||Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13
By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Contributing Editor
This essay is indebted to the work of Jason King, for whom a brilliant book on Luther Vandross surely awaits.
“Where oh where, are all the real men…You got eyeliner on, chillin’ and maxin’/See you're a man with a spine extraction/So what I'm askin is plain to see/Are there any straight singers in R&B?”—KRS-One “Ya Strugglin’” (1990)
“Superman can fly high way up in the sky (cause we believe he can)/So what we choose to believe can always work out fine/It’s all in the mind”
—Luther Vandross “Make Me a Believer” (1984)
Their names ring out like a roll call of singer’s singers—Johnny Mathis, Jimmy Scott, Eddie Kendrick, Ronnie Dyson, Al Green, Rahsaan Patterson, the fabulous Sylvester and, perhaps most spectacularly, Luther Vandross. Those men whose wildly emotive voices summoned both spirits and gods—and much rumor and innuendo that their voices supposedly betrayed the strength and vigor of Black masculinity.
Luther Vandross, a child of the post World-War II period who came of age during the height of the Black power movement, was more than aware of the Soul Men-turned-Race Men tradition and the hyper-masculinity and hyper-sexuality that the tradition emboldened and even demanded. Men like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, Brook Benton, Wilson Pickett, Bill Withers, Isaac Hayes, Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass captured the imagination of Black America during an era when hyper-Black, hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual icons seemed logical retorts to on-going political threats. These were icons, perhaps best represented, in the images of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) and Soul on Ice author Eldridge Cleaver. But Luther Vandross’ first musical loves were largely women—women like Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations and Patti Labelle and The Bluebells, who arguably provided more nuance and range to the world-wind of emotions that Black Americans confronted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More specifically, Vandross’ models were first-class divas, but his embrace of them was not about a diminished masculinity, indeed it was about constructing a fierce masculinity, which challenged the prevailing logic of Black Macho.
Luther Vandross emerged as a solo vocalist 1981 with his “debut” Never Too Much, which featured his seven-minute revision of the Hal David and Burt Bacharach classic “A House in Not a Home,” a song which originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1964. Prior to the release of Never Too Much, Vandross earned a strong reputation for his work as a background singer and arranger (he also sang commercial jingles) and as a guest vocalist—he sang lead on the Change recordings “Glow of Love” and “Searching” and was featured on Quincy Jones 1978 recording And…Stuff Like That. He also provided lead vocals in an ensemble simply known as Luther, which released two recordings for the Cotillion label in the late 1970s. “A House is Not a Home” is the track that established Vandross as a balladeer extraordinaire and revealed his exceptional talents as an arranger. “There is a refined majesty about Vandross’ version,” Jason King writes in his essay “Any Love: Theft, Rumor in the Work of Luther Vandross,” adding that “Indeed the drama and intentional stakes of Vandross’ version seem higher, more explicit, as the domestic melodrama becomes amplified.” “A House is Not a Home” also helped Vandross establish himself as a staple of the “Quiet Storm” radio format—a late night urban radio format featuring soft ballads, which was created by the late Melvin Lindsey when he worked at Howard University’s WHUR in the mid-1970s. Vandross’ reputation as the premier Black male balladeer of his generation was so pronounced that he quickly became even more synonymous with the “Quiet Storm” than Smokey Robinson, whose recording of the same name inspired the late night format.
