Pop Music Lags In Dealing With Interracial Love Anxieties

Feb 14, 2014
Originally published on November 16, 2014 1:52 pm

Editor's Note: Code Switch is engaged in a monthlong discussion and exploration of interracial and cross-cultural dating. Follow the conversation via the Twitter hashtag #xculturelove.

It is my humble opinion that most things in life need a soundtrack, and this #xculturelove project was begging for one. So I turned to my Facebook page and asked for song submissions. There were nearly 90 comments — with songs about love across borders and across racial lines, songs with a socially conscious message, songs that fetishized women of color, saccharine-sweet songs about racial harmony.

But so many of the songs that overtly and explicitly talked about interracial romance were pretty old. You don't hear pop stars crooning about miscegenation these days. But, as we know, coupling up across racial and ethnic lines is happening now more than ever. The 2010 census showed that interracial and inter-ethnic married couples grew by nearly 30 percent in 10 years.

So if pop music is a reflection of the issues of the day, why aren't we bobbing our heads and shaking our hips to more songs with lyrics about cross-cultural lovin'? To find out, I called up Jason King, associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, and NPR music critic Ann Powers. (We can call them the ebony and ivory of music critics for the sake of this blog post.)

First off, both King and Powers agree that the reason we're not hearing more pop songs about cross-cultural love is not that we're all totally fine with mixin' it up. Each used the backlash against that Cheerios commercial with the mixed-race family as an example. "Let's be honest," says Powers. "Americans feel more anxious about interracial romance than any other social reality and I think that's been true for the entire history of this country."

Powers says that anxiety and desire across racial lines is one of the fundamental subjects of pop culture in the U.S. "It's a subject that really resonates with American audiences," she says. She points to Creole ballads from the early 19th century written by white men expressing forbidden desires in the voice of Creole women, and to the musicals Showboat, South Pacific and West Side Story.

But things are much more complicated today. The growth of the Latino and Asian-American communities in the U.S. has added a lot of brown to what was once a black/white binary.

King says writing a pop song that delves into the complexities of today's cross-cultural romances is tough to squeeze into a marketable pop song that lasts all of 3 minutes and 45 seconds. "I think the risk now is to be able to render the lyrics in a way that is sophisticated and thoughtful," King says. He says the lyrics need to do more than say "can't we all just have a good time." Audiences expect more than that, he says, and are much more politically correct than decades past.

Powers says pop music is having a very decadent moment, that lyrics today are all about having a good time, not politics. She says the only place to find interracial attraction is in music videos and concert performances, but the visuals represent interracial harmony through sexuality. "That is where pop music is around these issues," says Powers. "It's not being honest about the divisions and oppressions that still exist." But, she says, that could change because like most things, pop music is cyclical.

When I was looking for contemporary pop songs that talked about interracial romance, I found "My Baby," by Auburn. She's a pop and R&B artist in her mid-20s who has found an audience for her music on YouTube. Auburn is African-American but grew up in East St. Paul, Minn., in a neighborhood with a lot of Hmong, Vietnamese and Cambodians. Most of the love interests in her videos are Asian. "You know, that's who I date normally. I'm very attracted to Asian guys; not to say I'm not attracted to white guys or black guys or any other type of guy."

Auburn says she has gotten a lot of grief for her choice in partners, over the years, especially from African-American men. "They'd say, 'Oh, you and this chink,' and they would make fun of him, or they'd make it seem like the relationship was a joke, it just wasn't how it would have been had it been a black guy in my opinion," says Auburn. So, she wrote "My Baby" last year to put her boyfriend's mind at ease and tell the world that it doesn't matter.

In the lyrics to "My Baby," Auburn mentions not being the same color as her Asian boyfriend and not worrying about it — she loves him anyway. It's not a deep song, it's not complex, but it hit a nerve with listeners and she says she got thousands of positive responses from people who could relate. When I asked her why we're not hearing more of these songs, it took her a moment to answer.

