Labels: Love Them or Hate Them - By Nancy Graves and Mia Stephens

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

Robin Thicke and Cowboy Troy are two examples of contemporary artists seeking to redefine American music genres. Robin Thicke is a white American who refuses to accept musical labels based on race -- such as “blue-eyed soul.” He declares himself an R&B artist, not a white man composing and singing black music. Cowboy Troy, on the other hand, is a black American, playing country music, a traditionally white form of music. He has elected to create his own sub-genre of “Hick Hop” in country music in an effort to avoid criticism and discomfort, working as a black man in a white genre.

Robin Thicke's most popular hit entitled, “Lost Without U” has a signature R&B sound. It uses a low base backbeat and low piano riff in contrast to Thicke’s falsetto vocals. Falsetto is an artificial voice that allows singers, particularly men, to sing in an octave higher than he or she’s normal range. This vocal style is extremely popular in R&B music and is used by many other artists such as Prince, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and the Bee Gees. The song is written in 4/4 key signature what all western and popular music is based on and also contains a sample from Hip-Hop group Gangstarr’s song “Mass Appeal" (Thicke). The direct sampling of an R&B song and its 4/4 signature makes it hard to ignore the R&B sound in “Lost Without U.” The lyrics of the song refer to his relationship with a woman, both physically and emotionally. He expresses his love for her and dependency on her because he is “lost without” her. He surrenders himself to her powers presenting himself as a sweet, vulnerable man instead of a dominant macho figure. This softer side goes along with the tone and sound of R&B that offers another sensual and sensitive image of men.

Although the sound may vary slightly, a similar image is presented in all of Thicke’s songs. His hit “Magic” is more upbeat than “Lost Without U” using piano, violin, and horn in contrast to the emphasis on an acoustic guitar in “Lost Without U.” While the musical sound changes, his lyrics still present a similar image as he openly declares his love for this person. What he and his lover share he calls the “magic”, but makes a point to say that it is not just his magic or hers but that they share the magic. Again, this is an image of a man not afraid to openly express his feelings and emotions. Based solely on the titles in his list discography this theme is extremely apparent. This list includes titles such as: “I Need Love”, “Loverman”, “Wanna Love u Girl”, “The Sweetest Love”, “You’re my Baby”. Each title is extremely suggestive and alludes to sex and love, but in a soft, sensual way not in a forceful or crude manner. Many R&B artists use this style, but Thicke seems to have mastered it in his own unique way only furthering his individualism and success through his racial persona.

He grew up in a musical family with his father who composed the themes for hit shows “Different Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” and his mom as an actress. His dad was a Bruce Springsteen fan and his mother more of a Whitney Houston, soul fan giving him equal exposure to different types of music. As a teen he was immediately drawn to black music, began reading Ebony magazine and writing songs for an array of artists by 16 years old. . He knew that soul was traditionally black music, but did not limit his influences to only the artists of this genre. “I’m (Thicke) inspired by Jodeci. I’m inspired by Stevie Wonder. I’m inspired by Miles Davis. I’m inspired by John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and the Beatles also.” (Allen) He clearly does not limit himself and his list of influences, but rather embraces them all and acknowledges their excellence. These influences are evident in his attitude, style and song and are all incorporated to his overall image, but ultimately he is a white guy who looks like a white guy but sings black music (Allen). But while, many try to categorize his music as “Blue- eyed soul,” he would argue that he is just creating his own R&B music.

While charts and many fans and music scholars alike call Thicke’s music R&B, others need more labeling. They need to categorize him further, placing him into the sub- genre of “Blue-eyed soul.” Blue-eyed soul developed in the Southern United States during the 1960’s when white males began performing typically black male music because segregation laws prohibiting blacks to perform in white venues (Amorosi). This appropriation began even before in the 1950’s with artists like Elvis Presley who recreated blues singer, Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”. In the 60’s it was no longer just the appropriation of the songs, but it was the appropriation of the lyrics of soul and rhythm and blues. This is what is considered “blue eyed soul today”, soul or R & B music played by white musicians. The “blue” is a racial reference to white people and the Arian race because the majority have blue eyes. Robin Thicke’s music is often labeled as “blue-eyed soul,” but he repeatedly tells press that he does not want to be labeled. In the recent Washington Post article “Robin Thicke: Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” Thicke states, "I'm not a white guy who sells endless amounts of records to white people," he says. "Eighty or 90 percent of my fans are African Americans, mostly grown black women. That's who's at my shows, who's buying my music, who's listening to me on the radio. I think that's pretty interesting…I still haven't really been played on pop radio, not like R&B. " As he talks about the status of "Magic" the first single from his new album "Something Else" as it is in the Top 10 of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart but, has barely registered on the Billboard Hot 100 (Freedom du Lac).

