Motown. An era of irresistible rhythms characterized by their skillfully stylish beats, catchy hooks, standout vocals and uplifting music, during which some of America’s most influential artists – Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson – forged their legacies by developing their everlasting sounds. BET’s original series American Soul arrives as the perfect reminder to highlight how influential soul music was and continues to be. Though dancing is a primary focus of the show, the various sounds and music that transformed American pop culture should not be forgotten.
A befitting title, American Soul is what Motown music became after conquering the homes of mainstream America. Much like how Soul Train rocketed from a local show into a national phenom, Motown did the same and then some—it influenced the whole world.
Credited as the originator of modern soul music because of his vocal stylizations, Sam Cooke’s technique and sound was a direct influence to the genre. Though he came before Berry Gordy launched Motown Records, Cooke showed that other elements of Black music – like soul – could attain crossover success, once infused with sounds like rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll, and appeal to society at large.
Berry Gordy looked to acts like Cooke, Nat King Cole and James Brown – who were gaining ground with white and non-Black audiences when forming the Motown record label – and engineered a new sound that most “rock and pop records are still mixed in this way today” according to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
During this time period, Black musicians, producers and singer-songwriters like Quincy Jones, James Brown, Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Smokey Robinson were pioneering the sound of pop music in America that would go on to the influence current musical inclinations, making it possible for someone like Michael Jackson to exist with the kind of varied, but signature sound that can’t be replicated.
The concept of Motown was to transform unknowns off the street into national, sometimes international stars and refine their sound for mass appeal. The music started out as music for young America, with a primary focus on white America. It was also a leverage for Black artists to be seen and heard in an image they had control over, during a time where non-white representation was nonexistent and Black music was vilified.
The foundation of Motown was about refining one’s technique through experimentation and innovation. Behind the scenes, Berry Gordy surrounded himself and his artists with influential hitmakers like Barrett Strong and Deke Richards that worked with the artists to craft their own sound to avoid being lumped together and also be ahead of where music was going.
You immediately know a Michael Jackson song when it comes on, not just by his voice but also by the unique feel of it, and that was the case for Motown music. You didn’t have to even know the artist’s name to know that it was Motown music. The distinction of Motown is that no one was weaving together sounds across genres into palatable, and most importantly, marketable music like Motown did.
Some people argue that Motown was “whitewashed” Black music watered down from its more ethnic roots to gain acceptance with white audiences. But this viewpoint disregards how the idea of “pop” music actually came to be.
The history of pop music tends to highlight white or non-Black artists who draw influence and have similar sounds to the Black musician that came before them or were around during their time. Take for example, Elvis Presley’s iteration of Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton’s song “Hound Dog.”
William “Bill” Minutaglio, a journalism professor from the University of Texas at Austin, provides ample context for the evolution of pop through this lens:
“White America was exposed to this extraordinary vein of music from brilliant Black artists. Many white Americans used Motown music as a way to begin digging deeper into the profound Black musical artists and moments. I know a ton of my white friends did exactly that. They were blown away by The Four Tops and Motown music and then began looking for more Black artists, going back to really appreciate earlier artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, then further back to T-Bone Walker and Robert Johnson. It opened the door to many other brilliant artists—Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and so, so, many others.”
According to Minutaglio, to understand the reach of Motown we have to look at the “enormous healing, palliative gift it gave the world.” As someone who grew up in the South during the heyday of Motown, Minutaglio recalls how “wretched racism was everywhere, [an] unjust war killing Americans and innocent people in Southeast Asia” that made “the world seem unhinged [as if] burning down.
“In the middle of it all was this healing music that brought races together. It was extraordinary. It was music loved by millions. It helped introduce sheltered white Americans to enormously important Black artists. And it helped to inspire, educate [and] heal as well as entertain,” he recalls.
Motown brought together a diverse collection of individuals from across socioeconomic backgrounds, mostly poor working-class Black people. The world could not have had a musical act like Michael Jackson, who came from a working-class background himself, and many others.
Another area of modern pop music that Motown helped spearhead: vocals groups. The record label fashioned the concept of pop/R&B boy and girl groups, with tentpole acts like The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Four Tops, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas. They gave birth to contemporary groups like Boyz II Men and New Edition, the latter kicking off the wave of boy bands that came out over the next two decades from Backstreet Boys and New Kids On The Block, to NSYNC and B2K. You wouldn’t have many of the boy groups and girl groups of today without the aforementioned.
Motown music was at the precipice of what the modern music landscape looks like now, except the shout-and-call of gospel has been replaced with the lyrical wordplay of rap and the throbbing beats of trap music. Look no further than Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-Grammy winning cultural masterpiece DAMN. Lamar’s masterful prose and slick productions hit the zeitgeist of what Motown set out to achieve: the acknowledgment of Black excellence and creativity that has been downplayed, dismissed and ignored throughout the years.
It’s a little ironic a rap album was the first non-classical or jazz body of work to receive a Pulitzer due to ignorance the hip-hop genre long received over the years, even from other Black figures; from being labelled as gang music or non-serious, to being assigned lazy and racist mischaracterizations, despite its sociopolitical roots.
What’s more, Lamar has called for his contemporaries who bring nothing of value to the table to quit rap altogether. From detailing the complexities of being Black in America, where inequality is a daily facet of life, to soulful retrospections and railing against societal despotism, Lamar’s masterful storytelling resonated strongly not only with Americans of all backgrounds, but with audiences on a global scale.
Kendrick Lamar’s accomplishment represents a Black man achieving success by his own terms. It represents that Black sounds drive pop culture, despite its perpetual erasure and ignorance of Black people and influences. From jazz and rock, country to rhythm and blues—even classical music, all these sounds took from or were influenced by Black artistry. When blues was invented, the blueprint for music-making was never the same.
Motown defined pop culture in America during their heyday and Black creators continue to do the same today. The legacy of Motown is that it lives on through the dominance of contemporary genres such as rap, which currently reigns as the most popular music genre in the U.S. In other words: pop music is Black music, and it would have to experience a radical shift to divorce itself from the bedrock Motown established.
(Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella)