Stanley Crouch: Making music, not mayhem
By Stanley Crouch -
Published 12:00 am PST Saturday, December 23, 2006
One should not be nostalgic about too many things, because far more often than not, the memory takes the form of a wish rather than a fact. Sort of a soothing or a bitter deception. Sometimes, however, the memory is not wrong, and there is proof that will remind anybody interested that it was better in certain ways than it is now. Popular music is one example.
Though I have thought that about music for at least 20 years, I became even more convinced as I looked at a recent documentary about the making of the "Dreamgirls" movie and two books, "Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics" and "Motown in Love: Lyrics From the Golden Era."
"Dreamgirls" is a fictionalized story of a group of young black women, with allusions to the story of Motown's Diana Ross and the Supremes. Even if it does not live up to the hype, the film should remind audiences of one thing that they might have forgotten: Once upon a recent time, there were black men and women who could sing notes and not merely chant gutter doggerel. The lyrics did not constantly refer to men and women in demeaning and derogatory terms.
Audiences might also be reminded that there was a time when women in the music business hadn't been convinced that their freedom called for embracing the looks and manners of hookers or women taking a break at a strip club.
I am sure that those are the reasons beneath the mounting excitement about the "Dreamgirls" movie. Audiences are happy to get something about the so-called ghetto in which the people aren't all minstrel figures disguised behind cursing and pornography.
The idea of black people who manifest human characteristics is still basically out of step with our time, in which the most successful images of black men and women are those of illiterate thugs and tasteless female sex toys. If "Dreamgirls" reiterates some positive things to the masses, popular music might begin a comeback in which actual talent is celebrated. Yeah, right.
The books of Cole Porter lyrics and of the Motown lyricists might surprise people who spend too much time listening to pop radio, where a good number of words are bleeped. Porter was about as good as one could get at writing lyrics, and he consistently showed great invention, wit and sophistication.
It is unnecessary to compare the songs of Porter with those intended for an adolescent audience, the target group for many Motown songs. In their gleaming outfits, the Motown singers performed in the community theaters where young men and women went to learn something about how to express the feelings they might have for each other.
Because something that strong existed in popular music, it is hard to believe that it has largely disappeared and been replaced by the dreck we hear delivered by those from the world of rap. But perhaps we are only in one of the valleys on the roller coaster that this culture can so often be.
Sometimes a revolution of consciousness arrives as the result of being reminded that people were not always so debased. Perhaps "Dreamgirls," "Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics" and "Motown in Love: Lyrics From the Golden Era" will help to spark such memories. We certainly would be better off if they do.