Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Your Lying Lips and Your False Teeth

I Heard It Through The Grapevine is a marvelous song.

It has an interesting pedigree. It was written by the very successful songwriting duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong in 1967. They tried ever sort of angle at recording and releasing it, with their employer, Motown records, never really seeing the potential in it, and shelving each one in turn. First the Miracles, then the Isley Brothers recorded it; neither version was released. Marvin Gaye recorded it in the form we're accustomed to hearing next, but the owner of Motown, Berry Gordy, didn't think it had any potential in that iteration, and shelved it too.

Whitfield didn't give up, and Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded another version, and Whitfield got Gordy to allow the single to be released with no fanfare from Motown. It went to Number Two on the Billboard Pop Chart, and stayed there a good long time. It was Motown's biggest seller up to that point.

Amusingly, what was destined to be the most popular version of the song almost didn't get released because of the popularity of The Pips version. Motown just offhandedly stuck Gaye's version as filler on his next album in 1968, and didn't release his version of Grapevine as a single until they discovered that DJs were ignoring the album and simply playing that one song because they couldn't get the single. They wised up and hurried a single out, and it went to number one, and remained the biggest selling single for Motown for the next two years.

The two versions are fascinating. Gladys Knight sings it with declaiming gospel uptempo verve, exuding a kind of glee, almost, at discovering that her lover perhaps has been unfaithful. It's very different from the kind of dark brooding menace of Gaye's vibe of betrayal, melancholy -- and danger. Watch Gladys and the Pips sing it in a sort of supper club atmosphere, and hear the gathering of self awareness and pride as a woman discovers her man is unworthy of her, rears up to her full feminine stature, and tells him so:

There's a real sort of affirmation of self-worth and blast of righteous anger -- the anger sublimated, tamed and yoked to the plow of dignity: If you don't love me enough to be faithful, I don't need you. I'm worth it.

Now watch them sing it together, and see the pain in Marvin Gaye's delivery, telegraphing the very real pain that was a constant in Gaye's life:

It's different for a man. The betrayal is an affirmation of another sort. Cuckolded. The fool. His essence as a person held up to others, behind his back --mocked and shamed. He doesn't know what he'll do if she leaves him; but he can't stand to be played for a fool. This is dangerous territory for a man to navigate. The vibe of the version is subverted. Dark, gloomy and foreboding; anything might happen.

The same situation, two different ways. Could Shakespeare illuminate the human condition any better?


Ruth Anne Adams said...

What a lovely exegesis. From the cool cat drumming on the table, to her grape dress, to the grapevine steps [What was that I heard? Was that a Pip's squeak?]. Never saw that version before. It should go on the Althouse list of songs that are different based on the gender of the singer.


SippicanCottage said...

Who knew there was such a list?

Apparently Ruth Anne knew.

"Excellent," she says; that's good, right? I got disoriented when she said exegesis.

XWL said...

I think you've covered well the differing ways in which men and women view infidelity and how it effected the interpretation of those lyrics by those two artists.

The unstated subtext behind the almost glee in Gladys' version is 'I have material for emotional blackmail' and the unstated subtext for Gaye's brooding version, 'someone must pay (with blood)'.

And here's a link to the Althouse conversation Ruth Anne mentions.