“Rocket 88” (Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats)

Astrofuturism, as described by De Witt Douglas Kilgore, is a 1950s configuration that manifests American destiny in the intellectual space between a dying colonialism and the utopian promise of a raceless future. It is fundamentally a White discourse. Afrofuturism also takes root in the 50s (the key founding figure is almost always Sun Ra) and explores the (outer) space between a certain afrocentrism and its total ironization (Underground Resistance, for instance). It is fundamentally an African American discourse. Recorded in 1951, “Rocket 88” is both astrofuturist and afrofuturist in orientation. It emphasizes the derangement of the senses, motion, speed, and an open space for “cruisin’” as preconditions for achieving escape velocity (“joy”). It further figures the “futuramic” Olds car/rocket as a techno-prosthesis, and the backing track sounds the soul of the machine (think of Brenston’s horn as the car horn, and the blown-out guitar distortion as the V8 engine). Old jalopies make funny “noise,” the singer insists, but this. . . . this is a flat out racket.

 

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“Stranger in Paradise” (Tony Bennett)

This track, from Kismet, amounts to a study in anti-utopianism: ultimate achievement of paradise is said to have nothing to do with “wonder” or being a “stranger” (these are merely unpleasant and transitory states). So, really, utopia is just like everyplace else: turning the “rare” unceasingly into the “commonplace” and reducing unprecedented “danger” to everyday reality through traditional forms of facial recognition.

 

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“Summertime” (Lena Horne)

Porgy and Bess opens with this lullaby, in which Clara’s child is lulled to sleep with promises of ease and security. In the context of the opera, we know that none of this is true: the craps game is about to begin, Clara will die, and the baby will be passed on to Serena. It will become just another child leading a life of danger and contingency on Catfish Row, staged within Gershwin’s sociological imaginary. But cut off from the larger work, and sung as a stand-alone standard, we can hear something else in “Summertime,” and it’s slightly more comical: eutopian plenitude (cotton and catfish, and generalized wealth) cannot prevent the intrusive, raw desire of a bawling infant (and praise be that, someday, it will be off on its own). Life itself interdicts its own perfection.

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