Monday, February 25, 2013

SUZANNE E. SMITH, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press)
Washington Post Book World, March 18th 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Against a cultural studies backdrop of academics locating "subversion" in the shifting sexual personae of Madonna videos, finding "resistance" in the thickness of rappers's sneaker laces, and decoding allegories of post-colonialism in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (okay, I made that last one up), Suzanne E. Smith's ideas about the politics of pop music are bracingly straightforward and old fashioned. In Dancing in the Street, music is ultimately judged in terms of its contribution to the struggle--in Motown's case, the civil rights movement, which Berry Gordy Jr. flirted with but ultimately distanced the label from as Martin Luther King's integrationist dreams were superceded by the black power militancy of the late Sixties.

The Leftist lingo Smith favors--terms like "cultural production" and "cultural workers"---initially seems rather dry and drably demystifying for her subject matter: the pop fan in your heart wants to yell "c'mon, Suzanne, this is Tamla Motown, font of timeless pop perfection like "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On"!". But Smith aims to strip the lustrous veneer of myth and reveal Motown's prosaic material realities. She shows that the label was literally a hit factory, modeled by ex-Ford employee Gordy on the auto industry's assembly line--from specialization of labor (a strict division between writers, performers, and producers) to part-interchangeability (his session musicians the Funk Brothers often built rhythmic chassis not knowing what song would be welded on top). Entering the factory as raw material, Motown's vocal talent was trained by a team of stylists and choreographers, then spewed out the other end as die-cast, ready-to-sell product. Motown's singers, players and writers really were "cultural workers", and like members of the industrial proletariat anywhere, they were exploited. The Funk Brothers had to moonlight for a rival label to get paid at union scale, and the songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland actually went on strike in the late Sixties as a protest against their bad royalty rates.

Smith compares these labor disputes with the emergence of militant black auto worker unions like DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) as part of her argument that Motown cannot be separated from the urban politics of Detroit and the broader racial struggles of the era. Yet in a sense the Motown story consists of one long effort to separate itself gradually from this context, culminating in Gordy's decision in 1972 to move the company to Los Angeles, the entertainment industry capital of America and the world. This perfectly logical business decision (given Gordy's desire to branch out into movies) was understandably felt as betrayal by Detroit's black community. For Smith, it's poignant proof of the fault-line that runs through the ideology of "black capitalism", in so far as capitalism is ultimately inimical to any form of solidarity, racial or otherwise. The milieu in which Gordy grew up--middle class black Detroit--was steeped in the self-help ideals of Booker T. Washington, the founder of the National Negro Business League. Indeed, Gordy's father actually named his Booker T. Washington Grocery Store in homage to this early ideologue of black capitalism. Similarly, Motown's famous charm school, where its artistes learned deportment and etiquette, also belongs to this aspirational tendency in African-American culture--you can draw a line connecting pre-War figures like Carter G. Woodson (who regarded the rowdy energies of jazz, blues, and even gospel, as unseemly and anarchic) to the hyper-genteel urbanity of Nat 'King' Cole and Dionne Warwick. But as Smith shows, these pro-business, pro-respectability ideas also spawned cultural strategies a world away from the crossover dreams of Cole and Gordy--like the Nation of Islam, with their bow-ties, dapper suits, and separatist intransigence.

All this meant that Motown--its music, the signature elegance of its stars, and the sheer magnitude of the label's success as a black-owned business--inevitably became highly contested symbols, with different African-American organizations and cultural milieux endeavoring to co-opt the meaning of the phenomenon. Although Gordy was adamantly opposed to "cause music" (which he regarded as un-commercial), Motown did get swept up in the change-soon-come hopes of the Sixties. Probably the most interesting part of Smith's book concerns the little-known history of Motown's spoken-word recordings, like The Great March To Freedom, a 1963 Martin Luther King speech. Motown eventually founded a specialty label called Black Forum through which recordings by Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes were released. Yet Gordy's energy was mostly devoted to building a business empire, which ultimately entailed extending Motown's appeal to the white suburban majority of the consumer population. And so he groomed his stars for the nightclub circuit, and had The Supremes make a fund-raising movie for the United Fund, a philanthropic organization established by Detroit's white corporate elite. Meanwhile Langston Hughes's Poets of the Revolution project languished in limbo, and only got released several years after the poet's death.

For the most part, Motown's impact on the black politics of the Sixties wasn't direct intervention but through the inadvertent resonance of songs like Martha & the Vandellas's "Dancing In The Street" (the unofficial anthem of the urban riots in Watts and Detroit). Sometimes Smith's eagerness to find similar resonances leads to strained readings. She claims that Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips Part 2"--an exuberant live recording with a false ending and a surprise encore--"celebrates a desire to assert oneself in face of authority, rules, and literal displacement" and is therefore analogous to the defiance of Detroit's black community circa 1963's Great March to Freedom. Yet her own account suggests that Wonder's stage-hogging antics were simply bad showbiz manners; poor old Mary Wells was waiting in the wings for her turn in the limelight. Occasional excesses of over-interpretation aren't the only drawback to Dancing In The Street. Smith's workmanlike prose and the density of organization names and acronyms can make the text hard-going for the non-academic reader.

Perhaps the biggest flaw is how little music itself figures in the story. It's a shame because what there is on the recordings (the reason anyone cares at all, surely?) is often fascinating. Take Smith's observations about the Motown sound being shaped by the mushrooming popularity of the car radio: not only was Motown's trademark beat, strident and steady pulsing, perfect for riding along in your automobile, but the label's recording engineers set up car speakers in the studio so they could mix the tracks to sound good while driving. It's this aspect--the politics of sound, of pleasure, of the ways people use music--that could have made Dancing In The Street a more fully-rounded account of Motown's impact on its era.

No comments: