Teena Marie never became a big star.
Which is an enormous shame.
I doubt it had much to do with her skin color. If history has taught us anything, it is that the richer and more profound the work in popular music, the less successful it is. Depth has never been a best seller. Marie didn’t leave Jesus in the parking lot. Even when things got heated in the bedroom, there was an undercurrent of faith that warmed us, and that elevated Marie above James’s two-dimensional pothead and inspired the listener to not only love profoundly but to live profoundly as well.
She was, I believe, a person of faith.
A soul singer during the profoundly soulless 1980’s where the
separation of church and state—between Gospel and “secular”
music—was much like the Korean DMZ or the Berlin Wall. Yet she
didn’t hesitate to incorporate unmistakably Christian dynamics
into lush love songs, elevating them well above the tepid and
soul-grieving booty calls our young people call “music” these
days. Against actual orchestras populated by actual people
bowing actual instruments, Marie crafted more than just a bunch
of tunes. She was a master at the art of creating an album—a
complete creative statement that flowed from the first cut to
the last. Albums used to tell stories—with a beginning, middle,
cliffhanger for the side break (vinyl albums needed to be turned
over at mid-play), and a rousing race to the end. I used to
maintain a list of perfect albums—flawless or near-flawless
works you could just drop the needle on track one and go sit
down. You didn’t need to skip around the album to avoid duds,
and the album as a whole created a deeper and richer experience
than its individual parts. Whereas most everything these days
sounds like it was shot out of a cannon, with intolerably high
levels of compression and intolerably low levels of songwriting
skill, Marie created sheer poetry and then painted her sound
canvas like Michelangelo.
She began at Motown as a protégé of Rick James but quickly and effortlessly eclipsed James creatively if not commercially. James’s Street Songs was certainly on my perfect album list, but so was Marie’s Irons In The Fire, released, I believe, at the same time. Songs trounced Irons on the charts, but Marie’s was the far superior work. James’ project seemed to be either that singular stroke of lightning or (as I suspect) Marie herself (who allowed the veneer if not the reality of an intimate relationship with James) may have influenced the project somehow. Songs was uneven in places, but that imperfection contributed to its overall success (as did Marie’s vocal on the incendiary “Fire And Desire”). James’ lyrics, however, were pedestrian, a high school kid scribbling in math class. Marie penned transcendent poetry that pierced the heart, challenging your thinking and convictions in life and, yes, in faith. While James’ hedonistic sophomorisms gave no quarter to conscience or conviction, Marie didn’t leave Jesus in the parking lot. Even when things got heated in the bedroom, there was an undercurrent of faith that warmed us, and that elevated Marie above James’s two-dimensional pothead and inspired the listener to not only love profoundly but to live profoundly as well.
Teena Marie never became a huge star.
Which is an enormous shame.
I doubt it had much to do with her skin color. Madonna, her
Christian satire unburdened by much in the way of depth beyond
parties and sex, pulled up alongside Marie and then left her in
the dust. Madonna, as he name implies, titillated with religious
iconography while stripping them of meaning. Marie’s work always
resonated with struggle while Madonna’s work was a cartoonish
celebration of youthful recklessness that demanded nothing of
the listener and made being shallow, thoughtless and
underachieving into seeming virtues. And who is to say she
wasn’t right? Madonna’s work never seemed to care much about the
listener, her music seeming all but indifferent to and resistant
of depth of any kind. Like Janet Jackson after her, Madonna
seemed concerned only with her own navel and leading millions of
young fans to party, drink and screw without pondering any of
life’s deeper questions. Teena Marie’s lush ballads were always
full of complex characters, Marie loving these men (all of whom
sounded like variations of Rick James) almost in spite of
herself. She was hardly Gil-Scott Heron or even Nikki Giovanni
or Maya Angelou—both of whom she admired greatly. But her work
had meaning. Listening to it forced the hearer to question their
motives, behaviors and beliefs, something Madonna, Janet or
James never did. Which was perhaps why they were more
successful—they never challenged us. Appreciating their music
required no effort on our part whatsoever. If history has taught
us anything, it is that the richer and more profound the work in
popular music, the less successful it is. Depth has never been a
Marie’s eviscerating, at times over-the-top balladeering was certainly her strength, but she could thump like the bad boys, out-funking James right out of the box with the infectious “Behind The Groove,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” and her huge hit, the reverb-drenched “Square Biz.” She never found her stride in the 90’s and, frankly, I lost track of her after I blew a fuse in my car stereo and literally stopped listening to music.
I am deeply saddened by her passing. Even more so that it is barely a footnote during this holiday season. This four-foot-ten white woman was a giant in African American culture.
Christopher J. Priest
2 January 2011
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