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Soul Utility Vehicles: Aretha, Obama, and General Motors

On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama was inaugurated, and a great African-American singer performed. One might allegorize the American automobile industry, especially General Motors Corporation, in the personage of one notable woman of Detroit, Aretha Franklin.

by Mike Mosher

On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama was inaugurated. Commentators took notice of the Christian divines present, for Reverend Rick Wright, controversial for his anti-gay marriage position, gave the opening blessing. Reverend Joseph Lowery gave the final benediction, and used the occasion to recite an old jingle about hierarchy of color. Perhaps including it in a black President's inauguration was a bet that he had made with himself, and chose to recite it for the occasion because he finally could.

A great African-American singer performed, one whose career encompasses both empyrean Gospel soaring, and sexy sweaty get-down carnality. Aretha Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee", and one network announcer noted the Michigan Legislature had declared her voice one of the state's natural resources. She punched up "land where my father died", perhaps in honor of her own father, Reverend C.L Franklin, who had several daughters who sang, most notably the chubby one who also played rich piano. C.L Franklin has been said to have permanently altered preaching in the black church in America thorough the dynamics of his performance style. As a boy I remember my father listening intently to his Detroit church service on the car radio, shaking his head and saying "Those people sure like to get excited", in contrast to the staid Boston Congregationalism he had known.

To one midlife Euro-American in 2009 Michigan, Aretha Franklin also appears as a monumental metaphor for my state's—once, our nation's—auto industry. After reflecting upon the industry’s sorry state, and the rustbelt cities that live and die by its success, I then will attempt to allegorize the leader of the industry, General Motors Corporation, in the personage of a notable woman of Detroit, Aretha Franklin.

Please note I'm not going to discuss labor’s role and the United Auto Workers in recent events, worthy of a future essay.

I. Chain of Fools: the American Auto Industry

Auto sales in the US fell about 5 percent in January, and February 2009 was down 41% from that month the year before. Many people expected that President Obama would appoint a “car czar” to address the industry, but instead there’s a fourteen-member Presidential Task Force under the direction of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, and National Economic Council chair Lawrence H. Summers. Members include Steven Rattner, an investment banker, longtime Democratic fundraiser, and friend of NY Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Another is Ron Bloom, who has represented the United Steelworkers in steel industry restructuring. Both left and populist right commentators note that the Obama administration has favored the financial sector over the manufacturing: benevolent socialism for the banks, and survival of the fittest for US heavy industry.

This is a tumultuous time for the Big Three, the three American automobile manufacturers General Motors (GM), Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation. Sales of the smallest of the three, Chrysler fell the most. Its ownership has bounced around, sold to Daimler-Benz of Germany in 1998, most of it purchased by Cerberus Capital Group in 2007, and now nearly all of it by Italian automaker Fiat. After representatives of the Detroit automakers came to Washington DC, Chrysler Motors, had received $ 4.3 billion in loans by December 2008, and sought another $ 5.3 this year. Chrysler has concentrated on muscular, gas-guzzling SUVs and “ram tough” trucks, ceasing to manufacture its 2008 Aspen electric hybrid late last year. And though Ford Motor Company had, in 2008, the worst annual loss in its 105-year history, it has not approached the US government for loans.

That leaves hundred-and-one year old GM, the largest of the Big Three. GM received $ 13.4 billion in US government loans in 2008, and sought to increase this to $ 30 billion in February 2009. In contrast to its problems today, 1955, when Fortune magazine began ranking the top 500 American corporations, General Motors was first. GM was always listed among the top three revenue-producers until 2007. GM was reorganized eighty years ago in order to better challenge the dominance of Ford’s Model T. The strategy was to provide multiple brands through which the consumer could move sequentially, from lowly Chevrolet to lush Cadillac, as his (or hers, in the case of my great aunt) economic circumstances changed. In February 2009, GM offered to halve its current brands to Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, and GMC trucks. The Saturn line would be phased out over the next five years; recall Susan Sontag’s essay “Under the Sign of Saturn” on unhappy Walter Benjamin, and wonder who would buy a car whose emblem was that of melancholy. Pontiac, a distinct GM brand since 1932, will no longer be produced in its own division. Chevy Silverado truck sales were down 55% in March 2009 from March 2008 sales, and Chevrolet Impala sales were down 56% from the year before. The number of GM auto dealerships will be reduced by 42 percent, from 6,246 in 2008 to 3,605 by 2010. To add a bit of farce to tragedy, the same day that historic product lines were cut, GM showed a prototype two-seat, two-wheeled battery-powered upright scooter, being developed with Segway. Forget cars; send in the clowns.

