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>Mother of the King of Pop

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>From Ernest Hardy’s obit of Michael, a bit about Diana Ross’s massive influence on Michael:

” Curiously absent from the praise and aesthetic roll-call being put forth for Mike is one name: Diana Ross. His obsession with and emulation of her are well documented but she’s not being cited in the obits. It’s a glaring and telling omission that has much to do with the low critical regard in which Ross is held, and the reluctance of critics to own up to not just the deep influence that diva Ross had on boy wonder Jackson, but on the ways in which her persona and performing style play out in his style. Here’s what I wrote about Diana and her artistic spawn, Michael, in my 2006 essay, “Diana Ross: OG Diva Sings the Blues”:

“It’s well known that Mike studied James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of other captivating male singers in order to perfect his showmanship. His idol-worship of Diana Ross has been reduced to snickering speculation on his sexuality and sanity. In truth, Jackson simply spotted in Ross a kindred spirit — someone born to the stage, someone who is without peer when inspiration strikes. He recognized a fellow artist.””

Anyone that knows me knows that I think Diana Ross is probably the single most influential female pop star of the second half of the 20th century because, in my eyes, she set the standards of female, and as Hardy points out, male POP-ness. Her use of self reinvention, in fact her use of HERSELF as part of her musical appeal, set the standard for Madonna and everyone that has followed since. Her pre-Warholian understanding of celebrity’s importance to 20th century art, and her shrewd choices, alternating between making the right choices AND choosing the right people around you to make choices for you, adds up, for me, to making her singularly important and equally unappreciated. And that malarkey about Florence Ballard having a “better” voice than her is rightly ripped to shreds in Ernest Hardy’s great piece about Diana for LA Weekly.

But to get back to Hardy’s obit about Michael, the fact that he places Michael in a female-headed lineage with Ross is absolutely right on. For one, Diana’s apt use of slightly campy melodrama in her music (“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”) is the influence behind that strange seriousness and earnestness that invades many of Michael’s songs, like “Beat It” and “Bad”. That is just one of many detailed, specific stylistic similarities between the two.

But in general, Michael’s almost mechanical pursuit of number one records is right out of the Ross handbook. Ever notice how Michael liked formulas in his music? If something was a hit, his attempt to follow that lead into the next number one, to put his finger into the well of popular music and produce a stylized, and often better, copy of what he hears was Ross’s strategy from almost the very beginning. Its how she was trained. And its how she trained him. You could say many try to do that, but there’s something similar in the ways in which Michael and Diana blend black and white sounds, black and white theatricalities to produce “hits”. And that’s the point: both Michael and Diana were unafraid to learn from a bevy of traditions, from Broadway to Blues to Funk to Pop to Country. They understood that entertainers can be most effective, most successful, tapping into as many veins of our collective cultural memory as possible. They are palatable versions of the brash personalities that came before them.

And that they were both show(wo)men true and true, Judy Garland meets pop and R&B, is their legacy. Their attention to each hand wave, each rhinestone, their ability to treat the pop stage like it was a Broadway theatre puts them in a category all their own, and in my estimation, has been unmatched. Try to pin a genre on either of them and all you’ll come up with is Pop. Not Pop in sound (though they are often Pop in sound), but Pop in ideology, Pop in the sense that they are uniquely blended entertainers, the result of the great mash-up experiment of the 20th century, a production of what is “American” in sound, look, and movement. This is the music of celebrity. They incorporate all the fixed identities of stars before them and turn them into a morphing, malleable, transparent, vacant product that is general enough to mean something to everyone and specific enough to become personal for the very same people.

Then there is their incessant restructuring of gender and race in their time periods. At the time criticized for it, Diana Ross brought black and white together, the first in a long string of black women that would become as famous as Coca-Cola. And she did it by showing the utter glamour and seriouness of her femininity. Never sexy enough to be a sex symbol, nor staid enough to be matronly, Diana Ross has as much to do with the idea black female professionalism as anyone else. I could go on and on about this, and I have much less to say about Michael. Whether or not he accomplished similar feats of gender and race fucking is not a question for me to answer. That he pursued it, I think, so fervently, is what’s important to my argument. Diana Ross was a black, female role model to him, an emblem of what a proud entertainer could do to the world. A symbol of ambition and black, gendered exceptionalism, the power that marginalized figures have when they utilize what is most marginal about them. That wearing a certain type of dress, wearing a certain type of hairstyle, dancing a certain dance, and singing a certain song could quite forcefully change the world is Diana Ross’s lesson to Michael, and he paid attention.

And lets not even talk about the voice. That flinty, high, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O glamour pout isn’t as obvious in Michael ONLY because he’s a man, but its there if you listen for it. The only question that I guess I’ll ask: will the media make such a deal of the black community reclaiming Diana Ross when she dies as they have when Michael does? I guess it’s different.

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July 2, 2009 at 1:32 am

>nostalgic princess

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>more about the war…

>What are you gonna do when I’m gone

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>More quotes from Brenda Holloway:

“A lot of times I can across as too masculine to men, and they couldn’t handle me, they stayed away.

“I was a black singer with a white voice, a perfect pop voice.”

