If popular culture is to be believed -- and, granted, as cultures go, it's a pathological liar -- the most important thing about soul music appears to be your response to it. Not just whether you stir at all, though that factors large, but the extent of your contortion. Because the soul in question isn't really the music's, it's yours -- and that's all part of the package.
If you're at a loss as to soul protocol -- or if, merely liking the music on Rhino's new six-disc '60s soul compilation, Beg Scream & Shout!, you don't go into fits of apoplexy at the sound of Marvin Gaye -- all you need do is refer back to the pantomimes seen in movies (The Big Chill), on television (Murphy Brown), or at post-Lee Atwater Republican victory parties. In a festive spirit, William Hurt or Candice Bergen or Newt Gingrich sets the turntable to spinning Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, or Sir Mack Rice. (Not all soul singers were famous.) People in the vicinity -- who, in the aftermath of the soul era, all seem to be over 40, professional, and white -- start making various ... gestures. At first, these might just be chance facial tics, or just that nod that most of us get from listening to music we enjoy. But then the faces cinch up like drawstrung sweat pants. Their hands commence to clap in a way that says not so much "I can keep time" as "There's a groove in there somewhere." They may even begin to snap their fingers and utter sundry whoops of joy. For extra soul points, they might cry, "Ow" -- it does, after all, hurt so good. And then the pelvising begins -- a wholesale dry hump of the air, assisting those clapping hands in their search for the groove. And then, after the various whitefortyfessionals bite their lips, loosen their ties, and ... oh, the humanity ... start to dance, a soul-drunken number of them might elect to sing along. "Muh-staang SALLY," they yawl. "Ah think you bet-tuh suh-LOOOW, yo MUH-staaaang down." In their attempts to emulate the soul singer, the partiers flirt with blackface. But no -- it's the soul, you see. The deeply felt condition of humanity, wrung from a pop song, articulated through stiff steps and isometric facial exercises.
Granted, real live people who happen to be over 40, white, or professional don't necessarily behave this way; all sorts of people like soul, and some of them even know how to dance; and when real live people do snarl and stomp along with music like an enthused animated corpse, it's usually because they're enjoying it, and, more important, relishing their memory. Soul music is, after all, as inextricable a vein in the boomers' bygone youth culture as big band music was in that of their parents. (That is, once again, if pop culture isn't telling a whopper.) And like big band music, soul was slick -- an orchestrated music, meticulously planned and produced, and a canny exploiter of the sort of advanced oiling available in the studio.
None of soul's artifice makes it bad. The idea that tunes like "In the Heat of the Night" (Ray Charles), "Function at the Junction" (Shorty Long), or "Piece of My Heart" (Erma Franklin) -- all offered here -- allegedly inspired grand mal is quite admirable. If a producer, or even a musician, can manipulate a bunch of handy, predetermined ingredients (in the case of soul, predominantly from African-American sources, but with a healthy respect for the pop necessities of the day) and convince people that they're hearing passion, immediacy, abreaction -- hell, we can call that art, can't we? Contemporary R&B, with its vacuous displays of proficiency with voice set over canned background, pales. Boomers liked soul for a reason.
Younger listeners, whose preferred types of music owe much to the stuff heard on Beg Scream & Shout!, might have a thing or two to learn about the form. But unpackaging soul music from its vital cultural setting might be just as difficult as getting the stuff out of Rhino's damn box. The packaging imitates one of those 45 boxes that Mom or Dad carted around back in the day. The discs themselves are dolled up like old singles, with sleeves, plastic platters, and old label imprints. The contents also include a booklet and about a thousand soul singer trading cards, with pictures, bios, and tiny soul-quiz questions and answers. Some of the biographical material is interesting, if partisan. "The grit-and-grease of The Contours stood in marked contrast to the ready-for-prime-time sheen of other, more urbane Motown acts. ... It's hard to believe that the lyrics were written by no less [sic] than Smokey Robinson, the premier composer of romantic soul ballads." True. But then comes the inevitable cheerleading for the deified: "To truly appreciate the power of raw, undiluted funk, you could go out of your way and buy the entire Parliament-Funkadelic/Ohio Players/Cameo back catalog. Or you could simply do what I did and sit in the backseat of a taxicab for a half hour on the hottest day of the year. That way you could observe firsthand as your driver -- a robust, hairy, awkward man -- reels through a series of convulsions to the tune of 'It's Your Thing' by the Isleys." Yes, that's very nice -- but I already knew that people liked the Isley Brothers. And I already knew that people act foolish when they hear soul. As for the generous packaging: You don't need an entire printing press to wrap a fish.
