Of a Famous Dog
For the past year and a half I have been thinking about black melancholia. Also, dogs, George Clinton’s 1982 electro-funk hit “Atomic Dog,” and Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover, “Atomic Dog 2017,” released on her 2018 album Ventriloquism. My fascination with this perhaps unlikely pairing began with my dissertation on black funk musicians of the 1970s and my deep dive into the work of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. In a way, my writing on black melancholia and dogs was triggered by my own experience of melancholia—mourning over the end of researching and writing for a project I dedicated six years of my life to; my inability to land a tenure-track job; my profession’s utter failure to support (black) early career researchers—a hysteria borne out of having to figure out what’s next without having job security. It was also saddening to see my graduate school cohort of three brilliant interdisciplinary black scholars suffer the same fate. Drowning in debt from my undergraduate education (I was lucky enough to be admitted into a fully funded graduate program, but I was a poor, “first gen” black graduate) and the guilt about dragging my partner along for a ride based solely on the hope that my merit and rigor would earn me a job left me morose. And so, in the wake of my sadness and unease, something about the dog-chase performed in “Atomic Dog” reeled me in.
A freestyle rooted in word association, “Atomic Dog,” a single from George Clinton’s Computer Games (1982), has a funk bounce that, in its heavy use of Prophet 5 and Minimoog analog synthesizers, fully embraces sound technologies of the eighties. Propelled by the two-bar drumbeat, which plays backwards on the track due to an engineering error, the wonky buoyancy of the track sonically simulates being caught in a chase. The panting of dogs, paired with minor tonalities throughout, amplifies the frenetic chase between cat and dog. Clinton draws upon camp and humor, singing in the chorus, Why must I feel like that?/Why must I chase the cat/Nothing but the dog in me. Riffing on black popular artists use of dogs in their music (i.e. Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog,” “Can Your Monkey Do the Dog,” and “Somebody Stole My Dog”), his exuberance obscures how tiresome and depressing “chasing the cat” can be.
But this affective performance of the chase is not simply musicological; it is historical too: Clinton says he settled on the title “Atomic Dog” “because it was a Reagan-era idea, something for the Cold War,” and because it spoke to the rise of telematics in the 1980s (in the first verse he sings “Un-tied dog in a telematic society”). The references acknowledge anxieties fueled by the fortification of white power structures during the 1980s, but they also foreshadow the deep skepticism held by a black “post-soul” generation about the promise of civil rights in the wake of deindustrialization (which led to white flight and, later, gentrification of black neighborhoods across the U.S.), the crack-cocaine epidemic, the subsequent war on drugs and “tough on crime” policies. But the centrality of the dog to the track, a figure so antagonistically wedded to black life in the U.S., details Clinton’s awareness of what it means to be black while living in the Americas.
Dogs have long been an emblem and a tool of terror against black people. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were weaponized to menace and chase slaves; during the 1960s and 1970s, dogs were the front line of attempts to quell black liberation struggles in the U.S. And in August 2014, black uprising in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri was met in part with the National Guard sicking dogs on black people that took to the streets. (Since I began edits on this piece in May, Donald Trump threatened protesters with “vicious dogs.”) The dog’s figurative use in “Atomic Dog” not only evokes the way dogs are incessantly used to police black life, but signifies the chase of living to survive in a world governed by antiblackness. It is enough to make anyone disconsolate.
The general feelings of demoralization that animate “Atomic Dog,” are only amplified by the darkness that shadowed Clinton’s life while recording the track. He had just signed a solo deal to Capitol Records and was simultaneously struggling with addiction. To boot, Nene Montes, Clinton’s former manager, continued to exploit their relationship and was later revealed to have forged signatures claiming his ownership of copyright to several Funkadelic master recordings (including One Nation Under a Groove, Uncle Jam Wants You, Hardcore Jollies, The Electric Spanking of War Babies). In his memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? Clinton talks about their relationship during the time of recording Computer Games: “At the time when I needed the best advice and counsel, I had Nene Montes. I couldn’t get rid of him, because he was my lifeline as the ship was sinking.” Clinton felt trapped, enclosed by a whirlpool of self-medication, exploitation, and isolation. He was deeply paranoid by his partnership with producers Garry Shider and David Spradley, fearing that the duo “might be moving ahead without [Clinton]” on Computer Games. And toward the end of completing “Atomic Dog,” he learned of the death of Neil Bogart, the founder of Casablanca Records. According to Clinton, “his death reminded me what it was like to have a collaborator on the business side who understood [his] creative vision.”
The darkness that clouded Clinton’s life while making “Atomic Dog” is sonically flipped and unearthed in Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover, “Atomic Dog 2017.” Ndegeocello strips away the electro-funk bounce of Clinton’s version but retains its melancholic underbelly. The sound of “Atomic Dog 2017” is somber and down tempo; an acoustic take on Clinton’s version, the primacy of the dog remains, including “woofs” and panting to begin the tracks. It features twangy guitars, leaving the hyphy energy of George Clinton’s iteration at bay. What is most compelling about Ndegeocello’s re-performance of “Atomic Dog” is her phrasing to create an audible break between why must I feel like that? and why must I chase the cat? The soul shattering silence between phrases is a performance of black grief that questions whether the chase’s ends are worth the means. Vocally she sits and wades through why black people “feel like that;” her wallowing harkens back to Clinton’s initial question. The reverberation of Ndegeocello’s voice in the break resonates with me because it makes plain that things don’t have to be the way that they are: the chase doesn’t have to structure the way we live. The break is the transgression that does not disrupt the chase, but uncloaks its violent structure.
The story behind “Atomic Dog 2017” and Ventriloquism appears to be far more elusive than Clinton’s original. In the liner notes of the album she writes,
There are albums dedicated to personal pain, or political protest, love, death, nostalgia, rage. There are those that are simply fun, glossy, the soundtrack to a good time. Some are exploratory, a musical journey, shapeshifting soundmaking, a new way to do an old thing. An artist can make a choice about concept and content, or heed a vision, follow their muse or their manager. But in times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then they might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past. Some albums are testimony, some confessions, and some are escape. Ventriloquism is a place, like its process, to take refuge from one storm too many.
Ventriloquism covers the songs of black R&B singers from the 1980s and 1990s to create a sonic “refuge” for those who have faced “one storm too many.” It also represents the lapses between black and queer melancholia. Her reclamation of queer melancholic iconography in the pink triangle against a black background on the album’s gatefold reminds listeners both of the queerness of blackness and that black queers have bore the brunt of black and queer melancholia. Ventriloquism, and by extension “Atomic Dog 2017,” are offerings for those of us who have no appropriate language to name the chase we are forced into.
Between my own attachments to funk and its afterlives and the general fear in trusting one’s (writerly) instincts, the task of writing this work has been difficult. My reactionary inner voice asks over and over again: How can the fun and comical track that is George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” be thought alongside the darker category of melancholy? Is my attachment to sadness at this point in my life simulating the intellectual necessity to study this song in the context of black melancholia? George Clinton and Meshell Ndegeocello make plain how tiresome and heartbreaking it is to “chase.” Their laments soundtrack my reality and reservations about my chasing after security in a world hell-bent on making black people suffer and the toil that it has taken on my life. They sound how much energy I’ve wasted drowning myself in the prerogatives of the “chase” to avoid my grief.
*Note: If you’re interested in the nexus between blackness and dogs, please read Bénédicte Boisseron's Blackness and the Animal Question (Columbia UP, 2018).