When Rihanna Saw Smokey
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mixing old and new genius might yield something we all want to download.
By Armond White
Few award shows — those unstoppable ceremonies of industry egotism and celebrity worship — offer a moment as revelatory as William “Smokey” Robinson receiving a career tribute at this year’s BET Awards. Don’t fret if you missed it, here it is — even though BET’s endless repetitions tend to wring spontaneity out of its programming. I’ve watched the moment a lot and remain dry-eyed yet amazed when Smokey takes the stage and performs a brief medley of classic hit songs from his years as a member of the R&B quartet the Miracles and also as songwriter and producer for such Motown acts as the Temptations and Brenda Holloway. From something old, something extraordinary and new happened.
It was evident that Rihanna had a realization: Mr. Robinson was an icon of what a steadfast career could achieve.
Out of the usual TV broadcast event pattern of shot/reaction shot, I discovered proof of cultural continuity that pop culture critics and scholars rarely live long enough to witness. As Smokey sang “Tears of a Clown,” the camera cut to an audience shot of Rihanna, the über-stylish dance-music libertine gazing at her forebear. Rihanna’s wide-eyed amazement (she’s always sexy, but this time she looked both eroticized and alert) was itself a tribute. Her unmistakable fascination with Smokey’s aged yet still enticing vocals — the exquisite, pithy confession of his self-penned lyrics — gave her intense delight. The look on her face showed her realization that this is what showbiz artistry is all about. Rihanna seemed to appreciate a pop music ideal she herself had been striving toward without ever being able to name.
Was this the first time Rihanna ever saw Smokey live and in person? After all, he’s 75 years old, does Oldies tours, and those vintage Motown hits belonged to another generation. She probably heard them on her family’s scratchy vinyl or admired them in the antiseptic anonymity of YouTube streaming posted by strangers. In the digital music age, music is often heard outside its original context; some young people never have an authentic space into which they can contextualize classic tracks. But Rihanna’s facial expression wasn’t just finger-snapping, head-bobbing, pop-music grooving. It was evident that she had a realization: Veteran Mr. Robinson stood before her as an icon of what a steadfast career could achieve; even, perhaps, all that pop music could express. “Tears of a Clown” is a particularly remarkable song: In it, Smokey admits the vulnerability a man can feel at the loss of a lover, the social bravado that males are especially liable to show even when hurting inside. (“Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid” are lyrics few ever thought a Black male from Detroit capable of imagining — a combination of cultural erudition and psychological finesse.) I doubt if that great song was new to Rihanna, but she seemed to hear it anew. Its candor seemed to link to her difficult explanations in “We Found Love” and “Umbrella” and now, finally, she knew. Smokey Robinson epitomized her own feelings as a pop star who is also a person. She saw, and felt, her artistic heritage.
Back to Smokey: A light-skinned, green-eyed African-American who had experienced the ironies of Black identity, from Jim Crow through Black Power and into the Obama era, when racial identity became an arbitrary instrument of political manipulation. He stood on BET’s stage in a blue silk suit demonstrating the smooth moves learned through decades of performance and both personal and social adjustment. This wasn’t throwback nostalgia; it was modern, aged yet still pertinent, venerable pop — therefore now: music, songcraft and singing as effective as it could possibly be.
Forgive me for invoking that ’60s chestnut when rascally but insightful Bob Dylan claimed Robinson was “America’s greatest living poet.” Dickinson, Lowell, Moore, Frost, Stevens, Porter, Foster, Hammerstein, Hughes, Rich and Brooks are gone, but here, on BET, was Smokey. He knowingly segued into “My Girl,” the song he wrote and produced in 1964 for the Temptations’ album The Temptations Sing Smokey, which became the biggest, most widely recited hit of his career. It wasn’t his hit (it was the Temptations who topped the charts), but he wrote it, and sang it on BET in 2015 to reclaim it. So it meant a lot when BET cut from Smokey to an audience shot of actor Louis Gossett, gray-haired, lined face, captivated by what was taking place onstage — and elated.
Fifty years has passed since “My Girl” first entered world consciousness — a paean to romance through male idolization of a female ideal. It perfected the crossover of Black pop to global pop and thus was also a perfect illustration of civil rights progress. During that time, Gossett was a struggling New York stage actor (Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Genet’s The Blacks, Davis’ Purlie Victorious, etc.). On BET, you could see in Gossett’s face his youthful recall, a remembrance of the years of struggle and aspiration — all contained in Smokey’s beautifully sung pop melody. I don’t know if Gossett had ever seen Smokey or the Miracles or even the Temptations performing live before, but on this BET night he looked reinvigorated. It appeared as if Gossett (of Roots, Skin Game, Enemy Mine and An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he won an Oscar) was able to reassess the roles in which he wrestled with ethnic stereotyping and then transcended them — along with showbiz’s seductions toward acquiescence — just as Smokey had. The look on Gossett’s face revealed that he suddenly remembered what it was all about. Like Rihanna, Gossett looked blessed.
Smokey, still the greatest singer-songwriter of them all, performed on BET as the epitome of creativity, perseverance and grace. Smokey, with his silken, almost feminine pitch expressing the deepest male empathy (thus transcending gender stereotypes), stood onstage and on-screen as the connection between Rihanna and Louis Gossett, between generations, between legacies lost and found, a forgotten idea of the beauty and insight capable in showbiz at its best, as a pop art bridge.
- Armond White, Armond White, a film critic, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.Contact Armond White