Analysis: Sly & the Family Stone

Similar to Theodor Adorno’s distinction between popular music and serious music, Keightley argues that authenticity is the most important value that distinguishes rock culture from mainstream popular music, and even one that draws lines of division within rock culture itself. He identifies two distinct conceptions of authenticity, Romanticism and Modernism. While the key characteristics of Romanticism include reference to tradition and historical continuity, where the artist is concerned with sincerity and direct expression while hiding any evidence of musical technology, Modernism is essentially the opposite. Modernism values experimentation and progress, celebrating technology and stressing the importance of the artist’s true integrity. Regardless of whether a specific rock artist or album is characterized more by the Modern or the Romantic, however, the concept of seriousness, as in Adorno’s argument, is the key to understanding how rock culture is distinguished from pop. Like Adorno, Keightley is applying value judgments to music but specifies that authenticity allows us to make distinctions within the mass culture, not separate from it.

Sly & the Family Stone was a mixed-race and multi-gendered group, unique in its time. Formed in early 1967, the Family Stone was comprised of Sylvester (Sly Stone) Stewart, his brother Fredrick (Freddie Stone) Stewart, bassist Larry Graham, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, saxophonist Jerry Martini, drummer Greg Errico, and pianist Rosie Stone. Just like the band members’ race, their musical style was a melting pot of influences and culture. A fusion of pop, soul, rhythm and blues, and funk characterized the band’s sound. Sly & the Family Stone signed with Epic Records shortly after releasing their first single, and went on to release nine records with the label. The band can be identified as belonging to the rock tradition for many reasons. The Family Stone’s music was within the mainstream, seen by their Top Ten pop hits, yet at the same time took a confrontational stance against the mass culture with their provocative, socially conscious lyrics and fusion of established musical styles. Sly’s songwriting signified and celebrated distinctive individualism that is one of rock’s most important critiques against mass society. The band’s crossing of race and gender boundaries fueled the movement for equal rights and was an ideal model of racial and sexual harmony. Taking a deeper look into the extratextual, intertextual and contextual elements, it is evident that Sly & the Family Stone embodies the characteristics of modernist authenticity.

The Family Stone’s fourth album Stand! was their first hit album, and the one in which Sly’s songwriting emerged as a strong sociopolitical voice. Contrasting with the playful dance music that characterized the previous albums, Stand! was celebrated as “infectious and informative, invigorating and thoughtful – stimulating in every sense of the word” (Erlewine). Stand! was an album that blurred stylistic boundaries and pushed social relevance with its openly idealistic lyrics. At the time, the Family Stone was known for their greatest hits being celebratory and good-hearted about unlimited possibilities, tolerance and love.

The Family Stone’s fifth album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On was completely the opposite. Released by Epic Records on November 20, 1971, Riot was a dramatic change from the band’s previous album. It was released two and a half years after the band’s previous album and the record company had been so desperate for new material to sell that it had released a “Greatest Hits” record during this period. Described as brooding, druggy, ominous and paranoid, the sound of Riot is a deep funk, a kind of bleak urban blues filled with soured idealism. The lyrics are cynical and unsettling rather than uplifting, “You can’t cry ‘cause you’ll look broke down/But you’re cryin’ anyway ‘cause you’re all broke down” and accompanied by narcotic grooves and disturbingly soothing vocal sounds that represent a kind of seductive despair. This transfixing sound came from Sly’s heavy drug use, influencing Riot as much as his hopelessness and resentment toward the major setbacks in the Civil Rights Movement in the late-1960s. “…it is conceivable that the bulk of Riot’s lyrics are intentionally indecipherable because – as Sly seemed to be saying at the time – “there’s a riot goin’ on,” and riots are nothing if not full of signs and sounds that are difficult to comprehend.” (Rabaka, 246). Against this backdrop of ghostly funk were some pop moments, the trumpet in “Runnin’ Away” makes the track seem bright and upbeat, but the lyrics underneath are disturbingly cynical, “Another day you’re farther away/ Ha ha ha ha/A longer trip back home.” Nevertheless, the record’s sound was much more soul and funk as opposed to the pop and rhythm and blues of the past. The album’s modernist authenticity is manifested in this dramatic change between albums and radical experimentation of sound that “produced an implicit political critique of society at that moment” (Keightley, 136).

While Sly’s political role as society’s conscious is evident in lyrics, it is also clear that the album reflected his artistic integrity. Riot was written and produced almost entirely by Sly alone in his home studio and the other members of the Family Stone were only heard in limited roles in the final production. Sly seemed to be much less concerned with reaching an audience, or even his “family” band members, than he was about being true to his artistic expression. The title track that ended side one of the LP is silent and listed as zero minutes and zero seconds. While there is no definitive evidence of Sly’s reason behind this obscurity, it is plainly individualistic. This artistic expression is another characteristic of modernist authenticity that “involves rejecting complacency and, implicitly, complacency vis-à-vis the social world in which the artist lives” (Keightley, 136).

Riot was Sly’s brutally honest and introspective work, codifying his disappointment, anger and resentment toward himself and toward the society in which he was living. The original album cover for Riot featured an American flag with suns instead of stars and a black background replacing the traditional blue. Sly explained the concept:

I wanted to represent people of all colors. I wanted the color black because it is the absence of color. I wanted the color white because it is the combination of colors.  And I wanted red because it represented the one thing that all people had in common: blood. I wanted suns instead of stars because stars to me imply searching, like you search for your star. And there are already too many stars in this world. But the sun, that’s something that is always there, looking right at you. (Santiago, 117).

Epic Records later replaced the flag with a photo of the band playing live as the album cover for subsequent releases; seemingly uncomfortable with the “overtly contestatory political role of the artist” that is a defining feature of modernist authenticity (Keightley, 135).

Keightley writes that Romanticism rejects musical technology while Modernism embraces it. Riot had a gritty, muddy sound due to Sly overdubbing, erasing, re-recording and mixing the tracks. The murkiness of the tracks that is due to this erasing and re-recording inhibits total comprehension of the lyrics. The use of a drum machine is unmistakable, as the band’s previous drummer had recently left the band. The overall sound is broken and unpredictable, sounding uniquely mechanical. Encoring such shock effects and radical experimentation, “Modernism embraced the chaos of the city and the aesthetic possibilities of the machine” (Keightley, 135).

Sly & the Family Stone was a band that fit perfectly within the rock culture of the 1960s and 70s, most significantly serving as a model for boundary crossings for race and gender in rock culture. Even after the band all but fell apart, Sly produced Riot, an album that displayed all the qualities of an authentic musical work. It was a radical and experimental, highly personal yet socially conscious and obviously technological record that embodied the modernist authenticity of rock. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked both Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits and There’s a Riot Goin’ On in the list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time saying, “Sly and the Family Stone created a musical utopia: an interracial group of men and women who blended funk, rock and positive vibes… Sly Stone ultimately discovered that his utopia had a ghetto, and he brilliantly tore the whole thing down on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which does not refute the joy of his earlier music.”

Works Cited

Erlewine, Steven T. “Stand! – Sly & the Family Stone.” AllMusic. All Media Network,
n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Keightley, Kier. “Reconsidering Rock.” The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock.
By Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. 109-42.             Print.

Rabaka, Reiland. The Hip Hop Movement: From R&B and the Civil Rights Movement
to Rap and the Hip Hop Generation. Plymouth: Lexington, 2013. Google
         Books. Google. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Santiago, Eddie. Sly: The Lives of Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone. S.l.: Lulu.com, 2008.
        Google Books. Google. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

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