The Artifact: James Taylor’s 1970 album, Sweet Baby James, the album that turned singer-songwriter Taylor from failed Beatles protegé into a world-famous golden-voiced balladeer par excellence.
I had no idea that listening to James Taylor wasn’t cool until, like, two months ago. I’ve been hearing James Taylor’s resonating twang, his crystal clear guitar, ever since I was a kid. On Dad’s classic rock radio in the car. You’ve Got a Friend in elementary school when our choir sang it for the big end of semester concert. Fire and Rain, like, everywhere.
Even if you don’t truly realize what influence that voice can have on you — even when you don’t think, for your first twenty years “Man, I LOVE James Taylor, he’s the freakin man!” — if you’ve heard his voice ever since you were a little kid, then the steadiness of it, the unmovable, pitch-perfect, melodic quality of it can act as a security blanket you didn’t even know you had. It’s a sound you want to return, to curl up in and lose yourself in. I am now letting out a contented sigh just thinking about it.
Apparently this is not cool. Because James Taylor is an introspective sissy and his music is sissy music. And James Taylor is also very white. I was not aware that these two things had been, or still were, problems when it came to Taylor’s legacy, but apparently they are. Start looking into James even a little bit past the occasional spin of Fire and Rain, and you get an overwhelming consensus that Taylor (and apparently even more than Taylor, The Eagles) definitely has something to answer for.
You can go two ways with James Taylor: 1) He sucks. His music is milquetoast anti-rock that sucked all the quintessential blackness, the blues, out of American rock-n’-roll — his music coming at a time when rock was primarily a vehicle for white guys playing the blues really loud. 2) He doesn’t suck as bad as you say he does. Taylor was profoundly influenced by black people, both his affinity for their music and his distance from and proximity to them as a Northerner who grew up uncomfortably in the South. Plus his music helped kick-start a revolution for singer-songwriters, giving the artist the power. Did you know that he had severe drug problems? That he was a troubled youth and spent time in mental institutions? That he worshipped Ray Charles and that one of his most traumatizing moments came when he saw the legend going through detox at the very establishment which he was institutionalized in? Milquetoast? I think not…
Ever since Taylor hooked up for a reunion tour with his old pal, the legend (and the much less reviled artist because she was a pioneering woman, which makes a big difference in these sorts of things) Carole King, this very quiet, very dismissive battle has been taking place with relative frequency. Two months ago, I saw the PBS American Masters special, Troubadours, which primarily focused on the early careers of Taylor and King as they became famous while living in Laurel Canyon and performing at the L.A. Club, The Troubadour. In it I found out, to my surprise that artists as seemingly low-key as The Eagles and James Taylor are widely despised. Artists whom I had always assumed were universally adored, I found out, were, both in their own time and today, singled out as objects of ridicule and criticism — mainly for being so inoffensive that they became wildly popular. “Huh…” I said. “That is surprising, but probably an anomaly.” And I pulled up a few James Taylor songs that the special had reminded me I was fond of, and I melted into that voice, and I started writing music and playing the piano again. I’ve rarely been as happy this summer then I was then.
Saw an article on NPR. It’s title: “James Taylor Is Not the ‘Whitest’ Guy You Know“. (The article’s title had to be changed, with quotes added around “whitest,” to reflect the fact that one reader took umbrage with Anne Powers use of the term “white” as a derogatory epithet meant to deride whiteness as bad — which I just find funny because, my goodness we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?)
It’s pretty common for people to accuse James Taylor of being the whitest guy in popular music. A guest column in SPIN magazine by the comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U Know accused the singer-songwriter of penning hits that make John Denver’s albums sound like Public Enemy. “Stiffer than titanium, that boy,” wrote one blogger after sitting through the singer-songwriter’s 2006 PBS special. “We could have been at a nursing home in South Carolina,” cracked Huffington Post regular Andy Ostroy of the very Caucasian crowd surrounding him at Taylor and Carole King’s Madison Square Garden last year.
