Songs That Matter | People Make the World Go Round

Aerial view of pedestrian crowd crossing a street
Photo by Ryoji Iwata

The Stylistics, “People Make the World Go Round”

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written by Sean Clapis

We are living in a golden age of outrage; an era in which we’re expected to take sides on any given issue. A lyric can’t just be a lyric, but rather a representation of your worldview, an affirmation of group identity. In a world so politicized, one can seldom walk across the street without being bludgeoned by message-laden art so broad and condescending that it demands we confirm its relevance. So it’s refreshing to find a song that addresses political strife, but doesn’t make up our minds for us. I’m talking about The Stylistics’ 1971 classic, “People Make the World Go Round”.

This song isn’t about love, nor is it simply a statement about the political woes of the day. It’s full of subtlety, addressing social, economic and environmental upheaval as a nuanced result of human nature, without foisting a viewpoint or claiming a solution.

The lyric plaintively reflects on the issues at hand, “Wall Street losing dough on every share”, with regards to economics. “Trash men didn’t get my trash today”, with regards to labor unions. “Buses on strike want a raise in fare”. A lesser lyric would suggest that we ought to side with the bus unions against their corporate overlords, sanctimoniously steering the listener onto a moral hilltop. But the following line “so they can help pollute the air”, subverts that message and illustrates the complexity of the subject. The music breathes, and the listener is given room to ponder. Should we even support buses or is the city too dirty? Is the fare hike motivated by greed and complacency or are bus drivers underpaid? Who’s to blame? Is anyone to blame? The lyric doesn’t hold our hand, and we are left questioning.

Unlike its cynical cousin, Cabaret’s tongue-in-cheek showstopper, “Money Makes the World Go Round”, “People Make the World Go Round” takes an earnest look at the human beings holding the money. Whether it’s buying second-hand shoes for your child or a lavish yacht for your mistress, the song doesn’t discriminate. It neither bemoans nor glorifies the monied system it describes. Rather, it reflects on the fact that we are the system, the process which dictates the economic and social landscape.

 

But that’s what makes the world go ‘round
The ups and downs, the carousel

 

The lyric suggests a neutral observer, reconciling political woes as a necessary evil, a constant push and pull. The message melds perfectly with pensive minor harmonies and rhythmic shifting throughout the chorus. The arrangement masterfully creates a contemplative backdrop for the lyrics, which carries all the trademarks of classic Philly soul; lush strings, rich horns, even congas and marimba to give a warm latin vibe to an otherwise bleak musical landscape. The song opts for a slow burning, hi-hat based drum groove that drives the band, but never breaks out. Rather, the music remains mysterious, with the bass and keys lurking quietly like a sentinel, the suggestion of something going on beneath the surface that threatens to roil over. The time signature alternating from 4/4 to a measure of 2/4 before the line, “Changing people, they’ll go round” suggests shifting ground, and perhaps the inevitability of turmoil. Building to a crescendo during “Go underground young man”, and finally suspending to deliver the titular lyric “People make the world go round”, the rhythmic turbulence continues with measures of 4/4 and 5/4 interchanging and repeating to drive the groove home. When paired with the lone, haunting falsetto of lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr., such a mature departure on an album bursting with ballads and upbeat love songs is incredibly effective. The music stays with the listener, demonstrating a sophisticated foray into political and social upheaval and offering a nuanced counterpoint.

“People Make the World Go Round” is a brilliant piece of art that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s informed without telegraphing its virtues. It doesn’t patronize or preach, nor does it accuse. It lays bare the issues of the day, issues that remain relevant, and draws us to look inward at deeper questions.


Sean Clapis is a jazz guitarist, vocalist, composer and educator from Hartford, Connecticut. He currently splits his time between Madrid and New York City. Follow him online at www.seanclapis.com or on Facebook.

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