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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't mess with the Marvelettes (no, no, no, no)

How do you tell a story about the Marvelettes? They were the first Motown group with a #1 hit ("Please Mr. Postman"), who were then pushed aside in favor of the more professionally minded Supremes. Like many girl groups in the period, including the Supremes, their lineup changed to fit the professional needs of their managers, but this feature became distorted as the group later became a Larry Marshak product of multiple "Marvelettes" revivals (or impostors) to be performed in nightclubs as a brand rather than a group. They were the first Motown girl group but are not members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are releasing a three-CD box set, complete with a booklet of an oral history of the treated-as-though-they-were-interchangeable members, at a time when box sets aren't what they used to be (if they ever were).

This is a geeky coincidence, but two of their biggest hits are about modes of communication that have changed significantly since the 1960s. "Please Mr. Postman" and "Beechwood 4-5789" are transcendent pop songs, though, despite e-mail and cell phones.

I'm struck by how all of those features of anonymity, obsolescence, and indeterminacy make it hard to write a story about them. Evidence: Christopher Petkanas's T magazine essay about the Marvelettes' box set, Forever. The essay, called "Lost in the Mail," has a coy, fakeout intro--"you may be interested in this subject, even though maybe no one else is," he seems to say--and that leads to a series of sentences which tell the story of the Marvelettes through predominantly negative constructions:
Depending on your sympathy for the bugle-beaded tragedies of what have become broadly known as Dreamgirls, the Marvelettes are either a big sigh or a windfall. It’s hard to believe, but many people have had all they can take hearing about talented young black women having their lives shredded by greedy record labels in the 1960s. The same people find spending an evening with the Beatles video game more sustaining than putting the Marvelettes’ new three-CD set “Forever” on the changer and snuggling down with Marc Taylor’s tell-all “The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group.” I guess there’s no accounting for how people spend their Tuesday nights.

It's a series of weird moves: negations are built into so many of the sentences that he seems to be undermining the very act of writing about the group. Or, and I'm only half-kidding here, it's as though the backup vocals of "Don't Mess with Bill"--"no, no, no, no"--were the structural formation of the essay. Consider how many negative moves there are:

INDETERMINATE MEMBERS OF THE GROUP:
You know the Marvelettes’ songs even if you don’t know their names (and you probably don’t)

ALTERNATE HISTORY IS FACTUAL HISTORY:
The Supreme One doesn’t like it known that she once looked up to scruffy little Gladys Horton, the Marvelettes’ early lead singer, who worked in recent years at her son’s hair salon in California, but you can’t rewrite history just to please Miss Ross. It’s weird to imagine a world in which the Supremes got transistor radios from Motown for Christmas and the Marvelettes got diamond rings.

ASSUMPTION FOLLOWED BY ITS NEGATION:
It’s easy to say that when the competition heated up with all those sharp-elbowed Vandellas and Velvelettes jockeying for position, it was their cruder wigs and gowns that held the Marvelettes back. But this was not the case.

THE STORY IS LIKE A GOTHIC NOVEL, COMPLETE WITH TRAGIC MISTAKEN IDENTITY TO PARALLEL THE INDETERMINATE, SOMETIMES ANONYMOUS, ALWAYS INTERCHANGEABLE MEMBERS OF THE GROUP:
As chronicled by Taylor, the Marvelettes’ real story is so much richer and crazier than anything you could make up. (The same goes for the Supremes, but don’t get me started.) The saga has it all: Drugs! (Wanda Rogers), Mental Collapse!! (Wyanetta Cowart), Murder!!! (the estranged husband of Rogers’s sister Adoria mistook another sister for Adoria, shooting and killing the sister at their mother’s house).

UNRELIABLE NARRATORS:
If I didn’t know I was reading about the Marvelettes, I’d swear it was Martha Reeves explaining why she didn’t become Stevie Wonder.

COMPETING NARRATIVES:
Refreshingly, not every Marvelette supports the overlooked narrative. ...So whom do you believe? It doesn’t matter. Both Anderson-Schaffner’s and Horton’s versions are at the bull’s-eye of the Marvelettes matrix.

BRANDING CREATES A SCIENCE FICTION EVENT OF IMPOSTORS, MULTIPLE MARVELETTE WORLDS:
Larry Marshak, a concert promoter, holds the Marvelettes trademark. Widely reviled in the business, Marshak specializes in multiple editions of the same faux oldies act, so “the Marvelettes” can be appearing in Boston and Washington, D.C. — on the same night.

NEGATION, REJECTION WAS THEIR DESTINY:
In 1964 Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote “Where Did Our Love Go.” That the Marvelettes were allowed to reject it tells you how much Motown prized the group in that period.

I initially found all these fakeouts, negations, and twisted sentences difficult to read, but that line about the "Marvelettes matrix" made me reconsider this excess of ambivalence about the group. I started to think that the ambivalence is an artifact of how one writes an oral history of a group with interchangeable members, where the biographical oddities transcend what oral histories of musical groups usually include, where the story's partial trajectory is already overly familiar from Dreamgirls (which played on Beyonce's interchangeable members of Destiny's Child, as well as Jennifer Hudson's transcending the American Idol brand), where the later history of the group involves having to go to court to have access to their identity, where the canonization of the group's songs (about letters and rotary dial phones) is being preserved on an older form of musical technology. This is some kind of limit case of the oral history genre, and the stacked-up negations start to look like an interesting comment on how the "Marvelettes matrix" is more like a vortex of indeterminacy?

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Blogger Tove on Tue Jan 05, 10:31:00 AM:
The style of setting up a false (or at least exaggerated) negative opinion annoys me as well. It occurs in a fair number of fashion history articles and conference papers, perhaps because this niche field works scholars into a permanent state of bristling defense of their profession at large. A well written article shouldn't assume the ignorance or disinterest of the reader; it usually detracts from any legitimate points that might be made. But you probably don't care what I have to say. (See how I did that?!)