Register Friday | December 14 | 2018

Rest Easy, Dear Prince

What is pop?

I’m having this argument with a friend right now. He feels that it is insulting to call Ray Charles a "Pop Music Legend."

It’s the “pop” part of this that he’s having a problem with, not the “legend.” He feels that it’s demeaning to a man of Ray’s stature and accomplishment to bunch him into pop music. Doing what I do for a living, I come across this argument more often than you would guess. “They CANNOT be considered ‘pop’ music! That’s ridiculous!” Why? Because you like them? Because they make quality music? Because you think they are at a different level than most of what’s on the Billboard charts? Probably, but calling something pop is not demeaning its worth. In some cases it speaks to just how great some of these musicians are.

The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Mozart (although I know that throwing Mozart in there threw you), could, by the proper definition, be considered pop artists. Hell, they are pop. The Beatles harkened in the modern pop era, and trust me, they wrote pop music. Yes, they wrote psychedelic, Merseybeat, R&B inflected, skiffly, jangly, carefree, reflective, irreverent, rockabilly blues hybrids, but when it hit the airwaves, when the girls started screaming, you had yourself pop music. When people argue this point with me (“Nirvana is NOT pop music!” Hell, yes, they are.), they confuse pop and bubblegum pop. In doing so they come to find pop as demeaning term, when, in truth, it's not.

The Beatles made pop music. Pearl Jam made pop music. Nirvana made pop music. Hell, Björk made pop songs (I have this theory about Björk that she is the most unique musical artist of her generation, with no followers and no influences, but that’s for another day.) Obviously Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Usher, and Britney Spears all make pop music, but you can’t let their musical styles dominate your sense for what pop music really is. Once you realize that OutKast also makes pop music, as does Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Guns ‘N’ Roses (Metallica even made a pop album), and that favorite band of yours that you knew about before anyone else did, back when you collected their demos and put random songs on mix tapes predating their rise to success, I hate to tell you this, but they are pop. For every John Mayer, there is a Buddy Holly, for every Usher there’s a Prince, a Stevie Fucking Wonder, a Bob Freaking Dylan, and then maybe you can understand what pop music is. Popular music. Pop. Popular. Remove the “ular” and leave is just pop. That's all that means. Pop is not a demeaning term. Pop music is the music of the masses, the sound that touches our souls, that crosses over any and every racial, socio-economic, gender, geographic barrier there is.

And, hell yes, Mr. Ray Charles was a pop musician. I think my generation fails to realize the scope of Ray’s career. He's been doing this since the late 40s, and popular since the 50s. The man practically invented Soul music. He melded gospel, soul, R&B and blues into something foreign. People didn’t know that music could feel this much, have such a sense of longing, or promise. He's one of the most emotional singers in history, a mini revolution unto himself. Motown would hardly be Motown without him, I think, and Stevie Wonder might never have existed. (Although that’s a bit of an empty argument, because genius tends to find its own way, and Stevie is a genius.) It's just that his most remarkable period started in the 50s and ended in the 60s, so for my generation he’s something of an oddity, which is unfortunate. Most kids my age really haven’t heard him, I mean really really heard him, but he's a thunderbolt. When you are done listening to Ray, you want to learn more, and he can lead you to Nina Simone. That was a rare gift for me. And his songs! "This Little Girl of Mine," "Drown in My Own Tears," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," "Lonely Avenue," "You Are My Sunshine," and "The Right Time" , not to mention "What'd I Say," (which everyone should know) and "Unchain My Heart" and "Hit the Road Jack." He recorded in Soul, R&B, jazz, piano blues, and even country. His duet with Willie Nelson on “Seven Spanish Angels” is one of the most remarkable songs ever made. Ever. And “Georgia On My Mind,” sweet, sweet Georgia on my mind. As close to musical perfection as you can come. Listen hard and I swear you won't believe you're alone in this world. His voice has an emotional depth and texture that few artists even come close to.

Remember his version of “America the Beautiful?” You should. It’s one of the few times I understood what being an American really meant to me. Because Ray translated it, helped me along, took my hand and, his voice catching every subtle hitch and nuance, showed me the way, showed me the reason.

Hell, there may never have been a Van Morrison without Ray Charles, and that would be tragedy to me. (Though, again, genius tends to find a way.)

Rest easy, Mr. Ray Charles. And thanks.