Vehicle sales in China passed those in the US this year, and GM has about a tenth of the market in China for cars, minivans and SUVs, its share second only to Volkswagen. It also has local ventures with Chinese vehicle manufacturers. GM owns the Korean brand Daewoo since 2002. Buicks are popular in China, but GM has fought competition there since 1970s from Japanese, and now Korean, manufacturers. In contrast to the corporation’s North American emphasis on SUVs, former GM China executive Philip Murtaugh attracted Chinese consumers by emphasizing cars with good fuel economy instead.

China's own car industry emphasizes fuel economy, and levies taxes up to 40% on large-engine cars, minivans and SUVs. The Chinese government now supports alternative-fuel vehicles like electric cars with rechargeable batteries, and subsidizes taxi companies and government agencies’ all electric fleets. Urban pollution would probably fall significantly with greater sales of electric cars. Nissan recently built an electric car plant in Wuhan, China, for the Chinese government hopes the nation can produce 500,000 electric, or hybrid electric, vehicles a year by 2011 (China produced about two thousand of them last year). To goose this growth, Premier Wen Jiabao promoted auto engineer Wan Gang to the post of Minister of Technology.

Will a resurgent GM capture the electric car market, in the world and in the US? I recall seeing the electric car the GM had invented and prototyped in 1995 when it glided up next to me in the San Francisco State University parking lot that year, and the Engineering professor who had leased it had nothing but praise for it. In September 2008, before the election, Congressional leaders proposed a $25 billion loan program for the car industry. GM ads and PR promptly plugged its new electric/gas hybrid Chevrolet Volt.

We may yet sing the body electric.

II. R-e-s-p-e-c-t: Some Cultural Production in Detroit

In the 1930s, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was hired by Henry Ford’s son Edsel to paint a cycle of murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rivera was fascinated by the massive machinery found on Ford factories’ assembly lines, and in his frescoes visually compared them to the most forbidding and unforgiving Aztec gods. Three decades later, Iggy Pop wanted his band the Stooges to have the sound of big machines, as he grew up at the edge of auto industry suburbs, between the Motor City’s westernmost factory town Ypsilanti and, Ann Arbor university town which the auto wealth (and Henry Ford's favorite architect, Albert Kahn) helped build. Working-class whites grew up in and around Detroit assured of a job in the auto industry after high school, though the band MC5 wanted fame (and Revolution!) to keep them out of the factory. Similar ideals and contradictions, plus determining the proper relation to black neighbors and their music(s), have animated Detroit rock since.

The automobile factory remains a salient Detroit cultural motif. In Eminem's 2002 movie "8 Mile" it is the hero Rabbit’s employer. Rap battles take place outside it, where Eminem defends a gay coworker in rhyme. It is the site of the movie’s crucial love—OK, sex—scene, between Rabbit and the woman he desires. A second encounter, between that woman and rival musician, is briefly glimpsed through the glass of a recording studio, a site of (re)production that’s cultural, not industrial.

The fortunes of African Americans in Detroit, and urban Michigan, have been long and closely tied to the auto industry. African Americans came to Detroit from the nation’s cotton belt during the great migration for the industrial north’s promise of jobs. These often proved to be the worst jobs, such as pouring steel, and they experienced racial segregation and brutal police. Detroit had race riots in 1943 and 1967, and the latter one accelerated white flight and de-industrialization that was already occurring. Black mayors, beginning with Coleman Young, won electoral victories to be given keys to the city no one else wanted. Mayor Dennis Archer and his successor Kwame Kilpatrick encouraged downtown revival, but that did little to address the diminishing quality of life for residents of the city’s neighborhoods. There is a great irony to the fact that the first black US President may preside over the sunset of the US auto industry.

Detroit’s political structure has suffered after 55 years of suburbanization, and at least 45 of de-industrialization. A further insult was the ignominy, 2008 downfall and incarceration of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the burly “hip hop mayor”, still in his thirties whose corruption was revealed in his inability to control his contemporary communications technology. Twenty years ago Apple Computer (one vice president wore a diamond ear stud, as Kilpatrick does now) told employees not to put anything in an email we wouldn’t want subpoenaed; Kilpatrick evidently had no one at City Hall who was paid or volunteered to give the Mayor a similar warning about phone text messages. Like the GM and Chrysler auto executives who took private jets to the Congressional meeting asking for loans, it only makes the world shake its head at a seemingly clueless town’s business and political leaders. Upon Kilpatrick’s removal, Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. was his immediate successor, then a special election brought in businessman Dave Bing to complete Kilpatrick’s mayoral term. The election process cost several million dollars that could have been better used by beleaguered city services and schools.

