Motown And Politics: From Dancing To Marching In The Street

“All decades are a period of change, but some change more than others. Motown’s peak era came during the 60s, when even this record company, with a firm eye on the balance sheet, would have been obliged to acknowledge the transitions taking place in a society obsessed with youth. The 60s’ youth revolution was vitally important, and if you were trying to sell music to the kids, you had to be aware of it or be totally, like, square. Motown and politics were slow to acknowledge each other, but when they did the results were explosive. While no record label worked harder for success than Motown – a political story in itself – company boss Berry Gordy knew that the label’s music had to at least partially represent the young idea just as keenly as it delivered great grooves. After all, its motto, for a while at least, was ‘The Sound Of Young America’. To that end, this record company, associated almost purely with dancing and fun, placed some emphasis on message music and a certain brand of politics. But it trod carefully, spending much of the 60s couching its radical tendencies in commercial surroundings. Take ‘Dancing In The Street’, for example. Long since declared an anthem of rebellion and street protest, there was little sign of Martha & The Vandellas imparting this message when the kids were dancing the jerk and the block to it in 1964. Yet time and an association with a particular era can make such connections apparent, and a song can take on a meaning beyond that which its writer originally intended. As Motown and politics began to suss each other out, Motown’s protest songs didn’t always need to be explicit – but sometimes they were. There was plenty to protest about in 60s America. Segregation, the Vietnam War, police violence, lack of equal opportunity, etc. Vietnam certainly tempted Motown into numerous songs about missing your man sent far away by the draft, such as The Supremes’ ‘You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart)’ (1967) and Martha & The Vandellas’ ‘Jimmy Mack’ (1967). The first example doesn’t mention the ultimate sacrifice, but its funereal tone suggests it. The second is about being tempted to stray while your true love is elsewhere – an elsewhere that goes unspecified, but listen to that marching beat: you can guess where Mr Missing is. But Motown also faced the Vietnam issue head on: The Valadiers’ ‘Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)’ (1961), and Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and ‘Stop The War Now’ (both 1970) spelt it out, though the artists took a very different approach across 10 years. …”
Motown And Politics: From Dancing To Marching In The Street (Video/Audio)
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