BLACK GIRL IN A WHITE BOY’S BODY
Experience Music Project Pop Conference,
Seattle, WA, April 29, 2006
Note: I invite the reader to imagine the writer dancing and lip-synching to the first two of the songs highlighted in this talk. Because yes, he did that. In front of people. In fact, he sometimes wakes from a nightmare in which he was dancing and lip-synching before a room of 200 or so, only to find that it wasn’t a nightmare at all.
— DM, 2018
Fantasies, I believe, have to do with missing parts. We all have parts we feel are missing, and so to be reasonably happy on this earth we need our fantasies of fulfillment—especially as children. Picture, if you will, a kid: graceless, rather oafish, no more than averagely lonesome, somewhat estranged from the peer group, but not tragically so—whose passing pleasure on a summer afternoon might be sitting at his bedroom window, catching box-elder bugs, and pulling their legs off one by one. Just one version of the all-American boy.
The Supremes’ Anthology was three records' worth of undiluted miraculousness. I joined a record club I didn’t want to belong to so I could spend money I didn’t have just to get this record. “Let Me Go the Right Way” was the first thing on it, a beautiful billboard pointing the way to Hitsville USA and all the glamour of that mythical land, the Big City.
When I wasn’t dismembering insects, I was growing up a white boy in the heart of the heartland, where the blackest music a lot of people listened to was the Rolling Stones, and the girliest a guy was allowed to be was Peter Frampton. There are surprises anywhere you’re willing to find them, but no doubt this was the land of the white blues and the phallic swagger. I’d quote Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie, from their essay “Music and Sexuality”: “In America,” they wrote in 1978, at just the time I’m referring to, “the Midwest concert belt has become the necessary starting point for cock rock success.” What suggestive imagery, how poetically apt: the Midwest as the fastener on the national pants, the belt that must be loosened to get the erect penis of pop fortune out. Or to get it in. Or to get your hand around it. “Cock rock success”: that meant Molly Hatchet, Van Halen, Aerosmith, KISS.
One day in middle school, the music teacher asked us each to name a song we especially liked. Another guy named Ted Nugent’s “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”—a private joke for the boys, because it was actually a form of greeting between some of us. And what about me—what song was this little cock rocker brazen enough to name?
The singer, Millie Small of Clarendon, Jamaica; the record, “My Boy Lollipop,” from 1964. A record I love to this day, that still makes me feel fine, and that over the years has without variation been met with sneers by those around me. There was something about the way Millie Small sang that made me think of a proud, tall, gawky bird. She made me wonder if anything like that bird was in me. It turned out there was, because right away I was singing along—even though the lyrics were gender-specific. That seemed like a big deal, and it was: this was a love song, not for some faceless “love object” whose sex changed with the listener, but an emphatically identified boy. That meant that if you were a boy too, you couldn't sing along without singing to that boy.
Fudging the lyric felt like cheating; to sing it straight felt honest, even bold. At a certain point, it started to be fun. All those girl group records about the boy, the boy, the boy—they're uniquely thrilling for a straight guy to sing. Because you know what: sometimes boys really are cute, and sometimes you really do want to sing about how great it’ll be to marry one someday. I don't know if that constitutes a feminine side or a gay side—but it's definitely a side.
So I cherish this record and thank the lady who sang it. Through Millie Small, I first experienced a kind of private crossover dream: a straight boy singing love songs to other boys—phallic symbolism and all. So my path was pretty much marked: take your sweet poontang, give me Millie Small, and the lollipop of liberation.
The first time I heard “Maybe” by the Chantels, I was in high school, it was on the Golden Oldies Weekend, and it left me devastated. So desperate, so full of excitement and fear, reaching for a consummation of body and spirit which, if achieved, could only mean death—but because it was never attained, only desired, instead meant life. This, I realized, almost choking on it, is what music is.
But even if it seemed this record could, if we asked it to, explain all of pop music, somehow pop music wasn’t adequate to explain this record. I knew there was something going on here, something about blackness and femaleness, real fear and real power, something untouched by almost 30 years of historical distance and undimmed by a bad radio receiver.
Here are two stories about Arlene Smith, the Chantels’ 14-year-old lead singer. The first is about the creative process that existed between Smith and her producer, the equally legendary George Goldner. I quote Greil Marcus: “Goldner drove Arlene mercilessly. She would sing the songs he gave her, and he would curse; she would sing again, and he would scream and order her out of the studio. He kept at it until the tears were coming, until she was ready to do anything to get away from this terrible man, and then Goldner, fully aware that he had before him the greatest voice in rock ’n’ roll, would tum his back, shrug his shoulders, and let her sing it one last time. And that was the take he was reaching for. Arlene, just a little girl really, scared, agonized, would sing for her life.”
No reason to doubt this ritual did occur. But to cast it as a scenario of simple oppression, to imply that there's nothing to it but that, is to elide certain other questions lined up behind the word “power.”
It has been maintained that since men produced, co-wrote, and otherwise stage-managed most of the records we’re talking about, the female singers were merely their tools. But that perpetuates the rockist orthodoxy that vocalizing is a lesser creativity than songwriting, producing, or playing a material instrument, and it forgets that some of these women did take larger roles—like Arlene Smith, who not only sang but wrote “Maybe,” which may be, incidentally, the greatest record ever made.
But: that rationalizes her subjugation by George Goldner, and the oppression, therefore, of women, specifically in this case black women by white men.
But: listen to Arlene Smith’s voice. When the tape runs, she wields the power. She enunciates her own words, and the listener’s experience of them. Meaning that it’s impossible, I would think, to hear this record as anything other than an expression of femaleness in all its facets: fear and ferocity, weakness and strength, and desire—a monumental desire.
