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> Stir It Up

City song

Why efforts to promote Detroit through music strike a sour note

 

Published 6/3/2009

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Is there a really good song out there for Detroit, a theme song that can capture who we are and what we're about?

The folks at Radio One — home of prominent stations WCHB, WHTD, WDMK — seem to think so. They're running a "Write Detroit's new theme song and win $5,000" contest. I gotta say that the prospect of a new Detroit theme song makes me shiver right down to my little pinky toes. I mean, Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Hello Detroit" was a real killer-diller. 

I visited songfordetroit.com to see what it was all about. For starters, if you are thematically challenged, there was a list of Detroit things or events (African American Museum, Ambassador Bridge, Greektown, Mexicantown, Hitsville USA, Greenfield Village, etc., 42 in all) to choose from. In fact, songwriters are required to use at least three items from the list — which, incidentally, did not include either the jazz or Movement festivals. Radio One also provides four music tracks for the musically challenged so they only have to come up with some lyrics. If you have your own inner groove, there is no prohibition against laying down your own beats.

Although the deadline for entries is June 5, there were already four songs on the site to vote for: the upbeat pop of "Spirit of Detroit" by Harold D. Thomas; the soulful "Detroit City" by Key of C (shouldn't that be Key of the D?); the rappin' "City of Detroit" by Ronald M. Betts; and the jazzy "I'm Talkin' 'Bout Detroit" by Stanley Johnson. 

Unfortunately, all of the songs used way more than three of the suggested places and events, turning them into laundry lists of cool places to go if you are in Detroit. That might work for the tourism bureau, but it really doesn't uplift the folks already here. Johnson's jazzy groove kind of got into my skin, but the line "three casinos with nice places to eat, hotel rooms where you can rest and sleep" just kind of left me, uh, tired.

Maybe "Hello Detroit" isn't that bad. I pulled up the lyrics to find what it was about (no, I don't know it by heart). The song mentions a "stroll through Belle Isle Park, Greektown after dark." It also mentions "waterfronts," and "the Motown sound," but overall the song is about the human spirit, opening with the lines: 

You're a fighter, you're a lover,
You're strong and you recover,
From whatever gets you down.

I'm no Simon Cowell, but I've got to say that "Hello Detroit" makes a better song than putting a list of attractions to a beat. The same goes for Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," saying "I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps." No mention of Madison Square Garden in there.

But what is Detroit? Who are we? What is our identity? What can we sing about?

We may still be the Motor City, but with a smaller wheel than we once rolled with. Bluesman John Lee Hooker might have hit it right for today when in 1957 he wrote: "Let me be your little wheel babe, till your big wheel come. Lord, I'd do more rollin' than your big wheel ever done." It's got a theme, and when it says, "roll you all over town," the remake could throw in all the places you can roll to. In the end though, being the Motor City, with all it once signified in terms of being the leading beacon of the industrial world, no longer fits. Let's just leave that theme alone.

Are we still Motown? The little label that grew up and put us on the musical map of the world also tied itself to the Motor City moniker. It worked at the time. But Motown has been gone from Detroit for going on 40 years. If I had a nickel for every aspiring record producer who said, "We want to be the new Motown," well, I'd have a big bag of nickels. The point is that no matter how many dance parties you have with the old tunes, we are no longer Motown — not the motors, not the music. If you want to build your music empire here, fine. But create a different image.

Are we a cool city? That theme came up during the Kwame Kilpatrick years. Indeed, Kilpatrick believed himself to be cool, a player. But then somebody tore his playhouse down. There are still plenty of cool destinations in the D (I will not start a list here), but not yet enough to be a public profile and drive the economy. I'd rather use that theme to focus on downtown or some specific neighborhoods, Midtown for example, rather than making a whole city about being cool.

Are we a sports city? Hockeytown does have something of a ring to it, especially right now, but hockey only happens part of the year. Still, for the sports-minded, we are one of the few cities to boast a team for each of the major pro sports, not to mention two Big Ten universities nearby. I know it's hard to call the Lions professional, but the players do get paid, and one can always hope they learn their way to the field as well as to the bank. However, I don't see how we define ourselves as a sports city. At least not until the Lions come to life and start chewing up the opposition.

Philadelphia has that "City of Brotherly Love" thing going on, New Orleans is the "Big Easy" and Chicago is the "Windy City." Those are kind of intangible qualities, not tied to industry or anything that could be taken away. You could claim that Philly lacks brotherly love, but that's debatable. 

I decided to go to some of Detroit's dedicated wordsmiths, poets, to see what perceptions are coming from their unadulterated poetic hearts. I caught up with Chantay Leonard, aka Legacy, at Nandi's Knowledge Café in Highland Park, where there's a regular Thursday open poetry reading. She gave me a copy of her poem "Detroit When the Seasons Change." Here's some of it:

I want to give this city a hug
Embrace every cold block heart by heart 
Turn our ghettoization into glorification
We're not dead yet …

When the seasons change
We will emerge again, radiant
Wing spanning the horizon
Eclipsing the gloom of forecast failures
Butterfly effect all expectations
Beat a storm with our wings
That will be felt across the planet
Vibrating the universe with the spirit that is Detroit

Those are the sentiments I want to hear in a song about Detroit. It's got D love. It speaks to a higher consciousness. We could be Detroit, the embraceable city, the huggable city. Or is there still a musical metaphor to tie ourselves to. This next poem, "Motown Lullaby" by Alex Jones, gets to the real music of the city:

Detroit isn't sleeping at 2 am.

Air conditioners and lonely engines buzz —
low droning synthesizers in the night,

gunshots punctuate the air arrhythmically
like violent snare hits

while car alarms and sirens echo
between the charred corpses of buildings
and the leprous ones still standing.

On Michigan Central Station's roof,
my friends and I hear it all.

We dance to this industrial urban cacophony
before we scatter at sunrise
l
ike plastic bags blown by the wind.

Detroit isn't sleeping at 2 am,
it's singing.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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