Romance could be catching

The Baltimore Sun

The picture captures a refreshing image of tenderness. There's Barack Obama, moments after delivering his acceptance speech for president of the United States. His arm is wrapped around the waist of his wife, soon-to-be first lady Michelle. Their eyes are closed as he gently kisses the tip of her nose. Her smile brightens the profile shot of the two.

Sadly, it's an image of a powerful and loving black couple that is rarely, if ever, seen in today's mainstream or black pop culture.

In the past few days, there has been much talk about the overwhelming emotionality of Obama's historic win and the social and political changes it could bring. But beyond that, images of what appears to be a healthy relationship between the country's most influential man and his wife could help change warped perceptions of black love. With any luck, such images will also help usher in a new era in black pop music: the rebirth of the love song.

"It will be interesting to see what black artists will do with this Obama moment now that we have the most visible black couple in the world," says Ernest Hardy, critic and author of Bloodbeats: Vol. 2, a collection of essays about, among other things, black pop culture. "We are going to see an erotic charge in the White House. Nobody has imagined a first couple [in a sexual context] for 40 years. The erotic charge is rooted in a palpable love and respect they have for each other. ... My question is, 'Are artists today up to the task of conveying that?' "

It's telling that the two hits sitting atop Billboard's R&B; charts this week represent a seething confusion about strength and trust in black male-female relationships. In Ne-Yo's "Miss Independent," the No. 1 song, he sounds somewhat emasculated as he croons about the "kind of woman that want you but don't need you." This steely woman apparently has all the signifiers of success, including "manicured nails to set the pedicure off." But with the almost whiny way in which Ne-Yo sings the song, it's unclear whether he wants to be her or be with her. Meanwhile, in Jennifer Hudson's hit "Spotlight," which Ne-Yo wrote, coincidentally, the Oscar winner sings about feeling as if she's being watched by a "guard in a prison [of] maximum security." Her man apparently doesn't trust her strength.

But the war between the sexes in black pop has been even nastier over the years, going back to the keloid-scarred 'hood-rat classics of Mary J. Blige and Bell Biv Devoe in the early '90s. Just a year and a half ago, Beyonce, belting yet another Ne-Yo-penned hit, rocketed to No. 1 as she searingly told her guy "don't you ever get to thinking you're irreplaceable."

The men and women of today's mainstream R&B; rarely show a sweet and vulnerable side. It's an unfortunate influence of hip-hop. The only melodic R&B; hit to bravely do so recently came from a sapphire-eyed white guy, Robin Thicke. "Lost Without You," his lilting 2006 ballad that topped the R&B; charts for 11 weeks, was a celebration of his love for his black wife, actress Paula Patten.

"I loved that song because it showed a positive side you just don't hear in black love songs anymore," says Natasha Eubanks, founder of The, a popular black entertainment Web site based in Alexandria, Va. "When Robin put that song out there, he wasn't afraid to say, 'I need you.' Why are black men and black women afraid to say that? We just need that example of a real couple in love and working it out. That's what you see in Barack and Michelle."

Cliff and Clair Huxtable, the characters played by Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad on the beloved '80s sitcom The Cosby Show, are mainstream culture's closest approximation of the kind of couple the Obamas represent. But urban folks coming of age during Reagonomics certainly didn't see too many couples like that in their crumbling neighborhoods or on other TV stations for that matter. Besides, the only music celebrated in the fictional Huxtable household was in the form of dusty classics by Ray Charles and long-gone jazz legends such as Charlie Parker.

But the musical tastes of the nation's first black president appear to be a little earthier. Obama has admitted to having Kanye West and Jay-Z on his iPod. During his nearly two-year campaign, he was seen "palling around" with such neo-soul singers as John Legend. But some artists hope that his open affection and respect for his wife will inspire acts to write differently about black relationships.

"Barack and Michelle are physical examples of the romantic songs I sing about," says Maysa, the Baltimore-based urban soul singer whose new album, Metamorphosis, topped Billboard's contemporary jazz charts two weeks ago. The CD features "I Need a Man," a song partly inspired by Obama. "What I hope Barack will show black men is that it's cool to love your wife and honor her and take care of the kids. I think a lot of songwriters will see what they have and want to write songs about that. They definitely inspire me."

But the type of love embodied by the Obamas was once a lyrical staple of R&B.; The songs of Smokey Robinson and Gamble and Huff in particular were almost poetic and certainly nuanced in their celebration of romance and transcendental love in black America. The golden age of such grown-up love songs was the 1970s when vocalists - Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman, Minnie Riperton and others - imbued their evocative lyrics with a knowingness and vulnerability long absent in today's R&B.;

While the rise of acts such as Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly set new templates for modern R&B;, the hardness they appropriated from hip-hop stripped the genre of its transcendency. Blige and her platinum-selling disciples, namely Keyshia Cole and Jazmine Sullivan, sing with tears and venom of a love they're not really ready to receive.

Meanwhile, the male singers generally express their love through the acquisition of material things. The women on their arms must be as fly as their cars. The sad thing is that they usually see the two as one and the same.

"I hope people don't project too much on Barack and Michelle," says author Hardy. "We're so starved for something new, for new models. They're representing a return to romanticism, and we may hear that in the music. Michelle and Barack are giving us something new by looking back to the old."

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