If you are too offline to know what “Verzuz” is, or too young to understand why everybody has been raving about Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight on social media this weekend, let me help you out (sort of). You missed one of the greatest, possibly defining, cultural events of the pandemic era because you decided Instagram had too many ads and you thought, what, the women who helped define the R&B genre are “old people” music?
First off, Patti and Gladys — and their surprise guest, Dionne Warwick (who, notably, was Whitney Houston’s cousin) — made some of the most important music in American history. Whether your knowledge of their discographies started after their hits were made or, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of their songs, you can and should recognize echoes of their work in current hits such as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade album, or Chloe x Halle’s “Forgive Me.”
And, if you somehow missed the “Verzuz” phenomenon, basically, two artists perform (or in the case of producers, play) up to 20 songs of their discography and discuss them while streaming on Instagram (and now AppleTV) in a nominal “battle of the bands” — though, really, it’s viewers who win. Beginning in the early days of the coronavirus quarantine, matches were between current stars, but over time “Verzuz” has evolved — technologically and otherwise — to include the greats of past decades.
Which takes us to Sunday, when all-time greats Patty LaBelle “faced off” against Gladys Knight for the aforementioned bragging rights. Of course, the singing was flawless; of course, the competition sublime; of course, bringing in Dionne Warwick just added to the perfection. But for many people, listening to them sing their back catalogues and compare stories brought up so much more than that.
For me, their music stirs up childhood memories of Saturday cleaning and Sunday cooking: I was raised by my grandparents and an aunt, and it was not a weekend unless the radio was on and there were greens to pick or chores to do while the radio played. Whether it was 1991’s “Superwoman” with all three artists or Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own,” Sunday’s “Verzuz” wasn’t just the sound of an era, it was the soundtrack of my childhood.
Music weaves itself into our lives: it cements certain moments into our memories, evoking the smells, the feelings and even the flavors that were integral to the first time we heard a given song. I can’t tell you what was on top of the Billboard charts when I was 5 or 7 (or even 11) because even though Patti LaBelle’s and Gladys Knight’s works were technically songs for Gen X’s parents (or very cool grandparents), they also were the first music that many of us heard as kids.
And yes, I still associate it with chores — that music playing on a Saturday morning meant it was time to get up and clean — but also with feeling