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.
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 in some crappy k-drama. 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!