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Is that a thing?: PBR&B

Is that a thing?: PBR&B

By Halley Bondy
December 11, 2012

It starts as a random media invention, then it gets a Wiki page. Then it spreads, offends, and infects the vernacular. Such is the build-a-music-genre world we live in. Unfortunately, with our desire to come up with terms to make music more palatable, often comes some seriously dumb ideas.

PBR&B is a year-old-ish term that’s now starting to crop up more and more in defining the “hipster R&B movement.” It’s a play on the word R&B, combined with the cheap-o, stylish hipster beer-of-choice, PBR. The term probably doesn’t have any real staying power because it’s too silly. We hope it is, anyway.

But talking about/making fun of PBR&B isn’t as simple as it seems. To our surprise, it caused weeks of deliberation, debate, and verbal fisticuffs among the diverse MTV Iggy staff. It was an argument that spanned everything from white entitlement to the meaning of R&B to ’90s nostalgia to whether or not there’s a movement, really, at all. The term, and the so-called “movement” behind it, has lasting consequences that forced us to tread into some uncomfortable territory, and, believe it or not, take it kinda seriously.

Even though a dude just thought it up as a joke one day….

“PBR&B” seemed to first appear in a cheeky tweet by Voice and Marathon Packs writer Eric Harvey. A few major publications would add more credibility, unflinchingly, to the term throughout the year — including the Village Voice, then the New Yorker, which slapped the headline “PBR&B Ten Pack: A primer of genre-bender records combining R&B with an indie affect on a list of albums” atop a list of  records (which included Janelle Monae and Solange Knowles — what?!?! — on top of the usual suspects). The word is now enjoying a little resurgence with The Weeknd’s latest release, Trilogy.

For some people, PBR&B seemed like an obvious reference. They’re, you know, those guys: The Weeknd, the occasional Drake, How To Dress Well, Frank Ocean, Blood Orange…the “wave” of artists doing R&B-ish stuff but “hipstering” it out with ethereal electronics. They’re stylish, cool and indie, and they’re in festival lineups. The name is funny and stupid, but it makes sense. Fine. Next. Since I’m white and live in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this type of “in-the-bubble” perspective spread time and time again without raising any eyebrows. I’ve participated in it myself, admittedly.

But, for those who have been listening to R&B their whole lives — not just since it started getting coverage on indie sites and white people started loving it again for the first time since Boys II Men’s End of the Road in 1992 — it’s less obvious, less relevant, totally random and generalizing, offensive on a thousand levels, and embarrassing. To ignore this point of view (in an age when music is hybridizing at lightning speed, no less) is hugely damaging to music journalism. It’s not just a matter of being sensitive and PC and white-guilty, it’s about enabling straight ignorance to dictate music history.

The fact that real R&B isn’t actually present on a good portion of these artists’ songs has already been argued, quite well. That most of the “PBR&B” artists are black is as clear as the New Yorker list, so too is the fact that many whites who are also doing a similar-ish sound have managed to escape the denomination (Purity Ring, Grimes, arguably).

Watch Purity Ring’s “Fineshrine”….PBR&B or no?

Additionally, in terms of lumping together a group of like-sounding artists, “hipster R&B” is rather sloppy. Blood Orange (who is NEW WAVE!) sounds nothing like Jhene Aiko, for one. And what about other R&B-ish artists who have been doing weird stuff for awhile, like Miguel? The Dream? Omarion? Maybe some Gorillaz? Justin Timberlake? What’s tacit, but very clear, is that the genre has nothing to do with sound. A PBR&B artist is a (black) person making something white hipster kids feel alright with, maybe with a little soul, plus electronics, and a cool vibe that might fit in the streets of Williamsburg. We can probably all agree on that definition.

But the entire subset of artists don’t suddenly belong to white hipsters. They didn’t discover it, nor do they have naming rights.

Watch Jhene Aiko’s “3:16″

Or do they? Can’t everyone just do whatever the hell they want? Isn’t it just putting a name on something that’s actually happening, on some level of cultural consciousness, anyway? If people are talking about it, isn’t it relevant? Doesn’t music belong to everyone? Didn’t a Jewish journalist invent the word R&B to market black music in the ’40s and we still use it? How is this even a new discussion?

Yes, it is a tired argument, but that doesn’t mean we should stop being vigilant when people act like entitled assholes, even in jest. Unlike when the word R&B was invented, people actually have the voice to stop ignorance from spreading, and take it seriously when it happens.

It won’t stop, however, until music media drops the self-segregating, and realizes that jokes have lasting consequences when you’re an important figure in the media. It won’t stop until every newsroom, not just MTV Iggy, has serious music discussions from all relevant perspectives. More importantly, it won’t stop until we quit categorizing the living crap out of everything in order to make them easier to understand. (WTF does “complextro” mean, anyway?)

So is PBR&B a thing? Unfortunately, yes. Whether or not people wind up using it is another story, but it’s a thing, in that it’s a sign of waning music journalistic standards, ongoing ignorance, perhaps unintended racism, and a world where white media co-opts music for its own, palatable purposes. A sign, in other words, of the divisive status quo stubbornly clinging on in a world that has long evolved past it.

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