I notice that Spotify have started producing ‘mood’ playlists. Mine always seem to be Moody, Chill, Romantic (?) and Happy. Is that the sum total of ‘moods’ out there? What happened to ‘Mercurial’, or ‘Quixotic’? Anyway, the Moody one is classic, doomy shizzle: Nico, Sufjan Stevens, New Order, Wilco etc. All great stuff if a little gloomy. But here’s the thing: the playlist is exclusively white artists. The Happy one? James Brown. Stevie Wonder. Billy Preston. Harry Belafonte. Bill Withers… Something becomes increasingly apparent. Black people are happy. White people are sad. So, may we deduce from this that its white people that have the issues? It certainly seems like they have. I had a little look at recurring themes in the Moody playlist. These included: existential loneliness (These Days, Nico); Millenial self-interest (Don’t Wanna Know, Bo Burnham); angsty yearning (Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, The Smiths). Even falling in love seems like a tortuous cry from the soul when Billie Eilish gets hold of it. (It’s spoiling her night’s sleep unfortunately). When you’re writing lyrics like ‘What a drag it is to love you like I do’ as she does in ‘Halley’s Comet’, you know something’s wrong.
Compare that to the Happy playlist. Dancing through the shit (Get Up Offa That Thing, James Brown), a celebration of musical heroes (Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder), the healing power of love (Lovely Day, Bill Withers), the power of positivity to overcome the darkness (Move On Up, Curtis Mayfield). Jesus, what more positive statement of life than Sam Cooke’s ‘(What A) Wonderful World’ do you need? Most of these could easily be some doomy shit. The themes are still to do with pain, difficulties, the harsh existence of life. But they don’t go there. To quote Bing Crosby, they ‘accentuate the positive’ without ignoring the negative.
I should qualify this by saying that I love doomy music and that Billie Eilish, Bo Burnham et al are just as capable of writing happy tunes (I guess?). There are plenty of white artists in the Happy list too. But there does seem to be an over-arching pattern here. There are no black artists in the Moody mix. Not one. Nada. Zilch. Do they not get moody? Is it a purely white experience?
Which makes me think of The Clash…
In 1977, on their debut album, The Clash stirred up a bit of a rumpus with the song White Riot. These were racially charged times. The National Front were a visible presence on the streets of England’s cities. The country’s attitude to immigration had hardened. In 1968, with the Commonwealth Immigration Act, Britain shut the door on ‘coloured’ people from within the Commonwealth, a door which had previously been wide open until people from Pakistan, India and the West Indies took up the offer. Shockingly, the door remained open if you were white. The riots in Red Lion Square in 1974, Notting Hill in 1976 and Lewisham in 1977 were very public signs of the crack starting to show. What Joe Strummer saw in these riots was action. A response. A positive response, if we take the emotive judgement values out of violent public disorder. In White Riot, The Clash question why it is that white people do as their told whilst black people, as he saw it, kick back against the pricks. It was a call to arms for white people, as well as a show of solidarity to the black cause.
‘Black man gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick’
Now, I’m not promoting violent revolution (at least, I don’t think I am, but sometimes…). And I am making a bit of a leap. But, to me, there is something in this. There is something in the culture of white British people that seems to want to squat in misery. Look at the Romantic poets. By today’s standards, they were living it large: drifting across the most beautiful parts of Europe in a miasma of self-conscious misery. White people seem to find something beautiful in questioning the meaning of everything. Nice problem to have. It’s the same with today’s pop musicians. They’ve learned that melancholia shifts units. They make serious music which raises all of the problems with their lives and these seem to boil down to a search for something, a meaning in all of the madness. They seem to be lost in a void of spiritual yearning.
On the other hand, if it’s sheer unmitigated joy at being alive that you want, look to black artists. If it’s anger leading to positive action you want, look to black artists. Even Hip-Hop, which has its own issues with ugly misogyny and tired stereotypes, manages to sound more up and at ’em than most white artists. Black musicians just don’t seem to whine, even though, surely if anyone should be moaning it’s them?
It goes beyond race. As Johnny Rotten once said (and I paraphrase) all the best stuff comes from the streets. And it is definitely true that all this maudlin self-analysis is a middle-class thing. Grime and Dubstep were street-level movements, one which combined black and white culture; it was many things, but maudlin it wasn’t. I use the past-tense here by the way because my mate is going to see Stormzy at the NIA in Birmingham soon, so, as a street movement, it is very dead. The dance craze of the 90s was driven by working class white youth. And then there’s Sleaford Mods. There is something more genuinely angry about all of these but there is also that sense of positivity, that things can change, that things will get better.
I’m also not saying that black artists don’t explore serious themes or doomy emotions. There is some horribly syrupy self-analysis in R’n’B. My point is that there is something uplifting about they way black artists explore melancholia or pain. For me, the greatest exponent of this art is Donny Hathaway. His life was about as tragic as they come. Born in the projects of Chicago, he was raised by his grandmother. He found some success in the early 70s with tracks like The Ghetto Pt 1. In 1971, just as his career was getting up and running, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and he started to display increasingly erratic behaviour. By 1979, he was dead, having thrown himself from a 15th storey apartment window. An unspeakable tragedy, and one which is all too common amongst artists, black or white. But compare the work of, say, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, or Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. Both were outstanding white artists who ended their lives in tragic circumstances; both produced an often brilliant catalogue of powerful music. For them, though, the pain and emptiness of their existence is very apparent in their work. It is challenging and emotionally devastating to listen to. By all accounts, a downer.
Listen, though, to Donny Hathaway…
The music is, in a word, beautiful. For sure, there is pain in his voice, so much that it is an emotional experience. The lyricist on the sessions, Edward Howard (who deserves his own credit for managing to write words which find spiritual meaning in desperate times) said that Hathaway himself cried at the playback. I’m not surprised. But what is also there in the music and in Hathaway’s voice, is hope, and a truly soulful ecstasy. It can only be the church which Hathaway, and so many other black artists had in their music. Soul, after all, is gospel music with secular lyrics.
My conclusion. Well, hard as it is to hear, maybe if you have real-life problems, then the last thing you need is someone telling you all about theirs. Maybe it is the church that gives so many black artists the faith to search for hope whilst modern white culture is searching for a different kind of meaning. Or maybe it’s just a cultural thing. Maybe it’s just that white culture finds a beauty in misery whilst other cultures, well… don’t.
I’ll leave you with a smile, though, from the master of taking pain and turning it into magic. Maybe the Moody playlist crew need to listen to the words of James Brown… (he’s 44 years old here, by the way!)
Maybe you can cheer me up by recommending some of the best ‘Happy’ songs in the Comments section? (Make the case for ‘Shiny Happy People’, I dare you). Give us a like and a follow if you enjoy what you read! Cheers!