Authenticity, Crossover and Rhythm and Blues

American Bandstand, 1960s
American Bandstand, 1960s


Authenticity is a major theme in scholarship on rhythm and blues (R&B), which poses some interesting challenges for my work on how R&B travels transnationally.  Some writers define authenticity in R&B solely in terms of the experiences of African Americans, deeming crossover beyond the black community as pandering to the mainstream (read white people).  Others take the hybridity of black music as their starting point and suggest alternative ways of reading the appeal of R&B beyond American blacks.  The centrality of music aesthetics as well as audience agency proves most useful for my work.

For some, R&B is defined by its reflection of black life.  Nelson George throws down the gauntlet in The Death of Rhythm and Blues when he links R&B to black life that revolves around “a black community forged by common political, economic and geographic conditions” (x-xi). R&B “becomes a sad shell of itself” in the midst of attempts to crossover and appeal to non-blacks:  “As a result of these broad social changes [that include assimilation], black culture, and especially R&B music, has atrophied.  The music is just not as gutsy, or spirited or tuned into the needs of its core audience as it once was” (xii). For George, R&B’s core audience is black, while the crossover audience is white. But what about other kinds of audiences that have embraced R&B?

However, when R&B is valued for its aesthetic as well as socio-economic value, hybridity challenges such reductive racial authentication. In The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm & Blues, 1950-1999, Richard J. Ripani takes issue with George’s perception that “the music had a greater degree of ‘blackness,’ up to the late 1980s, by which time, he believes, that the potential for crossover success by black artists had sapped the music of its African-American cultural strength” (12).  Because R&B is a hybrid musical form where “every rhythm & blues song is a blend, more or less, of inherited AFrican and European musical styles. . . . it seems folly to try to determine which have a sufficient degree of a given musical characteristic to be considered ‘real.'” (8).  Instead, Ripani identifies elements of the blues system incorporated in the many genres under the umbrella of R&B.  Brian Ward complements this approach by focusing on the creativity in the music itself in Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations: “This sort of racial essentialism actually undervalues the dazzling complexity and syncretic brilliance which have characterized black American musical forms in favour of a desperate search for African roots and retentions, as if these comprised the only criteria for evaluating the worth and relevance of contemporary African American music” (11).

Moving the interpretative lens to music aesthetics also allows for a fuller exploration of audiences, and in terms of my work, opens up the way to exploring how black music travels and speaks to non-blacks. Ward recognizes the agency of diverse audiences:  “Those meanings were also constructed by individual and collective listeners, sometimes in ways which defied the initial intentions of the artists involved and transcended the economic priorities and racial conventions of the industry within which they worked.  Black and white audiences could. . .  shape the social and political meanings of musical products by the manner of their consumption” (5).

Focusing on the music, the thing that diverse audiences engage, allows me to understand how black music is embraced in its many forms by K-pop, beyond lyrics. Clearly, there is something in the music that resonates with non-black audiences. Ward and Ripani helps me to work out the meanings of music aesthetics that are embraced by transnational audiences.

Image: “American Bandstand, 1960s.” Facebook. N.d. Web. 7 Aug 2014.


George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Ripani, Richard J. The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm and Blues, 1950-1999. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006.

Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998

Fandom, Consumption and Culture

Fan studies represents a nexus where economy and culture intersect, especially when cultural production crosses national borders.  Some scholars seek to explain this phenomenon primarily using socio-economic lenses, while others stress the importance of understanding fans in ways that fans understand themselves.

In Understanding Fandom, Mark Duffett delineates two impulses related to consumption by fans:

The word ‘consumption’ indicates participation in a commercial process, but since ‘to consume’ means to digest and exhaust it also implies a kind of using up.  We can therefore separate two intricate meanings for the same word: to be part of ‘economic’ consumption means to participate in a financial transaction a a buyer, while to ‘culturally’ consume is to meaningfully examine a particular media product. (20)

Some scholars see fan activity primarily as economic consumption.  Duffett recognizes the link between fandom and commodification:  “Fandom does not escape or resist commodity culture. Instead consumption facilitates fans’ contact with media products. For some writers, this almost means, however, that fandom is primarily about consumption” (21). Koichi Iwabuchi extends this to the study of fans of cultural products that traverse national boundaries:  “Studies of fans should attend to how the persisting dominance of the neoliberal and (inter-)national framework has limited the development of transnational dialogues” (94).

However, scholars like Bertha Chin and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto view the emphasis on “the neoliberal and (inter-) national framework” as a de-emphasis on other, equally significant aspects of fandom:  “While arguably satisfying at the level of critique, and absolutely relevant in our understanding of the political implications of transnationally circulating media, the trans/national overdetermination of this perspective ultimately tells us little about what actually attracts and motivates fans; an understanding that, we argue, is absolutely critical to any nuanced discussion of how fandom works across borders”(97).  In fact, Duffett goes on to proffer a view of fans that goes beyond financial transactions:  “Fans are more than consumers because they have especially strong emotional attachments to their objects and they use them to create relationships with both their heroes and with each other. . . . Fans are networkers, collectors, tourists, archivists, curators, producers and more” (21).

What I find useful in placing Duffett, Iwabuchi and Chin and Hitchcock in conversation with one another is the possibility of developing a complex lens that recognizes both socio-economic and fan perspectives.  In my work on global K-pop fans, I seek to understand how fans see their own fan activity and how they make sense of the global culture that they consume.  Iwabuchi stresses that the consumption of popular culture must be read through a lens governed by social and political factors.  I would further suggest that this include looking at the socio-political context of producers, consumers and the cultural product itself.  In other words, how Japanese fans consume Korean popular music (or K-pop) differs from how their counterparts in the United States consume it. These sets of fans have different historical relationships to Korea and its culture, and thus make meaning in different ways.

At the same time, I find Chin and Hitchcock’s centralization of emotion and fandom, the ways that fans understand the object of appeal and the consideration of factors such as gender, useful.   The authors make the astute observation about the implications for women when emotion is shunted to the wayside in academic discourse:  “As both scholars and fans, we are hardly immune to the pleasures of the fan object, and yet there remains a level of shame attached to the notion of being a fan, particularly if one is female” (95-6). If this happens when the researchers are female, how much more so when the fandom is predominantly female.


Chin, Bertha and Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10.1 (2013): 92-108.

Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism.” Mechademia 5 (2010): 97-96.