Local Current Blog

Caroline Smith and the resurgence of blue-eyed soul

Caroline Smith performed to a full house at First Avenue on Friday night (Photos by Nate Ryan/MPR)

Friday night was a big one for Caroline Smith, who brought her much-anticipated new soul band to First Avenue’s stage to play to her largest hometown crowd of the year. With her new album, Half About Being a Woman, out on the same day, the show symbolized the last step in her transition from cute indie-folk darling to bold and sexy R&B frontwoman.

So how was it?

If you want the short answer, I can tell you that Smith and her revamped band—which included her longtime Good Night Sleeps cohorts Jesse Schuster and Arlen Peiffer, plus keyboardists Charlie Smith and Elliott Kozel, guitarist Jake Hanson, and vocalists Ayo Awosika and Hannah von der Hoff—held the audience rapt, leaning heavily on the new material and infusing old favorites like “Denim Boy” with their more bass-driven, Stax Records-channeling soul sound.

But once we start to dig deeper into what was happening on stage Friday night, things get a little more complicated.

2013 has been a banner year for white artists embracing the “classic” soul sound that was pioneered in the late ’60s and early ’70s by Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and other acts on the Motown and Stax Record labels. From Robin Thicke to Miley Cyrus to Justin Timberlake to Minnesota’s own Har Mar Superstar, this resurgence of the blue-eyed take on black music has been leading many around the country to ask the question: at what point does cultural appreciation cross over into cultural appropriation?

All of which might sound a little heady for a recap of a show by a beloved local act playing what was obviously a celebratory show in her hometown. But it was difficult to ignore the elephant in the room on Friday night—especially when the evening opened with one of the only persons of color on the bill, Toki Wright, questioning why the alleged “gatekeepers” of the scene continue to ignore the music being made by the predominantly black community of artists living in North Minneapolis. And when Smith and her band took the stage, I couldn’t help but think back to her interview with Chris Riemenschneider in the Star Tribune, in which she detailed how a one-month visit to the Harlem neighborhood of New York sparked her transformation into an R&B singer. Does spending a month living amid and engaging with black culture give a person the authority to adopt elements of that culture for their own creative and professional gain? Is this helping or hurting the separation between black and white artists in Minneapolis? Should we think about that, and should it matter to us?

Though we may like to think we’re in a post-racial era, the fact is that we live and work in a scene that continues to be extremely segregated. I think the answers to these difficult questions often come down to whether or not the performer is authentic and sincere in their approach, and that’s what I spent the majority of Smith’s show wrestling with. As she tried and failed to twerk for her all-white crowd, then proceeded to play a fairly uninspired cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You,” something felt downright uncomfortable about the presentation. But at other times, her new material sounded so vivacious and she and her band played so joyfully that it was hard not to get swept up in show’s giddy momentum.

The MJ cover was especially unfortunate because it immediately followed her show’s most disarming moment, which was a performance of the heartfelt and wrenching title track off her new album, “Half About Being a Woman.” At her strongest, Smith can be an unabashedly honest and endearingly vulnerable performer one moment—as the curtain went up at the top of her set, she was so flattered and flabbergasted by the turnout that she could only beam and utter, “What the f***?”—and turn on a dime to become a sassy, confident frontwoman the next. She’s certainly mastered every hand gesture and hip shake in the Beyoncé playbook, effortlessly working the crowd into a tizzy as her bandmates took turns soloing under the spotlight. And she has wisely enlisted the help of other powerful female vocalists (including Lizzo, who couldn’t make this show due to being on tour with that other hot Minnesota soul artist of the moment, Har Mar Superstar) to help her ditch the ever-present quiver in her singing voice and find a stronger, brassier tone.

A big theme on Smith’s new record is female empowerment, and on that note her performance delivered in spades. One of her most charming characteristics is how aware she is of her own awkwardness, and even the twerking incident couldn’t throw her off her game as her infectious positive energy emanated out into the room. When Smith leaned into the more feminist messages on her new album, she truly was able to transcend the racial overtones and offer up a message that was universal, and unifying.

Not to turn this into a State of the Union-style write-up, but something I found inspiring at this show, and at Har Mar’s show at First Ave, and at the Hip Hop Harambee block party last weekend is that there does seem to be a movement happening here in the Twin Cities toward consciously integrating various scenes and communities. Toki Wright has been at the forefront of this movement for a long time, and even the idea that he and Smith are sharing bills and working on music together (she will appear on his new Pangaea album) symbolizes something greater than two artists finding each other in a busy scene.

And that’s absolutely something worth celebrating.

