Thursday, January 15, 2009
Motown / Brandy / Peace
This is another very long post. (Just keep reading till you hit the Mark Bradford entry.) I’ve sequenced it so that the light stuff comes first. I didn’t want to seem flippant or disrespectful to the more serious topics by following them with fluff. But it’s fluff I also wanted to talk about, so here goes… The Dorothy Dandridge photo above has no bearing on anything I talk about below. It’s just so fly.
Seeing that this is the year of Motown’s 50th anniversary, it seems fitting to declare my un-ironic, deep love of pop music. I spend much time listening to indie-political-angry-left-of-center stuff. I’m fed & rejuvenated by it. But as a music-crazed kid I suckled at the teat of catchy hooks and choruses, and sometimes that’s what I crave. A well-crafted, unapologetic pop song can be a work of art, can be the very definition of brilliance... and not just those “classic” cuts you hear on oldies stations where they’ve been validated by the kiss of nostalgia. Often, the reflexive sniff of dismissal that many “serious” music fans give pop/ular fare doesn’t prove their discriminating taste so much as illustrate their own sad limitations, their inability to recognize that even confectionary grooves can be separated into wheat and chaff. What can be more annoying, though, are the dunderheaded ways some folks decide exactly what is wheat or chaff.
Last year, upon the release of Philly International’s hefty, gem-laden, must-own-if-you-can-snag-it box-set, Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, a lot of critics used their reviews of the Philly collection to (once again) take swipes at Motown. I love both labels and their respective sounds; apples and oranges. Besides, Philly Int’l has Motown bumping in its DNA. It’s interesting that even at this late date, even with the relatively recent veneration of the Funk Brothers outside music-geek circles, so many conversations about Motown invariably (if not always consciously) circle back to notions of authentic soul music and authentic blackness, and to the still quivering anxiety around the racial sell-out. Truth: Motown’s exquisitely crafted ‘60s and early ‘70s pop is also some of the most wonderful soul music this country’s produced. I won’t belabor that argument yet again because it has much to do with broadening the definitions of “soul” and “soulful” in the first place. (Hint: It ain’t about just grainy vocals and sweat-soaked niggery – though Motown could also supply that.) Here are a couple of clips of my favorite Motor City tunes:
Released in 1962. Writer and lead singer, Smokey Robinson, was only 22 at the time. That’s a staggering reminder of just how far we have devolved in terms of soul music, pop culture and their shared aspirations. Smokey’s balls had barely dropped and he was talking about grown-up shit in deceptively simple, insightful ways, aiming for a seat at the grown folks table even as he was courting the Top 40 “youth market.” Those are now two almost mutually exclusive goals. He’s been called Motown’s poet, which is too limiting. He’s one of America’s premiere singer-songwriters, period, though he rarely gets mentioned in those terms or alongside the usual suspects. Pure soul-pop poetry.
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. Martha is so very Detroit. Tight, pulled together, polished – and emanating a vibe that let’s you know she’ll kick your ass if she has to. This is one of Motown’s funkiest ‘60s tracks, with snow chains legendarily used as percussion. Bless the Funk Brothers.
The Four Tops, with lead singer Levi Stubbs. R.I.P
My very favorite Supremes single; there are too many close runners-up. This clip is a live performance that shows the pros and cons of not lip-synching. Diana Ross fucks up the order of verses, here, and you see the momentary “oh, my damn!” in her eyes before she gracefully recovers. (Check Mary Wilson’s cool side-eye in the background.) Click here for a gorgeous live performance of the same song.
Sidenote: I wrote the liner notes for the recent Teddy Pendergrass and Jacksons Best of… compilations released by Philadelphia International Records/Epic/Legacy. From the notes for Teddy (available as a PDF file on the CD):
“Teddy Pendergrass was the last man. Adult. Grown-up. Before him, or walking alongside him as contemporaries, were the likes of Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Jackie Wilson, Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, and so many more. Soul men. Correction: Soul titans. All walking, talking, singing, being with a masculine gravitas that has been replaced by facile swagger and thuggery, by adolescent petulance and shrunken sexual politics. Some essential mystery, knowingness, complexity, playfulness, resilience, and unwavering male strength is absent in modern R&B and in mainstream pop culture. And they’ve been gone for a while.”
“Only ‘bout a day left till the world falls apart…”
I especially like when “pop” gets its "joy to the world" anthems, its odes to brotherhood and a shared & evolved consciousness, just right – when something in the sing-along current taps genuine emotion within the plea for us to do better, be better. A current example is Brandy’s “Warm It Up,” off her latest CD, Human. It’s a simple ditty in terms of the theme and execution of its lyrics, nothing more radical than the call for brotherly love to be extended to all. Propulsive in production, head nodding in effect. I absolutely admit that it sounds like something you’d hear performed at a junior-high assembly... right after a rainbow coalition of kids bolt to the foot of the stage to proclaim one after another, “I am Obama! Yo soy Obama!” Shudder. Shrug. Tune works for me.
