What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Love and Theft in the 21st Century

By Jonathan FreedmanNovember 1, 2015

What’s Love Got to Do With It?: Love and Theft in the 21st Century

The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.


I. Love as Theft

THE LAST TIME I got drunk, many years ago, I was at a conference in LA, a place by its very nature conducive to the lowering of inhibitions. So I walked up to Eric Lott, whom I had known in a friendly way for so many years, to tell him that I had just taught — yet again — Love and Theft, and to inform him how enthusiastically my undergraduates, usually a crafty and cynical bunch, had taken to his arguments. But I opined — I only opine when tipsy — that there seemed something missing not only in their reaction but also in the overall reception of the book. “Everyone gets the theft, Eric.” I said, “But what about the love? Dude, what’s happened to the love?”

True, there’s been love aplenty for Love and Theft itself — impelling the book well beyond the standard academic thievery as Lott’s arguments swam into the mainstream on their way to the shores of the commonplace. Winner of the very first MLA Prize for a First Book, it’s also one of those rare academic tomes that has been able to cross over to the public sphere with equal if not greater éclat. And whom among us does not secretly wish for the extra-academic acclaim this book has received: after all, an album by Bob Dylan was named after it, quotation marks placed around the title to mark Dylan’s own non-theft of the title (though I doubt Eric has received royalties). Spike Lee includes a shout-out to the book in the credits to his 2000 film Bamboozled. And there’s a country group that named itself Love and Theft — they specialize in songs about gritty ex-alcoholics (as in their current single “Whiskey on My Breath,” in which a bestubbled drinker recovers from a binge, shaves, and prepares to face the world sober). As a sign of the proliferating dissemination of Lott’s work, the band Love and Theft took their name not from the book but from Dylan’s album, minus the quotation marks.

Lott’s thesis is simple, its implications profound. He asks us to consider why in the 1830s a new form of mass entertainment emerged: blackface minstrel shows, in which (largely) white performers blacked their faces with cork and performed skits, dances, and songs in the personae (largely) of Southern slaves and assorted hangers-on. Pointing to the popularity of these entertainments in the North, most specifically among working-class audiences in New York, Lott anatomizes the social work that gets done through these responses. Their spectatorship, he argues, simultaneously allowed the audience to vent its own class resentment by identifying with the antiauthoritarian, libidinally free-floating figures in front of them, and to feel superior to those figures: two for the price of one.

But the argument moves on from its rich reading of this cultural moment to an engagement with broader cultural phenomena — the use of minstrel show topoi in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example — and ultimately to an insistent application to the cultural phenomena of the 20th century as well. What, after all, was Norman Mailer’s anatomy of the hipster as a “white negro” but an exemplary case of love and theft? Or, literalizing the trope,what was it when Mick Jagger and Keith Richard's record label was accused of trying to copyright their cover of  illiterate bluesman Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" under murky circumstances at best?

There’s no doubt that Lott’s book both rode the wave of the 1990s zeitgeist and also added to its power. Indeed, part of the genius of the book — and it is a work of genius — is its ability to fuse a generation’s worth of excellent Americanist scholarship, literary and otherwise (it’s so lovely for an old fogey like me to see a shout-out in the notes to Perry Miller’s Raven and the Whale) with a remarkable body of discourse that emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Before moving on, let me enumerate some of these. Love and Theft’s conceptual foundation is built on the bedrock of one of the late 20th century’s most important schools of critical thought: the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, which, led by guiding spirit Stuart Hall, emphasized the constitutive power of reception, and in so doing opened spaces, even with the most reactionary-seeming of texts, for reckoning unruly or revolutionary audience responses.

An equally important facet of Lott’s argument is a new emphasis on whiteness as a racialized category. While theorized in the early 20th century by Du Bois and Fanon, pursued in historical work by Theodore Allen and in legal studies by Ian Haney López — and for that matter apotheosized by comic Martin Mull — this recognition burst into critical and public awareness a year before Love and Theft via Toni Morrison’s essays Playing in the Dark. This more complex understanding of race also entered into labor history largely through the work of David Roediger, whose Wages of Whiteness (the title, significantly, quotes Du Bois) appeared in 1991. Equally significant was the idea of “performativity,” derived from analytic philosopher J. L. Austin’s exploration of the speech act, first as adapted by deconstructionists, then weaponized as a metalinguistic means of undoing fixities of gender and sex in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). Butler’s understanding of the performative utterance morphed into a concern with the performance of gender and sex — her book has much to say about drag as a model of both, for example, and that concern percolated broadly in the period before Love and Theft appeared, especially as given currency by Jennie Livingston’s documentary of the black and latino drag world in Paris Is Burning (1992).