Aside from being an avenue for casual cruelty, accusing James Taylor of being too white can be a way of condemning the musical and cultural shifts to which he’s tied, and for which he’s often partly held responsible. An uber baby boomer, Taylor gained fame just after the 1960s faded out, and his acoustic-based, self-reflective ballads represent a softening of the fervor of that time — as well as a turn toward pretentiousness and narcissism. Lovers of raw rock like the late, great critic Lester Bangs labeled Taylor’s ruminations “bardic auteur crap,” and that gentility has also long been associated with whiteness: chinos and picnics and skiing and gently singing along to “You’ve Got a Friend.”
A polarizing figure from the minute he gained notoriety, Taylor’s now as often imitated by young musicians as he is scorned. Whether they despise him or want to cuddle up inside his sweater vest, Taylor’s listeners still often miss the central role African-American influences play in his music.
Then I picked up David Browne’s new book about the year 1970, when music transitioned quickly from the psychedelia of the late sixties to the singer-songwriter lullabies of the early seventies. The book is titled, appropriately enough, Fire and Rain. Same thing. Taylor had a rough youth and was a very quiet but funny presence in the studio when no drugs were around. Sweet Baby James represented an unprecedented success for an artist like James, an old-fashioned ballad crooner, but with longer hair, as Browne puts it at one point. You could bring Sweet Baby James home to mom, no problem, which was a big problem for the rock-tastemakers of the post-adolescent years of rock. Nobody wanted rock to mellow out and have kids just because it was growing up. That would be a real drag.
So Taylor, it appears, as unassuming he may be as a person (he looks now like your friendly grandfather that always brings you something nice from the candy aisle and winks while you steal cookies from the cookie jar while mom isn’t looking), is, when it comes to the legacy and influence of his music, like a big “reverse race question” hanging over popular music like a singular fluffy white marshmallow cloud that rains gumdrops and cookie dough. This a problem for people who prefer their weather forecast in pop music land to be a lot less Candyland and a lot more overcast skies and hard-rockin’ thunder claps and the lighting of revolution, which are things that are, to be fair, not James Taylor’s strength.
In response Taylor defenders are forced to reinforce Taylor’s cred as if he were a late-’90s gangster rapper claiming to be the blood-hungry master of his pimps and hos, which, to my knowledge, James Taylor has never once claimed. (I am also not arguing that gangster rappers require this cred, and I find it amusing when people find an artist’s music less appealing or less moving because they lack the credentials required to speak for the people or mobilize the revolution. Is this seriously the only reason we listen to music?) “Look, James really did suffer,” the Taylor apologist must say. “He really lived with black people and listened to their music. He had long hair and had ideals. He earned the right to sing for us because he lived that hard life, that meaningful life.”
So I pop in Sweet Baby James. (Okay, I pull it up on Spotify, but it just sounds better to imply I took some sort of action other than a keyboard function, right?) The first song is, literally, a lullaby. The song “Sweet Baby James” written by Taylor not about himself but his baby nephew James, is a slow, calm, deeply moving song underscred by down-home steel guitars and James’s sharp, clear picking. “There is a young cowboy who lives on the range/ His horse and his cattle are his only companions.” This is the sound of a firestorm finally petering out, and one human turning to another saying, “It is alright, we made it.” Or of one man turning into himself and asking, “I made it right?” Isolated. Introspective. Calm. This is a problem?
Look, I hear the late sixties were an absolute romp. I’m sure they were earth-shatteringly great and simultaneously horrifying, an adrenaline rush of change and revolution and pop music that charged the times like a battery. But no time has ever been as charged since, and I don’t have a real problem with this for very practical reasons. If things had stayed as hot as they were in 1968 for the forty years which came after it, we would all have a really big migraine right now — if we had heads at all. There is a distinct possibility we might not have heads.
