7 May 2017, No. 250, Commodores, “The Assembly Line”

Without such subversive lyrics, No. 250 wouldn’t have made the list. Usually my ears perk up at the sound of ill synths and slick grooves, but “The Assembly Line” from Commodores has only big horns to recommend it musically—unless you like churchy music. Gloria Jones of “Tainted Love” fame takes co-writing credits for “The Assembly Line,” and she got her start singing in church, so that feeling makes sense here. Pam Sawyer is the songwriter credited first on this tune, and she co-wrote a bunch of songs for Motown in the late 1960s and all through the ’70s—“If I Were Your Woman” (Gladys Knight and the Pips), “Love Child” (Diana Ross and the Supremes), and “Love Hangover” (The 5th Dimension, though Diana Ross’s version is the one).

Sawyer and Jones want us to know culture is a factory. Clearly it was a fresher metaphor forty years ago, and a more relevant one, given the decline in manufacturing in the U.S. in the intervening years. Especially relevant for a Detroit-based record label whose very name is an allusion to the motors that made the town famous, rolling off the assembly lines gleaming, identical, and ready to combust.

The first verse is a pat second-wave feminist interrogation of binary gender stereotypes: Why can’t boys cry? Why can’t girls play football? We’ve made plenty of progress in challenging those kinds of assumptions, but there are still pockets of the country that could stand to hear this message. Maybe the churchlike delivery makes it more palatable.

If you need your palate cleansed of that organ-laden liturgical sound but you’re still feeling the dystopian, mechanized-homogeneity vibe, give another “Assembly Line” a listen. This one is from Hilly Michaels, has synthesizers and vocoding, and is probably the only good song from his Lumia LP. Aside from the title, the Michaels tune has very little in common with the Commodores cut. Its only lyric aside from the titular line is “What are we working for?” No subversive gender politics, but also no hackneyed and obvious second verse about corrupt lawyers, so it has that going for it as well. Still, the Commodores song is better, in case you decide to listen to just one. From the moment you’re born, you’re on the assembly line. Keeps on messing with your mind.