There are lots of other influences simmering in Lott’s rich stew of a book — Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner on social ritual as theatricality; Eve Sedgwick on homosocial desire; Louis Althusser on subject-formation; Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious on Marxist hermeneutics. I cite all of these for two reasons. The first is to remind us of just how fruitful was the critical moment in which Love and Theft was formulated, written, and published, and how fully we literary and cultural scholars are still living on the critical abundance that this moment produced. What allowed it to become so was the breaking down of boundaries both within and between disciplines. Historians, anthropologists, and literary critics met and mingled, as at a gigantic profession-wide cocktail party. Natalie Davis, Stephen Greenblatt, Clifford Geertz, Louis Montrose, Carlo Ginzburg: all these may be said to have been engaging the methods and manner of each other’s fields in the pursuit, in Montrose’s words, of the history of texts and the textuality of history. (Even Jameson’s Marxist hermeneutics enrolled Lacan and Dante in the Frankfurt School.) The work they produced was imaginative, wide-ranging, speculative, polemical, engaged, engaging, and profoundly transformative for all concerned — and for literary critics in particular. Let’s face it: as we abandoned our tweed jackets and frowsy skirts and donned our all-black mufti and designer suits, as we took Stanley Fish’s advice and traded in our boxy Volvos for elegant Saabs, as we pontificated knowingly about Foucault, Freud, and French feminism, we were, all of a sudden, cool.

Bliss it was to be alive then, and to be young was very heaven. Pure formalism — the dominant tenor of literary training, whether New Critical or deconstructive — was a thing of the past, but formalist methods weren’t. To the contrary: they entered into a spicy ménage à trois with history and theory that seemed to promise a genuinely new way of doing criticism of all sorts, one that went variously under the heading (and spawned guidebooks, anthologies, methodological navel-gazing, and the like) of New Historicism, cultural materialism, cultural poetics, the New Pragmatism, and a host of others. The heyday of these was also the heyday of Lott’s book, and his work takes full advantage of the opportunities this conjunction opened up.

But — and this is my second point — Love and Theft hazarded a different way of integrating the reading, “theory,” and historical practice than that on offer in these hegemonic formulations. In retrospect, all of the movements I’ve named and some I haven’t shared a propensity for the hyperbolized totalization, usually expressed, à la structuralism, in terms of a duality — subversion or containment, resistance or hegemony, masculinist or feminist. Even Foucauldians dutifully defined the hypostasized value of power in dualistic terms as being everywhere and nowhere — everywhere precisely because (in another formulation of this discourse, as is the term “discourse”) it is nowhere. Lott, by contrast, integrated theory and history and close reading without ignoring the minute as well as brutish facts of power as they got instantiated in the constitutive American rhetoric of race. Because his central thematic is both material and metaphorical, a specific cultural practice that rose, flourished, and foundered and a set of meanings radiating from it, he’s able to have the best of both worlds.

True, he doesn’t hesitate to build a larger critical-historical edifice out of this encounter. Here, it’s a specific field that helps him. New Criticism and especially deconstruction — the backbone of proto-New Historicist reading methods — never really made much of an impact on American literary criticism. Indeed, a kind of old-fashioned commitment to the historical reigned throughout the heyday of Americanists even when inflected by psychoanalytic or other pre-theoretical theoretical methods, as in the greatest work of one of the greatest Americanists, Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel gives Lott his title and, perhaps, much of his critical perspective on the homoerotic dynamics of the white attachment to black culture. Impulses toward system-building these critics had galore, but Fiedler, no less than F. O. Matthiessen, or Henry Nash Smith, or Ann Douglas, or Leo Marx, genuinely thought that he was constructing an argument about a cultural form that reified historically specific social engagements and material practices. If the theory of mediation in the so-called myth and symbol school was a bit hazy, the practice was exhilarating in its mixture of cultural specifics and extrapolation from them. Indeed, Smith’s Virgin Land hypothesis and its feminist extension in Annette Kolodny’s Lay of the Land continue to be enormously helpful in understanding fights over global warming, ecology, land use and unfettered development; Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden a powerful way of explaining how Silicon Valley high tech presents itself in the guise of 1960s innocence, merging both machine and garden in a kind of creepy high-tech pastoralism — Huck’s raft run aground on the corporate campus.