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  • Brainz Downz

    this article perpetuates all the negative points it addresses…replace caroline smith with elvis and see how well the article works. -brian d. downs

    • http://www.gypsyforlife.blogspot.com/ Trista Crass

      …It works just as well. Elvis is used as an example of cultural appropriation through music all.the.damn.time. He’s infamous for bastardizing and stealing bits and pieces from Hawai’ian musicians–many of whom were never paid or even credited for their contributions to his albums.

      • Dr Dre

        Ok how about The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Justin Timberlake, The Bee Gees, David Bowie, Adele, Doomtree, The Beastie Boys, Darrius Rucker and about a million others? Can you point out which ones of these are OK for me to enjoy and which ones aren’t? There is a big difference between blatantly “stealing bits and pieces” from artists who didn’t get paid for their work and getting inspiration from artists and musicians, whatever race they may be.

      • The Soc

        that was his point

        • Dr Dre

          yeah i was agreeing with brainz

          • http://www.gypsyforlife.blogspot.com/ Trista Crass

            Derp, sorry! I totally misread that. My mistake!

    • yesplease

      Branz Downz.
      You are absolutely on point.

  • Christmas Ginger

    hahahahahahahaha

  • Eric Nelson

    The Current used to be an alt/indie rock station. I am confused about it’s move toward hip-hop, R&B, etc.

    • Paula

      The first song The Current played was ‘Shhh’ by Atmosphere. They were never not hip-hop, R&B, rap, etc.

    • Medium Zach

      It’s hip hop shows (Redefinition & now H2, hosted by Siddiq & Kevin Beacham) have been part of the station since nearly the beginning.

      • Eric Nelson

        Fair enough, but the station has clearly tilted more in the hip hop direction lately. I used to have it on always and was a member. But I’m more an Arcade Fire, The National or Bon Iver type of listener. I understand that people have different tastes – that’s fine. I am just confused by what The Current is trying to do.

        • Chris G.

          They’re trying to play worthy music regardless of genre.

  • Jeff

    This article is totally counter productive.

    Andrea, you’re uncomfortable with Robin Thicke, Miley, and JT, so then the obvious jump to you is to go to Har Mar and Caroline? What the?! Music has been one of the few places in society where segregation was more challenged and cross-cultural influence was embraced further than other places. So, Paul Simon was inspired in Africa, so is Graceland objectifying African music or is it a glorious collaboration? And then, by this line of thinking, how is the current okay with playing african american and latino inspired music? None of the DJs in regular rotation are people of color – but then wouldn’t having a african american DJ only play music inspired by American black culture be also weird and objectifying?

    You see – this is the problem. You’ve used a indie-rock musician who was inspired to bring something inspired and exciting to her to the scene she currently is a part of and then put a magnifying glass on the source of inspiration and wonder if it is okay if she is inspired by it? This perpetuates the problem. The songs are hers; the melodies, beats, way of making music is of course bigger than her because we all stand on the shoulders of giants, but those are her songs. And they are damn good.

    Plus, the MJ cover was solid.

    Love the current, love your writing, but I wish you would have thought this though more before using Caroline for your soap box. Put the last paragraph at the top take a positive tone on collaboration and this would be a sweet thing to highlight.

    Love this scene,
    -Jeff

    • Mikael Witte

      I don’t think this is a counterproductive argument. This is simply the continuation of a conversation that’s been going on at least since jazz music became popular with white audiences. It’s certainly true that cross-pollination and collaboration are a large part of what keeps art vibrant, and that it shouldn’t matter what race an artist is, nor should it matter to a radio station what their DJs are. But this is not an indictment of the performance. It’s broader than that.

      I think the important point here is exactly that Ms. Smith was inspired to take her music a soul/R&B direction by traveling to Harlem instead of finding it through the music going around her. She may not be objectifying black culture, but she is not integrated into the culture right in her backyard – she had to travel to a stereotypical home of said culture to find its value. The problem is not that she appreciates and wants to make R&B. Rather, it’s a lack of awareness or acknowledgment of the cultural context into which she has inserted herself, perceived if not real.

      • Jeff

        A whole lot of assumptions about her process here, but let’s just say for a second that the reason she went to New York was just that – to immerse herself in the bedrock of the very music she had been inspired to make. To learn. Yes – I can learn to make country by going to rochester – OR I could go to freaking Nashville. Where do you think the country scene is more pervasive?! If in fact that is what the NYC time Andrea points out was about, this is more the height of respect and dignity towards an art form than stripping off some slice of it to sell on the street as is implied by Andrea here. Please tell me how one could ever make art that they weren’t born into and satisfy this condition?

