I’ll never forget the time I got to dance with Sharon Jones. I was hanging out at the Jackpot Music Hall in Lawrence, Kansas in March 2014. It was the official after party for Sharon’s concert, which had happened earlier that night at Liberty Hall. Dap-Kings bassist and Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth was spinning soul and funk records onstage while the rest of the Dap-Kings lounged around the bar or took turns swiveling on the dance floor.
And then Sharon walked in—all 4 feet 11 inches of her.
She wore a glowing smile and sense of satisfaction and self-assuredness. She had just played a sold-out show in front of over 1,000 people in a relatively small Midwestern college town and would soon be nominated for a Grammy Award. She was also battling pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis she had received nine months earlier. In hindsight, it was remarkable that Jones was able to perform on this tour, more remarkable that she felt compelled to come to an after party having just shaked and stomped her way through 90 minutes of exasperating soul music. She had, as her album’s title suggested, given the people what they wanted, but the people had wanted a little more from Sharon that night.
When she walked into the Jackpot, people flocked to her. Everyone wanted a photo with Sharon Jones that night, and without the slightest hesitation, she happily obliged every request. She was engaging, humble, approachable, and absent of any of the trappings of her newfound stardom. Sharon also wanted to dance a little more, and at the urging of Dap-Kings’ percussionist Fernando “Boogaloo” Velez, whose encouraging smile had given me just enough misguided confidence, I snaked my way to the dance floor and approached Sharon Jones for a dance. It was for less than a minute, but I gave it all I had—a few hip turns, finger snaps, spins. Sharon seemed delighted by my enthusiastic, if only faintly dexterous, dance moves. Sensing I may overstay my welcome, I quickly ceded the dance floor to everyone else—and there were many—who also wanted to be in the presence of such an unflinching spirit.
I immediately thought back to this moment and that unforgettable, unflinching spirit, when I heard the news that Sharon had passed away on November 18 from complications from pancreatic cancer. As Gabriel Roth later told the Los Angeles Times, Jones was still singing even in her final moments, somehow finding the correct pitch to harmonize gospel songs with her bandmates who had flown out to stay with her.
It was unsurprising that all Sharon had wanted to do in her final days was to sing. Her voice had been relegated for so many years to wedding bands, cover bands, or to serving backup for other singers—an anonymity made worse by accusations that her own music was revivalist, retro, anachronistic, and hopelessly out-of-time. Looking back, such a view was so terribly shortsighted, so blinded by some pop music critics’ knee-jerk compulsion to lavish praise on the new while looking back at the old with derisive suspicion. In his expansive book Sweet Soul Music, historian Peter Guralnick takes a much more charitable view of a soul music “revival” by describing it as “simply the genuine attachment to a first love.”
Gospel and soul music—those songs that Sharon Jones was singing in those final moments—were undoubtedly her first love and her band’s first love. I have spent the better part of the last several years thinking through questions about the authenticity of first loves and the nostalgic remembrances that so often accompany them. Authenticity is an anxious, sometimes contradictory term—simultaneously burdening and liberating, self-fulfilling and hollowing, animated by a resolute sense of purpose and anchored by a rigid set of inviolable expectations. Sharon’s audiences—and the audiences who continue to appreciate soul music’s origins—are enlivened by its purity of essence and although this is merely a perception it has nevertheless prevailed with a surprising, enduring stamina. Sharon’s final moments are emblematic of this stamina—a “soulful” consciousness that one feels until it can feel no longer.
Perhaps most fundamentally, however, Sharon Jones’s music was in some way a response to a profound sense of estrangement and alienation—two perceptions that so often signal a movement towards nostalgic reclamation and a demand for the authentic. In a refrain that Jones echoed in many media appearances, she was often told she was too old, too fat, too short, and too black to ever make it as professional musician. Sharon’s abject refusal to accept these boldly racist assumptions undoubtedly animated her sense of resolve and forthrightness, but moreover, it signaled a possibility and an opening for social critique that was path-breaking in its denial of contemporary limits on what constitutes pop stardom. Her music looked backwards for its aesthetics and style as a way of affirming superiority over the present. It was an assertion of autonomy—a declaration of artistic will that was provocative in its singular focus. As social geographer Alastair Bonnett argues, alienation, authenticity, and nostalgia “are imbedded in the very possibility of political life.” Without these terms, Bonnett, argues, “virtually the entire set of other aspirations associated with the left—autonomy, freedom, equality—become suspect.”
And so in reflecting back on Sharon’s life and music, I want to suggest that there is important work to be done, now more than ever, in establishing nostalgia and authenticity as terms not exclusively limited to regressive, retrospective longing. The intentions and inclinations of musicians like Sharon Jones matter not only as reflections of prevailing social values, nor simply as duplications of prior contexts, but instead as living and breathing contributions to future possibility. For a genre like soul music, so encompassing, so rapturous, and so firm in its own sense of resolve, perhaps there is something to be lost in compromising now. Perhaps there is something to be lost in disclaiming any vestige of the past as unworthy of reclamation and preservation. “A woman like me can stand the test of time,” Sharon once sang. We owe it to her to see that she does.
Vince Meserko received his Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Kansas where he also hosted two radio programs on the university’s student-run radio station, 90.7 KJHK. His dissertation research investigates the concept of authenticity as it plays out in popular culture and popular music. His work has appeared in the Western Journal of Communication, the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. He is currently a Lecturer of Communication Studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo where he teaches classes in public speaking and civic engagement.