[Amy Winehouse, Carole King, Jerry Goffin, The Brill Building, Jacques Lacan, the pop song, conversation with my daughter, Maria]
Maria and I have always had an ongoing conversation about music. She has guided me through the rich and eloquent popular music of her youth. She anticipates songs or artists that I will like and plays them for me. She is a curator of my musical taste. One day last year, she asked, “What are you listening to?”
I said—without really thinking much—“Amy Winehouse!”
Maria gave a little surprised smile and said, “I didn’t see that coming.”
Neither did I. Last year, my first year of retirement, was a struggle for me. I missed the intellectual work of the classroom, the conversations with colleagues, and most of all the students. It was in this sort of funky mood that I discovered Amy Winehouse’s rich body of work. I had known about her as a media image and knew her song, “Rehab.” I was in London in 2007 and read about her in cruel, sensationalistic British media. I thought she was not my type.
Last year, I discovered song after song that proved she was definitely my type. Her version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” was the song I loved first and initiated my exploration. I followed it through her jazz classics, her reggae and ska vocals and her wonderful pop songs. At the peak of her work stands a stripped down, deeply existential version of the Shirelles’ classic, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The Karma Refugees decided to record a version last summer.
(never fully present)
The song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” written by 17 year old Carole King (then Klein) and her young husband, Jerry Goffen, was the first record by a black girl group to reach number 1 on pop charts. The song by The Shirelles came into American culture the year the first oral contraceptive was introduced. Even though it was a teen love song from the famous Brill Building song factory, it was always more complex than the culture’s simple concept of high school romance. Lines like “Tonight with words unspoken/ you said that I’m the only one” point to the complexity of meta-language. The digital code of language is a low variety code incapable of capturing the richness of the world. “Words unspoken”—later referred to as “the magic of your sighs,” invokes meta-language. This is the language of bodies in relationship–a more ancient and much larger analog code. Verbal language which describes and structures our experiences is actually a poor, limited tool and the only tool we have. The song lyric describes the dance between words and words unspoken; the music is that dance. Thus, the song plunges into the deepest questions. Does anyone love me? Who am “I?”
Though I knew the Shirelles’ original version, I reimagined it through the singing of Amy Winehouse. While I listened to her version, a famous aphorism from Jacques Lacan—“Desire is the Desire to Be Desired”– popped into my head and it seemed to be a good connection. The metaphor made by comparing song and statement was the starting point for The Karma Refugees’ version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” That song then becomes the starting point of the musical exploration of our new EP, Free One Else, (2020 produced by Brian Heilman) which continues our journey through the marvelously complex world of the pop song. Through direct, immediate poetry and multi-layered music, these songs express fleeting signs of human love and loss.
[Jacques Lacan, Terry Eagleton]
Describing Lacan’s work in Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton writes:
“Nothing is ever fully present in signs: it is an illusion for me to believe that I can ever be fully present to you in what I say or write, because to use signs at all entails that my meaning is always somehow dispersed, divided and never quite at one with itself. Not only my meaning, indeed, but me: since language is something I am made out of, rather than merely a convenient tool I use, the whole idea that I am a stable, unified entity must also be a fiction. Not only can I never be fully present to you, but I can never be fully present to myself either. I still need to use signs when I look into my mind or search my soul, and this means that I will never experience any ‘full communion’ with myself.”
[Lessons from the Brill Building]
Once it became possible to record, play and broadcast music, the popular song—in all its splendid diverse array—has played an important role in creating the world and teaching us how to live in it. Popular music, with its flashes of imagery, melody, rhythm, philosophy and so much more, provides multiple soundtracks people use to structure and live their lives. The pervasive influence of mass produced music is largely unconscious—until you stop and think about it. Then it becomes possible to understand some of the world view that came from the Brill Building.
The Brill Building was a hotbed of emerging popular music in the 1950s and 60s. The list of songwriters who worked there is amazing and the songs created there were plentiful and popular. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Brill-Building-Assembly-Line-Pop-1688332.
Many were the lessons I learned listening to vinyl records. My cultural horizons were expanded when I learned, “There is a Rose in Spanish Harlem.” Perhaps I would be too uninteresting and be compelled to rely on “Love Potion Number Nine” to gain her attention. At first, we learned that it is “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” and as the song says, “oh I love you so.” That is, until “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” and now its “gone gone gone woe woe o.” Then the script of life turns a page and “Breakin’ Up is Hard To Do.”
On some level, these popular songs create the dramas we live out and pose questions we still ask. Songs from the Brill Building were mass produced and often engaged in dialogue with other songs defining the boundaries of relationship and love. A great song like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” may have started out as a high school love song but then took on deeper connotations. During and after her breakup with Jerry Goffen, King sang the song slower and it was no longer a teenage love song.
[Jacques Lacan “Desire is the desire to be desired.”]
Amy Winehouse, as seen in her style and music, loved the black girl groups. Her singing of the song reveals much more than teen romantic passion. Her vocal, like her life, is an anguished tale of what it means to reach for love in the patriarchy.