Sunday, May 19, 2024

When Club Music Went Commercial, Remixes Kept It Real

In the 1990s — when the advances from increased gay visibility bucked up against the backlash triggered by AIDS — remixes attested that the music cultivated in Black gay spaces had larger cultural value. It meant something to me when, say, Diana Ross reached out to a younger generation with “Workin’ Overtime (House Mix),” Jody Watley transformed into a sinister cyborg on “I’m the One You Need (Dead Zone Mix)” and Mariah Carey went on a historical Black music journey, evoking jazz, gospel and soul on “Anytime You Need a Friend (Dave’s Empty Pass).”

I also loved many remixes because they offered a choose-your-own-adventure approach to music. Remixes can free a song from the dictates of radio trends, marketability and the pop conventions of boy-meets-girl. For example, Watley’s song “When a Man Loves a Woman” was released with the remixes “When a Woman Loves a Woman” and “When a Man Loves a Man.”

One of my favorite remixes is Quincy Jones’s “Listen Up (Chakapella Dub Mix),” by Arthur Baker. Baker uses Chaka Khan’s vocals to create a narcotic soundscape. The mix opens with a low bass rumble, the way a storm signals its arrival. An uncharacteristically raspy Khan starts wailing. Her vocals bring to mind sounds Frederick Douglass describes in his autobiography, music made by enslaved people: “They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.” She roars, “I’m in love,” over and over and over again. The wildness of the repeated phrase suggests madness, but a relatable kind. It makes me think about what, on the surface, seems so irrational: a Black queer person risking alienation from the larger Black community to shape a distinct identity around the inexplicable wants of the heart.

Other remixes form narratives. On the “Every Woman’s Beat” remix of Whitney Houston’s 1993 cover of Khan’s signature song, “I’m Every Woman,” the producers David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory use Houston’s vocals to create an impressionistic tale that charts the journey from external desire to inner fulfillment, similar to the theme of “The Wizard of Oz.” At the start of the track, Houston repeats, “anything you want” as if she’s compelled by craving. Then she yells, “I got it,” before proclaiming, “I’m the one.” It feels as if a glittery Glinda had just whispered to her: “You’ve always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.”

There is another function of the remixes I cherish most: They instigate precious memories. As James Baldwin wrote: “Music is our witness and our ally. The beat is the confession, which recognizes, changes, and conquers time.” Some remixes remind me of the 1980s and ’90s, when music forged in Black queer spaces began reaching the mainstream. Remixes were one way of preserving Black queer aesthetics amid economic incentives to make club music more commercial.

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