Opinion: Are White Singers Taking Over R&B?

Last night’s MTV VMAs magnified a growing trend: Blue-Eyed Soul. Will R&B go the way of rock?

After two decades of music industry dominance, R&B/soul music disappeared from the popular scene and has just re-emerged with a new face—a white one. This summer, Robin Thicke released his chart-topping R&B single “Blurred Lines,” an international hit that has remained No. 1 on the Billboard 100 for 12 weeks. The feel-good song is so inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” that the late singer’s estate is considering a lawsuit. Miley Cyrus’s summer smash “We Can’t Stop,” a concoction of R&B, chopped-and-screwed hip-hop and pop stylings that’d sound at home on a Rihanna disc, follows Thicke on the charts, peaking in the No. 2 spot. Meanwhile, Justin Timberlake’s vintage soul single “Suit & Tie” singlehandedly took over the Grammys in February, ushering in the Timbaland co-visioned comeback album The 20/20 Experience, which sold two million copies in less than two months. When did white artists become the kings of mainstream R&B?

The 1990s was decade almost completely dominated by black R&B voices. Boys II Men’s “End of the Road” sat atop of the Billboard charts for 13 weeks, beating out the record set by Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” Artists like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, TLC, Toni Braxton were staple names in the top 10 of each year’s “Top 100.” Yet by the mid-to-late 2000s, traditional R&B crooners like Usher, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown were sniffing the electronic dance music boom across the pond led by DJs like David Guetta.

But R&B is beginning to shed the fist-pumping trend in favor of revivalist soul music. According to the New York Times article “Blurred Lines Makes Robin Thicke White Soul’s Leader,” white singers—Thicke, Mayer Hawthorne, Eli Reed, Allen Stone, Nick Waterhouse and Jamie Lidell—jumped to the forefront as the “preservers of a heritage.” It’s a truly outrageous claim when considering the recent critical and commercial successes of Miguel and Frank Ocean, who despite incorporating everything from rock to psychedelia, are firmly rooted in R&B. Yet the Times’ statement seems to be reflected by the FM dial. Miguel’s hit single “Adorn” and “Sure Thing” topped the 2011/2012 Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop and Top 100 charts without any airplay from Top 40 music channels like Ryan Seacrest’s L.A.-based KIIS. Ciara’s “Body Party” is surely popular—the track peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100—yet still no burn from New York’s pop station Z100. What gives?

“Blue-eyed soul” (also known as “white soul”) is rhythm and blues and soul music performed by white artists. And these tunes have a much easier route to mainstream crossover success than those recorded by the likes of Fantasia, Trey Songz and Kelly Rowland. It’s the very definition of white privilege: Unspoken advantages enjoyed by white artists that evade people of color. It’s part of why Adele’s brand of poignant, heartbroken love songs—birthed from the school of Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald and Mary J. Blige—have racked up armfuls of Grammy Awards (nine total, for those keeping count) while her sophomore album 21 has sold an unbelievable 26 million copies worldwide, according to International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Meanwhile, Melanie Fiona has similarly made her name with breathtaking vocals, emotional ballads and retro instrumentals. Her trills sure do warm the soul, but they’ve afforded her less acclaim (Melanie scored two Grammy wins for minor categories Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best R&B Song for “Fool For You,” a collaboration with Cee-Lo) and far less in sales (neither of her two albums have been RIAA-certified). This is no knock on Adele; 21 is a great body of work. And VIBE cover star Robin Thicke has the catchiest song of the summer with “Blurred Lines,” not to mention his impressive album of the same name. Yet while blue-eyed soul singers were once anomalies, glitches in the system. Today—on the charts—they’re frontrunners.

R&B, originally called “race music,” once referred to any music intended for African-Americans. In the 1940s, for marketing reasons, the music industry coined the less offensive acronym “R&B” for rhythm and blues. By the ’50s, what would be later classified as rock n roll was spawned from race music/rhythm and soul and made attractive to white audiences. And now, Elvis Presley sits atop the hall of fame throne as the “King of Rock and Roll.”

The history of black music being appropriated and popularized by white artists continues. Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore and Robin Thicke today; Elvis Presley and The Beastie Boys and The Beatles yesterday. When it comes to creating success as an artist in historically black genres of music, either white singers simply do it better, or black singers do not have the skin color necessary to shine as brightly.