#121: Sly and the Family Stone, "Stand!" (1969)

121 Stand.jpg

            Ever stop to think about a downfall?
            Happens at the end of every line—
            Just when you think you've pulled a fast one,
            Happens to the foolish all the time

This is the way we lived before, they’ll tell you—before Zuckerberg tried to get co-eds to rate each other’s hotness, before we all gave our photos and dreams and best one-liners away to analytics firms in exchange for a “quiz” about which superhero we most resemble, before Childish Gambino made that offensively terrible music video where he shoots the gospel choir in cold blood and keeps on dancing.

Everyone just left each other alone, they’ll tell you. White, black, purple, greenwe were all just Americans then. Don’t press them on it. You’re not supposed to read into them only taking one step beyond black and white before turning to colors not found among humans in nature. Then there’s the way they say Americana perfectly good label, but it’s the way they say it with reverence, like it’s primordial, like that sound made the earth tremble when the cosmic starting pistol cracked, and history began. It’s beautiful, fraught with meaning—and false.

Before we had all this coarseness, this discord, this chaos. Before was good. Pure. Before made sense. And now?

This is not what we ought to be. This is not normal. We must reclaim normal.

I alone can fix this. Well, I and the people who agree with me.

*

You could argue I’m part of the last generation to grow up in a way remotely familiar to the baby boomers. We played outside, sans cellphones, and wandered now and then. I remember fishing derbies, getting into fights with kids a grade above me, making up imaginary worlds with my friends while sitting on the swing set.

At the same time, my early memories include rounds of Street Fighter on my neighbor’s Super Nintendo, Captain Planet on Saturday mornings, squawking “Hello!” into a beige-circa-1994 computer microphone and watching an MS-DOS pixelated parrot repeat it back. A few years later, I was placing my Sunny-D on drink coasters that also gave you 300 free hours of AOL. My generation deviated from that My Dog Skip ideal, embracing a digital life as it spawned around me, and for that some punishment was due.

Because my grandfather worked in a factory and my father went to law school, I never once thought I was groomed or destined to join either of them. I studied what interested me, not what I thought would bring me a salary or someone else a return on their investment.

The world was too interesting to do anything else, and so much of it was so available, so quickly and so cheaply. We could do and be anything. Just don’t tell your dad that “anything” was a euphemism for “socially conscious poet” or that your high school nickname was “Commie.”

I watched Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shoot their classmates on one of those CRT monitors about a week after my family got broadband, at the age when 24-hour news was about to mature, as social media was about to take its first furtive steps. I’m not sure if I adapted to this environment or if I was sculpted by it. Both? Neither?

For twenty years or more, I’ve never really been offline. In fact, I’m borderline addicted to my smartphone. Video games are probably my biggest hobby, followed by streaming television and telling you how I’m right about something because I saw the truth on the right part of the internet. I think all that makes me relatively normal for someone in my generation, on balance. But if you believe that there was a primordial modern America—one that was once perfected and then corrupted, you could see me as a symptom of it.

This is all to say that I think a lot nowadays about what I was missing, and who wanted me to pay attention to the shiny objects in front of me instead of the “everyday people” nearby.

*

            Pretty, pretty, pretty as a picture
            Witty, witty, witty as you can be

If that isn’t a description of how to fall into a narcissistic feedback loop, I don’t know of one. I hear the lyrics to “Somebody’s Watching You” and wonder if I’m experiencing peak America. Maybe our collective subconscious is aware of this fear. We document our lives in public, and on constant refresh, like we need to record it for posterity to prove it really happened. We follow our news feeds and Twitter feeds like the bottom’s going to fall out one morning, and we might need a head start out of the country.

            Blind 'cause your eyes see only glitter
            Closed to the things that make you free

Who’s going to be the culprit? Ask around. You’ll find Uncle Sam has a hundred murderers. Maybe it’s unchecked immigration, racial tension, moral decay. Maybe the air will suffocate us, the water poison us, the crop seeds fail to germinate. Then again, maybe it’s North Korea out of left field, surprising us with a hidden armada that stirs the Pacific and blots out the sun like a strategy game from the ‘90s.

            Live it up today if you want to
            Live it down tomorrow afternoon

We talk about it for entertainment, for gossip, for fun. Guys like Alex Jones make the theater of collapse into a business, selling pills to keep you going to the End Times and urine filtration to get you through it. No matter what, no one seems to act like we’re going to pull out of this tailspin. Everyone’s breathing deeply into their oxygen masks, digging their digits deep into the arm rests, bracing.

*

The soulful, energetic melodies and rhythms in Stand! come off as the antidote to this pre-apocalyptic pessimism. Sly Stone’s lyrics evoke diversity, inclusion, and solidarity as armor against a world that was already polarized in 1969 and, in some ways, would only seem worse fifty years later. He rails against racial animus and celebrates the inherent value of all humans in his lyrics. This value isn’t just rooted in any sense that people are inherently worth something—for Sly, it’s also about what we owe to one another, and what we can accomplish together. One song on the album is titled “You Can Make it if You Try,” but really, he means “we” both times:

            Push a little harder
            Think a little deeper

The romance about social media uniting the world is dead. All our attempts to tether ourselves to each other through profiles and memes and viral videos really have done as much to sow discord and division as they have fulfilled any public purpose. I know I’m quicker to mock someone for their views online than I would be in private. If someone came out as a Trumpite in a work setting, I might engage them on it or even criticize them, but I’d probably feel the blood rushing to my ears and feel my pulse beating through my fingers while I did it. On the internet, I’d feel glee, even open pleasure, like I’d just dared a neighborhood boy to lick the flagpole in winter.

            Don't let the plastic
            Bring you down

There’s a real consensus now—or at least, prior to 2016, there used to be a consensus—about the need to foster racial and social harmony in America. You can also see, however, how we’ve actually been manipulated by elites who used this effort to keep us complacent—down and dumb and distracted from the venomous scourge of economic injustice. As I write this, articles are being published to discuss how MLK Jr.’s daughter was lectured by another Twitter user on why Dr. King would have defended him when he calls out the term “straight, white male” as “this century’s N-word.” Ms. King responded:

My father was working to eradicate the Triple Evils of Racism (prejudice + power = oppression/destruction of a race deemed inferior), Poverty (Materialism) & Militarism.

Pointing out the group that most commonly benefits from all 3 is not “labeling.”

Truth before reconciliation.

So who are the “Everyday People” glorified in Sly Stone’s 1968 album?

Would they recognize the country that the MAGA crowd is talking about, the Wahhabi Americans who believe the past was simple and pure and every voice added to it since carries the taint of corruption?

Would they see themselves as a united chorus representing all creeds and colors, every point of departure along every ocean, gathered here for the great experiment of living together?

Would they argue both cultural nationalism and cultural pluralism can be used as distractions from the truth—tools employed to diminish the wealth, unity and bargaining power of the underclass?

When they stop to think about a downfall, do they see Rome? Do they see somewhere closer? Or have we not looked up from our phones long enough to be recognized—have we not stood up to be counted?

I don’t know where Sly Stone and his crew stand on the class war, or the proliferation of digital barriers we build in place of real social capital. I’m not sure their music goes there. I’m not sure if they would see Donald Glover commit a mass shooting, then resume his dance routine, and get the point being made, or understand why our obsession with that music video constitutes a guilty plea on our part. Gun to my head, however? They think we’re all marvelous, and weird, and capable of more than we know. They believe we all belong, we all have dignity, and that wherever we go, we need to go together.

—Benjamin Walker