Nostalgia-fueled interest in retro music and contemporary artists’ expressions of “black resistance, joy, and togetherness” are at the heart of today’s soul music revival, and Emily J. Lordi’s nuanced revisionist history The Meaning of Soul redirects the traditional focus on male artists and civil rights themes, offering a more sophisticated definition of what soul artistry entails.
Lordi writes with scholarly detail and jargon, yet her prose is punchy and peppered with entertaining descriptions of artists, songs, and performances. One of her aims is to challenge existing “gender politics of soul historiography” and highlight the stories of female and queer voices, from musical icons, like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, to lesser-known musicians, like Carla Thomas and Flying Lotus. She authoritatively documents how soul artists reframed the definition of black masculinity to include quieter explorations of male “interiority,” flamboyant fashions, and opulent musical experimentation.
The book also delves into soul artists’ soaring creativity and musical craft. Lordi shows soul music to be much richer and more complex than has been acknowledged in mainstream and academic literature. From the joyful psychedelic trippiness of Rotary Connection’s albums, featuring Minnie Riperton and her five-octave operatic range, to the lengthy songs and lush orchestration of Isaac Hayes’s albums, Lordi persuasively documents soul musicians’ “virtuosic survivorship” and expressions of artistic and personal freedom.
The book also examines how soul is grounded in themes and techniques of black church worship. Many musicians honed their chops in gospel choirs and she examines ad libbing “sermonettes,” falsetto singing, and the use of false or surprise endings in recordings and before live audiences. While there are obvious examples, like James Brown’s well-honed collapse-cape-and-resurrection finales, Lordi provides others to build her case, delving into specific lyrics, recordings, and performances of performers from Mahalia Jackson to Marvin Gaye.
The Meaning of Soul is a thoughtful, lively journey through rich musical archives that expands the definition of what it means to be a soul artist.
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