Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cosby Rock

In September 1984, The Cosby Show made its television debut. According to Wikipedia:
For Cosby, the new situation comedy was a response to the increasingly violent and vulgar fare the networks usually offered... The show had parallels to Cosby's actual family life: like the characters Cliff and Claire Huxtable, Cosby and his wife Camille were college educated, financially successful, and had five children. Essentially a throwback to the wholesome family situation comedy, The Cosby Show was unprecedented in its portrayal of an intelligent, affluent, African-American family.
I never really watched The Cosby Show. I don't honestly know much about it. But for the purposes of this blog series, I find Cosby a fitting symbol - a representative, if you will, of a certain shift in '80s black popular culture. Bill Cosby is emblematic of the way in which '70s African-American edginess gradually slid into '80s African-American tameness. And as television went, so did music. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you "Cosby Rock."

In perhaps a mixed sign of our nation's racial progress, I think it's fair to say that in the world of '80s pop music, exceedingly vacuous, non-threatening, yuppified pop songs were not solely the province of white people. True, since the beginning of American popular music, black musicians have often aimed at the middle of the road, but mostly out of necessity. Come off too dangerous, and white people weren't going to buy your music.

The difference with '80s R&B, however, is that - and correct me if I'm wrong here - the focus toward the middle of the road seems to have been more of a deliberate choice. In the '70s, mainstream audiences had demonstrated great acceptance toward gritty, often political funk from artists such as Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder. In other words, white people could handle the heavy stuff. No, these '80s R&B singers wanted to make sentimental crap. But such is the beauty of true American freedom: You have the freedom to churn out Adult Contemporary schlock, if that's what you really want to do.

But I wouldn't want anyone to be fooled by some pseudo-narrative of black upward mobility. It was the '80s. Everybody was still fucked. It's just that nobody really wanted to sing about it. Well, a few people did. We called them "rappers." But come on, like that was ever going to make it. No, the future was obviously George Benson and Billy Ocean.

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