7 Deadly Sins from the Book of Motown

DIGRESSIONS

Motown Morality

Motown songs of the late 1960s and early 1970s were a rare hotbed of pop-music morality. Let’s recount seven deadly sins against which songwriters of nearly a half-century ago – tremulous, perhaps, of the changing society all around them – powerfully inveighed on Top 40 radio.

Who says pop music is bad for kids? Who says music can’t change the world?

AVARICE
“For the Love of Money,” The O’Jays

COVETOUSNESS
“Back Stabbers,” The O’Jays

DUPLICITY
“Smiling Faces Sometimes,” Undisputed Truth

IRRESPONSIBILITY
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” The Temptations

PERFIDY
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye

POLLUTION
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye

WAR
“War,” Edwin Starr

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In Cleveland, To Win Is To Lose

MEDIA MUCKRAKING

You guys stink
Media smackdownSeems like the media just doesn’t know what to do with Cleveland. Just when they think they have the city down for good – mired in national irrelevancy forever along with its rust-belt economy and its haven’t-won-a-championship-in-50-years pro sports teams – Cleveland ups and does something unexpected and unscripted like win the 2016 Republican National Convention.

So naturally this calls for a smackdown, some “thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return” media moralizing.

“GOP convention host Cleveland tries to shake ‘Mistake on the Lake’ stereotype” – Washington Post

“’Mistake by the Lake’ Seeks Political Redemption” – ABC News

“Dallas loses 2016 GOP convention to the ‘mistake by the lake,’ Cleveland” – Houston Chronicle

“Mistake by the lake”? We haven’t heard this much snarkiness since Tracy Flick ran for student council.

I’ve written before about the reflexively negative master narrative the media has developed about so-called “rust belt” cities, and frequently in the face of conflicting or even flat-out contradictory evidence. Cleveland landing a national political convention isn’t really a positive development by the media’s lights – it’s just an opportunity to remind you that 40 years ago someone started calling the city (actually Cleveland Stadium, which was razed nearly 20 years ago) “the mistake on the lake.”

Just as the Cleveland Browns’ drafting of Johnny Manziel is an opportunity to remind you that Cleveland last won a major sports championship 50 years ago.

Just as rumors that LeBron James may return to Ohio is just an opportunity to remind you that James threw sand in Cleveland’s face four years ago when he “took his talents to South Beach.”

“In Cleveland, winning comes with a price”ESPN

Yes it does. Ashes to ash, dust to dust. Thou art mortal, Cleveland.

Judging a city by the quality of its populace is one thing; judging it by the performance of its transient professional athletes is quite another.

I’m in the midst of writing a book about the Cleveland Rams team that won the 1945 NFL Championship just before owner Dan Reeves moved it to L.A. (You didn’t know that? Wow, I’m surprised.) One of the sub-themes is: Who ultimately owns a pro sports team, its fans or its owners? Who ultimately decides who will run a team, who it will employ, where it will play? For a clue, let’s hear it once more from ESPN:

The blame for most team relocations lies with the owner and the facility it plays in, not with the city and the fans who supported them.ESPN

Yep. Viewing sports fandom in that light, you can’t blame really this response from an enlightened Clevelander:

“Ooh ESPN, tell me more about my feelings as a Cleveland fan. You seem so in tune with all things Cleveland as has been the case for, what, the past thirty years. My hopes and dreams truly fall on the shoulders of dipshit professional athletes. Lol.”

Brethren and sistren of the media: Are you with us? It is time for you to put away childish things.

See No People, Hear No People: The Deeper Meaning of “Conference Call in Real Life”

FUTURE THINKING
Video cap

“Hello?”

The viral video “A Conference Call in Real Life” by Tripp & Tyler has swept corporate America and been greeted with nearly uniform laughter because, as many a viewer would attest, it’s so true.” Clearly all sorts of awkwardness has occurred when people can’t discern who is in on a mass telephone conversation, can’t understand what another person is saying – or find the abrupt barking of a homebound pet dog incongruous to what had been presumed to be a professional discussion.

Phone pull quoteThese are all understandable foibles for a human species that needs to see as much as hear each other for full comprehension. The humor in the dog gag is in the eye / ear disconnect: Had we and the conference callers been able to see that the dog’s owner was calling in from home, we would not be surprised to hear the sudden bark.

