhere in between convey?  The answer is obvious: all the emotions in the middle of these things – boredom, listlessness, dullness, disinterest, a feeling of “is that all there is“, etc.  The boredom of R&B is thus hardwired into the tonal structure of the singing and instrumental style of the form.

Reason why Kpopalypse hates R&B #3 – R&B is WANK

Would you like a k-pop example?  Sure you would, and this one is even from a song that I like.

Regular blog readers as well as those who like Berry Good in general will probably remember that while I really loved their song “Angel” I did make a special point to take a big fat shit on the stupid needless pentatonic vocal run-up that happens just before the climax.  The video below is paused here, at 2:54.

Why did I take a shit on this section of the song so hard?  The reason why is that it’s just vocal showing off, it adds nothing to the song really, and while it certainly doesn’t ruin anything, you could edit out that entire run and the song wouldn’t suffer for it whatsoever.  That section of the song is only there for one reason and one reason only – to sell you on the Berry Good girl’s singing abilities.  It adds no interest to the song, it’s just a section for the singer to prove that they’ve mastered their two-steps-up-one-step-back vocal exercises, like the one below at 5:16 which uses the identical scale.

Is the singing teacher above a good singer?  Yes!  Is the video useful?  Yes – for the practice room.   The problem with R&B music, as well as any k-pop which has been influenced in even the slightest way by R&B, is that they throw these ideas into the music often without any proper context that gives the song any kind of catchiness or interest. That’s because these ideas are generally devoid of any catchiness or interest in their original form anyway.  A scale exercise is not a song!

Just so we’re clear about what I mean about vocal wank, and also to help you identify your own horrid R&B-influenced vocal masturbation for the future, let’s take a look at various versions of the same gospel song, to see how the application of excessive R&B-styled vocals can ruin what could in some circumstances be a perfectly acceptable piece of music.

If you’re feeling extremely courageous try and slug your way through the above video, where the song that should be fairly simple to sing by any normal person sticking to the actual melody is stretched out to an excruciatingly boring length of technically flawless but insufferably dull blues-scale wandering.  The song itself doesn’t actually need this.  Here’s another far superior version where the vocalist actually sticks to the fucking melody and doesn’t go wandering off into “look how great a singer I am” la-la land, and the song itself actually gets a chance to shine as a result.

Here’s vocalfaggot favourite Sohyang doing a version of the same song, and guess how she chooses to do it?  By wanking off all over every single note, of course, turning a simple three minute folk song into a six-minute ordeal in showing off how many notes she can hit and masturbating in all our faces.  Jesus wept.

I’ll finish off with Girls’ Generation’s Yoona, singing the same song.  It’s no secret even among rabid SNSD fans that Yoona is no great shakes as a vocalist so she’s forced to stick strictly to the melody.  While I don’t like her version as much as Kristin Hersh’s it’s still at least free from horrible wank clogging up the vocals, and instead captures a plaintive, humble feeling which is far more in keeping with the song’s theme than “whhoahhhaohahah-ahohhhaoahhaa-ahoooahhahooahho” all over ever note.

It seems that the better someone is at singing, the more likely it is that they’ll feel obliged to show off that skill and ruin the song as a result.  Why do gospel vocalists act like they’re masturbating up and down every single note all the time?  Maybe they think that it shows devotion?  Perhaps there’s something in the bible about being more likely to get into heaven if you prove to everyone on Earth how good your vocal runs are, although I don’t recall that part.  (All I remember about the bible is the graphic sex and violence that I bought the book for, I must have skipped over the singing instructional section.)


This post has hopefully shown you that I consider R&B to be a RACIST, BORING WANK and exactly why.  Hopefully you have enjoyed this journey into discovery, education and absolutely shit music!  Kpopalypse will return with more posts soon!

18 thoughts on “Things Kpopalypse dislikes in music – R&B

  1. Loved the post. Would love to read posts by you on music criticism and history other than just kpop.

    By the way the video for the second amazing grace song is not available. You think you could post another link or something?

  2. Thank you for introducing me to one of the best melancholic kpop songs, Berry Good’s Angel. (This and Love Letter are delightful!) But allow me to disagree with your shitting on her vocalfaggery. I think it’s tolerable, comes at just the right point in the song, and in fact excites me when I hear it. I guess I have a soft spot for pretty girls showing off their singing.

  3. I have to say, I’m disappointed. I totally agree with WhateverCarla–you cherry-picked examples of the worst cases, while there are so many R&B songs that don’t wank all over the place, and have much more sophisticated harmonic structures and melodic contours than the basic blues examples you gave.

