What are we still doing here?
Motown, the soul-pop institution raised and run out of our own backyards, had its own slogan: “The Sound of Young America.”
Fifteen years after its predominant era, we had Derrick May of the Belleville Three driving the drone-enchanted dark dance revolution of Techno, titling its inaugural compilation “The New Dance Sound of Detroit.”
And twenty years after that …(2001)… this tall, pale, broad shouldered singer/songwriter swathed in red and black and baring the last name of White, produced yet another recorded revue of “new sounds,” this time centering around a genre inevitably deemed “garage rock” (or punk revival for the potentially pickier-types) and called it “The “Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit.”
There’s lots of tantalizing lore wreathing the rise of Techno in 81-82, qualifying it as post-apocalyptic synth-symphonies to soundtrack the recession-ravaged epitomizer of the American Dream’s new nightmare; the great mobilizing Mecca of car creation and flowing freeways, now crumbling and emptying.
And 20 years after that, it seemed to many that not much had changed. To some it seemed like it was only getting worse. Did the city deserve its fate? Did it deserve the “Sympathy?”
Mark Binelli’s still new-ish book is a recommended read, particularly for any Michigander, but, naturally, to anyone situated in or near-abouts a major city, be it Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or, say, Cleveland…or even Ann Arbor…
Binelli, a born and raised local (currently living in New York) re-rooted himself back in his stamping grounds for a few years (the politically-charged and economically-volatile stint of 2008-2010, covering the Kwame scandal to the quakes of the latest Great Recession, from the Emergency Manager embroilments to bailing out “The Big 3”). Here, he documents, with a charismatically readable narrative, dozens of viewpoints from real Detroiters shepherding him throughout various pockets of the Detroit’s 140 sq miles of eerie and ignored environs, uncovering new insights from this ostensibly devastated, deserted, down-n-out city…(Yes, you’ve heard all these adjectives before…)
The subtitle of his book: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis suggests a few things. That we’re either something of a zombie or at least some kind of lingering, hindering specter ever-haunting the periphery of the country’s rustbelt and in-need of exorcising. But, also, that our story can and should be viewed as a very American story…Amid the cascading headlines, sensationalized stories from embedded East Coast and Euro-journalists salivating over Ruin Porn, we were unwelcomingly glamorized in the moment, but without substantive results or reactions; soon after the cameras left, it seemed we were starting to be regarded as a scab, something to be covered up or flecked away. But that subtitle suggests that perhaps this, (i.e. “what happened to Detroit and how it got to be this way, to be this bad”) was, at least on some level, the country’s own self-inflicted wound.
One of the books final chapters zeros in on the potential of the “Creative Class” to have an impact in any fleeting-hope for a resurrection.
That’s where you come in, band-types and music-heads. Are we in need of a new compilation, a new anthology ushering in the “New Sounds” and communicating the relevancy of said-reinvigorated rock-pop-peddled-dance-hop-revolutions? What more can we be doing besides glamorizing dead buildings with day-glo paint and performing at grassroots music festivals?
“…any potential Detroit renaissance remains in its earliest phase of development,” Binelli notes in his chapter Let Us Paint Your Factory Magenta. “…(its now) more about insane real estate development…” (Think Midtown’s coaxing of college-educated, mostly white newcomers under the age of 35, a.k.a. ‘creative types’)
And it is now more “…about the romantic vision of a crumbling heartland” (akin to Berlin’s current ‘Renaissance’). What he calls “vicarious wish-fulfillment by coastal art types living in long-gentrified cities.”
The recent documentary Detropia touched on this, as does Binelli. Artists have been thriving with a newfound freedom in this Millennial wild-west frontier. Cheap rent or squat-able locations have afforded them enticing new laboratories.
But May himself considers anyone hoping us to be “The Next Brooklyn” to have a “false sense of romanticism.” Spend a few winters downtown or actually try raising a family around here, May suggests, and see if these “creative types” remain (and, if then, thrive in any way).
May, who makes a living with his music with frequent globe-trotting tours for reverent dance-club congregations, says that foreign interviewers curious about this place, -the-birthplace-of-techno, almost always inevitably ask him: so…why didn’t you leave?
Binelli bares it with sobering deflation: “While techno added to the city’s mythic image abroad, it provided little in the way of lasting transformative effects.”
Damn it all… Art, in the moment, even in the breathless heave of a scruffy, sweaty tumble of punk-rock putrid exertions upon on a dim, dank stage, can be inspirational, yes, somewhat inspirational, if however momentary… But can it ever be bottled, purposed, maximizing some kind of utility. Can art, at all, heal?
Man, I don’t know…
What I know, and what got me on this rant, is that we’re now three years on (since 2010) from a census study that signified the burgeoning of this supposed “creative class…” And some, if not most, of us are still here.
What are we still doing here…or what keeps us here outside of some zealous hope, some zealously-naïve hope… That if Techno was some post-apocalyptic soundtrack, can this new class of musicians and bands compose the rebirthing-soundtrack? Delusional? Commendable? Naïve to the point of inducing empathy? Sympathy?
Man, I don’t know…
If you haven’t read it yet, put it on your list.