Monday, August 13, 2018

Musical Monday - Funkytown by Lipps, Inc.

#1 on the Billboard Hot 100: May 31, 1980 through June 21, 1980.
#1 on the Cash Box Top 100: May 31, 1980 through June 28, 1980.
#1 on the U.K. Chart: Never.

My first memory of this song is its appearance in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I - or more likely its appearance in a commercial advertising the movie, since I didn't actually see the movie until half a decade after it was released. Its inclusion in Brooks' movie was a kind of throwaway street scene set in ancient Rome with a black man in a robe walking down the street among Romans in togas with a boom box by his head blaring Funkytown. The scene is funny because it presents an incongruous image of a modern dude in ancient Rome, but it also serves to connect the urbanity of Rome with the urbanity of contemporary "street" culture in part because the song is presented as coming from a "ghetto blaster" carried by a black man as he grooves through the scene.

The oddity of using Funkytown in this way is that despite it being a "disco" song, the video used to promote the song is almost a parody of the genre. At some point I saw someone make the observation that Funkytown was the last real disco hit in the United States. I don't know if that is technically true, but it seems like it should be true. There's not really much to the song - it has a perky, driving beat and about six total lines worth of lyrics. The song makes up for its paucity of lyrical content by being relentlessly whitewashed, and this is why it just doesn't fit the scene Brooks used it for: This song isn't an example of the ethnic and urban nature of music in the 1970s, it is an example of the white cooption of a music form that was originated and popularized by black artists.

This is the woman who actually
sang Funkytown
Even though the Bee Gees are, for many people, the face of disco music, they were kind of late to the disco party, jumping in only after other pioneering artists had established it as the dominant musical style of the 1970s. The "first" disco hit was Rock the Boat by the Hues Corporation, a trio of black singers. They were followed by artists like Thelma Houston, Cheryl Lynn, Van McCoy, Vickie Sue Robinson, Rose Royce, Donna Summer, the Trammps, and Anita Ward, all of whom were black in what was, at its origin and development, a form of music that arose out of the urban club scene. As had happened with Soul music in the 1960s, disco music was soon co-opted by white artists who could put a face more pleasing to middle America on the music.

The secret to Lipps, Inc. is that Cynthia Johnson, the lead singer of the group, and most of other the members of the group are, in fact, black. But the face of the song is this perky English white girl named Debbie Jenner. Jenner didn't just appear in the official video above, but was also the face of the song in what were ostensibly "live" performances such as this one on Top of the Pops and this one on a show apparently named Disco. I'm not sure that I could come up with a more fitting way for the disco era to end than a song sung by a black woman lip synched by a blonde white girl. Not even if I tried for a week.

Previous Musical Monday: What's Another Year by Johnny Logan
Subsequent Musical Monday: Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless) by the Mash

Previous #1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Call Me by Blondie
Subsequent #1 on the Billboard Hot 100: Coming Up by Paul McCartney

Previous #1 on the Cash Box Top 100: Call Me by Blondie
Subsequent #1 on the Cash Box Top 100: The Rose by Bette Midler

List of #1 Singles from the Billboard Hot 100 for 1980-1989
List of #1 Singles from the Cash Box Top 100 for 1980-1989
List of #1 Singles on the U.K. Chart for 1980-1989

Lipps, Inc.     1980s Project     Musical Monday     Home

No comments:

Post a Comment