Even people who don't know music have a vague understanding of falsetto. Crudely put, it's that squeaky voice actors employ on comedy shows when they mimic Prince and the Bee Gees. In more musical terms, it's the head tones that lay outside the normal vocal register. Some particularly high-pitched and adept tenors, like Smokey Robinson, manage to slide between their ordinary voice and their falsetto so smoothly that the gap most male singers experience between those two modes virtually disappears.
Falsetto soul music is an African-American tradition with roots that stretch back centuries. When blackface hit critical mass in the decades before and especially after the Civil War, African tribal singing mixed with the newly imported European yodeling craze, producing minstrels both white and black who could sing falsetto – a phenomenon which, scientifically speaking, produces fewer fewer overtones that distinguish one singer from the next, and in many cases blurs the vocal characteristics of white and black performers. That's why white singers could hop aboard the doo-wop bandwagon: Listen to The Tokens' 1961 smash rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," originally recorded by South Africa's Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in 1939. It's pretty fly for some white guys!
Seriously, though, falsetto soul involves myriad racial, gender, and class issues as difficult to navigate as the music itself is easy to enjoy. Its popularity peaked in the '60s and early '70s, when the Civil Rights movement gave folks optimism that the races would soon be equal. That positivity is explicit in The Impressions' 1964 anthem "Keep on Pushing," but hear how former bandleader Curtis Mayfield flips it into the self-delusion of the drug pusher "trying to get over" in his far more ambivalent 1972 solo joint "Superfly."
Whether expressing joy (Earth, Wind & Fire's virtuoso "Reasons") or sorrow (Blue Magic's archetypal Philly soul classic "Sideshow"), the otherworldliness of falsetto suggests out-of-body emotional extremes (check that shrieking chorus of Lou Christie's "Lightnin' Strikes"). It's a way for men both to seduce their female counterparts by becoming vocally one with them (Beck's scenery-chewing spoof "Debra") and to empathize ("Treat You Like a Queen," wherein Raashan Patterson offers solace to a battered friend via overdubbed falsetto backups). It allows LGBT musicians to celebrate their otherness (Sylvester, Bronski Beat), neo-soul crooners to assert their chops (D'Angelo, Cee Lo Green), teen pinups to cash in on their cuteness (New Edition, New Kids on the Block), and even indie folkies to win hip-hop hearts (Bon Iver). Its name may suggest otherwise, but falsetto soul, as Sylvester suggests, can help just about anybody feel mighty real. Here's a sample of the genre's high-water marks.