You don’t have to be too much of a rock snob to know about the history of Detroit. For decades, this place, in whose honour the Motown record label was named, produced many more songs than seems plausible. Its population peaked, long ago, at 1 million. But still. Aretha. Iggy. John Lee Hooker. The White Stripes. And on and on with techno, right up ‘til the last bad Eminem record.
You don’t have to be too much of an economics nerd to know about the history of Detroit. For decades, this place, in whose honour an era of business was named, produced many more cars than seems plausible.
Fordism was as real as Detroit’s crumbling municipal buildings remain. It is now a memory. Still, Donald Trump promises an impossible return to a time of efficient workers paid to live well, close to the factories of innovative industrialists, whose marvellous cars they will buy. It’s entirely possible this stupid President was stupid enough to believe that dream. But I don’t think even he is stupid enough to suppose there can ever be another Aretha.
Along with its millions of cars, Detroit produced millions of lives lived well. Migrants and Anglophone blacks and whites worked together and lived together comfortably enough, they created an extraordinary culture. People tend to do this when they have enough free time –here made possible by a labour shortage that drove both salaries and conditions up. Studios were built and friendships were formed and great music became part of the Detroit package.
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Car production slowed. A few decades later, so did the music. You can say that hardship is what really produces great pop, but you recognise the need for a studio as well. And, of course, for the musically gifted to remain alive, quite the task in this Western capital for homicide.
Many in this broke city now live hopeless lives. Not hopelessness as you and I might experience it — numb terror at what the political world has become; casualised work; pressure making our housing costs etc. — but paralysis to a point well past being able to sing the blues. “Fluid” labour practice, driven by the need for profit, killed this music. Islamic State destroyed Palmyra, while America craps on its own beautiful culture in a different way.
Just this weekend, I finished writing a book that strives in part to explain to young people the connection between their labour and their culture. I wanted to tell them: don’t feel bad about yourselves if others laugh at you for your internet memes. Keep doing it. Keep making what you can between gigs. I was conscious when writing these thoughts that they would have been far better expressed 10 years ago, back when I had more money and time.
This is not a plea for pity, by the way. It’s just the truth that most writers and journalists and other makers of culture now earn very little. That we can earn anything at all is, of course, a miracle for which I am grateful. It’s not like those car factory workers can be so “agile”, or so far from being replaced by offshore labour or machines.
At the centre of this introspection bubble, I elected to burst it by looking at social media. A quick look at that day’s “outrage” always makes me laugh. I did laugh when I saw that the Australian writer, and corporate consultant, Kasey Edwards was the latest to write for Fairfax that she doesn’t trust men with the temporary care of her children.
Even leaving aside the feminist-based policy of that now-familiar Fairfax article — famously visited by Tracey Spicer who, in 2014, didn’t want her kids even sitting next to men on planes — there is something else that stinks about the culture here. Which is when we know we cannot return to our own Detroit.
Increasingly, and notably at Fairfax, the only people who can afford to regularly produce culture for pennies, while also being able to sing their version of the blues, are well-to-do women. Usually white ones.
It is a strange pain heard in the lament of Edwards and Spicer. I am sure that the pain, produced by the not entirely baseless fear that some men are no good, is real. But it’s a rich woman’s pain.
Many mothers of the present may worry about the possibility of their child’s abuse; again, not unreasonably, particularly given that Fairfax reports on the sexual abuse of children so often. Most mothers of the present simply do not get to choose from a wide range of childcare options as Edwards does. Most mothers of the present do not fly on a nice airline with their children as Spicer does. I mean, have you ever tried to ask for something so luxurious as a seat swap on Tiger?
This is not to say that these particular women should “check their privilege”. If they wish to discuss their problems with others in their class, that’s fine. If Fairfax wishes to make all its digital properties only useful for perusal in the business lounge, that’s also fine. But I wish the company would just stop pretending to sing the blues on all of our behalves.
I had a little look again at a Fairfax front page yesterday, just to see if I had imagined this trend of culture for, by and about the female ruling class. I saw this, which addresses the universal problem of a young gal choosing between a “cushy corporate job” with Deloitte, or a thrilling start-up risk funded by capitalism’s angels.
When Aretha, with her more common pain and her quite uncommon talent, called for R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Detroit, I don’t think she had this response in mind.
This is the response we get, though, when only the ruling class have the time to make the culture. It’s not their fault that they don’t know a more everyday pain. Even if it is their fault that there is no more Detroit.