    I actually used to be like you and hated R&B, but that was because I only knew American R&B, which tends to be the worst offenders in vocal wanking (I agree with you there–I dislike that too). But after having heard Japanese and Korean R&B and hearing how much more appealing they are in their interpretation of the style, I changed my mind. And I”m someone who used to play in an industrial band, which is about as far as you can get from R&B. It was when I heard Baek Yerin’s EP “Frank” that I finally admitted to myself that I no longer hated R&B. It took decades but here I am, and her song “Across the Universe” is one of my all-time favorite song now, and it’s a very good example of how Korean R&B has its own flavor.

    • I didn’t feel under pressure to provide lots of examples in this post because I felt that the half a dozen examples that appear in each and every Roundup over the past year would have sufficied.

  4. OK, you know that I respect you and your opinions and your intelligence. That said–whenever you talk about the United States, its culture, or its history, you reveal a great deal of ignorance. Which is exactly what I would reveal if I attempted to discuss Australian culture or history…and kind of why I don’t….

    Some of your very basic assumptions are not really accurate and extremely oversimplified. For example, the notion that gospel music is actually religious music…well, it is and it isn’t. For a couple of centuries, church was one of the few places African Americans could gather and talk about the issues of the day without getting lynched, so what you think of as church music or religious music often isn’t really about either thing. (“Fuzzy-wuzzy” spirituals about, say, the Armies of the Lord coming down to smite the unrighteous in their big fancy homes with FIRE were illegal to sing in much of the American South during the Civil War. Some doctrinal dispute and nothing to do with anyone named Sherman, I’m sure….)

    To say that “race records” were made by and marketed to African Americans exclusively–well, yes, of course they were, pretty everything at that time followed Jim Crow. Does the fact that this music was marketed in a highly segregated society make it inherently less valid as an artistic effort? Is this true of music made by and for Black South Africans during apartheid? What about “race men” like W.E.B. DuBois–also racist? It is actually OK to say of genre of music that you don’t like, “Hate this music, it is RACIST,” when what you’re really saying is, “Hate this music, it was made by and for African Americans when they were incredibly oppressed”? (Oh, gee, but yeah–THE TONE. You’re not being sarcastic or incredibly insensitive, it’s just that nobody understands THE TONE.) Seriously, just stick to your musical opinions–they’re much more well informed and much less stupid.

    • Thanks for the gospel information, that makes sense and you’re right that I didn’t know that. As you rightly point out, there’s no reason why I would know that. Nobody is telling non-Americans these things, all we see is a bunch of god-botherers making really, really crappy music.

      As for the rest, I’m not going to type up a thing explaining how this post works and why I wrote certain things (at least not here), that would defeat the entire purpose of why I made the post in the first place. You are entitled to enjoy it, or not, as the case may be. Thanks for reading!

  5. Thanks for making this post. I was actually more interested in the “es-jay-double u” part. History lessons are always good and I find it really great when you take the time to give us some context about music genres. It’s really cool.

    That said, I usually love vocal wank and feel that it may help, uh, ‘heighten’ the climax of a song, but I definitely see why it annoys you and I agree that it’s not a necessary element. The vocal wanky version of Amazing Grace and the regular version sound like two completely different songs!

  6. Jeez, that anti-black music flyer is exactly the same wording as the current anti-same sex marriage propaganda. Amazing how little some people’s views have changed.

    And you’ve said all the reasons I’ve never taken to singing contest shows. Everyone that pulls out a classic gospel or R&B song and vocally fucks with it is sure to win/make a judge cry/be plastered all over my fucking radio for months on end. Whatever happened to good old biting the heads off chickens?

  7. Much to chew on/ponder here.
    As a trained professional singer (concert and opera mostly, but I’ve done my share of jazz/MT), I too have mostly been turned off by overt vocal show-off-ness in popular music (i.e. the excesses of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion to name but two worthy offenders), not so much because it’s distracting or boring, but because it severely impacts the flow of the music; to take a page from the classical idiom, a few ‘grace notes’ and an appogiatura/turn/etc. or two here and there, put in with care by the performer, can go a long way to spicing up a melody – it’s when they literally obscure said melody that I get enraged, because then it’s just another “oh-look-at-meeeee!!!” wankfest, like you mentioned.

    IMNSHO, some of the greatest blues/R&B-type singers have been those who allow the music to do the carrying of emotions, and have sung their songs with the bare minimum of vocal masturbatory tricks – if a song is raw and unadorned enough, it WILL make the desired effect of moving the listener, no extraneous frippery is needed.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

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