The collecting of 144 soul singles by different groups and artists is obviously the end result of celebration, if not necessarily cause for it. And the culling is impressive, both in terms of variety and attention to lesser-known players. So Beg Scream & Shout! is certainly worth owning from an archival perspective, or a nostalgic one. But is it possible to appreciate what went into the songs without the image of a tubby yuppie wiggling his butt to the music? Here and there, yes. Soul's borrowings from gospel -- a vocal tradition where feeling is an imperative -- have endured best of all: the hard, regular rhythmic bass, the movement of riffs in adamant, contrasting patterns almost as heavy, or at least as insistent, as what we hear in metal. (A good back-to-back example on the set is the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart" and the Capitols' "Cool Jerk.") And where what Rhino has classified as "soul" gets furthest away from Motown -- the white crossover -- it sounds best. Not because it's more authentic, but because it's less typical. Listeners who first heard the Meters' "Cissy Strut" -- a smoking funk prototype -- must have thought they'd encountered something otherworldly.
And here and there, there are moments of true (if commercial) art, such as the well-placed major-to-minor-key modulation on Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." And elsewhere we have art not in the lofty sense, but in the broader one -- of craft, of product. To listen to Beg Scream & Shout! in its entirety is to appreciate the strategic arrangement of musical elements -- pieces of music not exactly prefabricated like machine parts, but specifically functional, like anatomy. Different organs -- horn sections, bass lines, vocal parts, drum patterns -- work on their own, but also support the living whole. And if you begin to sense that the results are more tinkered than miraculous ... well, welcome to the wonderful world of popular music.
But wherever we sense art in soul, there's still an overwhelming aftertaste. We have learned what to make of soul and its cling-ons. Hose with all your might, but some of these elements are quite firmly stuck to our cultural patio. "Shake a Tail Feather" by the Five Du-Tones summons a ghostly frat party. "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" by the Starlets resuscitates a yellowed army of bobby-soxers. And trying to listen to "Time Is Tight" by Booker T. & the M.G.'s without thinking of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in their dark suits and glasses is something very much akin to the pretentious rock critic's Sisyphean task in hell. (I'm hoping to stand in boiling lead instead.)
But if reacting to soul music is culturally overdetermined, at least it's not unpleasant. The ascending "oh, oh, oooooh" flourish in "Just One Look" by Doris Troy might be artificially sublime, but sublime it is. The string section on Ray Charles' "In the Heat of the Night" may well have been retrieved out of Tupperware, but it's not bland. And as for the endless succession of clever dodges from what might be considered the singles' one true title -- "Let's Fuck" -- aren't these fun? "The Monkey Time"; "The Real Nitty Gritty"; "Open the Door to Your Heart"; "Tell Mama"; "Baby Workout"; "Big Bird"; "The Oogum Boogum Song"; "Backfield in Motion"; "Seesaw"; "I'm Your Puppet"; "Fly Me to the Moon"; "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man"; ad infinitum. Isn't that all we ever really wanted from a pop song?
There is a level on which we can accept cultural packaging without reservation, as long as we don't have to watch old people mug and dance. And even that can have its interest. As heavy as the baggage that comes with soul is -- made even heavier by the components of Rhino's box set -- it will remain hilarious to watch a face bawl up and mouth along to a singer's euphemisms for the sexual act. So go ahead, older folk, wobble off-center and thrust your hip bones pell-mell. Show you've got soul.