Lott is the latest and one of the best representatives of this tradition: although he reads American culture through one cultural form of many, he makes us see something new not only in his time frame but in the longue durée of US culture at large. Indeed, implications of this argument apply, mutatis mutandis, to people of our generation, as the Who memorably dubbed us — that is, those of us who grew up white middle-class rebels in the ’60s and ’70s. Lott’s book shows us the less attractive aspects of our adoration of black culture — our joyous dancing to Motown and our furious foot-tapping to jazz and rhythm and blues. If we donned the mask of faux-blackness in order to stage a revolt against the norms of a bourgeois society, it was only to presage the melancholy inevitability that we were all too eager to join it just a few years later, our musical choices intact but now playing on the sound systems of our Chevy Suburban SUVs (or, pace Stanley Fish, Volvos).

And, of course, Lott’s argument continues to be germane. Blackface in the most literal sense of the word is strikingly long-lived. Writing in 2015, one must inevitably begin with the sorry episode of Rachel Dolezal, the activist and part-time professor who was outed by her awful evangelical family as a white woman despite her passing for a black one. But Dolezal’s masquerade, which I read as more pathetic than heinous, is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are a few data points from the vantage point of the last six months or so.  Fashion blogger Alexandra Spencer Instagrammed a backyard portrait of herself in whiteface accompanied by artist/all around fabulous person Cheryl Humphreys, done up in black. African-American actress Amandla Stenberg posted a video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” and later, on Instragram, denounced actress? model? celebrity! Kylie Jenner, who had posted pictures of herself with cornrows — in this Instagram composite, Jenner is on the left, Stenberg on the right.

Stenberg also critiqued Miley Cyrus for “us[ing] black women as props” while twerking — a dance originating in African culture made part of the hip-hop scene in black New Orleans during the 1990s.


Figure One: Miley Cyrus Grabbing onto the Next Dance Craze

And she lambastes Katy Perry for wild stereotyping in her music video This Is How We Do.

Curious, I watched Perry’s music video, only to discover a pristine illustration of Lott’s thesis. On the one hand, it offers a pop art influenced tribute to African-American culture: there are black as well as white dancers, an iconic image of Michael Jordan’s famous one-handed facializing dunk, and a portrait of Aretha Franklin with the word “Respect” underneath. But there are watermelons, watermelons everywhere; Katy appearing in cornrows; even a twerking ice cream sundae. Tellingly the song alludes to a 1995 Montell Jordan hit, This Is How We Do It — the melody and words are different, but the beat and the bass line are the same. Given that in the original, the ability to do it — to have fun in a cool, elegant way — is located firmly in black LA (“South Central does it like nobody does”), the meaning of Perry’s video is clear: this is how they do it, and boy, can’t we be just like them if we eat a little watermelon and sing a little soul?


Figure Two: Is that a Gang Sign or Is She Just Saying Hi?
Katy Perry with Watermelon

White desire to appropriate blackness either as a way out of the most oppressive aspects of whiteness (as is the case with Dolezal) or as a kind of a rebel-without-a-cause fashion statement (as is the case with Kylie and Katy), then, is a dominant feature of our own cultural present, the origins and dynamics of which Lott’s book make crystal clear, in the best myth and symbol tradition. The 19th-century tradition Lott charts shifts when updated to contemporary culture, but it’s no less rich for that transposition.

But more: he works out of the American studies tradition of radical dissent. Just as Fiedler’s work must be read as a gigantic middle-finger salute to the cultural conformity of his moment — the complacent, consensus-worshipping 1950s — so Lott’s book has to be read as a meditation on the increasing conservatism of the white working classes in the 1980s. And beyond, to our own hour, when working-class resentment is finding its voice in Donald Trump’s racist appeals rather than Bernie Sanders’s economic ones. Lott’s moment, it is important to remember, was one in which much attention was given to Stanley Greenberg’s 1985 study of Michigan’s Reagan Democrats, of those working-class whites who turned to the Republican Party in the 1980s out of their resentment of people on “welfare” mingled with unrepentant racism. The election of 1988 was won largely by an out-and-out racist appeal by the patrician George Bush, who thrust a convicted black rapist in the face of white America and made the image stick to his hapless opponent. The lessons of these elections were clearly learned by Bill Clinton, whose campaign was in full swing as Lott was finishing a draft of the book. Attuned to the dynamics of the American psyche like no other politician I know, Clinton made currency of the love-and-theft thesis by blowing his saxophone on The Tonight Show like a veteran bluesman (or perhaps the third member of the Belushi/Aykroyd Blues Brothers, itself a Lottean phenomenon) while denouncing rap singer Sister Souljah for the political extremity of her rhetoric. And he turned to the other side of the transaction with his later transmigration, in the words of Toni Morrison no less, into America’s “first black president” at the height of the Monica Lewinsky non-scandal.

