“Bored” is enunciated like the end of each couplet in Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians’ “Balloon Man.” Much like the latter, the trax centers on staging an example. (Unlike Hitchcock, it’s not concerned with identity production and explosion.) Alternating between first and third person limited, we witness the staging of ennui. Malformed embodiment: “skin like dirt” that’s both “sun kissed” and “burnt.” Neither actively pursuing nor straying far from whiteness. Overdriven instruments and vocals sound primarily in the midrange. Shared nostalgia for dissatisfaction, reanimating the realization that “life’s a chore.”
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.
The coverage of the Michael Brown and George Floyd protests were almost breathless. What’s new with this iteration of popular uproar? Is it the “bottoming out” that finally leads to racial progress? The further militarization of the police? Rather than seek out an event in today’s headlines, the contiguities are more sobering. Toddy Tee’s grudging 1985 homage to Daryl Gates’ police tank—“it’s coming”—could be taken as both a warning to crack dealers and a protest over police violence and the suspension of the fourth amendment in black and brown neighborhoods. And it would be just fine as that. But there’s also the mayor’s decision to “legalize something that works like that.” Operating during the early height of the War on Drugs, the Batterram was used to strike in indiscriminate discriminatory ways. The police are like “F Troop,” knocking on random doors trying to entrap residents. But these circumstances are a dime a dozen with law-and-order governors and police departments inheriting equipment used during recent wars. According to one protestor from Ferguson, Missouri, the city “could be any town in the world.” Absolutely true, but more often not. As the places add up—Dearborn Heights, Sanford, Los Angeles, etc.—the patience wears thin. Both the media’s hopeful exhaustion and a healthy dose of neighborhood utopianism.
It’s not clear how he got into this predicament, but it’s 1960 and this Louisiana singer is courting identical sisters of color, Rita and Juanita. “My head it spins because they are twins.” He loves them both, and they each love him. In order to avoid misidentifying them (and especially on the telephone), he calls them corporately, “Rita-Juanita.” Well, that solves one problem. But the singer eventually figures that a decision must be made. The girls, however, won’t accept such a choice: “You can’t love one and still be true.” Endlessly and ultimately aporetic, the trax exits by reiterating the impossible choice: “Which one shall I lose? Which one shall I choose?” This trax is in mono, but that doesn’t prevent us from recognizing its potential implication in “stereoscopic viewing,” a key invention of the nineteenth century. It’s as if the singer has taken two slightly separate images of the same person (the two related echoes in the trax), and is desperately trying to fuse them. But he cannot find his stereo Viewfinder and is thus doubled over in the agony of indecision. Relatedly, Samuel Delaney once informed a member of the Traxionary staff that both the stereoscope’s name and dream connect it to another crucial nineteenth-century invention, the “stereotype,” which was often made of papier-mâché, and allowed for the three-dimensional metal molding of printing plates. “Stereotyping” was thus originally deemed as substantially improving and correcting one’s representation or copy of reality. So back to the trax: it is possible to see that the singer is psychologically blocked precisely at the moment when he has to choose a woman of color as his main squeeze? Has he stereoscoped—and thus stereotyped—his girl, all in the name of a certain and definitive rendering? As for his motivation, surely he’s considering whether he can bring either of these girls home to meet Mom and Dad. (And remember the alternative, which is to skirt bigamy: one “Juanita” is diversity, two constitutes a girl gang.)
Plea for white self-reflection on color question vacillates between advocacy of colorblindness and Black pride (there-is-no-difference versus get-out-of-my-way). Given this uncertainty, overly optimistic assessment of the struggle’s endpoint: “The laws of society were made for both you and me.” Correction: the laws are designed to designate you and me, citizen and subject. Always, in liberalism, a foundational distinction, remaining.
As chapter one, verse one of Timberlake’s solo career, it’s also ground zero for the (anticipation of a) post-racial future. If you recall his running for cover after 2004’s “Nipplegate,” it’s realpolitik when it comes to salvaging a livelihood. This serves as a baseline of Timberlake’s racial politics, which carries over to the trax in question. Holding “real love” in his hands, singer declares that Latinas “still deserve the crown” and, deep inside, are priceless princesses. We know this is all a canard (and racial pandering) to get laid by the end of the song. More importantly, though, it’s the faux updating of a multiracial call-and-response, which “they don’t do . . . anymore.” Structured, gendered girls/guys section takes the cake, with Timberlake’s affected black vernacular, condescending falsetto, and interruptions of the women half the time marking the furthest edge of allowable participation. The man who sings in line does no time.
Written in in response to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and later recorded by Three Dog Night in the aftermath of the school busing case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), this trax seems to be straightforwardly liberal in orientation, emphasizing literacy and integration in equal measure. Most important, perhaps, is the trax’s triumphal relation to Supreme Court decisions and their enforcement in every town, burb, and city in America (“this I the law of ALL the land”). But let’s take a closer look at the scene of inscription: “The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write.” Songwriter Earl Robinson’s original recording had a later, counterbalancing verse (“The slate is black, the chalk is white, the words stand out so clear and bright”), but Three Dog Night removed it. So the message, on balance, is not quite color-blind: instead, it charts a power reversal grounded in a historical overcoming. Our future, here, involves blackness writing its own story onto the parchment remnants of white supremacy.
Preemptively establishing a dislocated, disaffected white subjectivity (which doesn’t even know a “they” or the difference between “thick or thin” blood), track transitions to a more attenuated voice. The Negro observers are “big and strong” but evidently “don’t know what goes on” and must attempt to make sense of the (literal and moral) vacancy of white spaces. Longing for a studious (and continually impos[ed/ing]) Black estrangement, then, undergirds anti-racist visions; overblown saxophone is on to this formulation, signing off its observance of this phenomena.
If, one day, space aliens ponder the history of histrionic, twentieth-century love songs, they will wonder whether the Anglo-American world went completely mad in the postwar period. Boys particularly seem to have been in some form of competition to claim the most complete and greatest love of all, and oftentimes it got pretty squirrelly. Listen to the Righteous Brothers claim: “Without you, baby, what good am I?/You’re my reason for laughing/For crying, for living, and for dying.” Huh? You’re my reason for dying? Is this what a girl wants to hear? Let’s start by doubting this claim: in the first place, no one has a reason for dying. In fact, it’s entirely unreasonable and quite mad that we start dying on the day of our birth. You can’t choose it. No one ever wished to be born. (Or, if you’re in an emo mood, you might cheat and claim your parents as your reason for dying, but, remember: they weren’t acting reasonably when they conceived you.) So perhaps the love-struck Brothers Righteous are saying: you’re the only reason I continue with this suffering called life. Yes, “you’re my reason for living.” Without you, in other words, I’ll kill myself. Again, just what a girl wants to hear. Now she’s been made hyper-responsible for the continued existence of this big lump on the couch. So as soon as you hear a boy break into song, don’t try to be reasonable. Laugh.