But a passage of the video in which an unwitting participant’s voice abruptly starts to echo horribly, to the listeners’ agitation, suggests an additional technological limitation to phone calls: Has the quality of everyday voice service by phone gotten worse over the past 20 or 30 years? I recently talked by phone with a colleague who was traveling in Nairobi, Kenya and – like the callers in the video – we both suffered through the usual “sorry, go-ahead” / no-you-first” delay effect common for so long to transoceanic calls; but I’ve gotten the dread echo here within the continental U.S. as well, using a landline, in the 21st century.

Phone chick

“What IS that??”

The fact of the matter is, phone-calling is not a particularly effective form of communication, and it never has been. Even though common use of the telephone is only about a century old, it can be easy to forget that for millennia and millennia of human existence there was only one minority condemned to communicating with others not by sight but by sound alone: the blind. The sighted – and those fortunate today to have contact with the outside world by more than phone alone – are well-equipped for the full spectrum of interpersonal communication, estimated to be about 60% facial and 40% vocal.

Which is to say, those who must comprehend others solely on actual words and tone of voice have two strikes against them before a conversation even begins. And the likelihood of comprehension and making a real connection drops fast if the quality of that sound is eroded, as with the hapless conference callers in the video.

This might have been lost on a former colleague of mine who once excoriated me over my preference for email because, he said, “that’s not communicating – that’s just typing.” (That he was obliquely referencing Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road is probably purely coincidental.) He was a 60-something who had come of age in an era when success in business was equated with successful use of voice and the telephone, not the leisurely-paced written word which digital technology came to supercharge. Without a doubt he would have taken umbrage at a spoken line near the video’s end:

“Beth, you’ll send out a recap email that could’ve basically taken the place of this whole meeting, correct?”

Because for my former colleague, the telephone call was the thing; barring an in-person meeting, it was how he built relationships and got things done.

Like probably many, I favor face-to-face meetings over any for establishing the all-important personal foundation on which all subsequent communication is built, followed by emails allowing for well-thought-out, well-cited and well-supported back-and-forth discussions that don’t intrude and necessarily demand an immediate response.

Then would come Skype and its online conferencing ilk, which even with their own occasional troublesome connections at least provide the combination sight-and-sound so essential to interpersonal communication; then text messaging, which allows for the instant bursts of short-form contact that the phone provides without the intrusive “your-call-caught-me-in-the-middle-of-something” potential for awkwardness. (This difference is well noted by Millennials, and also the primary cause of a transition from voice to data documented by cell carriers).

Last, of course, would be barenaked phone-calling — convenient for the flash of a moment, yes, but with no ability to see the person you’re talking to, no way to show documents you’re looking at, and no string of a written back-and-forth to reference and refresh the memory.

With the rise of online video conferencing, will the traditional voice-only phone so well pilloried in “Conference Call in Real Life” one day take its place alongside the dial-up modem and the fax machine in the dustbin of history? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Some Bad S**t That Once Passed for Entertainment

DIGRESSIONS

If American pop culture is good for anything it’s for pumping out crapola between oft-superior advertising and commercial messages. And it has been thus practically since the founding of the Union. Herewith a reach back to the 1980-and-earlier era for some truly awful cultural jetsam.

Durante 1Durante 2JIMMY DURANTE | “Inka Dinka Do”
The song title alone is an invitation to infamy. Did America really once love this schmuck? Why?

Bad bassistTHE SEEKERS | “The Carnival Is Over”
Schmaltzy pseudo-folk like this had the cultural lifespan of a mayfly. Though I have to say, the look of the bassist is priceless. Should’ve had his glasses straightened, though.

Johnnie RayJOHNNIE RAY | “The Little White Cloud That Cried”
Is it over-emoting or does “good ol’ Johnnie Ray” have an uncontrollable tic?

BellANITA WARD | “You Can Ring My Bell”
“Wow, this ‘syndrum’ makes a ‘DOOOOooooo’ sound!” I had the misfortune to graduate from high school and start college — a fragile time emotionally as it is — the same year this crap came out.