Eschewing the familiar church and chitlin’ scene that powerfully influenced Black vernacular culture in the 20th century, Luther Vandross was a representation of late stage Black modern style—professional, accomplished, extravagantly stylish and necessarily so—a Black template for the metrosexual “mirror men” that British journalist Mark Simpson introduced into the popular lexicon more than a decade after Vandross emerged. Indeed Vandross’ style harked back to an era when Black men such as Duke Ellington, Billy Eskstine, Miles Davis and Nat King Cole embodied “High Negro Style” but there was also a sprinkle of post-Soul glam (courtesy of his early apprenticeship with David Bowie and of course his devotion to those divas). A quick survey of some of Vandross’ signature album covers—The Night I Fell In Love (1985), Give Me the Reason (1986), Never Let Me Go (1992)—bears this point. The stylishness of men like Eskstine and Davis countered a Black masculinity that in their era was often depicted as ragged, rugged, buffoonish and dangerous in mainstream media. Although the sexuality of the aforementioned men bubbled hotly just below the surface of their images (and, in the case of Davis, below a propensity for violence against women), they were a far cry from the crazed “Gus” (actor Walter Long in blackface), whose desire for the sweet Whiteness of Flora (actress Mae Marsh), forced the latter to jump off the side of a cliff in Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith’s cinematic treatment of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman. Had Vandross emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, like say Johnny Mathis or Jimmy Scott, little perhaps would have been made about his emotiveness or his hyper-stylish excesses.
Instead Vandross emerged during an era when public performances of Black masculinity were dominated by the notion of Black Macho—an ideologically constructed masculine identity, thought to be in sync with psychic energies of the Black Power Movement. In her controversial book Black Macho and the Myth of the Black Superwomen, Michele Wallace offers a critique of “Black Macho” suggesting that “his” appearance was motivated by “revenge. It was not equality that was primarily being pursued but a kind of superiority—Black manhood, Black macho—which would combine the ghetto cunning, cool, and unrestrained sexuality of Black survival with the unchecked authority, control, and wealth of White power.” The late film-maker and activist Marlon Riggs was even more explicit in his critique of “Black Macho”—a critique that pivots on his identity as a “Black gay man.” According to Riggs, “by the tenets of Black Macho, Black Gay Man is a triple negation. I am consigned, by these tenets, to remain a Negro Faggot. And as such I am game for play, to be used, joked about, put down, beaten, slapped and bashed, not just by illiterate homophobic thugs in the night, but by many of Black American culture's best and brightest.”
In the context of the recording industry of the late 1960s and the 1970s, Black Macho was not an explicitly political construct, at least in the traditional sense of the word. While Marvin Gaye’s recording What’s Going On is generally thought to be a significant example of politicized Soul music, the political undercurrents of songs like “Inner City Blues” or “What’s Happening Brother” didn’t necessarily translate into Gaye being thought of as any more of a political figure than most of his musical peers. Most audiences understood that Gaye’s cultural politics could not be easily conflated with traditional notions of political struggle. Yet popular culture was a critical site for the contesting of ideological discourses that sought to marginalize Black masculinity, particularly within the realm of heterosexuality. One would be hard pressed, for example, to identify figures in 1970s soul that would be comparable to Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson or their cinematic counterparts “Sweetback” and “Shaft” (though Isaac Hayes’ “Truck Turner” comes close) unless the hypersexual antics of the aforementioned figures are isolated from their more explicitly political activities of challenging “the man” as it were. When “Black Macho’s” role is reduced to that of a hypersexual archetype of Black masculinity, as was the case in much Black popular culture during the era, then artists such as Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Major Harris (whose “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” was covered by Vandross), easily ascribed to such roles. Gaye’s sexual opus Let’s Get it On (1973) is paramount here, establishing Gaye as the quintessential “sex man” of the Soul era.
Luther Vandross’ nuanced, refined and, as King suggests, “sentimental” masculine performance was at odds with the available notions of Black masculinity that existed in the late 1970s. The same could be said about Vandross’ musical performances, as King suggests that the “singer’s soulfulness, the authenticity of his ‘Blackness,’ comes under fire because of his lack of ‘masculine’ funk. Precisely, Vandross comes to represent the loss of funk in Soul.” As Riggs again notes, within the “tenets of Black Macho, true masculinity admits little or no space for self-interrogation or multiple subjectivities around race. Black Macho prescribes an inflexible ideal.” It is in this context that Vandross is doubly queered for not being man enough and not being Black enough—queered, to use the language of John Nguyet Erni, for embodying “surplus representations” of Black masculinity.