But: it’s mendacious of me, a white man, to so rationalize.
But: are we to say that this music represents nothing, is nothing, but a black girl’s exploitation? That it has no sound of power or freedom to it, nothing that I or—imagine this—a black girl might take and use to make herself a little stronger, a little freer?
To complicate things a little further, here’s the Arlene Smith story, Take 2. We need to work this in somehow, because it comes to us in her own words, and it replaces fear with excitement, oppression with autonomy. Smith was asked by interviewer Gary James, many years after the Chantels, if touring in those early years had been difficult for her. She said this: “[Touring] was fun. I was only 14. You just take your books, get ’em packed. You don’t have a thing to do all day. You sit next to your buddy on the bus, read, crochet, do your homework, look out at scenery, sleep, eat—c’mon, it was wonderful. I didn’t have a thought or a care in the world. It was really a nice time in my life, because I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
So I’m in college, I’m reading a lot of theory, and I’m questioning everything. Religion’s long since gone out the window, the family unit is the locus of patriarchal repression, and even social relationships are predicated on power imbalances of which I, a white male, am invariably the beneficiary.
My mind is expanding, and my emotions are contracting. The more natural a thing feels, the more suspect it becomes—including music. By now, I’ve spent years listening to black women sing, and feeling a lot of pleasure from it. And as a young liberal, my second reflex upon feeling this pleasure—the first being the pleasure itself—is to wonder what I can do to get rid of the guilt that comes with the pleasure. So the plan is very simple. I will refuse the unconditional openness and unmasked emotion of the music I’ve always loved, when it comes from a woman, especially a black woman—because that refusal signals my enlightened awareness that she is merely enacting her own abject powerlessness for my corrupt pleasure. When every fiber and atom want to cry yes, I will rebuke them with my sternest no. And thus will I replace a basic faith in myself and the artist with the received behavioral guidelines of ideology and politics. Finally, life will be sweet, and guilt-free.
Maybe it wasn’t “Forever” by Wanda Young and the Motown Marvelettes that broke me down and blew my simple plan. Maybe it was another song, or an accumulation of songs, but finally there came the day I was able to hear this as I’d heard it so long ago—the sound of human need, a wish for absolute connection and final fulfillment, a singer’s plea, directed to me, that I provide her missing parts. The Marvelettes said, “I’ll love you forever,” while at the same moment, at the other end of the street, the Shirelles asked, “Will you love me tomorrow?” It’s not a black girl’s question; it’s a human being’s question, equally worthy of being asked by Shirley Alston or Bryan Ferry. Will you love me tomorrow? Will you still be here tomorrow? Will you be here forever? Do you promise you’ll never die? Spoken, these sound like meager sentiments. But sung emotionally and dramatized musically, they become an offer of vulnerability, an acknowledgement of weakness and the need for other people—exactly what an ideology like the one I'd tried to adopt claimed to be after.
You have to age a few years beyond college; you need some rude awakenings; you need to meet some people, and lose some people. You need to learn for yourself that theory is at best a set of questions, not a life map, and that ideology, as Dickens said of the law, is quite often a ass. Because when the voice is that sweet and the humanity that transparent, when it’s only a moment in time and love is what we all should be looking for, what can a human being say to a singer who asks for love and offers eternity but Yes?
I heard the Supremes, and a change began. I heard the Chantels and Shirelles and Bluebelles, the Ronettes and Marvelettes and Jaynetts. And the early Beatles: talk about a bunch of black girls in white boys’ bodies. With each one, a strand of identity came loose from the solid, centered stalk of what was, in my little world, considered normative. It could be that if you wove enough of those strands together over enough years, you might, someday, have the beginnings of an identity.
But at the time, I didn’t see it as working towards an identity, I saw it as escaping one: substituting a singer’s beautiful black body for my ugly white one. Feeling the absence of something—a voice, a look, a style, an infinitely more appealing contribution to the world. We all have an envy, some unique absence. It’s that complex of unmeetable needs, emotional and physical, at the center of each person. It's like the blue box pulled from the purse in Mulholland Dr. If you find your blue box, the little stash of secrets unknown even to you, you may get it open, only to find darkness inside. But it’s a darkness that teems with everything that is you. What feels like an absence is really your unmade identity—because we're not just what we are, we're also what we’re not. At certain points, the thing you lack tells you where to find it—or even better, like that Supremes song, it lets you go the right way.
Now I like filling in my missing parts with words I couldn’t have written, sounds I don’t have the talent to make, images I can’t embody because I am, as Camille Paglia would have it, a prisoner of this fascist body. And as for guilt—it still hangs on, but it gets weaker and smaller every year. I hope one day it will fall off for good, like a limb made useless by evolution.
There are those fearless few who have no guilt about the pleasures of polyracial, polynational, polysexual, polymorphous perversity, and those people must wonder: why all this speech about vagaries and vicissitudes? They must think, pleasure is a gift in this painful world, a thing to be used, not refused. Why this shame-based analysis? Why can't we let things feel as natural as they feel? Yet to answer that would be to answer everything, to work our way back to all of our missing parts—as individuals, and as a race. As individuals we might, if we’re lucky, make it back there—five minutes before we die. I hope that as a race, it won’t take us that long.
To end this, I need to mention a girl named Fontella Brown, who I knew in the first grade. She was the first and—until I met my wife 25 years later—the only girl who ever wrote me a love letter. Like old Bernstein in Citizen Kane, who saw a woman from the side in passing on a ferry across the Hudson River, hardly a month has gone by in all these years that I haven’t thought of Fontella Brown. This song is hers.
Copyright (c) 2006 by Devin McKinney