Blackness and whiteness thus have not only been intertwined with each other but also intertwined with class and — in an important part of his argument — gender: much of working-class masculinity, Lott shows, has been based on the eroticized identification with the black body and a reaction-formation against that impulse. But, as my examples suggest, there’s been in recent years an attraction by white women culture-makers to blackness. True, white women sometimes performed in blackface in the latter years of the minstrel show and sporadically thereafter — Shirley Temple, for example. And some white singers have channeled black voices — think of Madeleine Peyroux, who enacts elegant song stylings with a Billie Holiday–tinted voice. Or Grace Halsell: in the wake of John Howard Griffin’s racial-masquerade-cum-investigative-journalism Black Like Me, she dyed her skin to investigate life in Harlem and the Deep South, with shocking but unsurprising results, reporting numerous instances of careless degradation and even an attempted rape.

Soul Sister

Figure Three: Black and Female, Like Me

But none of these women have assumed the iconic status of Al Jolson or other white men playing black (Ted Danson, I’m thinking of you!). The ease with which Jenner, Perry, and others (Lady Gaga has appeared in blackface on the cover of V Magazine, for example, and Madonna may as well have) have accessed blackness as part of their public identities feels different, new: not so much based on an erotics of identification à la Lott as a way to claim transgressive agency for themselves at a moment when transgression no longer seems possible. Whether I’m right or not, these new twists on the old patterns suggest the pervasiveness as well as the continuing power of love as theft — even if it eventuates in pop culture ephemera as transient as twerking ice cream.


II. Theft as Love

So much for the theft part of the equation. But this still leaves open the question I posed Eric — what about the love? To be sure, love is a complicated emotion: theft, by comparison, is so very simple to describe. Not that the two have no relation. The great analysts of emotion tell us — Proust is by far the most cogent — that love is as full of ambivalence, rage, will-to-power as it is of tenderness, joy, and exaltation; while exalting the lover, it also frequently seeks to dominate, control, or drain the very otherness of the other that inspired the feeling in the first place, operating, in other words, as a species of theft. But is there a more benign, less ferocious way to think about love? After all, tenderness, joy, exaltation are not emotions that we should wish to do without if we want to stay human. And there are many delicious as well as ferocious subtleties, nuances, and outright mysteries to love, to put it mildly. How to affirm — how to even begin to talk about — that side of the equation without falling into the trap of celebrating ethno-racial appropriation?

Lott’s book also begins to help us do so. Buried not very far under the critique of racial theft is a privileging of African-American expressive culture as a resource in and of itself — in other words, an object worthy of love. Theft, after all, implies that there’s something worth stealing, and celebrating this something is the dominant undersong of Lott’s analyses — the objet petit a, as it were, of his discursive deconstruction of the American psyche. But one can take this argument even further, in ways that complicate as they confirm Lott’s basic thesis. Like love itself, the closer one gets to this object — Black expressive culture — the more complex it seems, particularly in relation to white culture. In the last 100 years perhaps, and certainly within the last 50, African-American and white cultures have been tied together in a complex bond of quotation, ironic and not-so-ironic appropriation, larceny across, through, and above the color line. In other words, again like love itself, it’s a big, fat, productive mess — one that has been constitutive of as well as shaped by racialized culture-making in the US.

To make this point concrete, let me turn to another moment from the Los Angeles conference with which I began. Before my own talk at that conference, and well before the champagne, I can assure you, I was wandering around listening to music on (this will tell you how long ago this event happened) my iPod. Obsessed, I shared with all around me, including Eric, who sweetly consented to my putting headphones on his ears, my enthusiasm of that moment: Isaac Hayes’s rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By” from his first hit album, Hot Buttered Soul (1969). It’s a great version of a great song. Preceded by a wholly original Hayes-penned theme played by a cascade of violins accompanied by a guitar, chorus, and Hammond organ, followed by a vamp on electric guitar, Hayes intones in his deep, deep voice Bacharach’s song —

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by […]

— accompanied by a female chorus interjecting “walk on” at periodic intervals. After the next verse, the song proper concludes, but the music continues to — as it were — walk on, as a series of instruments — oboes, flutes, etc. — take up a different vamp, building into an entire orchestra, multiple guitars, and the chorus creating a wall of sound that lasts for a good six minutes, followed by the guitar and organ moving into dialogue with one another, followed by, of all things, a concluding drum solo. After 12:03, the whole shebang is over, and the listener collapses into a state of sonic exhaustion.