        And Mikael, you assume that she is not currently integrated into a culture here and that she doesn’t value what is in her back yard; I’d be careful with that assumption, as I highly doubt you actually know that or could measure that in some way that isn’t equally as gross as what you are accusing.

        So here you have a “broader” indictment of Caroline’s process without any facts leading into what that process is, the inspiration behind it, who she collaborated or didn’t collaborated with, etc. All because there was some insecurity coming out of a blonde haired blue eyed girl making R&B. That is what I find ridiculous on one hand. On the other hand we have Andrea singling out Caroline for martyrdom in what is quite an exercise in grasping at straws to make a point.

        I hope they ignore the crap out of this article and just keep on keepin’ on.

      • Rita Kovtun

        False. According to this Vita.mn article (http://www.vita.mn/music/225231022.html?page=all), Caroline grew up listening to R&B music (“I didn’t grow up listening to indie-rock or other kinds of hip, weird music; I grew up listening to TLC, Beyoncé and other ’90s R&B — fun, a little bit cheesy, but good R&B,” said Smith.) … Do your research before you start pointing fingers and assuming you know all the influences that have culminated in a musician’s artistic output, please.

  • Roger Wilco

    There are so many uncomfortable proposals in this article. Choosing Caroline’s show as the catalyst seems aggressive and arbitrary. Why the Current would choose this show and ignore the “cultural appropriation” that happens with, say, Doomtree or Gayngs or Har Mar Superstar is beyond me.

    It’s ironic Andrea would question the “gatekeepers” of the scene given the Current is considered one of the largest.

    But by and large the most offensive part of the review was the timid stance it took. Either you feel Caroline is appropriating black music for personal gain or you don’t. Wrapping it in the guise of a larger discussion seems like outsourcing white guilt.

    • Guest

      I completely agree. Watching Caroline on Friday night, I was struck
      by the feeling that she (and her band) believe in the music they are
      making. They are damn good at it. She has combined her style with a
      genre she grew up listening to and admiring. I felt that she was
      absolutely authentic and sincere in her approach, more so than when she
      played the “cute indie folk” songs that first put her on the map. But is
      that what you would feel most comfortable with Andrea? Should white
      artists stick to those genres that are consistent with “elements of
      their culture”? Should she not have had an opening act such as Toki
      Wright that so exemplifies the movement of melding different scenes and
      movements? What is your stance exactly, you weren’t bold enough to say?

      And if you don’t think she’s appropriating black music, then what an unfortunate way to present your argument.

      I grew up listening to music of many cultural influences. If I dance to
      those songs, buy those albums, go to those shows, am I then being
      unauthentic? Do I have the “authority” to move like Beyonce? I listen to
      what sounds good to me. I dance and groove without “wrestling” with the
      heady concepts you tried very hard to outline above. Music has indeed
      been a vehicle to bring people together and make them feel good. It
      seems as though you may have been the only one in the audience on Friday
      night incapable of understanding this. Maybe the status quo of white
      DJs playing white music on a radio station with a similar ethos will
      make you feel more comfortable?

      It was a poorly thought out article from someone who should have known better.

    • http://scottolstad.com/ Scott

      “Either you feel Caroline is appropriating black music for personal gain or you don’t”

      I think this misunderstands the point of this article. I don’t believe Andrea was trying to determine whether or not Caroline is appropriating black music for personal gain. I think she was using the Caroline Smith show as a jumping off point to have a conversation about some conflicted feelings she (and many others) have had this summer in light of Robin Thicke, Har Mar, JT etc. success. A strong “stance” might be important in an argument, but this is a discussion. So you may not get the black & white answer that you were hoping for (no pun intended).

      The question isn’t whether Har Mar should be allowed to play soul music. The question is why does Har Mar get a day dedicated to him by the city of Minneapolis? Is that indicative of a deeper problem within our music scene where white artists (for whatever reason) find an easier pathway to success than black artists?

  • Chris G.

    I’m confused as to why it is considered unhelpful to the music scene or a rip-off off when a white artist writes and records R&B or Hip-Hop music (even if at one time they made folk music)??? I must be misunderstanding your questions here.

    To address comments regarding why the Current plays Rap, Soul, or Hip-Hop music… Why are these genres so criticized?!? Sure there are plenty of crappy R&B/Rap artists, but there are also PLENTY of artists making crappy rock (INDIE-rock even) music. This really frustrates me.

  • yesplease

    This is just bad journalism

    • yesplease

      I’m sorry Andrea Swensson this is just a dreary, uneducated response.

  • Guest

    Andrea Swennson writes another trite, vanilla, amateur article that takes no position and educates no one. There you have it.

  • Iver

    Swennson writes another trite, amateur article that takes no position and educates few. There you have it.

