Tech in Lyrics: James Brown the Anti-Technoutopian

James Brown.jpg

I kicked off this occasional series on how lyricists view technology with some light fare about Talib Kweli referencing the iPad. We're going to get a little bit heavier here looking at James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's Man's World," which he penned with his backup singer and one-time girlfriend Betty Jean Newsome.

You see, man made the cars that take us over the road
Man made the train to carry the heavy load
Man made the electric light to take us out of the dark
Man made the boat for the water, like Noah made the Ark
This is a man's, man's, man's world
But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl

What's fascinating here is the contrast between two versions of how society and technology interact. First, you've got the oft-repeated story of progress; cars, trains, electricity and boats are all doing good things for us. Cars are carrying us. Trains are taking the load. Light is cast on us. And, as we hear (and know from the song title), this kind of progress -- the desire for the conquest and mastery of nature -- has historically been a very male thing.

But shoved up against the narrative of progress, Brown and Newsome propose a different worldview. While the three lines about technology get a steady beat and calm delivery, the song breaks towards the importance of relationships over things in the second half of the boat line. At the end of this verse about new things in the world, we get the story of the flood, one of the oldest stories in western civilization.

Then, with that tiny bit of warning, James breaks out of the control of this early verse into a soulful, screaming chorus to declare that the man's world -- the technological world, specifically -- wouldn't be nothing "without a woman or a girl."

What I love about this verse and chorus is that it posits progressive change (the electric light) will always be mashed up with human conditions (desire for love, long-standing inequality). This song is fundamentally anti-technoutopian, even as it recognizes the importance of that which tech can accomplish.

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Image: heiner1947/Flickr.