We do so because the song brings together so many musical lifeworlds, to invoke a phrase that doubtless sounds better in German. The Hammond organ comes straight out of the black church where Hayes began his musical career at age five. But if Hayes’s basso, too, has more than a slight touch of the church choir about it, the electric guitars emerge from white ’60s psychedelic rock (as attested to by the abundant use of the late, unlamented wah-wah pedal); the wall of sound, of course, builds on the work of Phil Spector. And the song was written by the great Jewish-American songwriter Burt Bacharach (words by his most accomplished lyricist, Hal David). The song offers an object lesson of the coming together of African-American and white music — to the complication of both.

Before turning to the specifics of Hayes’s ethno-racial torquing, a few words about Bacharach’s are perhaps relevant here. For black and white were intertwined in Bacharach’s oeuvre well before Hayes adapted his music: while he is of course white and Jewish, Bacharach’s work bore deep relation to the tradition from which Hayes comes. Initially, white singers wouldn’t take his songs, so he wrote for emerging black artists like Jerry Butler, the Shirelles, and Chuck Jackson. Not only was the last named’s greatest hit, “Any Day Now,” written by Bacharach, he also backed up the singer, playing the distinctive organ riff that begins and punctuates the tune. From a TV show, here’s Bacharach playing the organ, dressed as if he’s leaving after the performance for the Yale Club:


Figure Four: Any day now …

After which Jackson enters behind him …

JacksonFigure Five: the song proper will begin …

walks on by, and then, center stage, sings:

Center Stage

Figure Six: … with Bacharach relegated to the sidelines.

Their relation is a bit confounding, since the mordents and trills of the organ seem to contrast with the sincerity of Jackson’s delivery of the song. It seems a case of uptight white vs. expressive black musical styles, the two brought together as a kind of a metaphysical conceit, as heterogeneous elements yoked together with a certain violence, rather than as a fully integrated unity. But the relation between Bacharach’s organ-playing and Jackson’s singing is more complex. Not until you hear the opening lick on Jackson’s Apollo Theater version of “Any Day Now,” played by the tightest of tight horn sections, do you see its family resemblance to the great licks that backed up the likes of James Brown or Wilson Pickett; it’s closest in fact to the thrilling, trilling riff backing up the verses of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” or “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Bacharach is playing a classic African-American riff even when costumed as a blue-blazered blue blood — a Jew playing Black by passing for a WASP.

This and other collaborations across a still-extant race line, Bacharach claimed, changed his work. “You start working with non-white singers and it’s a different tone, there’s a soulful thing about it,” he told an interviewer. “And that [still] influences what I’m composing and the way I’m working.” Nowhere were these influences clearer than in his long collaboration with Dionne Warwick, originally a backup singer on an album he was making with the Drifters whom he singled out and made his muse, as she was entrusted the interpretation of his most difficult songs — which is to say, all of them. Bacharach famously said of her that “her voice had all the delicacy and mystery of sailing ships in bottles,” but this misstates the nature of their relationship. Because of Warwick’s superb musicianship as well as the flexibility of her instrument, they grew together; he wrote for her, she pushed him. Ken Emerson quotes Bacharach: “The more that I was exposed to [her talent] musically, the more risks, the more chances, I could take.” They made each other.


Figure Seven: “The tears and the sadness you gave me /
When you said goodbye […].”

Walks on by

Figure Eight: And then she walks on by.

But after offering to their mutual profit definitive versions of much of his work (e.g., “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “I Say a Little Prayer”), Warwick fell out with Bacharach over what seemed to be petty contractual matters that must have been more personal, then half-heartedly reunited with him much later in her career, a pattern that would look suspicious if it didn’t resemble Bacharach’s relation with everyone whom he came in contact with — not only his three wives but also his songwriting partner, Hal David. Burt Bacharach — he’s a complicated man who no one understands, it seems, even his women.