  • speedyvespa

    “As she tried and failed to twerk for her all-white crowd”… must have been quite an effort to check to make sure that’s an accurate observation. Who’s segregating now?

  • Joe Jakk

    Totally agree. Honestly for me this was written like a bad, 9th Grade essay that would maybe get a B or B minus tops with a more lenient teacher. I’m pretty sure most of the people who commented on this post could write a better, more informative article than this one, myself included.

    What annoyed me especially was when she talked about the “gatekeepers” being the ones keeping great black artists out of the scene. Swenson and her colleagues at the current (with the exception of perhaps David Cambell) perpetuate this issue by being the very same “gatekeepers” of the scene who promote generally boring, generic and uninspired local music while leaving many of the real adventurous boundary pushers of the scene largely an afterthought unless P.O.S. or Ryan Olson is involved in the group (Marijuana Deathsquads) and BARELY talking about great black artists in the city something she based the article on. Pretty bad.

  • terel

    I was at the show it was good toki was surprisingly good who’s back up vocalist is a white female put him on another level ..very good together.. I congratulated them both.. here’s my thought I don’t think it matters once an artest puts their music out it’s not black music or white music red or purple it’s just music and if someone wants to be influenced by it they can be just like when I make a piece of furniture If someone wants to use the design as an influence in there next piece ..well I guess I would take that as a compliment and nothing else and if you havent ever been to one of Hannah van Der Hoffs shows you should…… and let’s not all be purists here everyone does most things for gain –

  • Guest

    There is a very backwards and pointed theme to this article, which, let’s not forget – was supposed to be a show review.

    Instead, it became something much bigger, and it’s frankly
    disappointing to read Andrea, who’s a major player in the local music
    media, to make accusations (“start a conversation”) about cultural
    appropriation without really taking a stance on it, or displaying any
    knowledge on that topic at large, why it’s important, and without any
    regard to the many (sometimes conflicting or hypocritical) aspects of
    such a topic, especially in the modern age. Culture doesn’t just mean
    your skin color of even your socioeconomic standing, not now, and not in
    the mid 1900s when this was a bigger issue. Seems to me she made the
    Good Night Sleeps into an easy target just to fit in with all the other
    american bloggers (largely with no authority on the subject) and squeeze
    in some pointed remarks on something she has no business talking about
    to begin with. Culture Appropriate has been one of the hottest current
    topics in entertainment media, but I have yet to read a well-formed
    thought on the subject, and I certainly don’t need one from a show
    review – I was glad when the poor articles on the subject died down
    after the VMAs, and it’s almost laughable for it to be mentioned in this
    regard, at this time, while considering even the most basic factors.
    Appreciation and Appropriation are a thin line, and the writer might
    have meant to take the high road here – but she didn’t – it comes off as
    ignorance and/or a misguided article that lacks factual reporting. I
    didn’t expect much more from the City Pages – I do expect more from The
    Current and that’s certainly something I hope the editors and the
    producers are considering, if nothing else – based on the responses to
    this article and the level of reporting they’re interested in publishing
    and the certain impact it has on the community.

    I know this band
    to be fairly genuine. These are young and independent artists who
    collaborate and create regularly on many levels, and have all been a
    part of the music scene locally for years, coming a variety of different
    upbringings and personal and musical styles. It doesn’t seem
    moderately fair to compare them to mainstream media artists. I’d be
    incredibly offended if I was this band, who’s members have been immersed
    in more than one Minneapolis scene since forming and have been
    hardworking Minnesota musicians dedicated to their craft, their
    community, and finding a niche. It’s also pretty funny to think about
    the years of collaborations between all different types of art and music
    scenes in Minneapolis and try to portray it as if Caroline and Toki are
    part of some new or grand development.

    I personally feel like
    the judgements made in this article are very damning – not just to this
    group, but also to the audience, or to other artists. Are artists
    supposed to censor themselves based on how they think the media will
    critique their influences or their appreciation of certain styles? Should people with one skin color only like things made or sold to them by people of their same skin color? Seems to be the question with performances is – was it successful? Did you enjoy yourself? Did you like the music? Did you want to dance? Did it feel genuine? Was the performance solid? Who played? What did they play? How did they play it? How did it compare to past performances from the same artists or similar artists? What’d I miss? Where can I catch it next time?

    I understand that it’s hard to please everyone, and appreciate a journalistic approach to bigger questions, but I find this article to be pretty unacceptable. I
    hope the writer and staff of the Current reconsider their stance, and
    someone else is asked to do the next show reviews from here on out.

  • Me

    Word….. kudos Ms. Swenson…. agreed.