Thursday, June 19, 2008

That Ol' Time Black Music

According to the proclamation of our much beloved president, the month of June in the year 2008 is Black Music Month:
For generations, African-American artists have created music that communicates across racial boundaries and expresses both joy and sorrow. When facing the cruelty of slavery and injustice, African Americans lifted spirituals to the heavens, bringing comfort to troubled souls. These timeless declarations of hope and faith evolved into the more modern genres of gospel, blues, ragtime, and jazz, and they are given voice in the musical genius of Scott Joplin, Marian Anderson, Eubie Blake, and Mahalia Jackson. During the Civil Rights era, African-American musicians such as Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, and Ruth Brown conveyed the struggles of their communities while bringing people of all backgrounds together. Today, this music continues to inspire America's citizens and advance its creative spirit.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2008 as Black Music Month. I encourage all Americans to learn more about the history of black music and to enjoy the great contributions of African-American singers, musicians, and composers.

Who knew that Georgie was such a musicologist? Of course, like many musicologists, he seems more interested in dead musicians than living ones; not a single person named in the proclamation is still alive. And while I don't want to disrespect the late-career work of some of those named--who can forget Ruth Brown's cameo in Hairspray--I think it's fair to say that George Bush hasn't liked Black Music since about 1970 or so.

But in honor of George Bush's Black Music Month™, I'd like to relate an anecdote from this past weekend. We were driving down to DC, and stopped at a Maryland rest stop for bathrooms and coffee. I went into the Starbucks to order myself a grande non-fat dry cappuccino, and Mary a grande non-fat triple latte. A song, no doubt carefully chosen by a corporate puppetmaster back in Seattle, came over the in-store stereo:

I watched as one of the baristas began nodding her head and mouthing the words. I glanced to my left, and saw that the soccer-mom type was unconsciously bobbing her head a bit. A glance to my right, and a big beefy guy waiting for his drink was ever so gently twisting his hips in time to the music. Then I realized that literally the entire store was dancing to this song.

Jazz might be America's Classical Music, but Motown is What We Listen To. Is there any other single repertoire of music so universally popular? Sure, there are exceptions, but I can't think of any other tunes that retain hipster cachet across racial lines while still managing to assuage baby boomer nostalgia in a non-threatening manner. I can read about Motown in a hipper-than-thou hip hop magazine like Wax Poetics, but I know all of the tunes from listening to my parents' oldies radio stations growing up.

As a grad student, I spent one spring immersed in this music as a teaching assistant for our department's course on "Motown and Soul," taught by my esteemed adviser. The music only gets better the more you listen to and study it. And if very few of my students knew, coming into the class, that the Supremes were actually black, well, that's more testament to Berry Gordy's genius for creating music that anyone could project themselves onto.

So one wonders why Motown isn't part of the George Bush's Black Music Month™. I have no doubt that he himself listens to it, since everyone does. Perhaps, he is intimidated with Barack Obama's Motown-heavy playlist. Maybe there is still a frisson of oppositionality at work in what was, after all, the largest black-owned business created at the height of the civil rights movement. Maybe not. Because I also remember that scene in The Big Chill, where the friends hear this song and begin to dance, just like the crowd at Starbucks. And then I read the excellent Wikipedia entry on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and learn that it was similarly used in the movie Remember the Titans as example of racial healing. And since both of these examples make me roll my eyes, I begin to wonder: everyone loves Motown, but why, exactly? Maybe a white guy like me loving Motown is sort of like the George Bush Black Music Month™ theory--black music is great, as long as it is history.

This sort of back-and-forth agonizing probably isn't fun to read, but it's something I think all scholars (should) go through. It is always fraught to analyze people who are different than yourself, and of course anyone who looks at music in the past is necessarily looking at music by people different than themselves. But that difference is especially fraught when it happens to encompass one of the most anxious binarisms in American history, Dubois's black-white color line. A year and a half ago, I blogged elsewhere about how it was difficult for me to understand the attraction of Sonny Til, the handsome lead singer of the Orioles. (I've since figured it out, thank you very much; read my diss for the answer.) Just recently, some anonymous commenter happened upon that old post. After some interesting points, he concluded, "If you can't dig what I'm telling you - maybe you just ain't tan my man!" And you know, he's right. Not in some biologically essentialist way, but in that Sonny Til's attraction was so rooted in its context--race is one, but others as well--that it was really hard for me to appreciate it.

Now, I'm a neurotic musicologist, so these are the sorts of things I think about. But to get back to Motown, I really do wonder what attracts people to it. Great tunes, of course. But as I tell my students: tell me more!

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I tapped too! It is pretty hard to escape--I think it is involuntary when exposed to the right music. :-)

Musicological marketing--Starbucks gets the first award.