The music industry needs more provocateurs, more artists daring to take risks.
That was one of the messages delivered by CeeLo Green Saturday morning inside the Austin Convention Center in a one-hour interview with NPR music editor Frannie Kelley.
Green, an Atlanta native, discussed his Southern roots and his varied music history, with the rap groups Outkast and Goodie Mob, as part of the duo Gnarls Barkley with producer Danger Mouse and his upcoming solo album. The former judge on NBC’s “The Voice” also talked about his upbringing and how it shaped his music tastes.
“I understand category, I understand demographics, I understand target audience, I understand supply and demand, but I do believe ultimately and essentially, when music is divided into categories, it divides people. When music is unified, people are unified.”
He was brought up in a house were there were no borders or categories.
“I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood,” he said. “I went to a military school. My mother made sure my culturalization was not confined. It has affected my music in a most miraculous yet practical way.”
Asked to name some of his influences, Green mentioned Sly Stone, Prince, Michael Jackson, Cameo and Earth Wind & Fire, but said he has been affected by artist from all over the music spectrum: “From Billy Joel to Billy Idol, from R.E.M. to ABC.”
One of his earliest influences was “The Muppet Show,” a variety show that featured a wide array of music guests and exposed him to many styles.
“I saw Kenny Rogers perform ‘The Gambler,’ I saw Alice Cooper perform ‘Welcome to My Nightmare,’ I saw Leo Sayer sing ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ and Elton John do ‘Crocodile Rock,’ which I ended up singing at the Grammys,” he said.
As much as it needs to be unconfined and open to a variety of influences, music needs to provoke and challenge, Green said. He mentioned as an example, the song “Amy,” off the Goodie Mob’s reunion album, “Age Against the Machine,” released in 2013. The song is about interracial dating.
“It's called ‘Amy’ and in parentheses ‘My Very First White Girl,’ ” Green said. “I was disappointed it did not raise as many eyebrows as I’d like to.
“Art is supposed to be dangerous and cutting-edge. It's supposed to challenge the establishment. Interracial relationships are still a taboo topic. I'm talking about unconditional love and the right to do so.”
In the humorous video produced for the song, the members of Goodie Mob appear as puppets as they discuss their taste in women.
“We were trying to be provocative but veiling a sensitive subject matter with a sense of humor,” Green said. “The ignorance that divides us is laughable at this point. I wanted to make a mockery of it.”
He also wants to shake up an industry that creates a lot of music that is “just product.”
“It doesn't have a pulse. It's not alive anymore. And it bothers me,” he said.
The industry needs insiders to advocate for music that is more serious, that is “considered to be a composition.”
“What happened to the (record label) guy who said, ‘Oh, my god. Rush’s “Moving Pictures.” This is great.’ Now they’re just trying to save their own jobs. I do believe it’s part of some corporate genocide. Sorry if any of you are involved in the conspiracy. Or better yet, take some responsibility for yourself. Demand more from yourself, demand more from your artist, demand more from your music. Don't accept. Demand more.”
Instead, too much of what is created and produced is static, Green said, comparing it to “standing still.”
“Standing still is playing it safe,” he said. “There’s no danger in playing it safe. There's nothing inventive or urgent about standing there.
I may not always make music to make you dance, but I make music to make you move, from one place to another.”