Critical to contextualizing Vandross’ “queerness” in the early 1980s is to read him against the dominant Black male soul singer of that era, Teddy Pendergrass. The long-time lead vocalist of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Pendergrass embarked on a solo career in 1977 and quickly became one of the most popular Black male soul singers of the era. Pendergrass was often referred to as “Teddy Pender, the female Bender” in reference to his status as a hypersexual icon, very often performing to “ladies-only audiences” in the late 1970s. The differences between Pendergrass and Vandross were stark; While Vandross cooed “Forever, For Always for Love,” Pendergrass literally demanded sex on tracks like “Close the Door” and “Turn off the Lights.” Whereas women often threw their lingerie at Pendergrass when he performed on stage, Vandross responded to such antics with the now well circulated quip, “I am not flattered by that. Come and pick up your drawers”. Vandross, however successful he was very early in his career, was still a blank slate to his fans—there was no queer narrative to project on Vandross’ body—just yet.
Pendergrass though, was at the peak of his fame and poised for cross-over acceptance, when he drove his Roll Royce into two trees in the early morning on March 18, 1982, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. If Pendergrass’ literal paralysis could be interpreted as the metaphoric fracture of the “Black Macho”, then the subsequent disclosure that he was found in his crumpled up car with a well-known transsexual (with a significant criminal record) should suggest that the “Black Macho” was indeed in a state of major crisis. Tellingly, Vandross’ ascendance as the dominant male R&B vocalist of the 1980s and early 1990s, occurs in the context of Pendergrass’ symbolic fall from Black masculine “grace.” Whatever challenges to Vandross the Black Macho could muster, though, would not come from within the world of Soul and R&B. As R&B became synonymous with the refined corporatized style that Vandross, in part, helped initiate, hip-hop (per the above KRS-One quote) came to define Black Macho. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, R&B and hip-hop, in fact, reflected sharp distinctions with regard to accepted performances of Black masculinity, leading author and activist Sister Souljah to assert that hip-hop had “brought the bass” back to Black music.
Not surprisingly, as Vandross’ popularity increased so did speculation about his sexual identity. A bachelor throughout his life and never publicly linked to any romantic interest (male or female), Vandross was intensely protective of his private life and created a context where his silence about his sexuality created anxieties among his audiences. As such, Vandross was equally invested in distancing himself from overly “feminine” masculine performances. In this regard, a figure like the late dance artist Sylvester, who personified a more flamboyant Black gay style, was as much a threat to Vandross’ “sentimental” masculinity as “Black Macho”. Vandross often undercut perceptions of his “queer” identity by buttressing a “fierce masculinity,” drawn from notions of a hyper-masculine diva. The on-going behind the scene tensions when Vandross toured nationally with Anita Baker and the vocal group En Vogue, as well as a fairly contentious spat with Aretha Franklin in the mid-1980s, provided the first public insight into this aspect of Vandross’ identity. En Vogue would later dub Vandross “Lucifer,” which became a marker of how he negotiated his masculinity in private. Publicly, however, he remained silent about his sexual identity. Indeed, in his silence, Vandross become a metaphor for the fears and apprehensions about homosexuality and HIV within Black communities—the widely circulated rumors that Vandross was dying of HIV in 1986 and that he had died of HIV in 2000 are some of the ways that those fears and apprehensions manifest themselves in those communities.
But it is exactly Vandross’ “surplus representations” and his silences about them, that helps situate alternative notions of Black masculinity between the poles of Black Macho—contemporarily rendered as hip-hop thug—and the so-called Black male queer. Vandross’ refusal to perform either pole—as if the name LUTHER best defined his masculinity—forces us to re-imagine what Black masculinity can look like without the constraints of Black Macho or the queerness that Black Macho demands in opposition to him.
An extended version of this essay will appear in Mark Anthony Neal’s forthcoming book The TNI Mixtape, which will be published by New York University Press in late 2007.
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