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April 05, 2004

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I just finished watching the DVD of the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." Have you seen the film? I think you'd love it. I certainly did. Go now and rent.

The film's about the house musicians at Motown Records during its Detroit (ie., Hitsville, USA) heyday, from the late 1950s until the early 1970s, when the label moved to L.A. These guys, who called themselves The Funk Brothers, were the instrumentalists on such songs as "My Girl," "Mickey's Monkey," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," "Do You Love Me?," "Heat Wave," and "Ain't too Proud to Beg" -- as far as I'm concerned, a good percentage of the happiest music ever made. In fact, the documentary claims that The Funk Brothers played on more #1 hits than Elvis, the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and the Beatles put together. Yet as individuals they're barely known. Making them known, of course, is the documentary's purpose.

As a movie, it's merely OK-to-pretty-good. It's organized around a reunion concert, and it includes interviews, a handful of staged recreations, some archival footage, and the usual collection of stills and knickknacks. Some quibbles: the film gets a little dreary as it moves into the late 1960s -- but, heck, the late '60s were pretty dreary. The narration, co-written by (sigh) Ntozake Shange, is almost childishly overripe; I could have used a lot less rhetoric and lot more information. And while some of the singers who perform in front of the band in the reunion concert bring their own joy onto the stage (Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne), a couple of the performers are earnest drags.

(Speaking of which, can anyone explain the appeal of Meshell N'Dego-what's-her-name? I do my best to be generous to artists and performers, but for the life of me I can't find a single good thing to say about Meshell. Well, OK: she's got a better voice than I do. But aside from that, sheesh: her performing style is masked, introverted, superior -- it seems intended to deflate the material she's performing. I can't see how anything she does could appeal to anyone who isn't a card-carrying member of the Women's Studies division of the Rainbow Coalition.)

But why quibble when the material is as sweet and fascinating as it is here? I remember Camille Paglia once writing something like, the French and the academics can theorize away, but all you need to do to smash their intellectualizing to smithereens is walk past a gospel church on Sunday. That's what watching this movie was like for me -- like walking past a gospel church on Sunday. If your heart doesn't feel like bursting with gratitude, amazement and pleasure a half a dozen times while watching this movie, well, forget being my friend. Whatever my reservations about the filmmaking, hats off to Paul Justman (the director) and Allan Slutsky (the producer, as well as the writer on whose book the movie is based); they found the story, and they went ahead and made the film.

And, IMHO, it's essential cultural history. (Especially for Detroit fanatics, of course.) Like almost everyone else in the world, I never gave the instrumentalists on the Motown records a second thought. I don't know what I imagined, really; I don't know that I ever spent any time wondering about the Motown instrumentalists. Yet what a big role The Funk Brothers played. As far as I can tell from the movie (I've got no independent knowledge here), the musicians would typically be handed rough charts for a song, or perhaps they'd be given a couple of chords and some hummed passages. Among themselves, they'd cobble together an arrangement; within a few hours, they'd lay down the track. Then they'd move on to the next song.

And that's what the movie reveals: that The Funk Brothers were as active in the creation of the Motown sound as the songwriters, the star performers, and the producers were. Those six guitar notes at the beginning of :My Girl," the ones that make everyone feel so lovey-dovey? One of the Funk Brothers came up with them. That driving beat under "Do You Love Me?," the one that makes everyone want to jump up and dirty-dance? The Funk Brothers came up with that. The electric-piano bit that kicks off "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the one that makes everyone want to settle in for some serious grindin'? Courtesy of The Funk Brothers. Postwar American culture without the contributions of The Funk Brothers would have been a poorer, and certainly a much less happy, thing.

The Funk Brothers include Pistol Allen, James Jamerson, Earl Van Dyke, Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, Joe Hunter, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis and others. They're an exuberant, personable, and colorful bunch, bursting with talent, humor and soul. I notice that the DVD of the movie -- really a two-DVD package that includes the documentary and a disk of extras -- is on sale at Amazon for $12.98. That's cheaper than many music CDs. And I notice that there's a "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" website here.

Small M. Blowhard musing that I expect no one to pay any attention to:

I was struck by the fact that every one of these guys was a high-end, classy musician; most of them had played with the era's best jazz musicians. This Motown gig was their day job; at night, they were going out and playing at local clubs. They'd come back to Hitsville the next a.m., and bring some of what they'd discovered or had fun with back with them.

High and low not at war, but feeding each other -- that's the dream, isn't it? It certainly seems to be part of the formula behind such great eras in American art as the American Renaissance, '30s romantic comedies, big band jazz, and Motown.