Unemployment in warmer industrial cities like Oakland, California means guys hanging out on the corner; creepily empty Detroit streets are a shadow of the rich and inspiring brick city that eighty years ago was one of the richest cities on earth, its manufacturing-based prosperity inspiration even to social engineers like Lenin and Hitler. Former industrial areas within the city limits have gone feral and reverted to woodsy wilderness. TV news takes pleasure to zoom in on an eagle, a coyote, or a wolf roaming around that they’ve spotted there. There was even a wolverine, a creature not seen in the state for decades. Similarly, Flint, Michigan is an hour north, up the Interstate 75 corridor from Detroit that includes industrial cities Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, and Bay City. Once nicknamed “Buicktown” for the cars manufactured there, a county official now calls for Flint’s bad neighborhoods to be torn down to create “the new Flint forest—something people choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.” A further half-hour north, Saginaw struggles like Detroit to keep its dignity among too many boarded-up houses. TV news is quick to feature grieving church folk beside the casket of another kid killed in a drug shooting. Yet rather than gangsters, I have found in Saginaw a greater number of teenagers eager to paint community murals alongside college students, and define themselves positively.

Does it make me an old school Marxist to privilege factories of the rustbelt over the global financial industry? Both need immediate capital and restructuring, but numerous political decisions for decades have been made to the advantage of society’s financial sector and detriment of manufacturing. I see my blue-collar Bay City neighbors edgy at their insecurity, instability, and outside pressures upon their household economy. Their follow-the-rules ideal of work hard, save up, own a house, maybe a weekend cabin up north, has been shattered. Conservatives howl about Mexicans coming north to work, but remain silent on entire factories moving south.

Bush-era SUVs now look as comically out of date as polyester leisure suits. In some ways it is the 1970s again, oil crisis and land shark cupidity writ larger, but Michigan looks back nervously to the grim early 1980s, when people bought Texas cities’ newspapers to look for jobs there. Nevertheless, to many Americans, Detroit cars will always maintain a historic resonance. About twenty years ago, when I had a corporate job, had come into some money and was living large, I knew I needed a new car to replace the miserable and uncomfortable Chevette that I’d gotten a few years before in exchange for a painting. As this was in California, where everything was still found on the road, my choices narrowed down to a big mid-‘60s Chrysler Imperial; that era’s square-sided Lincoln (like President Kennedy’s final limousine in Dallas); or a grand old Cadillac. My coworkers congratulated me that it was a '65 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that I finally bought, not the predictable Beemer (at twelve times my Caddy’s price) that 1980s success dictated.

And what of Ms. Franklin?

III. Freeway of Love: Aretha at the Inauguration and Beyond

Aretha Franklin was mismanaged by her first record label, and given show tunes by her producers. Evidently for blacks and whites in the early 1960s, New York’s “Great White Way” of musical theater represented an integrationist ideal; Detroit music entrepreneur Berry Gordy also had his fave girl group the Supremes master the Broadway songbook for his Motown label, to equally disappointing sales. It was at Atlantic Records, whose owner Ahmet Ertegun (son of the Ambassador to the US from Turkey) and producer Jerry Wexler, who wisely sent Aretha to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record with a mix of black and white studio musicians there. Though I’m surprised how many songs on the album Aretha’s Gold were actually recorded in New York City, Ertegun and Wexler had the sense to emphasize the southernness of the roots of Aretha’s family. And her churchiness. And to let her play that grand piano.

She played big-handed piano, rich and thick chords, stately and trustworthy, confident and undeniable. Aretha at the piano, serving as her chassis or drive train beneath the engine of her voice, was truly a mechanic at her workbench, making wonderful things. Like David Dunbar Buick, or even Henry Ford, and the automobiles they manufactured, she didn’t invent soul music, but she sure produced a memorable quality product. She massaged and breathed her life into “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, written by another piano player Carole King. And into “Ain’t No Way”, written by Aretha’s little sister Carolyn.

The beloved subject of Aretha’s song “Doctor Feelgood” restores his patient, his natural woman, like a do-right man. Contrast him to his clinical 1960s contemporary the Beatles’ “Doctor Robert”, the latter more like Elvis Presley’s own over-prescribing physician. Aretha needs no one “filling me up with all of them pills” for she exclaims in satisfaction Good God Almighty, Feelgood makes her feel real good. In another song, Aretha’s doctor warns her to “take it easy” (What kind of doctor? An OB-GYN? This line may be the most lubriciously sexual one in all ‘60s Soul music). “Doctor Feelgood” is her testament to her romantic sensibility and sexuality, as she cautions anyone among her family or friends who stands between her and her man, evincing willingness to “get up, put on some clothes, go out” to help them find a partner for her- or himself. We are privy to this vision of her in the boudoir, deshabillée.

