Magazine July 27, 2020, Issue

On Motown

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1964. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
America’s best export

America’s best defense is its best export, whether material or ideological, and even a pop-culture critic specializing in film might have to admit that the foremost representative of America’s exports is its popular music — particularly the variety that issued from Detroit, beginning in 1959 and into the 1980s, by way of the Motown Record Corporation. 

Beloved by and ingrained in listeners throughout the world, Motown music (the term derived from Detroit’s renown as the Motor City, the automobile-production capital of the world) still transmits American thought, language, and identity. Motown, with its distinctive rhythms and variety of local voices, uniquely personifies America by virtue of its powerfully ingratiating aesthetic substance as well as its history. The record company’s founder, Berry Gordy Jr., a descendant of slaves, came to Detroit when his parents relocated from Georgia as part of the Great Migration of job- and freedom-seeking blacks. Motown continued the course of black achievements, from Emancipation to the blues to urban sophistication, that always pointed upward.

Gordy’s advance from boxer, Korean War veteran, factory worker, and songwriter to eventual business tycoon exemplified personal initiative and entrepreneurship. And artistry. One of Gordy’s first songwriting credits was for Detroit R&B crooner Jackie Wilson, the ballad “To Be Loved,” which was much more than a romantic entreaty. (Gordy also used that title for his 1994 autobiography.) It combined a gospel appeal with a declaration of intent that defined the moral ambition of a people who struggled and overcame the hardships of Jim Crow segregation: “Someone to care, / Someone to share / Lonely hours / And moments of despair.”

That passion, welling up in Wilson’s vibrato, conveys a spiritual belief as well as a social faith, expressing the full humanity that mid-20th-century black Americans usually articulated through defiance — and the new energy of rock and roll. Gordy chose the openly dreamy elegance of pop-music vernacular, and that was his route to all-American — universal — triumph.

After Gordy’s record company was legally incorporated on April 14, 1960, he and his colleagues at Motown Records referred to themselves as a family — black Americans explicitly repeating the way Jewish Americans protected their filmmaking alliance in Hollywood. Motown’s successful launching of hit records and charismatic stars very much resembled the pattern of the Hollywood studio system by creating a popular product and compiling a roster of irrepressible writers, producers, and performing talents — all of them star figures against a background of red, white, and blue common history. It’s a story of American potential achieved through the practice of liberty — no doubt inspiring the endless throngs of foreigners who seek habitation here. But we should also consider the hard, rational flipside of “To Be Loved.”

Motown’s first hit song, in 1960, was “Money,” co-written by Gordy and Janie Bradford and recorded by Barrett Strong in 1959 for Gordy’s original Tamla label. It’s still the toughest, most political and unflinching American pop tune ever recorded. “Your love gives me such a thrill, / But your love don’t pay my bills. / I need money.” Even the joyous, luxuriant, and sensual songs in the Motown roster (from “Dancing in the Streets” and “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage” to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”) flow from the realism of this track. They were never wistful or fantastic — despite being irresistible — but were always rooted in Gordy’s dual recognition of the need to be loved and the need for survival. Gordy’s “Money” spoke to what John Lennon, lead vocalist on the Beatles’ 1963 cover version of the song, understood as his way out of British obscurity. But it also spoke to the American pursuit of happiness.

Gordy echoed Tocqueville: 

It is the intrinsic attractions of freedom, its own peculiar charm — quite independently of its incidental benefits — which have seized so strong a hold on the great champions of liberty throughout history; they loved it because they loved the pleasure of being able to speak, to act, to breathe unrestrained, under the sole government of God and the laws. He who seeks freedom for anything but freedom’s self is made to be a slave. 

The Motown ethic, as championed by Gordy, can be seen in such unpoliticized acts as the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Those names evoke glory; they also epitomize post–World War II race consciousness and gospel-based social aspiration. All Motown releases took advantage of the doubled possibilities inherent in American expression — the private, spiritual self and the social self as also explicated in the Declaration of Independence.

Those ideas coalesce in “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” written and recorded by William “Smokey” Robinson in 1962, a song that connects spiritual and erotic devotion with civil-rights-era determination. (Refined soul music is not a contradiction — ask Duke Ellington to whom the song pays homage.) This is Motown at its most disarmingly sophisticated, catching popular fads and rearticulating them but also ratifying them by expanding their meaning and legitimacy. Motown turned out commercial pop of the highest order — and the highest aspiration — routinely, from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to the ravishing “You’re All I Need to Get By.” This includes “Nowhere to Run” as sung by Martha and the Vandellas, describing courage and adventure, and “Smiling Faces (Sometimes)” by the Undisputed Truth, declaring the necessity of real-world skepticism, while the European ideal of the Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony” is our most exquisite salute to the American melting pot.

Consider the Four Tops’ “Bernadette,” where Levi Stubbs’s plea, “Bernadette, people are searching for the kind of love that we possess,” could be addressed to America itself. Or the Temptations’ “Since I Lost My Baby,” which provides a litany of self-aware character traits made clear to us by a romantic’s sense of loss. Michael Jackson’s “Ben” is the ultimate profession of perfect friendship, an end to loneliness. And in the Contours’ “Do You Love Me?” a suitor proves his worthiness in the purest pop terms: “now that I can dance,” importantly followed by a chorus repeating his own all-American ethic: “work, work.” Hear these moments and gasp.

White rock critics usually disparage Motown as watered-down blues or lesser soul music, but they ignore the essence of Motown’s urbane soulfulness. Unlike the white-owned music labels that distributed black blues culture to the world, Gordy’s Motown fastidiously controlled the meanings of its participation in American culture — and how it looked: always finely groomed, just like those civil-rights marchers wearing church clothes when beaten and hosed down.

Carrying a new generation’s back-pocket spirituality, Motown came closest to presenting traditional gospel when the label recorded an album highlighting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. The liberation blacks felt after coming up north is defined through such black moral cosmology, so that even if Motown music sounds secular, its heart, its basis, is Christian — as is Gordy’s love–money split, a personal challenge that is always expressed romantically. This was confirmed by the motto “The Sound of Young America” printed on each Motown vinyl release. It announced a truth about American culture that no one before Gordy had dared: that blacks contributed to the country’s sense of itself and its well-being. This was before the identity-politics fad hid the fact of black artistic autonomy from Millennials.

What people respond to in a Motown song, after the rhythm, wit, and piquancy, is the sound — the ethos — of the love of freedom. Only in America could a company like Motown Records exist.

This article appears as “Motown” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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