The Funk Brothers may have been paying the bills by helping churn out pop product, but they had real sophistication, as well as the time and the opportunity to keep their art alive and fresh. Technically, they're playing 'way beneath themselves on the Motown tracks -- but that's OK, because they didn't have to set aside their spirit and humor when they were on the job. They weren't exploring the farthest reaches of their art, not by a long shot, but they weren't condescending to what they were doing either. They dug a lot of the performers they were backing; they were having a good time, working hard and pitching in.

I'm struck by how very much this basic equation has changed. Back in the early days of pop, the people who put together the pop arts and the pop media were often pretty sophisticated. When they slapped together a TV show, or a song, or a magazine, they brought a larger culture to bear. They knew lit, or art, or music, or history. And even if what they were being paid for was to provide EZ product for the masses, that was OK. They didn't have to pretend to be stupider than they were, they could have a pretty good time on the job, and nothing prevented them from exploring their brains, tastes and skills outside of work.

I don't mean to paint a relentlessly cheery picture of this. There were a lot of problems with these arrangements. But it makes for quite a contrast with today's pop media. These days, most people coming into the pop arts have grown up on little but pop, and they've been given impoverished educations. They're often entirely creatures of the media, and many seem to have no idea that there might be such a thing as culture beyond electronic-media, pop culture.

What these people bring to the job instead of culture and sophistication is zip, pow, attitude, and youth. Their only goal, typically, is to pump up the pop thing -- that's all they can imagine doing. It's not that some of them aren't talented; David Fincher is a very gifted filmmaker, for instance. And what some of these creatures manage to find and create within the electronic-pop-media universe is really striking. But it's just as striking that so few of them seem to have any idea that a frame of reference might extend beyond the electronic-pop media.

Here's a snappier version of what I'm trying to say: some older film director (De Palma? Joel Schumacher?) was talking about the difference between the older Hollywood crowd and the new young things. He said something like, "We grew up loving Fellini and Truffaut and Welles, and when we got into a position to make movies, we wanted to bring some of that into our work. The kids coming along in the movie world today are arriving here because they grew up loving 'Top Gun'."

Once upon a time, pop was just one element in a larger cultural matrix; these days, pop culture is often feeding off nothing but pop culture. It's funny, the way earlier pop often seems like happier pop, isn't it?



posted by Michael at April 5, 2004


This was the first DVD I rented after purchasing a fairly high-end set of wireless earphones. I found the combination of sound quality and overall musicianship quite stunning. The nostalgia didn't hurt neither.


Posted by: F. Moop on April 5, 2004 8:56 AM

Motown in general has always been more successful at one single thing than anybody else: if you want people to actually get up and dance, play Motown. That's sayin' something.

"What these people [today's musicians]bring to the job instead of culture and sophistication is zip, pow, attitude, and youth.Their only goal, typically, is to pump up the pop thing..."

Wow...and they're still so much WORSE at it than Motown was. ",pow,attitude and youth..." was sure what Motown was selling.

I wonder if it is the very musical sophistication that these musicians had that made them figure out guitar notes at the beginning of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." ? They knew the technical secrets behind creating music which would elicit certain feelings. But I think saying that they only had a skeleton of a song to begin with might be shortchanging the Motown songwriters somewhat---Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson certainly came to the studio with a whole song, most of the time.

However, in the I-know-it's-a-drag-to-mention-it category----NONE of these guys got well-paid by Barry Gordy. Gordy kept the riches to himself, not his finest hour, and that might be a score in the favor of the current moguls. They wouldn't get away with it.

Posted by: annette on April 5, 2004 9:34 AM

Fab and accurate review of a great film! In addition to the DVD, the soundtrack CD is also worth having to crank up in the car while breezing through the coming (or at least I heard, it was coming) spring. One more CD, Funk Brothers 20th Century Masters: Millennium Collection [ORIGINAL RECORDING REMASTERED] is worth mentioning. Aside from the lure of a low price (9.98 on amazon), you get to hear the funk without the vocals. The production quality on both cd's is high, tight, & clear. Another invigorating CD as a Spring soundtrack is 1991's Donald Fagen's New York Rock & Soul Revue: Live At The Beacon [LIVE]. Phoebe Snow's version of "At Last" is worth the $10.99 alone.

Posted by: DarkoV on April 5, 2004 12:20 PM

to make your point, just consider the music for animation from back in the day: the flintstones and the jetsons have slamming songs that i'm sure had serious jazz musicians playing on them (cf. pink panther animation soundtrack), the flintstones song pretty much becoming a jazz standard. clearly someone was having fun with their day jobs, rather than just slumming it for some cash, elevating into art what today would be dreck.