Taylor’s music was a soundtrack to that cooling off, the lullaby that ushered in the birth of a new decade and a new generation brought up in a time that must have felt about as stable as a capsizing ship. “Sweet Baby James” was an announcement that a new time needed a new soundtrack, one that suited the mood if only for a moment. After all, there has never been a more tumultuous transition from one decade to another, at least musically, then that which took place from 1969-1971. Pretty much every act that had been popular only two years before was irrelevent in 1972, but not irrelevant by choice — each and every one had either broken up conclusively, died tragically, or redefined themselves dramatically. Pop music had to move on, it had no choice — the sixties had left many gaps and voids, and none was more obvious and more gaping than the one in pop music. Someone needed to fill that void, and James Taylor filled it with a lullaby (“Sweet Baby James”), a gentle joke about the excesses of the past (“Steamroller”), and a eulogy to a friend claimed by the receding tumult and the chaos (“Fire and Rain”). That was 1970. Perfectly encapsulated. Perfectly sung.
That was then, this is now: today Taylor’s music is not “not cool” because it is not revolutionary or doesn’t rock heard enough. It is not cool because it is old. It is pretty much as not cool as all the music which Taylor’s music seemed like such a drastic departure from. Today, the shift, which must have seemed so dramatic then, from Stones to Eagles, barely registers on classic rock radio where Taylor plays alongside all the aggressive black-influenced rockers he supposedly ran so counter to. To anyone without the context, the difference between CSNY and Janis Joplin and Simon & Garfunkel, between that in 1969 and James Taylor in 1970 must barely register as more than a blip.
And on classic rock radio, Taylor sounds great. All the truly talented, unique artists do. They stand out from a pack of mediocrity on classic rock radio that shows you which music was truly milquetoast — that which was not good, which was uninspired. If you want more of a connection to the music then what you find on your local golden oldies station, then you either have to be old enough to remember the sea changes that defined the legacies of these artists, or you have to dig deeper then classic rock radio will allow, get your hands dirty, figure out why that fleeting connection may exist when you hear James Taylor’s comforting voice on the dial. You have to do what I am doing, dig in and discover. Soon, discovering Nirvana will be the same. This is, of course, what it means that Kurt Cobain’s voice is a staple on that part of the dial now. He’s become a part of the tapestry of sound that the listeners of the future will need to unravel as they see fit if they want to see anything beyond what the weaver, or compiler/DJ, intended when he played “Come as You Are” between “Mr. Roboto” and “My Generation.”
What draws me in to Taylor’s music when it gets its turn in that tapestry of sound? That voice, and more precisely how that voice marries that guitar, which sounds different on a Taylor record then on any other record you will hear. That is where I take my stand. When I heard Taylor’s voice as a kid, I did not ask, “Mommy, did that man live a hard enough life to earn his satus as a rock star?” or, “Mommy, why doesn’t James Taylor sound black enough?” I didn’t ask anything. I was silent. I was lulled and comforted. In my younger more innocent days, before PBS and NPR and David Browne informed me that being lulled by James Taylor’s voice is seen by many as not cool, that the voice I hear is dirtied by questions of selling out and mass popularity and race and class, all I heard was the voice. And you know what I realize as I listen to Sweet Baby James, the album that made Taylor a star and ensured him a permanent place on my radio dial for years and years to come, now at 22? James Taylor’s voice is not the voice of white people. It is not the voice of black people either. Not of rich hedge-fund babies (which Taylor is distinctly not, though the stereotype would have you believe that he was born with a silver spoon and a silver guitar) or the underclass. It is James Taylor’s voice. It is a beautiful voice that changed the way we valued the aesthetics of singing. It could be argued that it is one of the most beautiful, most moving voices pop music has ever given us. It is a voice that has captivated me ever since I was very young, and takes me back whenever I hear it to a feeling of being protected and cared for, of being swaddled by the sounds of melody, of feeling that everything might be alright if it isn’t just right right now. I mean, we sing lullabies because they work, right? Make us feel secure as we lay ourselves or our children down to sleep. No one sings a lullaby like James Taylor.