Classic Man

Written for the online gentleman’s magazine ‘Suspendermen’.  Unfortunately they never published it, but at least they paid me.  They’re good guys. 

When I first watched the music video for Jidenna’s “Classic Man”, I had mixed emotions.

The video, on a fundamental level doesn’t seem to be anything new for a pop song these days.  The singer looks good, he acts cool, and he has the ability to electrify any environment he steps in. He radiates charisma, confidence and sexuality, and everyone in the video is compelled to follow him wherever he goes and ultimately dance behind him.

Again, this is nothing new for pop music videos, it’s been the formula ever since Michael Jackson gave us the masterpiece that is Thriller and essentially created Pop music.  What followed in its wake would dominate American music arguably more so than any other form.

On some basic level, it would seem that this magazine really ought to love the video “Classic Man”; since everyone in it, for the most part, represents exactly what this magazine appears to stand for—men’s style, confidence and sophistication, etc..  But I think that this video is an opportunity for the magazine to make clear that it stands for something more, and to make very clear that being a gentlemen in today’s world is more than what kind of tie you wear, or the sort of drink you order.  And I think that knowing this, being aware of that distinction is what separates any halfway real man from a poser in a suit.  As a young man myself, it’s something that I view as an important bridge from young adulthood to adulthood.  That being said, I think I know plenty of guys, some well into their fifties, who are still children.

By the way, I say ‘halfway’ real man because I don’t consider myself an expert on what makes a man a man, and I think that’s it’s an abstract sort of idea that can only be alluded to and hinted at, best left to the talents of our poets and songwriters.  Listen to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, or just about any blues song.  With the right sort of ears, you might realize that Robert Johnson was an American poet.

No I don’t consider myself an authority on the best path to being any sort of real man, I only have an idea of where it starts.  And I’ve got music.

To begin, “Classic Man” is a great video on many levels.  Especially if you work for Old Spice…

No, seriously though, it’s a great song and it definitely has the potential to inspire young men watching it today.  After all, the prevailing wisdom in the contemporary world of fashion is that a suit and tie radiate confidence, sex appeal and power.  And why not?  There’s nothing wrong with that.  These are ideals that I admire as much as the next guy, and I think that whether a man is applying for a job or meeting his girl’s parents for the first time, he ought to look nice.

Above all this video projects class and sophistication, and Jidenna, being the star of the video, appears to have more class than anyone else in it.  And though it might have been more noteworthy fifteen or twenty years ago, fewer people today might find it rare that a black pop star is wearing a suit and tie, clothing that for many years has been absurdly labeled the white man’s dress.

But then again, this is nothing new in our culture, either.   The blues musicians that I alluded to before, almost all of whom are African-American, have been doing it for years.  One of the two known photographs that exist of Robert Johnson, for example, show him dressed in a black pinstripe suit and black fedora, holding his guitar and smiling at us in a way that is strikingly unassuming in light of the profound influence he would eventually have on our music and thus our culture, an influence he would never live long enough to see.

I can only that imagine that Johnson dressed that way for the same reasons men dress that way now.  Not because they have any desire to be like the white man, but rather because they, like any self-respecting man or woman, have a fundamental understanding of what it takes to make a good impression, and what sort of things communicate to others that you deserve respect, and more importantly that you respect yourself.

In that spirit, ‘Classic Man’ is undoubtedly a triumph.  And whether intentional or unintentional, it continues the long, silent tradition that has worked in discrediting the dumb stereotype that a hoodie and jeans is the most common form of dress for young African-American men.

For some reason, when I think of this video and it’s star, I think of Sam Cooke.  Maybe because both men project a similar sort of sophistication that has nothing and yet everything to do with race.  In a country with a long, sad history of racism and disenfranchisement, they both share not the desire to be as sophisticated as white culture, but rather the tendency to reveal black culture as equally sophisticated in its own right.  Simply put, they’re sophisticated men not because they act white, but because they are black.

And yet despite fifty or so years having passed since the Civil Rights movement, despite the election and re-election of an African-American president, and in light of the racial discrimination we still see on our streets today, it may yet be a cause and distinction that needs attention.

That being said, Sam Cooke gave us “A Change is Gonna Come.”  Now I’m not saying that a song isn’t valid if doesn’t somehow study the current times and preach some sort of social message.  I’m not saying that at all, and I don’t believe in that.  Some of the greatest songs of all time are also the most simple, and more often than not, they end up saying very little.  The Beatles may be the greatest band of all time, but the lyrics to their earliest songs, the songs that made them bigger than Jesus, are also about as profound as a first grader’s homework.  That doesn’t change the fact that they’re awesome songs.  And even so, simple pop songs about getting the girl (or losing the girl), driving fast cars, making money, and partying; songs frequently cast off as being about nothing at all, are still also part of a musical tradition that has been going on for many years, an art form that ultimately cherishes freedom.

But what those songs don’t do is something that this video did.  At about a minute or so in, Jidenna is walking though the hood and sees some policemen arresting two kids, both of whom are minorities.  With his entourage behind him, he walks over to the arresting officers and, whether it’s through smooth talk, the sheer power of his ‘classicness’, or whatever the hell he does, he’s somehow able to get the reluctant officers into letting the kids go.  Then he brings the kids over to a local school and has them sit down and learn from their teacher.  And he never even misses a note the whole time!

In some ways, this might seem really cool, especially when you ignore the fact that it’s also kind of lame.  I’m not going to say that I’m outraged or anything like that.  But I will that this scene does provide some insight into the complacency of contemporary society, which thinks that everything happens for a simple reason and thus its problems, if any still exist, have a perfectly simple solution.   In this case, just dress nice and look rich, and the law will never stand in your way.

Never mind the fact that such a notion holds a frightening degree of truth.  Never mind the fact that no kid, regardless of their skin color, should ever have to worry about how nicely they’re dressed when avoiding trouble with the law or when they’re walking down the street; and that those nice clothes are often very expensive clothes.  What seems like a giant slap in the face to the reality of the times in which we live, the reality that America’s most poor and hungry experience on a daily basis, is the manner in which those realities were addressed in a song like this.

It’d be like Britney Spears in one of her videos walking up to a young, tormented girl with an eating disorder, shaking her ass in front of her and suddenly the girl has some magical revelation, or like the Beatles saying “She loves you, so don’t get shot in Vietnam.”  The producers of this video chose to get observational through the lens of a pop song and in so doing, belittled the true significance of what they were observing.

I’m not going to go off on this video.  It’s still a good song and Jidenna seem like a pretty cool, smart guy.  The implications of that scene might have just been easy to overlook when shooting it.  I don’t know for sure.

But if an artist is going to fight the good fight, then they really ought to fight it.  Don’t half-ass it.  Social justice is no small thing in our world.  And it’s not new.  It needs as many voices behind it as it can get.  And those voices need to know what the hell they’re talking about.  If you’re going to promote an idea, whether it’s an image or a cause, then you really ought to figure out the best venue for it.  There’s always a certain voice and rhythm that will serve it best.  Figuring that out is where the art comes in.

And if it’s a serious matter.  Then take it seriously.  Otherwise, you’re probably no more enlightened than the people you’re trying to reach.  And it may actually be your head that’s stuck in the sand.

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