January 27, 2014

When white hipsters mastered black funk

Talking Heads is one of the Whitest bands ever. Throwing on a shirt with the cover of Remain in Light is a fail-safe way to get your foot in the door with your local hipster crowd. Even more so than wearing a Ramones shirt because Hot Topic doesn't sell Talking Heads. They don't sound anything like the indie music that is popular with today's hipsters, yet they are still revered as pioneers of Seriously Artistic Rock, and if pop music must be anything to White people, it is artistic.

So it might come as a shock to learn that one of the funkiest dance-aholic hits ever recorded sprung from a side project of the band, Tom Tom Club, led by their bassist and drummer. And it's not ironically funky, or ironically danceable either. It's straight up, flat-out, unapologetically body-moving. Here's "Genius of Love" from 1981:

If you were listening to the radio in the '90s, you'll recognize this as the basis for "Fantasy" by Mariah Carey, which wouldn't sound like much without it.

Although not quite as groovy on the bass line, runner-up status goes to "I Can't Wait" (1986) by Nu Shooz. This classic of Freestyle dance music, most popular with Afro-Caribbean listeners, was in fact written and performed by a white couple from the hipster mecca of Portland, Oregon.

It's hard to remember in 2014 that white and black audiences used to dig each other's music, and that performers would venture outside of their ethno-cultural comfort zone. The flipside of white hipsters putting out funky dance hits was black guitar rock masters -- Prince, naturally (far exceeding Jimi Hendrix as the black guitar god), but also Ray Parker, Jr., not to mention every other new wave band that had a black bass player or drummer.

Throughout the '80s cocooning was at a historical minimum, allowing people from all walks of life to interact with one another, for better and for worse. It was like the outgoing '20s and early '30s, another period of heavy and non-self-conscious collaboration between whites and blacks in popular music. With the shift toward cocooning over the last 20 or so years, each group has retreated way back into its comfort zone, paralleling the cultural segregation of the mid-century music world.

The attitudes may have turned upside-down, but at least the songs are still in circulation. When attitudes finally begin to change back toward the norms of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, songs like "Genius of Love" will be right there ready to catalyze the reaction. They will serve as an awakening reminder that it's OK for white artsy types to want to get your boogie on and not be ashamed of it -- your hipster ancestors did it, and you can do it to.


  1. Your observation re Prince is spot on. See him live his guitar playing is from beyond.

  2. Thanks for bringing Prince's guitar work to my attention with this one. RIP.

  3. I don't know why it would be a surprise that the Talking Heads could spin off Tom Tom Club funk. If you listen to the early talking heads albums they were loaded with geeky, hipster funk and the quirky guitar interplay of Harrison and Byrne grounded by the solid rhythm section of Frantz and Weymouth.

    Listen to Found A Job, Girfriend Is Better, or Crosseyed & Painless.


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