Bacharach’s relations with Black expressive culture extended beyond his collaborations with African-American musicians. His work is also a racial hodgepodge of multiple influences and engagements. Classically trained — he studied with Darius Milhaud — deeply influenced by the jazz tradition — bebop was one of his first loves — and disciplined by the songwriting tradition of Tin Pan Alley and its successors — Bacharach began his career working in the famous popular music incubator the Brill Building, where he, Carole King, Johnny Mercer, and a host of others had offices — his music is double-edged: compulsively melodic, like so many Brill Building products, yet at the same time fiendishly difficult in the manner of Milhaud and bebop alike. Its chord changes are rapid, complex, unexpected; so too are its rhythms. Bacharach is famous for rapid changes in time signatures — while “Walk On By” is set in 4/4 time, the phrases of the song deviate from that pattern, effectively creating measures of 3/4 and 5/4 time. (Try beating out a steady 4/4 beat and saying “walk on by,” laying equal stress on each syllable, and you’ll see what I mean.) No wonder avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn writes:

Bacharach’s songs explode the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be. Advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars. But he makes it all sound so natural you can’t get it out of your head or stop whistling it. Maddeningly complex, sometimes deceptively simple, these are more than just great pop songs: these are deep explorations of the materials of music and should be studied and treasured with as much care and diligence we accord any great works of art.

Far be it for me to argue with Zorn, but it seems to me that his words could apply as well to any of the great jazz artists of the bebop era — and their “explod[ing] the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be” seems to me what Bacharach learned from bebop. Considered as an ethno-racial transaction, this relation is enormously complex. If Bacharach is inspired by the experiments of these jazz artists, their own “explorations of the materials of music” were not formal exercises; playing with time signatures, adding weird chord changes, interpolating snatches of other songs (shades of sampling!), they entered into contestatory, revisionary relation with a white music that was itself influenced by the jazz and blues pioneers — often in ways that turn the Love and Theft paradigm upside down and inside out.

Consider as an example of this the fate of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, which scholars have definitively identified as a re-rendering of the great spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” (And who needs scholars? Anyone doubting this can listen to Mahalia Jackson’s recording of the two back-to-back, seamlessly morphing into one another.) This seems a straightforward case of love as theft; yet making matters more complex, Gershwin is doing some sampling of his own here. In writing “Summertime” he may have also had an old Yiddish lullaby in mind, according to Jack Gottlieb, who goes on to quote a great anecdote from the greatest of all film composers, Bernard Herrmann:

“Do you think [Summertime] sounds colored?” [Gershwin] asked me. … I said, “What difference does it make? Negro music, Jewish music, they’re all quite alike.” George said, “I’m still worried. It starts my Porgy and Bess. People may think it sounds too Yiddish.”

Amalgamation approaches appropriation, and both yield to self-transformation along the Lottean lines suggested by scholars like Michael Rogin and Jeffrey Melnick, who have argued that Jews like Gershwin took on the mantle of blackness in order to affirm their whiteness. But this is not the end of the story. Like many Gershwin songs, “Summertime” went on to become a jazz standard, indeed, as something of an anthem of the jazz avant-garde of the bebop and post-bop eras. What else can one make of the amazing versions of “Summertime” by (among others) Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins (including an outstanding duet with Coleman Hawkins), Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan? (I set aside Miles Davis’s fantastic recording with Gil Evans’s orchestrations, which raises a whole different set of issues.) In these versions, “Summertime” is wholly transformed by the ministrations of jazz improvisation and the extravagancies of arrangement. Its lyrics become occasion for scat singing and, at times, outright mockery (Fitzgerald); its phrasing gets rearranged to emphasize blues intonations (Vaughan); it’s put in a raunchy New Orleans–inflected arrangement (Holiday — featuring a truly inspired clarinet solo by Artie Shaw), made the object of a dissonant dialogue (Rollins and Hawkins); turned inside out and upside down and round about in one of John Coltrane’s greatest recordings, on what remains for me my favorite of his albums, My Favorite Things.

There’s an aggressive tenor to this profusion of “Summertimes”, as if the largely black jazz tradition is taking back what is rightfully its property. Something in Gershwin’s appropriative revisioning of the spiritual seems to have unlocked the revisionary genius of these reappropriators. They resituate his music on their own ground, and in so doing they also acknowledge the basic facts of their own condition. Rootless cosmopolitans, urban sophisticates, musical modernists, whatever one wants to call them, their existential condition was that of alienation; they found themselves utterly cut off from the world that birthed “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” much less Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s fictive recreation of that world and its music. But I wonder if in some deep way they don’t seek to reapproach both through the mediation of Gershwin’s appropriating effort even while, with their increasingly extravagant variations, they demonstrate their distance from it. The path of theft, or in this case countertheft, becomes for them a way of accessing, or reaccessing, love.

