The Two-Lane Highway of “Try a Little Tenderness”
by Ryane Nicole Granados
I was 10 years old when I first heard Otis Redding’s rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.” I actually heard his voice, drenched in emotion, piping through the recorded sounds of my family’s brand new VHS player. It was out with the Betamax and in with every 80s movie a 6th grader needed to understand the animal kingdom of adolescence. A Friday night viewing left me enthralled by a scene from Pretty in Pink. The iconic character Duckie was serenading his best friend and unrequited love, Andie. In a choreographed lip sync, Duckie, via the writing of John Hughes, introduced a song I became vehemently convinced was written just for me. While acknowledging the heteronormative nature of traditional gender roles featured in a song that provides advice on how to woo a woman, I would argue that it could also be a song reminding a woman how to love herself.
This is a song that sketches a girl during her transition into young womanhood. This is a song that reminds us of ponytails held high and the weariness of being forced to grow up far too soon. This is a song for an entire generation of brown girls accused of being angry if they don’t smile, who are told to dim their light and hide their style, whose curves spread beyond their jeans or shaggy dresses, but their hearts still long for tenderness. This is a song for the girls never featured in John Hughes’ movies even though we watched them and we loved them and we rooted for the Duckies and the Andies anyway.
From the opening instrumentation filled with organs and horns and an arranged harmony by Isaac Hayes, this soulful fight song of “Try a Little Tenderness” unveils a rallying cry of women striving to be seen. The song is both the sobs of a baby girl told to wipe her tears and the feverish build-up of a full-fledged woman orchestrating the awkward balance of society’s rhythm and her own discounted blues.
As an African American woman, I have struggled to find my place in the nostalgia of my childhood movies in the same way I have struggled to find my place in the characteristics of mainstream feminism; instead, I more closely identify with the inclusive term “womanist,” first coined by renowned author, Alice Walker. An excerpt from the lengthier definition found in her book In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose describes a womanist as someone who “appreciates woman’s culture, woman’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength.” I didn’t come across this term until I was in college. But once I found it, I also found a greater clarity for why, every time I heard Otis sing “you got to try” I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry, and I wanted to slow dance across the hardwood while celebrating love as my entire happiness.
No matter where I am when I hear this song, I find myself going back to that couch in my house in South Los Angeles. It is there where I first attempted to marry the ideology of the strong black woman with someone in need of tenderness. The marriage was a rocky one, but with maturity, I have gained a greater appreciation for the duty and the danger of this female archetype. Emotional strength for my kind has been a necessity as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, but for a little girl in 1989, my sentimentality was a revolutionary act all its own.
Maybe I always desired something bigger than myself. Maybe I preferred a dance partner and even a dance crew of Mommy’s b-boys spinning windmills around my tender heart. But I am not so limited in my perspective that I can’t also see how this song is a reminder to unequivocally and without apology save some of my gentle love for me.
It is for this reason that on a Monday night, that customary night often reserved for order and conformity and the domesticity of family life, I decided to meet up with a friend at an 80s club and celebrate the awesomeness of our existence. In between our impeccable knowledge of all the dance moves to Thriller and our dramatic singing to the incomparable Sade, a young man came sliding across the floor in an oversized blazer, a bolo tie, and deliberately scuffed Duckie Dale white shoes. His grand entrance prompted the DJ to instinctively spin Otis Redding. There was a collective cheer throughout the dance floor, but my friend and I, already being wise, knew the truth about being tender. Tenderness cruises down a two-lane highway paved with both romantic serenades and an off-key 38-year-old me singing to that childhood memory initiated by Pretty in Pink.
If I had to give that once little girl in me some advice, if I could go back to the future and watch her waiting and anticipating, I would tell her to be kind. I would tell her to shine. I would tell her to breathe and sing and go out dancing on a Monday night. I would tell her to allow herself to be loved, for she is beyond worthy. And mostly, I would tell her to drape herself in a pink tapestry of well-deserved tenderness.
About the Author:
Ryane Nicole Granados is a Los Angeles native and she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in various publications including The Manifest-Station, Mutha Magazine, The Good Men Project, Expressing Motherhood, The Nervous Breakdown and most recently Scary Mommy. Ryane is best described as a wife, writer, professor and devoted mom who laughs loud and hard, even in the most difficult of circumstances. As a result, she hopes her writing will inspire, challenge, amuse and motivate thinking that cultivates positive change. When not managing her house full of sons, she can be found working on her novel, grading student essays, or binge watching reality TV shows while eating her children’s leftover Halloween candy.