Rupert HolmesRUPERT HOLMES | “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”
He wrote this over his lunch hours in the accounting-firm cafeteria and secretly was more shocked than anyone when he got a record contract, let alone a top 10 hit. So he just rolled with it. That’s my theory.

That Place Is A Hole: Why Journalism Needs A Big Geographic Consciousness-Raising

MEDIA MUCKRAKING

312 Watson St. in DetroitAmerican journalism needs a big geographic consciousness-raising. And I say this on behalf of the Detroiters, Clevelanders, Buffalonians, Des Moinesians, etc., everywhere – current and former.

Detroit pullquote

Here’s my rationale.

It would be nearly unthinkable for journalists to characterize entire ethnic groups in broad-brush terms. Yet why does there seem to be free license to refer to entire metro regions — each with their hundreds of thousands, even millions of people and their dozens and dozens of neighborhoods — using singular descriptions like down-and-out Detroit, exciting Las Vegas, dowdy Buffalo and glamorous Los Angeles?

Or even more grossly, to call entire regions the “Rust Belt,” the “Sun Belt,” the “Left Coast”?

Travel, as they say, broadens. And anyone who has done so at all knows there are downright gritty areas of LA and Miami and quite beautiful parts of Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.

But those are just words. Images can be even more powerful. And there has long been a body of thought that photography can conceal just as much as it communicates simply by editing out of a picture that which doesn’t neatly fit the narrative.

All this came to mind recently when the Wall Street Journal ran a story on how a house at 312 Watson St. in Detroit (photo above) has become the media’s “poster child of the city’s decay.” I don’t blame the photographer here, really. A resident of nearby Bowling Green, OH (as, once, was I), he had been dispatched to Detroit by Getty Images and found this striking dichotomy of dilapidated neighborhood housing vs. gleaming corporate aloofness (symbolized by the towers of General Motors’ headquarters on the horizon, middle right).

What a great image; I might have shot the same thing. But then the photo “appeared on the front page of newspapers and show[ed] up in prime-time TV dramas,” coming to “symbolize the abandonment that helped push this city into the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy.”

But what is driving a lot of Detroiters crazy is that the image doesn’t (surprise) tell the whole story.  As the WSJ reports:

“Across the street from 312 Watson is a carefully restored, 100-year-old home with a mansard roof owned by an emergency-room doctor. To the north, a new Whole Foods store is busy with shoppers. Several blocks south, near the Comerica Park baseball stadium, a single-family house is listed at more than $400,000.”

And sure enough, a check of Google Maps’ current street view for the house shows, if not a thriving neighborhood, then certainly that the lot around the house has been trimmed, the streets are well-paved, newer buildings are in the background and the surrounding area is potentially on the cusp of a re-urbanizing turnaround:

Detroit house 2

The WSJ piece concludes with a quote from a neighbor who, himself in the midst of a house restoration project three blocks away, says of the photo of 312 Watson: “It looks like it should be in a horror movie. Those of us who live here are not living in a horror movie.”

Which suggests that reality has been warped. Which suggests that a full truth has not been conveyed. Which means that sole use of this photo to convey the current condition of Detroit is decidely unjournalistic.

Perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive to this topic than many, being from and living still in ClevelandA few weeks ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a striking front-page photo of the city’s new Global Center for Health Innovation. Looking at the photo, I thought: Wow. This does not fit the narrative of what most Americans probably think of Cleveland:

Medical MartDoes it conceal as much as it conveys? I don’t think so. And not just because it paints a positive picture. As a lifelong resident I can attest that this is what the immediate area around the Center looks like and that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of Cleveland — a reserve of open space and classic architecture from the city’s glory days. Now…get in a car and drive just a mile or two from this point and you’ll see a much different Cleveland…

And that’s precisely the point. Having lived through Cleveland’s worst press (1960s) as well as its best (1990s), I have said that the city is neither as bad nor as good as you may have heard. Nor is Detroit, which is both financially stricken at its urban core and spectacularly wealthy in its distant suburbs. Nor is Las Vegas, which is “Sin City” along the Boulevard but has nagging housing and unemployment problems. Nor is Los Angeles, which is glamorous and superficial and cultured and troubled all at once.

Journalists probably know better than anyone: There’s a good and a bad to everything, places as well as people. Let’s show it.