We seem to have wandered a bit from Isaac Hayes much less Burt Bacharach, but not really: in fact, I’ve only begun to unpeel the set of crossings between black and white that generate this version of the song and that persist in it, layered but intertwined. For Hayes is engaged in an act of transformation vis-à-vis the unfolding tradition of soul music as profound as the bop revolution was for jazz. Soul music, broadly defined, begins as a kind of secularization of the gospel tradition by its merger with rhythm and blues in the aftermath of World War II. Particularly in the 1950s and early ’60s, black artists like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, and the Temptations brought this music to a new pitch of popularity, with studio “sounds” generated by labels like Motown in Detroit, Stax in Memphis, and Atlantic in New York reticulating the genre in distinct, recognizable contours. Hayes (a completely self-made musical genius who essentially walked into the studio from his day job in a slaughterhouse) worked at Stax as a producer and songwriter — he took the inspiration for the hit he wrote for Sam and Dave, “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” it is said, from the words of a musician stuck in the bathroom; and doubtless he saw the writing on the wall for the pure soul tradition in face of the post-Civil Rights era.

For in so many other venues, the period posed black artists a dilemma: an increased racial and political awareness accompanied by a decline in the power of black-only institutions and the concomitant opportunities in the opening of white-only ones to African Americans. Like so many other cultural and social institutions, soul music began to morph in the late 1960s. Motown went mainstream; black soul artists like Aretha Franklin were explicitly marketed to white and black audiences (one of my favorite Aretha records, in fact, is her Live at the Fillmore album from the annus mirabilis of 1971) and continued to record songs by great white songwriters like Bacharach and Brill Building regular Carole King (“Up on the Roof,” by the Drifters; “[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman,” sung so magisterially by Aretha) and by white groups like the Beatles (Aretha recorded “Let It Be” in 1970; it is rumored that Paul McCartney originally wrote the song with her in mind). But at the same time, black artists became profoundly engaged with politics as well as the great mainstays of soul music, sex and religion — witness the two great staples of classic soul: Marvin Gaye’s great album What’s Going On, which preceded and in some sense serves as the dialectical twin of his perhaps even greater Let’s Get It On. Psychedelic and other rock effects made their way into the soul palette from rock ’n’ roll even as rock ripped off many of the licks and energies from the soul tradition.

And right at the center of these swirling changes stood Isaac Lee Hayes Jr. As he moved from producer and songwriter to performer, Hayes surprised the world with the mighty effort that was Hot Buttered Soul, for which he asked (and received) complete creative control. (Stax was happy to give it to him, since his first album was a failure, and they considered his second a vanity project.) Considered ethno-racially, the album is an interestingly mixed performance, words I use consciously. On the one hand, it begins Hayes’s habit of offering elongated versions of standards — the other one on this album is “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (a song made famous by Glen Campbell but actually written by another great American original, Jimmy Webb), to which Hayes offers a long spoken preamble, adding a prestory to Webb’s lyrics — to be followed later in his career by covers/utter transformations of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” “I Stand Accused,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “The Look of Love,” some of them topping 10 minutes in length. But at the same time, and for the first time, he image of overtly sexual black masculinity — shaved head, sunglasses, chains, bare chest: witness the cover of Hot Buttered Soul

Hot Buttered Soul

Figure Nine: Take it from the top …

after which it became his trademark,


Figure 10: Unmistakably Isaac … on his way to

and led to the moniker attached to him by publicists, “Black Moses”:

Black Moses

Figure 11: Black Moses

At first Hayes hated the nickname, but came to change his mind:

I had nothing to do with it. I was kicking and screaming all the way. But when I saw the relevance and effect that it had on people, it wasn’t a negative thing. It was a healing thing, it was an inspiring thing. It raised the level of black consciousness in the States. People were proud to be black. Black men could finally stand up and be men because here’s Black Moses, he’s the epitome of black masculinity. Chains that once represented bondage and slavery can now be a sign of power and strength and sexuality and virility.

