Arts & Culture

On Culture: What’s with PBR&B?

Craig Lindsey.
Craig Lindsey.

Hipsters ruin everything.

These days, whenever something is associated with those too-cool, too-savvy, too-annoying young adults, it can be seen as pretentious or ironic or just hipstery. For example, I was Googling some info on this new music artist named FKA twigs, and I saw on her Wikipedia page that she is associated with a subgenre known as PBR&B.

Upon further research, I found that PBR&B is also known as “hipster R&B,” which explains the merging of the Pabst Blue Ribbon acronym (the beer is a favorite among hipsters) with R&B. It turns out that PBR&B has its own Wikipedia page as well, listing such artists as Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Miguel and Drake as its most valuable players.

If you haven’t heard any of their music, it can be described in several ways: alternative, personal, druggy, emo – basically, how you would also describe hipsters. The songs can be smooth and stylish, but they can also be experimental and out-there.

But the subgenre isn’t just exclusive to light-skinned sensitive types – music done by enigmatic artists like How to Dress Well and Shy Girls (don’t be misled by the names; they belong to two white guys) can also be classified as PBR&B.

As you’ve probably guessed, it all started as a joke. Three years ago, music writer Eric Harvey made this tweet: “Okay, so out of the nascent PBR&B thing of Weeknd, How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean, it’s not even a question that Ocean is the best, right?” Needless to say, the term was picked up by media outlets and music writers. Some rolled with it (New York Post called the term “amusing”), while others took umbrage (The Awl deemed it “offensive”).

It got so out of hand, Harvey wrote a piece on Pitchfork last year responding to what he started. “I have mixed feelings about being linked to such a phenomenon,” Harvey wrote, also admitting that if someone else coined the term, he would’ve resented it. (He did it because he loves puns.) But he wasn’t trying to give a proper description of the music these artists were creating. “In more modern terms, it’s music rooted in African-American traditions that … well, to put it bluntly, might sell to white people for whom other types of more rhythm-focused or bluesy modern R&B might not.”

While it may sell to white people, it may also scare off black folk or people who aren’t into R&B altogether – and here’s where I get a little agitated. As a diehard fan of all forms of black music, I feel that I often have to remind people – whether they’re white or black – how credible, multifaceted and ever-evolving rhythm and blues can be.

You don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with people (who claim they listen “to everything”) where I’ve listed off several names, from classic soul singers like Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway to independent contemporaries like Eric Roberson, Bilal or North Carolina’s own The Foreign Exchange to the inventive PBR&B players like Ocean and Weeknd, that are worth their listening time. For more modern-pop listeners, if it’s not mainstream pretty boys like Chris Brown or Trey Songz or divas like Beyonce, they don’t have the time for it.

So when something like PBR&B comes along, I worry that having such a cheeky term for this subgenre of music might be a turn-off. Curious listeners may dismiss the music as being too soft or different or highfalutin’ (or, as they say in African-American circles, saditty).

I recently asked Cicely Mitchell, one of the founders of the Art of Cool Project, what she thought of the term. For the past few years, the locally based nonprofit organization has been bringing indie/alternative R&B artists to the Triangle for shows, even bringing a bunch of them to Durham this year for the first-ever Art of Cool Festival.

“I find the name funny,” she said. “I think artists that fall into this category actually draw a diverse audience of people, including ‘black hipsters.’ ”

I’m not a black hipster, but I like many of the artists associated with PBR&B. And if hipsters do find this music appealing, then keep on listening. (I know a white girl who fits the hipster description and just loves Weeknd.) But certain music shouldn’t have to be relegated to or associated with one group of people, nor encapsulated to a dismissive, even derogatory term.

Remember, rhythm and blues was once referred to as “race music” back in the day, until music journalist/producer Jerry Wexler had the good sense to change it to rhythm and blues. And, yet, PBR&B still sounds worse.