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Troy Coleman, a.k.a. Cowboy Troy attended many rodeos and stock shows with his dad as a young boy. He was exposed to his dad’s musical favorites including Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, Jerry Reed and Kenny Rogers. In his teen years he found new influences in the rap and hip hop artist he through MTV. "That's where Run-DMC came in," he said. In college at University of Texas, Austin, artist like George Strait influenced him. "I was blown away…I remember telling myself that this is what I need to be listening to." So he listened to everything and assimilated it into his own style that he performed at Country dance clubs before he was signed (Fabian).

Each of Cowboy Troy’s songs includes these two elements of rap and country and combines them both lyrically and musically. The titles of his songs include the words like “chickens”, “trains”, “buffaloes” referring to farm and rural country life and typical country lingo like “yee-haw”, “ain’t” and “Mama”. His titles make his music seem one dimensional, but his lyrics open up another world that mix many political and racial references. In “I Play Chicken with the Train”, Cowboy Troy acknowledges that he is a black man in the country world and also explains how he has overcome such doubts from the industry. “Uh huh that’s what they said/ People said it’s impossible, / Not probable, too radical/ But I already been on the CMA’s/ Hell Tim McGraw said he like the change/ And he likes the way my hick-hop sounds (Lyrics.com).

What is most important to note about his music is that while his songs such as “I play Chicken With the Train” and “My Last Yee-haw,” include traditional country instrumentation like the banjo, dobro, fiddle, acoustic guitar and pedal steel, as well as, rock guitar riffs, his rap delivery makes the music different from traditional country. In traditional country lyrics are extraordinarily economical, using 150 or fewer words, and the compact result is often poetic and evocative. (Lomax) In Cowboy Troy’s Hick Hop songs, he uses upwards of 400 words. “I Play Chicken with the Train, there are 424 words and in “My Last Yee-Haw” there are 463 words. (lyrics.com) The number of words is doubled or tripled due to the fast paced nature of his rap delivery. While many think that hick hop is a way of merging the black artist into traditionally white music, it is not his race that defines the genre, but the vocals that make the genre what it is.

The origins of Hick Hop are still debated but many sources claim that it originated in Appalachia prisons as a way to cut tension between the white officials and black inmates. They used the combination of country music and hip-hop music to bring them together, finding common ground between the two cultures. Hick Hop is a country/rock sound with rap vocals. The first collaboration was between fiddler Dirk Powell and hip-hop artist Danjamowf in 1990s. Their creation was “ magical—an oil-and-water mystery that held together in spite of the perceived difference” (Berkes). Cowboy Troy has had similar success working with country superstars such as Big & Rich. His album Loco Motive debuted at #2 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. The first single, "I Play Chicken with the Train," featuring Big & Rich peaked at #48 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart on April 9, 2005 and was a #1 country download at the iTunes Music Store on April 15, 2005. (CowboyTroy.com). His audience consists of mostly country music fans: southern white, middle class. He tells the Washington Times his fan base is unique because “the majority of my fans are the people that gravitate towards pro wrestling. They like heavy metal. People say I think outside the box” (Corey).

Both of these artists cross genres both musically and racially and are forced to either associate with one or forced into one: Blue-eyed soul for Robin Thicke and Hick Hop for Cowboy Troy. Each is unable to create their music without criticism, but Thicke and Troy manage to look past this criticism to something greater. Thicke and Troy both acknowledge their positions as racial outsiders among certain genres, but manage to establish themselves through sub-genres or major genres. They provide a glimpse of what will happen in the music industry as race and genre continue to be categorized. As music evolves and different genres and artist crossover, more labels will be implemented to make up for our necessity to find order.



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