There’s much to be said about the equation of power, strength, sexuality, and virility, not all of it positive (for its problematic apotheosis, see the lyrics to the theme song of Shaft, a movie role, incidentally, that he unsuccessfully auditioned for: “the black private dick / That’s a sex machine to all the chicks,” to which the female chorus responds “I’m talkin; about Shaft/John Shaft….”). But I’d also point to the same habit that runs through so much of the music I’ve been talking about here: the reappropriation and transvaluation of objects attached to blackness — or more properly the habit of turning objects into symbols, then turning those symbols upside down, so that chains can become a signifier of freedom and baldness a guarantee of virility. (Without getting into the whole black/Jewish thing here, let’s just note that the late ’60s saw a tug-of-war between the two minorities staged on precisely the ground of who was liberated from what — of whether the Black Moses or the Jewish have a greater claim on the imagination of contemporary culture; here I merely note that this is the pattern of theft/countertheft in excelsis.) Love and theft; theft and love: Hayes’s oeuvre and self-presentation alike testify to a process of making and remaking in which representations bounce back and forth across the color line, a process in which Hayes remakes himself by lifting Bacharach’s happy-sad lover’s lament, turning it into a crossover vehicle for himself and a way of asserting a newly puissant form of black masculinity.

It’s these reverberations we need to have as the backbeat for thinking about Lott’s trope as we approach the engagements of our own century. And they keep on keeping on, as the song says, and in more interesting ways than the paths blazed by Kylie, Miley, and Katy. Let me conclude with one final example, which connects Bacharach and Hayes to the politics of our moment and to the history whose nightmares we are not permitted to escape: the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan’s I Can’t Go to Sleep, from 2000. For that song continues the process of appropriation and remaking by sampling Hayes’s arrangement of Bacharach’s “Walk on By.” To the austere and impressive tones of Hayes’s vamp, rapper RZA describes his inability to gain the peace of slumber as he dwells on (and in) America’s spasms of racialized violence:

I can’t go to sleep, I can’t shut my eyes
They shot the father at his mom’s building seven times
They shot Malcolm in the chest, front of his little seeds
Jesse watched as they shot King on the balcony
Exported Marcus Garvey cause he tried to spark us
With the knowledge of ourselves and our forefathers
Oh Jacqueline, you heard the rifle shots cracklin’
Her husband’s head in her hands, you tried to put it back in

The relation between the words (“I can’t sleep”) and the music (“Walk on By”) suggests the dimensions of his dilemma: if he can neither sleep nor walk away, he’s caught in an essential contradiction that leads to paralysis, despair — and ultimately, he implies, drugs, drink, and violence. But who should appear to offer challenge, consolation, warning, but — Isaac Hayes. Hayes arrives costumed as an amalgam of Black Moses and Obi-Wan Kenobi.


Figure 12: Hayes appears in a cloud of smoke …

So does his basso, featured in a lyrical line that differs from those of the increasingly nervous rapper. Shaking his finger at the sleepless RZA, he offers words of tough transgenerational love.


Figure 13: … to offer advice to his musical offspring.

Don’t kill your brother, learn to love each other
Don’t get mad, cause it ain’t that bad
Look at who you are, you’ve come too far
It’s in your hands, just be a man,

And after another bout of despair from RZA, the last words of the song belong to Hayes, singing then speaking over his own cascading guitar riff from “Walk on By”:

Don’t let the game make you lose your head
You should be calling the shots instead
The power is in your hands
Stop all this crying and be a man

These words enact a generational and experiential conflict in the African-American tradition, one which turns on questions of authority and experience, masculinity and resolve. Bringing in Hayes, however, suggests continuity as well as divergence. For Wu-Tang Clan’s use of Hayes mimics Hayes’s use of Bacharach: just as Hayes writes his own theme music to resituate “Walk on By,” so Wu-Tang Clan reset Hayes’s music in their own domain, make him sing his words of caution in their chosen idiom. In both cases the process of love and theft can’t be separated from the making and remaking of racial identities, the establishing and breaking down of boundaries, of the cathexes and counter-cathexes that shape intra- as well as interracial structures of feeling.

Theft as love, love as theft: varieties of all of the affective stances they generate are as evident in the stylings of wannabe white women as they are of despairing rappers; in the transactions of Gershwin as in spirituals and lullabies that inspired him; in be-bop musical pioners as in Gershwin; in Bacharach as in Dionne Warwick; in Isaac Hayes as in Bacharach; in Wu-Tang Clan as in Isaac Hayes; as, let’s face it, me and all of the above. Whatever else we can say about the fate of love and theft in the 21st century, one thing is clear: no matter how hard we try to turn our heads aside, as Americans of any race, we must remain attentive to way that dynamic shaped and continues to shape our cultural experience — and with it our social reality. When it comes to love, theft, and the creative frenzy generated by their interaction, whether good, bad, or ugly, we have to deal: we can’t just walk on by.


Jonathan Freedman is Professor of English at the University of Michigan.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Freedman is Professor of English, American and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan. He’s written on late-19th- and early 20th-century literature, film, and Jewish-American cultural formations. 


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