Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The magic of Motown: Symposium examines label’s cultural impact

Fifty years after Motown set an upbeat, toe-tapping tempo forever associated with the city known as the automotive capital, the legendary music company’s legacy extends far beyond irresistible rhythms, driving bass runs and melodic chord changes.

Indeed, the phenomenon simply called Motown is the subject for university classes delving into the interplay between culture, social change and musical expression. “Michigan Celebrates Motown: The Symposium” brought together academics, former Motown musicians and critics from around the country last Friday for a discussion of the label’s cultural impact.

The gathering at Palmer Commons was organized by the Center for Afro-American Studies, U-M’s American Music Institute, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and University Unions Arts & Programs.

“Some people think of music as mere entertainment or a distraction, but we see music as a force that speaks to us in deep ways and helps make us who we are,” says Mark Clague, an associate professor of music who teaches a course on Motown.

“There’s a concern about the arts and arts education in America, and as a university, we can play a major role in being a catalyst for an open discussion by bringing together a variety of people,” he says.

Another benefit from bringing people together is breaking down barriers between formal and informal music.

“There’s a division between school music and other forms of music, and with Motown, we discover a music informed by public schools, churches and communities,” says Betty Anne Younker, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

“The strength of Motown is a combination of those factors, and we have to get back to understanding how music is inspired from the various places where music education happens,” she says.

Motown emerged from Berry Gordy’s entrepreneurial formula for mass producing a sound and stylizing the performers’ stage acts, the rise of the civil rights movement, and a culture whereby mainstream radio was growing in influence.

In 1959, a young publicist from the Tamla label handed a record to Chuck Daugherty, then a disc jockey at Detroit’s WXYZ-AM, one of the top radio stations at the time. He played the record, Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” on his program, “The Hi-Fi Club.”

“I was looking for something that grabbed me,” he says. “I had no idea what color skin the singer had — and neither did listeners.” The record became a local sensation.

The Tamla label was owned by Gordy’s sister, and was a precursor to Motown, established in April 1960. Motown’s headquarters until 1968 was at Hitsville U.S.A., 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, since converted into the Motown Museum.

By the end of the decade, the Motown label would record such legendary singers and groups as Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops.

“We were just a bunch of kids making music, not history,” says Alan Abrams, who served as Motown’s first publicist when he was in his late teens. “If I would’ve taken Berry (Gordy) aside and tell him, 50 years from now people would be talking about us and teaching courses about us, he would’ve said, ‘Kid, you need a break. You’ve been working too hard.’”

From a cultural history standpoint, however, Abrams was part of an indelible moment in 20th-century American history.

“The story of Motown tells us a lot about mid-21st century America, and says a lot about the aspirations of African Americans in metro Detroit to get an education and present themselves to the world,” says Lori Brooks, assistant professor of Afro-American and African studies.

While Motown was a success in the music industry, she says Motown’s commodification of its artists had a “problematic” side.

“In some ways, the concerns of how African Americans are presented go back to the 19th century,” she says. “Motown’s ‘charm school’ approach tended to give a simple impression of African-American performers.”

Beyond the lasting musical legacy, the decades-long appeal of Motown underscores what is at stake when city public schools neglect or eliminate arts education classes, says Brooks.

“These musicians didn’t come out of a void, but from a rich musical tradition,” says Brooks, noting many of the artists had music education classes in a public school system in a city where music education is now being steadily dismantled.

Yet despite Detroit’s ongoing economic and public education troubles, 50 years later, the story of Motown continues to deepen and resonate.

“No matter how much I dig into the story, the aura doesn’t go away,” says Brian McCollum, a music critic for the Detroit Free Press.

“Anybody who’s making music in Detroit is aware of Motown. While there’s pride, there’s frustration that Motown left Detroit for L.A.”

In the end, says McCollum, pride wins out.

“Motown gives the city confidence that Detroit is a music city and is capable of giving the world such a great magical gift,” he says. “It’s part of who we are.”

Attendees at the symposium included Craig Werner, who teaches literature, music and cultural history at the University of Wisconsin; Andrew Lory, assistant professor of music history at the Shenandoah Conservatory; Annie Randall, associate professor of musicology at Bucknell University; and Michael Awkward, the Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at U-M.

“Motown is the foundation of rock and roll, even more than the Beatles and Elvis,” says Werner, who gave the keynote address at the symposium. “Motown desegregated American music, and created the groundwork that ushered in 1960s rock ’n’ roll.”

Werner transformed a class on 20th-century African-American culture into one of the first university courses to examine Motown as a force for racial and cultural change. “In the 1960s, the radio was the lifeline to the world, and whereas rock ’n’ roll was about defiance, Motown is about community.

“We listen to Motown for the same reason we appreciate Mozart and read Shakespeare — it feeds our spirit,” he says. “The music will be around as long as people sing.”