These songs all won her admiration and much respect, topic of a memorable hit song. Otis Redding may have written and first recorded “Respect”, but when he heard Aretha’s voice like a muscle car propelling it over the radio, he realized he'd lost it for good. The song had been a regional hit in southeastern Michigan by a band of teenagers called the Rationals, from Ann Arbor; their high school English teacher told of giving them finals early so they could travel to Philadelphia to appear on "American Bandstand". So when I first heard Aretha Franklin’s version of "Respect", this eleven-year-old worried their signature song had been usurped by an interloper.

The March 2009 Artforum magazine contains an ad for impending auction of photographer Lee Friedlander's "Jazz and Blues Portfolio", photographs taken four decades before. It includes a young Aretha, the only woman, eyes downcast thoughtfully, among unsmiling men like Ray Charles, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Joe Turner. While the men all wear scalp-short natural curls, her hairstyle carefully flips at the ends. Her shadowed eyes are emboldened with false eyelashes (she sometimes went for Egyptian eyes, as did Barbara Streisand) and mascara, amidst rounded face and soft features that include beautiful full lips. Was she captured by Friedlander’s camera in a moment of prayer before recording, or moment of fatigue afterwards? Is she memorizing or remembering lyrics?

Though other African American celebrities may have found more favor judged by Euro-American aesthetics, Aretha’s success affirmed Black is Beautiful. In response to mainstreaming, assimilatory tendencies, she was neither light-skinned nor svelte. She was exuberantly herself, big-city black woman, a first among equals vocally, rhythmically and expressively. She was east side Detroit’s Jenny-from-the-block, the around the way girl. Keepin’ it real. Aretha never recorded on the Motown label, yet she remained irrevocably associated with Detroit’s blackness. In Guy Peelaert’s 1973 book of iconic paintings Rock Dreams, the Supremes appear as a glittering poster irrelevant to the littered, mean streets of Detroit, streets which homegirl Diana Ross glimpses from the safety of a limousine. Meanwhile, Aretha is depicted as a jubilant minister in an Afrocentric church.

Aretha’s recording of the Don Covay song “Chain of Fools” is punctuated with Gospel whoops, “Ohhh yeahhhs” eliding or bursting in unexpectedly as delightful counterpoint. Like Chrysler’s Virgil Exner or GM’s Harley Earl in the 1950s automotive industry, Aretha was a stylist masterfully at work pushing the boundaries of her medium, one who puts showy chrome, fins, and ailerons on this song.

She had occasional radio hits in the 1970s and 1980s (including odd duets with George Michael and Kenny G.), but essentially her career belonged to the 1960s. A critically well-received 2003 album on the Arista label was entitled So Damn Happy, and a subsequent album of duets included a deferential Mary J. Blige. Saginaw bar owner Bo White wrote a review of a disjointed Michigan casino concert New Year's Eve 2009 where she complained of distracting gases wafting to the stage.

She once boasted in song of “kisses sweeter than honey, and guess what, so is my money”. Ms. Franklin lived much of the 1990s in Grosse Pointe, the formerly all-white suburb initially built for auto and industrial executives, long separated from the rest of the city by a big wall. Her $ 1.2 million Bloomfield township mansion north of Detroit burned in October 2002, destroying a grand piano, several Grammy awards and gowns she had planned to donate to the Smithsonian Institution. Any fire in the vicinity of Detroit in October evokes the Devils’ Night arson long used by both landlords and neighborhood residents to clear away the blight of abandoned houses in the city. In the following year Ms. Franklin was cited four times by local police, and given a $225 fine for failing to clean up the debris. Her son was accused (and exonerated) of arson, reminding us that Lady Soul has also been unlucky in love and domestic life.

Ms. Franklin stood in the January inauguration, her famous face beneath an unbecoming hat; doesn't a notable outdoors on a windy winter's day deserve a big dramatic brim? A comment on YouTube claimed she had asked a Japanese milliner to put two of her favorite designs together…but not all funny cars get traction. Its exploding bows suggested the baroque fins on the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz.

A century ago, the actress Sarah Bernhardt performed onstage after one leg was amputated. My mother reverently shushed me when Edith Piaf or Judy Garland appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the last years of their lives. Inevitably one compares an aging diva to her magnificent prime, when she was the age of a college student. As someone with weight issues of my own, it may seem unfair to comment upon a mature diva’s body, yet Aretha’s appears as inflated as the nation's war debt. Her contemporary Tina Turner remains toned and radiates health; Aretha can be seen as a sort of inversion of Oscar Wilde’s fictional Dorian Gray, for as the auto industry shrinks, Aretha’s frame and countenance grows larger. Bill Clinton couldn’t get his eyes off her décolleté a decade ago when she sang at the Kennedy Center, bosom a brace of tan Cadillac Escalades bursting from her front garage.

