Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Social Impact of Motown Music on American Culture

By Christina Pomoni

Music echoes social change and as such it bears the weight of the expression of the people. In the 1950s, in the fear of racial segregation, black communities were still fighting for their right to social freedom. The founding of Motown Records in Detroit in 1959 joined the ardent opposition of the civil rights movement to racial, social, economical and political discrimination and individual, police and mass violence against black people. By assembling an impressive roster of talented artists, Motown managed to break down the social and racial barriers and become the most important independent record label of the early 1960s in the history of pop music.

Racism was extremely present in the lives and careers of American black artists and musicians in the 1950s. However, even before Motown, there had been examples of successful black musicians such as Jackie Wilson, who had topped the Billboard Top 40 chart countless times between 1958 and 1963, and Ruth Brown, who had sold more albums than any other artist in the 1950s with Atlantic Records. But, Motown managed to bring all available talent together, under one record label, and at the same time, to associate its birth and success with the broader socio-political setting of its era.

Echoing the frustration of black people in the turbulent setting of the mid-1950s in the United States, Motown associated music with black civil rights struggle by being the first record label owned by an African-American. Under the leadership of Berry Gordy Jr., who aspired to bridge the gap of racial discrimination by producing music that could appeal to all people, regardless of the color of their skin, Motown became a vehicle of black pride and self-expression. Besides, the broad appeal of Motown integrated the political and cultural aspects of the broader socio-political environment and associated music and the right of black communities to social equality.

Through the creation of a distinctive soul sound with obvious elements of pop influence, Motown produced unique dance music featuring artists such as The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many others. What became known as The Motown Sound was much more than great music full of energy and emotion. The tambourines that enhanced the back beat; the melodic bass guitar slides that anchored the gospel vocals; the chord and horn sections; all orchestrated in innovative pop production techniques was the way of black community to artistic expression and financial freedom.

Motown's recording of Martin Luther King's 'I have a Dream' speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 in Detroit on 'The Great March for Freedom' is considered the most important contribution of Motown to the civil rights struggle. King declared the March as 'the largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States' and Gordy realized the historical importance of that March before taking its historical place with the American Revolution.

That recording was made so that every American child, black or white, could listen to history. Although, until then, Motown was not really involved in political issues, in the altering political climate it released 'Down To Earth' by Stevie Wonder (1966), 'Love Child' by The Supremes (1968), 'War', by Edwin Starr (1969), and 'What's Going On?' by Marvin Gaye (1971), beginning a trend for message songs.

The 1967 Detroit riots led Motown to the production of music that could evoke radical sentiments and drastic action. However, because the city upheavals had rather a class than racial character, which undermined to a certain extent Motown's aspiration of being a vehicle of improvement for the black community, they actually marked the end of an incredible era. The decline of Detroit and the auto industry as a result of the struggle of the poor against the rich was bound up with the decreasing energy of the people who produced the Motown Sound. Marvin Gaye's surprise 'With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?' echoed the reality of an era, full of social problems and contradiction that were evolving with explosive energy.

In reality, Motown created the grounds on which broader cultural integration would follow in the 1970s with the emergence of hip-hop as a massive cultural phenomenon. Through the mixing of astonishing percussion riffs and rhythmic drum breaks of funk and disco elements, hip-hop expressed political speech and opposition to social inequality and discrimination against African-Americans. For many, Motown has emphasized on race relations and community life as a means to create an impact on popular music and social structure.

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