Monday, February 05, 2007

“Shop Around” / Smokey Robinson


At the theater the other night, seeing Jersey Boys, our friends were raving about how the Four Seasons were the soundtrack of their childhoods in New Jersey and Queens. I had to stop and think; I mean, I liked the Four Seasons all right, but . . . well, I’m from Indiana and I never felt they were singing to me. Same deal with the Beach Boys – I figured I needed to be a sun-bleached blonde with a year-round tan to really get the Beach Boys. So what was the music of my youth, I wondered? Then it came to me: Motown.

And so, in honor of that epiphany, I hereby declare this MOTOWN WEEK.

The beauty part of Motown was that it wasn’t black music just for blacks – even we white kids could dance to that glossy soul-infused pop. And the guy who most epitomizes that Motown sound to me was William “Smokey” Robinson. Whether he got that name from his velvety tenor or those mesmerizing hazel eyes, Smokey was romance incarnate, tricked out with enough book-smart lyrics and polite manners that you could always bring him home to the folks. (Though we cannot ignore the fact that “Oooh Baby Baby” was the most intoxicating ladies-man seduction ever recorded – it makes Barry White’s sexy growl seem tepid).

Smokey could go in all sorts of directions, from house-party tracks like “Mickey the Monkey,” “I Second That Emotion,” or the infectious “Going to a Go-Go” to dreamy slow-dance ballads like “Tracks of My Tears.” Just where the self-pity classic “Tears of a Clown” fits in I don’t know, but it is one memorable tune (and the only dance hit I know that references the opera Pagliacci).

Smokey wrote “Shop Around” with his mentor Berry Gordy, and maybe that why it has a darker edge, or maybe it’s because it’s from 1960 (the label’s first #1 single) before the Motown commercial formula had been completely refined. This song is Smokey’s Some Like It Hot moment, with his high silky-smooth voice morphing into an female impersonation of his mother giving him advice: “Just because you've become a young man now / There's still some things that you don't understand now / Before you ask some girl for her hand now / Keep your freedom for as long as you can now’ / My mama told me:” The whole song jerks to a dramatic halt for a beat, then Smokey's voice swoops down dramatically low to deliver the punch line – “’You better shop around'.”

Is it just me, or is there something Oedipal about this? Sure, Mom’s just looking out for her baby boy’s best interests, urging him, “Make sure that her love is true now / I'd hate to see you feelin' sad and blue now.” Clearly this mother is in NO HURRY to see her son settle down with another woman, and she’s willing to sell out her own sex – “Pretty girls come a dime a dozen,” she says cynically, adding: “Try to get yourself a bargain son / Don't be sold on the very first one!” Caveat emptor and all that.

Now remember, this guy is just repeating what his mother said; it’s possible he’s using this as an excuse to deny a woman who’s pressuring him to settle down. But as the song swings into the coda, it builds to a frenzy of call-and-answer between back-up and lead vocal -- either his mom is picturing his love-making in incestuous detail, or he himself is quivering at the idea that girls are going to hold him tight and take his hand, et cetera. “Be a man, son,” he advises himself in his mother’s voice, as if playing the field is the only way to prove his manhood. And if mama told him to, he’s gotta do it, right?

Well, there are a lot of psychological layers here, more than usual for a pop song. But there’s also a boppy dance beat, a sizzling sax solo in the break, and those finger-wagging back-up “oohs” and “mmms” (listen and you'll hear Smokey’s future wife, Claudette Rogers). It comes flowing out in glorious monoaural -- a song made to be listened to on a transistor radio on a summer night, or blaring out of open car windows (who had AC in the car back then?). This is Motown, and I want more.

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