Human looks like it’s going to take its place alongside Full Moon and Afrodisiac, the singer’s other weak-selling, under-appreciated (except by the hardcore faithful) cult darlings, which is unfortunate. Despite the leaving off of some of the buzzed-about tracks that leaked before its release, and despite its having a much more overall “pop” texture than her past few releases, I really like this CD. It’s well-produced (of course), really well sung (Brandy’s always been an underrated singer) and sustains over repeated listens. I don’t know if it’s her bratty/bitchy rep that has stalled her career ascension or what, but she’s been severely slept on; folks still sleeping. Below is a YouTube clip of “Warm It Up,” that flashes the (not quite accurately transcribed) lyrics.
The Brandy tune, an attempt at uplift in the face of the darkest of human nature, is my segue… I’ve spent the past few weeks penning an essay whose narrative threads are the murder of Oscar Grant; the recent gang rape of the 28-year-old Latina lesbian in Richmond (who was selected for attack by her attackers precisely because she is a lesbian); a seemingly endless number of gay/bi/transgender black men and women who have died violent deaths in the last year or so; the mind-numbing massacre in Gaza… Bleak, depressing stuff. Because the essay is for another outlet, I can’t yet publish any of it here but the absence of commentary on any of these stories on this blog has been glaring – at least to me – and I’ve struggled with what to say that doesn’t crib from the other assignment and is yet still substantive. I finally realized that I was over-thinking it, trying too hard to be “insightful” or whatever. Because the reality is that all these cases boil down to the conditioned conditioning by which we dehumanize other humans and then brutalize / annihilate them with a justification filtered through racial / religious / cultural arrogance and prerogative. It’s a racist mental process by which a cop (of any race) sees a handcuffed, face-down black man and still perceives him as a threat (less than human), draws a loaded gun and aims it at his back. It’s a homophobic, misogynistic system of thinking that has four men (two adults, two minors) drag a lesbian woman out of her car, strip her, hold her hostage at gunpoint and take turns raping her while taunting her with homophobic comments. It is something so much deeper and disturbing than self-protection that has resulted in the deaths of (to date) over 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza. And it is all connected – racism, homophobia, cultural and religious superiority complexes. All connected. The luxury of compartmentalizing and making some sort of hierarchy of the loss, the anguish, the bigotries at play… it’s a luxury we don’t have. And it doesn’t take a 10,000 word essay to say that. But I have no idea what it takes to transform and deepen folks’ consciousnesses at this late date on the human calendar.
The two cops got off with no charges. Duanna Johnson was later slain execution-style on the street. No suspects have been arrested in her death.
In the first few days following the murder of Oscar Grant (I refuse to call it accidental), and in the near two weeks it took for the cop who killed him to be arrested (after being allowed to travel out of state and decline comment on the matter), I found myself listening over and over to Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” itself based on a real-life case of racial profiling in England that ended in the death of two black boys. In the clip below, she performs it on the Henry Rollins Show and gives some background on it.
Here’s another powerful clip of Sinead performing the song twenty years ago. The lyrics to “Black Boys” are amazing on a host of levels. The protagonist not only calls out sanctioned racism, but the dismissive tone with which she has been regarded when she’s spoken out on injustice. She warns those who are complacent about or collaborators with oppression to “Remember what I told you / if they hated me, they will hate you.” I think my favorite line (hard to pick) is, “These are dangerous days / to say what you feel is to dig your own grave.” It’s not just these days that are dangerous, of course. Telling the truth has been a dangerous endeavor since forever. But the line was true and prescient for Sinead, whose controversial protest against the abuses against children inflicted by the Catholic Church sabotaged her career. She was correct in all she said but her name remains synonymous with “crazed artist.”
Here is an excerpt from Mark Twain’s essay “Privilege of the Grave” that I found online last week just as I was immersed in Sinead’s music and thinking about the trajectory of her career. It was written in 1902 but only published last month, for the first time, by New Yorker magazine:
Excerpt: “Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege - strictly speaking - but as he possess it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are crimes, and are held in deep odium by all civilized peoples. Murder is sometimes punished, free speech always – _when_ committed. Which is seldom. There are not fewer than five thousand murders to one (unpopular) free utterance. There is justification for this reluctance to utter unpopular opinions: the cost of utterance is too heavy; it can ruin a man in his business, it can lose him his friends, it can subject him to public insult and abuse, it can ostracize his unoffending family, and make his house a despised and unvisited solitude.
A natural result of these conditions is that we consciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor's pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy; there is no reflection back of it, no principle, and it is entitled to no respect.
In the beginning of the anti-slavery agitation three-quarters of a century ago, in the North, it found no sympathy there. Press, pulpit and nearly everybody blew cold upon it. This was from timidity, the fear of speaking out and becoming obnoxious, not from approval of slavery or lack of pity for the slave; for all nations like the State of Virginia and myself are not exceptions to this rule; we joined the Confederate cause not because we wanted to, for we did not, but we wanted to be in the swim. It is plainly a law of nature, and we obeyed it.
Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves. If they should speak, it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life; that out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends, he had long kept to himself certain views not suspected by his little world, and had carried them unuttered to the grave. The living would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be-and never can be.” end of excerpt
Click here for a great clip of Sinead discussing God, religion and her album Theology:
Click here for an article on Rev. Al Sharpton's powerful rebuke of Prop 8 and its supporters.
The young Sinead in peak performance condition: