To the extent that music was part of my childhood, I grew up predominantly on a mismatched diet of 12th century lute music (mom’s) and dueling banjos (dad’s). I wasn’t particularly taken with my parents’ tastes, and unlike my sister and my all-white social set, neither was I interested in Top 40. At an early age, I had decided that mainstream now was not particularly my thing. Instead, I had a handful of Motown 45s, and I’d catch Soul Train on the non-cable tv that I was occasionally allowed to watch. When college and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill came around, however, I became unexpectedly mainstream. Already primed to love the Motown soundtrack, I found myself among the masses in college dorms across the country embracing vintage Motown as our college soundtrack. Despite my brief moment in the mainstream, I haven’t lost my taste for the sound. If anything, my appreciation has grown, which is one reason that the Dap-Kingsand a collision of Cee-Lo Green, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Glee have grabbed my attention. It seems that at least a speck of now is once again firmly rooted in old school Motown, or at least its legacy, and this has me wondering about the differences between now and new.
If you haven’t seen it, check out the more than thirty-eight million times viewed Cee-Lo Green “F**k You” video on YouTube (and/or the less viewed cleaner version, “Forget You”). The doo-wop girls in green, and then in white feather boas, are fabulous. And the “chickachickachicka” guitar lick screams vintage. Brooklyn-based musicians, the Dap-Kings, also make liberal use of this guitar lick and the entire Motown idiom to create their brand of now. Check out “My Man is a Mean Man.” Unlike Green, however, who like his Motown predecessors, targets the pop culture audience and seems to locate his song, particularly as it is illustrated by his music video, on the same tree as its Motown roots, the Dap Kings maneuver themselves consciously into new territory, at least if their genesis and hipster following are any indication.
In the early days of their work together in Brooklyn, what is now the Dap-Kings crew made a game of sampling a who’s who of global influences to create “authentic” sounds that bore little resemblance to any roots that they could readily claim as their own. Ultimately, however, and for their big move, they went with Motown as the base note for the Dap-Kings and signed soul singer Sharon Jones, from Augusta, Georgia as their front-woman. Then, off they went to do their thing, a hip thing (as opposed to an expressly popular one). I’ll wager that Green would claim Motown roots whereas the Dap-Kings would credit Motown influence but claim Brooklyn roots. In fact, Jones makes the case explicitly in “The Dap Dip.” She lets us know in no uncertain terms that their thing is “a brand new thing.”
So, what’s the difference between a hip now and a popular now? What’s the difference between what Green is doing and what the Dap-Kings are doing? Gwyneth Paltrow and the Top 40, sweet cheeks. As much as I love Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (and no matter that their version “This Land Is Your Land” scored the opening credits for Up in the Air starring George Clooney, etc.), I can’t imagine Gwyneth Paltrow as a substitute teacher on an episode of Glee covering one of their songs as she does with Green’s “Forget You.” The Dap-Kings are just not that popular. Their biggest hit on YouTube, weighing in with 1.5+ million hits, is “100 Days, 100 Nights.” Interestingly, this video is shot in black and white as if it’s an old Motown clip. No sample, no new. The real thing. The old real thing. It’s retro, not unlike my attachment to Motown 45s in the 1980s, once their heydey of popularity had long since passed. But, look more closely and you’ll find that unlike my 45s, it’s a brand new thing. Congas alongside that vintage guitar lick. Titling that looks like an old western. Mostly a crew of white guys playing and singing behind Jones. Postmodern pastiche. A new formula. Not surprisingly, it’s also part of the new behind Amy Winehouse. Her album Back to Black was recorded at the analog-only Daptone recording studio in Brooklyn and includes Dap-Kings performances.
Even the popular, however, is making a case for hip new, and I have to admit to having enjoyed it. We’re back to Glee. In the episode in which Paltrow covers Cee-Lo Green, the characters explore the question of what’s hip and now, and they answer it with a dance club remix performance of “Singing in the Rain.” They make the case that what’s old is what’s new and now, providing you change it up. By this line of reasoning, Green’s song would be old hat, and the Dap-Kings and Glee have a lot more in common than I’d hazard that I or they would like to admit. Glee’s cultural commentary leaves me with an unsatisfactory answer to my question about now and new. It turns out that now is merely current, and it can be recycled, like Motown, whereas new is something unexpected. Like Gwyneth singing in the rain. Or the Brooklyn crew Dap-Dippin’. Really?
This is where I invite you to throw in your thoughts. And, it’s also where I invite you to check out the current issue of MQR, in which you’ll find scholars reflecting on Motown at fifty. In particular, I recommend checking out Craig Werner’s “‘Heaven Help Us All’: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and the Meaning(s) of Motown in the Age of Obama.” Werner makes a compelling case that rather than being merely pop music, the early Motown sound included masked social commentary, a subversive note that helped pave the way for Obama’s election. Let’s hope that I intuited this depth when I formed my childhood attachments to those 45s, but I suspect that it was the guitar licks and the doo-wop harmonies that did it. They are certainly what’s drawn me to Cee-Lo, Gwyneth, and the Dap-Kings.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on January 17, 2011