It wasn’t until I heard Mavis Staples’ unapologetic purr on Arcade Fire’s newest single “I Give You Power” that I found myself wondering who this mystery woman was. As it turns out, her role in the music world isn’t really that big of a mystery—a realization that made me feel like a bit of a cultural illiterate. After schooling myself a bit on Staples’ musical history, I also learned that she’d be appearing on the new album by Gorillaz, which then led me to wonder why these alt-rock luminaries were so eager to collaborate with her at this particular moment in time. After a bit of contemplation, I remembered Johnny Cash and his alt-rock revival a few years before his death. He revitalized the scene at a time when music somehow needed him, and I believe Mavis Staples has come forth with a similar mission.
When Johnny Cash covered “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, it created a strange quantum bridge between old school country music and contemporary angsty pop-metal. In working with Rick Rubin and American Recordings, the legendary country musician suddenly shared a label with the likes of System of a Down, Slayer, Danzig and Lords of Acid. While this was indeed an outcome that no one could have predicted, there was something about the last few albums that Johnny Cash recorded that felt at home with the more nihilistic members of American’s roster.
What’s interesting about of Cash’s Hot Topic-friendly fame is that it came as a result of his own musical interests. He approached Chris Cornell and Soundgarden about covering “Rusty Cage” in 1996, and he also approached Trent Reznor about covering “Hurt”—Reznor was initially worried that the request was some kind of gimmick—but his take on both of those songs introduced Cash to a whole new audience that he would fascinate during the final years of his life.
So what was it about Johnny Cash’s concluding years that made him so endearing to the cynical Gen Xers of the 1990s? Why did fans of Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar find themselves listening to an artist whose devout Christianity led him to appear in the 1973 film The Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus? The long answer has to do with Cash’s musical instincts, some expert use of the music video format, a bit of borrowed nostalgia and a lot of legitimately great music. The short answer? It was a sign of the times.
In many ways, the late 90’s and early 2000’s saw the last battleground between angry, conservative culture Nazis and musicians who built their careers on shock value. When artists like Marilyn Manson and Eminem started to rise in popularity, the sad remnants of the Parents Music Resource Center once again took up arms against the forces of evil that were running rampant across the radio waves. With groups of angry moms blaming heavy metal music for everything from teenage pregnancy to the Columbine Massacre, Johnny Cash arrived like a badass uncle that bought beer for you and your friends. I remember being a teenager during this controversial time period, and let me tell you—watching this rough-lookin’ bastard in a black duster ride up and start covering Nine Inch Nails gave all of us angsty teenagers an unexpected upper hand in our fight for the right to party.
It’s been almost a decade since the release of Cash’s last album, and it’s starting to feel like gospel legend Mavis Staples is stepping up to fill the void that the Man in Black left us with. Staples is a powerhouse in her own right, boasting a music career that began in the early 1940’s when she was singing with her father and two siblings as part of the Staple Singers. Since then, she’s had one hell of a musical career.
During the 1960’s, the Staple Singers became mainstays in the Civil Rights Movement, appearing at several rallies and gaining a following that included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Right around this same time, Mavis Staples had the honor of refusing Bob Dylan’s hand in marriage—“I told him I was too young,” Staples recalls in an interview with The Boston Globe. Staples also enjoyed a longtime friendship and collaboration with Prince, who she considered family. As if her career as a civil rights activist, her refusal of a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan, and her role as the surrogate mother of one of the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” wasn’t badass enough, Staples has never stopped making music. With a resume like that, it’s starting to become clearer as to why some of today’s most respected artists are clamoring to collaborate with her.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced her Grammy-award winning 2010 album You Are Not Alone. M. Ward gathered up a list of heavy-hitting songwriters that include Justin Vernon, Neko Case and Nick Cave for 2016’s Livin’ on a High Note. Oh, and have you heard Staples ripping it up with Pusha T and Gorillaz on “Let Me Out”? Fan-fucking-tastic.
With a roster of collaborators that could easily headline any Coachella Festival, Staples has started to generate some considerable, college radio street cred—much like Johnny Cash’s experience with the goths and metalheads of the late 90’s. Again, these collaborations are a result of the fact that Staples has remained a prolific and respected musician in her own right, but the cultural underpinnings of her indie-rock appropriation are too massive to overlook.
Johnny Cash’s presence in the late 90’s music scene was like that of a surrogate father to those who perhaps grew up too fast or read too much Palahniuk and realized that their dreams probably weren’t going to come true. Despite that glaring cynicism, something about Cash’s music made it easier to accept a reality that had been built on the dashed hopes and broken dreams of the younger generation.
With her history as a civil rights activist and the seemingly unconditional love that Staples seems to have for everyone who has influenced her life, her presence in today’s music scene appears like a beacon of optimism and positivity in a world that is nearly crippled with xenophobia and self-congratulatory ignorance.
I suppose it just goes to show that, most of the time, we really don’t know what we’re doing until someone older, wiser and more talented shows up to dust us off and whisper the comforting words, I’ll take you there.