Smokey and Mirrors

In the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator says that Louis Armstrong makes “poetry out of being invisible” and that his music allows you to occupy and understand “those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead.” Along similar lines, W.E.B. DuBois famously describes the spiritual condition of black Americans as a double-consciousness, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The bizarreness of racism forces those it oppresses to register and constantly negotiate the wide gulf between who they are and how they are perceived. In fact, any kind of oppression tends to give the oppressed a depth of understanding denied to those who live more luxuriously.

Among my favorite pop songs of all time are Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears,” “Tears of a Clown,” and “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” all of which are interestingly about a kind of double-consciousness, about the gulf between appearance and reality. “Tears of a Clown” goes so far as to hint that this double-consciousness is the singer’s general condition.

Now if there’s a smile on my face,
It’s only there trying to fool the public.
But when it comes down to fooling you,
Now, honey, that’s quite a different subject.

(Smokey’s the best rhymer since Lorenz Hart.)

Just like Pagliacci did,
I try to keep my sadness hid,
Smiling in the public eye,
But in my lonely room I cry
The tears of a clown
When there’s no one around.

The sublime example, the perfect pop song, is “Tracks of My Tears.”

People say I’m the life of the party,
’Cause I tell a joke or two.
Although I might be laughin’ loud and hearty,
Deep inside I’m blue.
So take a good look at my face:
You’ll see my smile looks out of place.
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears.
I need you, need you.

My favorite of all his songs, which lyrically and musically feel like whole worlds unto themselves, is the lesser known “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” which turns the tables on the other songs: it’s about being tricked rather than trying to trick the world.

There you were, beautiful,
The promise of love was written on your face.
You led me on with untrue kisses.
You held me captive in your false embrace.
. . .
Sweetness was only heartache’s camouflage,
The love I saw in you was just a mirage.
. . .
We used to meet in romantic places:
You gave me the illusion that your love was real.
Now all that’s left are lipstick traces
From the kisses you only pretended to feel.

And now our meeting you avoid.
And so my world you have destroyed.
Just a minute ago your love was here.
All of a sudden it seemed to disappear.
The way you wrecked my life was like sabotage,
The love I saw in you was just a mirage.

These songs are obviously about the difficulties of love, perhaps allegorically about the political situation of blacks in mid-century America, but I also feel like they’re about the best pop music itself.

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