Recently I read an interview with multi-instrumental R & B singer/songwriter Brian McKnight where the interviewer stated that it appeared Mr. McKnight managed to “push the envelope” a bit within the past year. What was he speaking about? Last year Brian McKnight recorded a controversial adult tract entitled If you’re ready to learn. His current album More Than Words contains music that would also seem to be more adult-oriented than music he has produced previously. Is that what was implied by the use of the term “pushing the envelope”.
Interestingly, I have used that term myself without giving it much thought. What does “pushing the envelope” really mean? A little research led me first to a dictionary type of definition. Push the envelope – To attempt to extend the current limits of performance. To innovate, or go beyond commonly accepted boundaries. As you examine this explanation of the term, and consider we are speaking of a musician, it would seem to suggest a forward thinker or musicians who have created new music. One of the first musicians that come to my mind is Charlie Parker. His innovative style of Bebop music was definitely new, and also went well beyond commonly accepted boundaries of jazz at the time. Also, I think about some of our great modern day classical musicians who studied the rules of composition, and then promptly decided to break those rules in the quest for new sounds. Brian McKnight, and most successful modern-day musicians, would seem to fall squarely under that definition of “pushing the envelope” with positive reactions. However, McKnight’s new musical path has invoked negative connotations.
As I dug deeper, I found that there is a more informative explanation of this “pushing the envelope”. This phrase came into general use following the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book about the space programme – The Right Stuff, 1979: “One of the phrases that kept running through the conversation was ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’… [That] seemed to be the great challenge and satisfaction of flight test.”
Notice what Gary Martin, author of the Meanings and Origins section of the Phrasefinder website said about Tom Wolfe’s use of the phrase pushing the envelope:
“Wolfe didn’t originate the term, although it’s appropriate that he used it in a technical and engineering context, as it was first used in the field of mathematics. The envelope here isn’t the container for letters, but the mathematical envelope, which is defined as ‘the locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves’. In a two-dimensional example, the set of lines described by the various positions of a ladder sliding down a wall forms an envelope – in this case an arc, gently curving away from the intersection of the wall and floor. Inside that envelope you will be hit by the ladder; outside you won’t. The point is that an envelope is that which envelops. The phrase has something in common with an earlier one – ‘beyond the pale’. Inside the pale you were safe; outside, at risk”.
Certainly Brian McKnight took a risk by writing and recording music with very sexually explicit lyrics. Why now? Why is he pushing the envelope now after eleven studio albums and a vast catalog of songs? Notice what McKnight said in a recent interview with the Huffington Post when asked about the possibility of repercussions professionally:
“I don’t think it cost me anything at all, really. I think that it did what I thought it would do, which was to let people know that I don’t take myself as serious as they do. And hopefully they don’t take their self that seriously. Nobody’s out there protesting the music of today, they just decided that they only want that from certain people. And I think that’s wrong. So I decided to make a parody based on that fact, and I was right. I make songs all the time and none of them made me the number one trending topic in the world for three days in a row. And that’s where this whole “social media” thing kind of sucks, because no one ever runs with something that’s good and wholesome.
Look at reality TV; they don’t have people on there doing good things, with the exception of “The Biggest Loser,” which I think is the greatest reality show out there, because they’re actually accomplishing something. But they’re hoping that people fight and get their weaves pulled out. So I did a song that I still think is one of the cleverest songs that I’ve ever written, but I realized that people don’t listen to words. All they do is focus on the parts that they may find offensive and sensational. And it’s sad. I just want people to take a step back, take a deep breath and actually look at something with a different perspective. But most people will never do that.”
There you have it. Whatever your thoughts about Brian McKnight’s “pushing the envelope”, his music will be judged by you: the individual music fan.