Of course, on Inauguration Day, the voice soared.

To most Americans, Barack Obama is still the national Doctor Feelgood of which Aretha, at her most vital and vibrant, sang. The suave man for whom America (minus those loveless conservatives on talk radio) coos You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Nation... Back in the day, Aretha exhorted her man “You Better Think”; Obama’s the smartest guy in the room, thinking way ahead of everyone else. And now the slim black intellectual is expected to turn back the economic tide and face our nation toward the sun. That Inauguration Day’s transcendent African American blackness, in the spiritual, political and musical realms, made me think and feel a lot. I thought back to the scary civil rights struggle and 1967 Detroit riot (rebellion, insist optimistic radicals) that I saw on TV as a kid, the neighborhood and school integration tensions I witnessed as a teenager, and the subsequent retrenchment of racism as privatized choice in the ensuing decades.

Sure, I sentimentalize the verities of good union jobs and a secure and advancing middle class, dynamic human rights struggle, and songs in the air that grab you and make you dance while teaching you about life. It’s impossible to wrap Aretha’s coat around them, and unfair to draw dubious connections between her personal triumphs and struggles, and those of an industry that happened to be rooted in her state when she was young. Nevertheless, it’s historical fact that forty years ago the Motown Records pop music machine, a skilled and polished organization of vocal acts and studio musicians, manufactured black excellence upon a universal theme, young love, for acts as distinct as GM’s product lines. A rival corporation made use of the mastery of Detroit girl Aretha Franklin and a multiethnic production team. They all crafted danceable songs and classic showbiz entertainment as skillfully as Barack Obama now crafts classic politics. Aretha’s product lines were show tunes and Bacharach pop, the Gospel songs she learned at home, and some of the world’s best Soul.

I don’t want much. I want a healthy, happy Aretha Franklin, lifting us in song. I want a healthy auto industry, and health coverage for all who work there. I want a healthy Michigan and nation. Maybe a skillfully nationalized American automotive industry can be the flagship for a democratic socialism, and a Twenty-First century economy that avoids the cruelties, excesses and mistakes of most of those, including the United States’, in the Twentieth.

Though I hope for more public transportation than private cars, one can imagine arriving at that future in a plush new vehicle, roomy yet trim, fuel-efficient and economical, named for our famous embodiment of assertion, self-expression and faith. My ride’s here, a 2014 Aretha, from Obama (formerly General) Motors.

--May 18, 2009.


According to Wikipedia, on June 1, 2009 General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and emerged July 10, 2009 majority owned by the United States Treasury (and some of it by the Canadian government). The US government invested $57.6 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. No GM shares are currently available to the public, though the new, reorganized company plans an initial public stock offering (IPO) in 2010. My own shares, defiantly bought as funeral drums were sounding? Don't ask.

Also on June 1, Chrysler said they were selling assets and operations to a newly-formed company called Chrysler Group LLC. The Italian automaker Fiat will hold a 20% stake in the new company, with an option to increase this to 35%, and eventually to 51% if it meets proves lucrative. On June 10, the sale of most of Chrysler assets to "New Chrysler" (a.k.a. Chrysler Group LLC) was completed. The US government provided $6.6 billion in financing, paid to the "Old Chrysler" (now called Old Carco LLC). Contracts with 789 U.S. auto dealerships are being dropped.

I reach for a metaphor for Obama one year later. Not sturdy Aretha, but maybe the battered Rhianna? He came offering the nation a protective umbrella from the Bush storms of war and economic turmoil, but has been bruised by the uncompromising GOP and Fox News. Yet that's sentimental. The umbrella is tattered by Blue Dogs of his own party, the continued wars and lassitude on closing Guantanamo prison. As Bad Subjects co-founder Annalee Newitz said in a New York Times article about misplaced sympathy for "Avatar" director James Cameron, “It’s like, do you feel bad for Obama? He’s the president — he kind of asked for it.”

--January 24, 2010

Mike Mosher is Professor, Art/Communication & Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University. The Moshers now drive a 1995 Pontiac Firebird and a 2005 Dodge Intrepid.

Thanks to Chrysanthe Mosher for editorial suggestions. The source of auto industry statistics has been numerous stories 2008-2009 in the New York Times.

Copyright © Mike Mosher 2009. Graphic by Bad Subjects. All rights reserved.