Posted by: dj superflat on April 5, 2004 3:45 PM

What these people bring to the job instead of culture and sophistication is zip, pow, attitude, and youth. Their only goal, typically, is to pump up the pop thing -- that's all they can imagine doing.

This sounds remarkably similar to your complaint against today's young women -- all FWOOF, no substance. (And in this case, could the perceived lack of substance be no more than mutual lack of interest?)

For that matter, your appraisal of today's rock 'n' roll sounds remarkably similar to historical criticisms of Motown: No culture or thought here, just the BOOM BOOM BOOM of depravity and decadence. Not until boomers ascended to the ranks of major cultural critics did this same music become -- mirabile dictu! -- "sophisticated," "subtle" and otherwise artistically meritorious.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 5, 2004 4:01 PM

F. Moop -- I should have mentioned the sound quality on the DVD, thanks. It really shows the medium off beautifully.

Annette -- Happy dancing! There aren't too many musics that put the same kind of smile on people's faces and twitch in their hips as Motown. I'm less than nothing as a scholar of Motown. But the movie leaves you with the impression that most of the time the arrangements were left up to the Funk Brothers. There's a moment -- a very unclear one -- that suggests that even Smokey'd show up with some lyrics and a few ideas for the music and pretty much leave the arrangement up to the Funk Brothers. But they apparently played on thousands of songs, so I'm sure they had all kinds of experiences, from working with know-nothings to working with precise control fanatics. Holland/Holland (no Dozier, I don't think) show up and praise the band, too. But I'd love to have learned more, and my one real gripe about the movie is that it could be much clearer about these matters than it is. Maybe it's time for me to buy the book. Berry Gordy doesn't show up in the movie -- I wonder why. He's got a note praising the Funk Brothers on the website, but it reads as though he thought he ought to cover his ass.

DarkoV -- Thanks for the recommendations. I'm heading over to Amazon now.

DJ -- Animation music's another great example, as well as another terrific subject I wish I knew more about.

oops, gotta run...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 5, 2004 7:56 PM

Michael, thanks for the pointer. I will definitely check out the Motown video.

Sometimes I listen to the oldies radio and the difference between the Motown songs and the hippie product of the era is remarkable. Sound- and arrangements-wise, the Funk Brothers were miles ahead of the rest of the pop groups.

BTW, spot on observation on today's backup musicians. You listen to one of the recent crop of Berklee jazzotroids when they deign to play in a pop record, and it's obvious they're in for the money only. No joy whatsoever. And, strange enough, when they play jazz they are rather dreary too.

Posted by: x on April 5, 2004 8:17 PM

Pop culture just seems to get worse everyday...I'm not a big fan of Motown, but it's certainly better than today's pop music.

Posted by: Rod on April 5, 2004 9:07 PM

I'm not a big fan of Motown, but it's certainly better than today's pop music.

Is it?

I'll grant that Motown is better than Britney Spears, for example. But I'd rather hear Spears than some atrocity like "Give Me Gravy on My Mashed Potatoes." Let's not forget that Dean Martin managed to eclipse the Beatles with his song "Everybody Loves Somebody." The song is nice enough, if maudlin, but it's not up to "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Guess which tune we remember more?

The reason we're able to look at the early 1960s as a golden age of pop, is that after forty years we've managed to cast off the mountains of crappy material (much of which proved more popular than the stuff we still like), and focus on a handful of artists and studios that were turning out durable product. What's more, we're able to focus on the better works -- the "Greatest Hits" -- of these few artists, instead of appraising an overall, uneven body of work.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 6, 2004 1:16 AM

It's a peculiar thing to contemplate, isn't it -- the way pop culture (I use the term to mean teen-centric post-WWII culture) was born, grew up amidst many different cultures, knocked off "adult" culture, and has now become the standard, nearly all-engulfing thing, an entire cosmos of its own that many people dwell in and never leave, mentally and imaginatively speaking. Its compatability with both adolescence (and thus rebellion) and business is remarkable, as is its compatability with the electronic-media world. Any thoughts from anyone about how this works? Or what it's leading to?

I suspect that the lack-of-fun-ness of much contempo popcult has to do with its all-engulfingness. It isn't alternative anything, for one thing. For another, it's big international-conglomerate-media business. So there's lots of anxieties and pressures surrounding it, and on a scale that wasn't so in, say, the early '60s. There's little that's larky about today's pop culture, and much that's terribly high-pressured. People pretty much exhaust and kill themselves making pop culture these days, and the strain and the high pitch tell in the product. IMHO, of course.

