In which I give into temptation (I’m so sorry, please don’t leave)
This week is the week I sit down and hash out something I’ve had on the brain for years now, which involves taking a closer look at two musical factions which were essential to my musical education. I do say factions, because they were forces to be reckoned with at the peak of their powers.
I’m speaking first of Motown Records, which celebrated the sixtieth (6-0!) anniversary of its incorporation back in April. In the wake of the death—literally and figuratively—of the first wave of rock & roll, the label became a fixture of American popular music as well as a prestigious platform for artists and groups of color. The packaging and presentation of these artists and groups was famously pristine, each ensemble armed with impeccable uniforms, clean harmonies, and synchronized dance moves. They set a standard of attractiveness and discipline the likes of which was rarely seen—because, well, their white counterparts seemed to garner recognition without being held to a certain standard. Unsurprisingly, such a standard took a physical and emotional toll on the performers, particularly the women, as Mary Wells or Martha Reeves or literally any of the Supremes will tell you.
Much as I love harping on the (mis)treatment of women, that isn’t my focus here. Instead, I’ll draw attention to two singles that evoke the Motown sound at its most potent and also seem to reinforce a tenet of so-called masculinity: the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Now, I, like many people, straight-up love these songs; whatever sins they commit are nothing comparable to the “problematic faves” I called out a couple weeks ago. But I’ve long noticed a uniting theme between them—that of grudging vulnerability. Both songs credit Norman Whitfield as a co-writer, so I suppose it checks out that the same songwriters would explore the same themes, especially when producing material for artists on the same label. While these songs add their two cents to the common subject of romantic trouble, and even give a fair amount of free will and control to the women depicted, they pointedly condemn the act of crying as unmanly and shameful.
Observe: for the Temptations it’s
Now I’ve heard a crying man is half a man
With no sense of pride
But if I have to cry to keep you, I don’t mind weeping
If it will keep you by my side
and for Gaye it’s
I know a man ain’t supposed to cry
But these tears I can’t hold inside
Losing you would end my life, you see
‘Cause you mean that much to me
Superficially these lines suggest forward progress: the male narrators are willing to endure the stigma of open emotion because of how dear they hold their jeopardized relationships. The problem is the stigma itself, so stiff that it worked its way into music, so taboo that Black songwriters and artists felt compelled to disclaim and justify emotional displays and relay the message that such displays should occur only in the most dire situations and only as a last resort. What’s more, this message came wrapped in sugary, easily digestible pop coatings. Black listeners must have absorbed it; of course, continuing brutality and violence from a white-supremacist system was all the more reason to internalize it, to be strong in the face of a social structure designed to oppress them. (This is a good example of what is meant by the adage that America loves Black culture and not Black people.) The effects, I need not say, are still being felt. At bottom, these lines signify how much farther we had, and have, to go.
To paint a fuller picture of this uncomfortable trend, though, and to honor the “& more” of my title, let me take you back another twenty-odd years to the heyday of my favorite bandleader, Glenn Miller, and his hit “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
Wait a minute, what’s this white guy got to do with anything? We appear to be veering off-topic, at least on the surface. But if we examine this particular song in the context of the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade—which was one giant vehicle for Miller and his orchestra—it takes on more than its share of complexity. The main thrust of the song is performed by Miller’s longtime vocal collaborators Tex Beneke and the Modernaires, all of whom are white. In the first verse, the Modernaires pose the question, “Can you afford to board the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” to which Beneke responds, “I’ve got my fare, and just a trifle to spare.”
Two things to note already:
First, the use of call-and-response. This is a staple not only of jazz, which originated in Black communities, but also of the field-song genre, which had its origins in the group mentality of slaves picking cotton or doing other outdoor plantation work. Such experiences also gave rise to the modern spiritual (and I’ve sung way too many of those in all-white choirs).
Second, the train theme. Since the Industrial Revolution of the previous century and the subsequent “shrinking” of the world, mechanical transportation had become etched in the public psyche, cultural consciousness, and musical tradition—specifically in the blues, yet another Black-originated genre. Trains are synonymous with the blues. They analogize the relentless forward motion of life or fate or whatever force has the singer down. Jazz and the blues overlap in many qualities, often including subject matter, as indicated here.
But on to the crux of my point. After the song (lyrical segment, shout chorus, etc.) is completed by Beneke, Miller, and the group, we get a reprise from a new set of performers: Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, all among the most acclaimed Black entertainers of the era. The Nicholas Brothers especially were known for stunning feats of contortionism in their choreography, which they showcase in the finale of the number. This represented both the idea that Black artists needed to demonstrate almost superhuman talent to be considered worthy of a career and the idea that Black performance was strictly for the edification of white audiences rather than for their own artistic fulfillment (residue from the days of minstrelsy which would find a later incarnation in the “Magical Negro” media trope). Foreshadowing Motown, methinks?
Anyway, for all these reasons, the reprise sets this act apart from the preceding white act. When the Nicholas Brothers echo the Modernaires’ question, Dandridge turns the tables: “I’ve got my fare, but not a nickel to spare.” Beneke has “a trifle” left over, which is no great sum; but Dandridge has nothing at all. Is this a commentary on the general disenfranchisement of African Americans, an assumption that most of them—even one who managed to make a name for herself in Hollywood—would only barely be able to cover their expenses? While we’re at it, we can infer that the disembodied “boy” to whom Beneke earlier says “you can give me a shine” (referring to his shoes) is also Black. Another jazz standard would soon make the rounds among the usual suspects (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, et al.) called “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.” That sounds suspiciously like dialectical appropriation. Maybe I’m reading too far into it—maybe it’s my deep dedication to lyrics talking—but the choice of diction strikes me as very telling. The fact that the songwriters would modify the lyric just so for singers of color is their own brand of message, just like the Motown songwriters’. It sheds light on perceptions and expectations of Blackness in the American arts, which have changed less than we probably think they have over time.
Tying it back to the discussion of masculinity, one of the last lines of the song—“she’s gonna cry / until I tell her that I’ll never roam”—was altered, for female-sung covers, to “he’s gonna sigh.” Clearly, right from the get-go, it was God forbid that a man shed even a hypothetical tear.
All these observations may or may not be practical; at the end of the day they are meant simply to raise awareness. I don’t claim to be an expert on the minutiae, but this through-line has only become more obvious to me, and I believe it is worth talking about. Or, at the very least, worth keeping in mind on your next listen.
Image: I can only hope to presume it will be back once Broadway is back…