For the second annual songwriting challenge, Esquire (@esquiremag) chose Detroit as the subject. In the article, Esquire explains why they chose Detroit, and what this challenge meant to the people involved.
When we started thinking about where we would base our songwriting contest this year, we had nothing but options. Los Angeles, Austin, Asheville; all warm and welcoming and rich with jukebox cred, but none of them felt right, at least not right now. None of them reflected the social and economic forces transforming American life today, and none of them embodied the very things that inspire our favorite songs. Love. Loss. Redemption. Hope. Cars. So we came to Detroit.
Yes, Detroit, and yes, it’s seen better days. The haunting photos of abandoned factories and boarded-up homes; the grim statistics about poverty and crime; the end-of-days yarns courtesy of Michael Moore: Everything you’ve seen and heard is more or less true.
But there’s another side to this story. Of carmakers once again posting profits and creating jobs. Of Mayor Dave Bing, a good man who rules City Hall with bold ideas and backbone. Of artists and entrepreneurs arriving en masse, lured by cheap rents, tax breaks, and wide-open spaces. Of the three quarters of a million or so residents who still eat and sleep and believe in Detroit.
And of music. In shitty dive bars and majestic concert halls, the music of Detroit pulses with the sound and fury of a city in the fight for its life. We came to Detroit to witness this fight and to honor it, and to announce that — by selling these five original songs and donating the proceeds to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Detroit — we intend to join it.
The results of this challenge are outstanding, and each artist approached the challenge in a unique way. However, a lot of these songs are more of a reality check, and not the typical cheerleading you may see from people who are dedicated to Detroit’s revival. I’m not the type of person that is going to discredit a song or article just because it shows Detroit’s negative side. In fact, I think it’s healthy for us to own Detroit’s negative image to a certain extent. Some of the best songs that I like from this challenge highlight the good and the bad about Detroit, and support the popular belief that we love this city despite its shortcomings, and that the good outweighs the bad.
For example, in Brendan Benson’s (@_brendanbenson) song, Last Night in Detroit he sings:
It’s my last night in Detroit, but I’m not sad.
I’ve had some good times and had some bad.
So long, Motor City, it’s really been a blast,
but I’m not sorry to say tonight will be my last.
The song is a personal tale about leaving Detroit to pursue his musical interests in Nashville. He goes on to sing about the great times and things he loves about Detroit, but says “you’re not going to get one sentimental tear from me” when he departs. Sadly, this is how many musicians feel in Detroit, including his Raconteurs bandmate, Jack White. When having to deal with shady promoters, scumbag club owners and fans that always want a free handout, it’s difficult for any musician to stay here and pursue their dreams. This song is a reminder about how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go, and why our heart stays here no matter where we go to find greener pastures. It’s also clear that he still cares about Detroit, since it appears the artists are not getting paid, and the proceeds from the EP are going to a Detroit charity.
In the song, One Way Out, by Dhani Harrison, (@thenewno2) he sings about bootstrapping Detroit’s dieing automotive industry. In the article, Dhani recollects when his father, George Harrison, was alive and they used to listen to Motown records together. The Beatles’ sound was heavily influenced by blues and R&B singers from Motown, and according to Dhani, “He was the biggest Motown fan.”
Dhani’s approach to the challenge:
My idea was based around a guy waking up in an old auto factory. His phone doesn’t work. He has to hot-wire a car to get anywhere, but all the batteries are dead. So he has to get all “I Am Legend” and build his own car to get somewhere. It’s a metaphor for rebooting the auto industry and getting the sleeping giant to wake up again.
The next song, by former Tony! Toni! Toné! member, Raphael Saadiq (@rayraysaadiq) is called Breaking In. In this fictional story, Saadiq drinks too much, wanders around Detroit at night and breaks into the Motown museum. He interacts with the ghosts of various Motown artists while the Detroit Police are trying to knock down the doors and arrest him, and he resists singing:
Oh no, leave me alone! This is where my heart belongs! Don’t ever take me away.
I think any Detroit musician can relate to this, after putting on a great show, sometimes you feel at home on that stage, and you never want to leave.
Country singer, Dierks Bentley, (@DierksBentley) takes a very unique approach to the challenge in his song, Line, No. 7. The song is sang from the perspective of an assembly line press, which the song is named after. The lyrics tell a story about a piece of machinery that helped build the American dream, and the role the factories played in World War II. It ends with the saddening reality that it’s easier and cheaper for the car manufacturers to make the same parts in Mexico.
The same hands that worked these levers, year after year
Well, they’re the same ones that tore me down gear by gear
But I sure do appreciate the pride and the care
That went into loading me in the semi sitting here
Not sure what I’ll find when I get down there below
You know, I can’t say I know much about Mexico
But, it seems strange to me to be re-assembled so
They can ship all the same parts right back here to home
This verse kind of reminds me of that scene in Harry and the Hendersons, where they try to release Harry back into the wild, but he doesn’t want to go. I’m not going to lie, this song is a tear-jerker, and truly relates to the heart of a Detroit blue-collar worker.
My favorite song of the challenge, was written by another Detroit native, Ben Blackwell from The Dirtbombs, titled Bury My Body at Elmwood. The song is about the city’s decay around a cemetery on the east side of Detroit. It talks about the once beautiful landscape of Detroit, and how civilization and industrialization took over and changed it. Elmwood is the only place in Detroit that kept the original landscape intact, and is the final resting home of many great people, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War. It starts with a spoken word poem:
Last night, in Detroit, I lay awake in bed
I couldn’t stop thinking of Detroiters who are dead
Suffered from diseases, long since found the cure
Take a walk off Lafayette, to see Elmwood endure
The song goes on to talk about all of the great people that are buried there, including Chief Pontiac, Lewis Cass, Coleman Young and Fred Smith. “Where Joe Louis would jog, the fighter so enjoyed. It’s the last place left, the landscape of Detroit.”
Much like Brendan Benson, Ben Blackwell is a Detroit expatriate, has connections to Jack White and now lives in Nashville. However, notice that despite all of the frustration that he expresses in this song, he still loves the city enough to want to return someday, even if that’s when he’s dead. It’s an inspiration to me that we need to do better to incubate the talent in this city and nurture the music scene to prevent the flight risk that causes so many artists to move to other cities in pursuit of their dreams. We need to do better.
This collection of music is available for only $3.99 on iTunes as a five-song EP, and the proceeds from the songs will go to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Detroit. Perhaps the volunteers from this great organization will inspire future young musicians to pave their own road through Detroit’s underground music scene and write great songs about a new, thriving Detroit that they are proud to call their home.