September PopMatters Column: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson

The newest installment in my monthly column for PopMatters is up. In my new essay, I use the concert experience of a true American treasure – Smokey Robinson – to write about music history, the enduring power of Motown, and the joyful and playful sexuality that Smokey expresses. In the essay – “The Way You Do The Things You Do: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson” – I make the argument that “In his golden years, Robinson is more convincingly and excitingly sexual than nearly every young performer who will join the parade of sensationalistic imagery on the MTV VMA awards,” because, “He always understood and continues to understand that sexuality is best enjoyed when it is playful, romantic, passionate, and generous.”

One of the most sad and tragic elements of contemporary American culture is the removal of playfulness, intimacy, and most of all, fun from sexuality. Two warring factions of extreme viewpoints – I’ll call them the Bible Belt and Breast Implants crowds – have reduced sexuality to an ideological prop and a method of conquest. Whether the vulgarity of hip hop, pornography, and much discussed “hook up” culture seeks to conquer a partner for the purposes of ego orgasm or the puritanism of virginity pledges, abstinence only sex education, and censorship aims to conquer sexual impulses for the purposes of political orgasm, sex no longer looks free and fun.

Smokey Robinson is not only one of America’s greatest living songwriters and singers, but he is also an avatar of an alternative form of sexuality – one that embodies the ethic of reciprocity – one that seeks to share pleasure – one that is fun, but also one that is spiritual.

Many of my columns at PopMatters have elevated the joy of the black musical experience. I’ve written about Mary J. Blige, Shemekia Copeland, Ruthie Foster, Diana Ross, Nikki Jean, and now Smokey Robinson, in an attempt to demonstrate that the joyful swirl of sensuality and spirituality surrounds the best of black music and imbues it with a form of magic – magic that makes the listener feel more human.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to believe that Smokey Robinson is one of the greatest exemplars of this tradition, and that he is, at this point, the most important living popular American musical performer. His influence is immeasurable and inarguable. He, along with Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, represent the last living legends of Motown. The soul-pop music of their era, which also hit the airwaves from Chicago (Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Kahn), Philadelphia (Teddy Pendergrass, The Ojays), and Memphis (Al Green, The Staple Singers), possessed a spiritual joy that sustains those performers and their audience. It combines the influence of the church and the club to create a live experience that is beyond anything else on the modern stage. The professionalism and excellence of those performers shoots through the loins, quickens the heart, and shakes the soul.

“The Way You Do The Things You Do: Sex Education and Smokey Robinson” touches on all these issues and ideas, but it is most about the “sex education” of Smokey Robinson. “Doesn’t it feel good to feel good?” he asked the audience towards the end of his show. It is a question of both simplicity and profundity, and it is one that many people – obsessive porn users, careerists who treat sex as a blocked activity on an itemized calendar, and young people terrified of intimacy – need to look in the mirror and ask.

Fun, romantic, and intimate sexuality needs rescuing in American culture, and Smokey Robinson offers a lifeline.