Listen to this track by pure pop singer from Victoria BC with diverse musical interests Nelly Furtado. It’s “Powerless”, a hit single as taken from her 2003 record Folklore. This was the follow up to her 2000 debut Whoa! Nelly , and Furtado had quite a job to do to follow up her ubiquitous “I’m Like A Bird” single, which was an international hit. Like that song, “Powerless (Say What You Want)” was a personal statement to frame the identity of the artist, this time in an even more overt way.
This song was one of three hit singles on Folklore that offers a pan-cultural smorgasbord of sound, matching breakbeats with a sterling contribution by famed banjoist Béla Fleck. This emphasis on diversity and tonal variation on multiple levels was a mandate from the artist who viewed a lot of the pop music on her level at the time as becoming too synthesized and culturally homogeneous.
This isn’t just about the music and how it was made, though. It’s about the subject of identity and about how the mainstream (mis)treats the concept of cultural diversity.
Nelly Furtado is the daughter of immigrants to Canada from Portugal, growing up very much aware of her ethnicity in relation to her surroundings. This allowed her to be uniquely self-directed when it came to integrating her influences, which range from TLC to Madonna, but also synthpop, rock, hip hop, and her interest and background in Portuguese folk music and culture. She also managed control over the production of her work as well, co-producing this single along with the rest of the record. Overall, she wanted her work to reflect her individuality and personal history, suggesting the title Folklore to her. That approach was tricky for an international pop star on her level in the early two-thousands at the height of the American Idol age. In 2003, the music industry along with its influence in the media was still the only game in town, with one-size-fits-all rules that had to be followed to play it. “Powerless …” reflects Furtado’s disdain for that.
To her mind, it was her cultural background and unique sets of musical interests that drove her craft, being the real force that allowed her to connect with her audience. “Powerless (Say What You Want)” is about being hampered or even locked out of that process as an individual artist, having to toe the line of a marketing and image manufacturing agenda that seeks to erase the artist from the art, or fetishizes the accouterments of an artist’s culture in order to provide a marketing hook. This model treats ethnicity and uniqueness as liabilities and not strengths when it comes to potential appeal in the mainstream. Or worse, ethnicity and culture are treated as wardrobe items, to be cast off and appropriated at the whims of marketers whether those cultural signifiers are honestly applicable or not.
The subject of mainstream culture and diversity remains to be a tricky one in 2016. Trends in the mainstream still draw upon those of other cultures and sub-cultures, very often only giving validity to them when they are decontextualized and attached to more marketable faces. This makes those artists working in a niche more vulnerable to being sidelined and sometimes out and out stolen from in order to support these kinds of marketing strategies. That leads to a whole new form of powerlessness and adds to the homogeneity of the art that comes out of that process, turning cultural backgrounds of artists and their work into fodder for mainstream pastiches or pale (in many senses of that word) imitations. In this, the set of issues that Furtado’s song raised in 2003 is still in effect.
Luckily, what has also remained in effect is that audiences still seek out music that connects with them honestly, and now with more accessible channels through which to find the best music. Some of best kind of pop music out there today isn’t calculated to appeal to a market so much as it is a reflection of where the artist is at in relation to a common audience who shares their values, culture, and musical interests. Or sometimes, innovative pop music can be best judged by the way it doesn’t include some perspectives or musical common ground, revealing meaning there that would not otherwise be revealed if the artist was tethered to the single-minded idea of reaching the mainstream at any cost. Either way, the lyrical hook that is “Say what you want” is still as good a call to action as it ever was for those who want to connect honestly with an audience, whether one shares an ethnic background, race, gender, or sexual identity with them or not.