Written by alexgfrank

December 8, 2008 at 6:27 pm

>Notown Records

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>Brenda Holloway has probably one of my very favorite soul/pop songs of the early 60’s, “When I’m Gone”, but it only hit #25 on the top 100. Her voice was sweet like Mary Wells and Diana Ross, but had an edge, like Martha Reeves. “When I’m Gone” is tense because she transitions from soft to hard at key moments – a technique all smart girls should know. Girl wrote her own songs, showed her nana’s on album covers, and played with the Beatles at their big Shea Stadium concert, but she wasn’t a real hit. What does it take in this country to make it big? Bitch, I salute you no matter what. Maybe Motown stifled her with a lack of promotion, highlighted in this article:

Brenda Holloway says “Motown didn’t believe a woman could cut it alone, but if I got a male co-writer it was alright!”


“I was very sexy at the time. My skin couldn’t breathe unless it was exposed! My costumes were made for sex appeal not for women. In fact women wanted to pull me off that stage and knock my teeth out because they thought I was flirting with their men. I was influenced by Tina Turner. But when I was touring the Southern states, trying to be like Tina, Smokey Robinson told me not to do it again. He said “You have a voice, you don’t need to act like her”. So I tried to tone down by act, but it didn’t work for me”. Brenda Holloways’ decision to leave Motown stemmed from frustration “I just walked out. I was actually in the middle of a recording session with Smokey Robinson, when I ran away to L.A. He later called me there and I told him I didn’t want to be with Motown anymore. There was no future there for me because there was a long span when I was doing nothing. Then when Gladys Knight came in to do my songs that was the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Written by alexgfrank

December 3, 2008 at 5:44 pm

>"More glamorous than any human thing I’d ever seen in my life."

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>From this kind of boring oral history of Motown:

“Once I was with Cindy Birdsong at the Essex House in New York and the elevator stopped and the doors opened, and there, in a Pucci dress, holding her Maltese puppy, with a Sassoon wig and shoes covered in the same material as the Pucci dress, was the breathtaking Diana Ross—more glamorous than any human thing I’d ever seen in my life. And I stood on the sidewalk and watched Diana get into her own limousine and watched Cindy and Mary get into their limousine together and off they went. I stood there like the poor little match girl, thinking, one day …”

Written by alexgfrank

November 17, 2008 at 6:32 pm

>You’re all i need (to win this election)

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>New York Magazine said one interesting, 60’s related thing in their coverage of the convention last night:

Fourth, Michelle Obama played Tammi Terrell to the hilt. In their élan and their obvious affection for each other, Barack and Michelle recall Marvin and Tammi. And the Obamas’ call for an inspirational can-do liberalism echoes Democratic politics from the era of Motown, JFK, and Mad Men, just before the cultural and political breakdowns Barack Obama has campaigned on moving beyond. If Barack and Michelle can highlight the early-sixties vibe of their appeal, they’ll be a mainstream hit, which is why right-wingers are so eager to brand them as late-sixties-style radicals instead. Last night, Michelle launched that reintroduction. She related warm stories about her family, and her delivery was intense but graceful. And she wore a mint-green dress that bared her clavicle but not her knees.

Written by alexgfrank

August 26, 2008 at 4:18 pm


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>I like this book review because it highlights the need for journalism to express chaos, which is really hard to do. You know because writers use grammar and syntax and correct spelling and all that so aesthetically its hard to match the chaos of a situation.

Joan Didion does it best obviously, but I’ll have to read these two books to see how they do.

I’ve always thought the music of Martha & the Vandellas sounds like chaos – not an easy feat considering the control and tightness of the Motown sound factory. Maybe it’s because “Dancing in the Street” has those undercurrents of revolution or because Martha Reeves freaked out Brian Wilson-style while on acid, maybe its because their songs are frequently used in movies over images of social unrest or Vietnam and “Nowhere to Run” was said to be “seen as one of the songs played heavy by troops during the Vietnam War”, but something about many of their songs, more than any other soul of the 1960’s, sound like turmoil.

Written by alexgfrank

August 23, 2008 at 5:05 pm

>motown mimesis

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From this thesis:

“…Springfield’s covers of songs by African American singers ranged from close copies of the original versions to clever reworkings. Springfield faithfully copied the interpretations of black female artists…but showed no comparable fealty to interpretations of black male singers.

… Though A Girl Called Dusty includes remakes of songs by white US singers such as Lesley Gore and Gene Pitney, Springfield made no attempt to copy their singing styles. Springfield’s “You Don’t Own Me” bears little vocal resemblance to Gore’s perfect rendition of a New Jersey teenager’s first petulant attempt to establish social and sexual autonomy. Similarly, her cover of Pitney’s “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa,” a song in which a man runs off with a new girlfriend, adopts a humorous, protofeminist stance as the protagonist who dumps her Tulsa boyfriend for a man she has just met at a truck stop. To the delight of her teenaged female fans, Springfield succeeded in regendering such songs and turning the usual male-female dynamic on its head. One wonders how audiences might have read the pattern of Springfield’s preferences, including her reverence for vocal interpretations of African American female artists and instrumental styles of African American male artists, and her willingness to invert power relationships in songs by black and white American male singers.”

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July 31, 2008 at 7:12 pm

Posted in early 60s, motown

>meet the Beatles (and the Rolling Stones)

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June 10, 2008 at 9:40 pm

>drinking the kool-aid (or should I say TANG)

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>Everyones drinking the post-post modern nostalgic 60s kool-aid these days:

If you don’t understand what the political images in the background have to do with the subject of the song, THATS PRESCISELY the point. Its all style baby, and the kids, including myself, will drink that shit down! I guess Solange saw her big sister Beyonce’s “Dreamgirls” like a million times!

Written by alexgfrank

June 5, 2008 at 8:42 pm