Lionel Richie: The Obama of Pop Music


In 2016, when Americans take stock of Barack Obama’s presidency, they may determine that he did very little to improve the lives of everyday black people. But what is indisputable is that Obama will have forever altered people’s perceptions of what a black person in America can accomplish.

Such has been the impact of Lionel Richie as well.

Back in college, Richie, a native Alabaman who attended Tuskegee Institute on a tennis scholarship, formed the Commodores with some schoolmates. Like many familiar Motown acts of the ’60s and ’70s, they dressed alike, danced alike, and harmonized in an airtight manner, merging funk, soul, and disco. But by the early ’80s, Lionel Richie had outgrown the Commodores.

Richie struck out on his own as a solo balladeer, becoming one of the best-selling artists of the decade. His rise concurred with Prince’s and Michael Jackson’s, with none of the innovation. The music Richie played was earnest and emotional, more reminiscent of Barry Manilow than Barry Gordy. Funky basslines gave way to elaborate string sections, as coked-up revelers in sockless loafers danced on stucco ceilings where brick houses once stood. By and large, the former Commodore was making white music for white people. He was no longer just another successful black recording artist; he was the world.

Back in 2004, when Richie, now 64, was at perhaps the nadir of his career, I interviewed him before a gig in Stuttgart, Germany. I asked if he’d had a dream the night prior, and whether it was awesome.

“When I tour, I have the weirdest dreams,” Richie replied. “I’m in my house in L.A., and I walk out the door, and I’m in Dubai. I cover the world in about five or six snaps now. I have what you call ‘global dreams.'”

On May 30, before an enthusiastic crowd at Seattle’s KeyArena, Richie kept most of his Commodores hits contained to a medley. His introduction and the accompanying nostalgic video footage half-mocked this era of his career. However, when Richie announced the final song of his encore, the decidedly unfunky “We Are the World,” he oozed an extraordinary amount of pride.

In the video for “Hello,” a clay sculpture of Richie’s mustachioed visage is created by a blind female. She can’t see him, but his face is familiar enough for |her to form with her hands. The resulting bust is big, beautiful, and beige — an apt metaphor for Richie’s music.

Richie took dead aim at the gooey center of ’80s soft rock and made the most commercially successful version of it, his songs serving as exultant sing-along fodder. (Richie acknowledged as much when, during his concert in Seattle, he asked the audience if they were ready for two hours of karaoke.) As a black artist who made his bones by whiting out his Caucasian contemporaries, he was stealthily revolutionary, detonating whatever box black music was contained in and leaving a landscape for future Kanyes and Kravitzes to chart whatever courses they damn well pleased.

In 2012, Richie reissued a collection of his greatest hits with an ingenious twist. Tuskegee was a duets album, featuring contributions from some of country music’s biggest stars: Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Jennifer Nettles, Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, Shania Twain, Darius Rucker, Willie Nelson, and Kenny Rogers, who hit No. 1 with Richie’s “Lady” in 1980.

Tuskegee shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, Richie’s first success of that magnitude in 25 years. Nashville, like a pack of Republicans with Colin Powell among them, fell all over Richie, slapping together a tribute concert during which Luke Bryan reminisced about how he used to romance college girls over glasses of Chardonnay on the bed of his pickup while listening to Lionel. In all likelihood, that’s bullshit, but the sentiment was spot-on.

It’d be easy (like Sunday morning) to say Richie got lucky, but it’d be more accurate to say that his timing was purposeful and perfect. Mainstream country today is like soft rock was in the ’80s, and here Richie was again, reaping the benefits. But far from a mere masterstroke of opportunism, Richie wouldn’t have found such a warm reception down South had his music not meant something to those doing the receiving. The accomplishments of his prime, once derided by some, had stood the test of time — and time had come down on his side. His performing at Bonnaroo on June 14 is, perhaps, the biggest proof of this.

It remains to be seen whether history will be as generous to Obama, but odds are it will. As president, he’s played the long game, confident his legacy will overcome any passing peccadilloes. He, like Lionel, has dreamed globally, viewing the world not in black-and-white, but in beautiful shades of beige. Fiesta forever, indeed.