"I don't know why more people don't sing about it because there are a lot of interracial relationships, I mean a lot. I don't even like that I have to call them interracial relationships, I just want to call them relationships to be honest. I don't know, I don't know," she frets. "I guess we can't assume that every love song is talking about someone of the same color skin, maybe they are talking about their significant other who is someone of a different color, you know?"

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For the past few weeks, Code Switch, our team covering race, ethnicity and culture in America, has been hosting a conversation online about romance. As part of the project, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji brings us this story just in time for Valentine's Day about popular songs focusing on interracial attraction.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: The first thing that jumped to my mind when we decided to do this cross-cultural romance series was music. So I took to Facebook and Twitter and asked for song submissions. And you sent songs about love across borders, racial lines, songs with a socially conscious message, songs that fetishize women of color and songs about racial harmonies that were, well...

JASON KING: Trite as can possibly be. She's got jungle fever. He's got jungle fever. She's gone white boy crazy, black - I mean, it's just really not very sophisticated.

MERAJI: That's Jason King, music critic and associate professor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. I also invited NPR's music critic Ann Powers to chime in.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Anxiety and desire across racial lines is really one of the fundamental subjects of American popular culture and American music specifically.

MERAJI: And she points to old musicals with plots or subplots dealing with cross-cultural romance; in "South Pacific," "West Side Story," "Showboat."


SHIRLEY BASSEY: (Singing) There ain't no reason for me to love that man.

MERAJI: Jason King says look to the '60s and early '70s for a handful of hip-hop songs about love across racial lines.

KING: Songs like "Society's Child" by Janis Ian that were socially critical, dealing with the problem of interracial dating and what kind of sense it is and maybe even sophisticated point of view.


JANIS IAN: (Singing) When we're older, things may change. But for now, this is the way they must remain.

MERAJI: Both critics agree those kind of pop songs don't chart today. Twenty-five year old pop and R&B artist Auburn could only remember one and it's almost as old as she is.

AUBURN: (Singing) I don't matter if you're black or white. Yeah, I remember that one. I don't know any more.


MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) If you're thinking about my baby, it don't matter if you're black or white.

MERAJI: Auburn is African-American. She grew up in East St. Paul, Minnesota in a heavily Asian neighborhood and she dates Asian guys.

AUBURN: Normally, I'm very attracted to Asian guys. Not to say I'm not attracted to black guys or white guys or any other type of guy.

MERAJI: She says gets a lot of shade for her dating preferences so she wrote a song about it, "My Baby."


AUBURN: (Singing) I know people look at us and they wonder why we're attached, our skins don't match. But I'll say, yo, that's my baby.

MERAJI: Auburn says she worried about backlash but was surprised by the outpouring of support from people who said they could totally relate.

AUBURN: I don't know why more people don't sing about it because there are a lot of interracial relationships. I mean, a lot.

MERAJI: Jason King says writing a pop song that delves into the complexities of cross-cultural romance today is tough to squeeze into a three minute, 45 second sellable tune. He says, one, we're way beyond the black/white binary, two, the heightened tragedy around dating outside your race has tempered, and three, we're more sensitive to these issues, so what worked before won't fly today.

KING: It's got to be more than just a kind of trite sentiment saying can't we all just get along, can't we all just have a good time. There's got to be something more to it.

MERAJI: And Ann Powers says that's tough because pop music is having a decadent moment; more partying, less politics.

POWERS: There's this idea or fantasy in popular music that you can be whatever you want to be and we're not even going to talk about how difficult that is in the real world, and I think the way pop music is dealing with race, for better or worse, is part of that.

MERAJI: Both Powers and King agree, we're not past our interracial love anxieties, but like most things, pop music is cyclical. They say we could see song writers pick up the challenge in the future. Now let's hope we get something to replace "Jungle Fever." No offense, Mr. Wonder.


STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) I've gone white girl crazy, she's gone black boy hazy, we're each other's baby, we're in love.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.