I'm cooking up a theory that the prevalence of Goth and horror imagery around today has to do with the horror-show all-engulfing thing that pop/electronic cult has become. It's effective and addictive, but this is how it finally makes you feel: like a death's head, or a skeleton that's being made to dance with a cattle prod. It seems to leave a lot of people feeling very burned up, and burned out. It's become something you have to defend yourself against. Good Motown inspires, where a lot of contempo pop cult blinds and rattles. Odd that a lot of kids have a taste for those experiences, but there you go.

Much as I love a lot of pop culture, the all-engulfingness of it and the way it seems inevitably to take over completely wherever it's introduced does make me shudder. I guess my hope is that as more and more culture goes electronic, the pop-culture grip will loosen a bit, and pop culture will once again become just one element in a larger set of cultures. Romantic me, eh? I mean, in a sense that's de facto true already anyway. But in another sense pop culture rules -- it's so dominant that everyone's stuck wrestling with it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 6, 2004 1:29 AM

Tim, I'm not sure why you're arguing against the idea of Motown as a popcult Golden Age. Granted that there were tons of lousy Motown songs, and granted that time has enabled us to winnow down our Motown memories to a Greatest Mowtown Hits collection. Still, it's a hard-to-equal collection. There are many eras, and nooks and crannies, of popcult that don't, and haven't, yielded anything like the equivalent of the Motown riches. There's been plenty of time between us and '70s folk-rock for a winnowing-away process to occur, for instance, but I don't see many people arguing that '70s folk-rock can compare to Motown. The fact that the great Motown songs make so many people happy and dance-y -- and continue doing so -- isn't to be sneered at either. I'm happy to blame Boomers for lots of things, but I don't think people's enduring love of much Motown music can be written off as a mere function of Boomer nostalgia.

There are big differences between pop culture circa 1963 and pop culture now. No need to be judgmental about it, but no need to be in idiotic denial either. For one major thing, in 1963 pop culture (in the teen-centric, postwar sense I use the term) was young, fresh, and an alternative to adult culture; these days, it's a long-established thing that has wiped adult culture almost entirely out and has allied itself with multinational entertainment-conglomerate money. Is talented work still getting done and produced? Sure. Are the conditions of its production, and is the general cultural gestalt different? Sure. Why not admit that all this is true?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 6, 2004 2:58 AM

Anyone remember Freda Payne? Man O Man was she sexy back then!

Posted by: ricpic on April 6, 2004 7:35 AM

Nice discussion. I've got to side with Tim on this one, though.

"but I don't see many people arguing that '70s folk-rock can compare to Motown. The fact that the great Motown songs make so many people happy and dance-y -- and continue doing so -- isn't to be sneered at either."

I think this is again a discussion in which you're trying to ignore taste in favor of stating some general thing about what's "good" and what isn't. I'm sure I'm not the only person alive who'd much prefer a lot of 70s folk-rock to the best of Motown. On the other hand, I'll not argue for a second against the talent of the Motown musicians; it's undeniable. But there's plenty of talent to be found in the annals of the 70s folk-rockers, too, and comparing the two is really sort of silly. Also, making people "happy and dance-y" probably wasn't a goal of a lot of other pop music. If you're saying that Motown was fantastic at making people want to dance, then again you'll get no argument from me. But even then it's got a lot of competition as far as pop-styles that do the same thing. Hell, Disco does that. There are always a couple of disco songs at wedding receptions, right alongside the couple of Motown songs. There were a lot of phenomenal musicians playing disco. Which is better, Motown or Disco? What does that question even mean?

I'd also like to point toward 80s synthy-new-wavy-pop, whatever you might call that, where from came Duran Duran and a whole bunch of one or two hit wonder pop songs that, for my money, beat all of the Motowns and Discos hands down for pure make-me-really-happy power. The thing is, though, that's MY era, and I think that's a lot of the reason that I like it so much. Twenty years from now it'll still seem like a phenomenal time in music to me, and really in a way that does boil down to a nostalgia thing. And I think probably a lot of what you're talking about with Motown is exactly the same thing.

Posted by: i on April 6, 2004 12:32 PM

Gee, it seems we've made this complicated. In terms of "era", Motown certainly pre-dates me, and disco and Duran Duran do not. So, they are all good, or have some good examples. No argument. But...people who are not purely "of" the Motown era still dig it. I am honestly unsure if that will be true of Joan Baez or Britney Spears. Just like people still dig the Beatles. I am unsure if "Nirvana" will have the same staying power forty years after their first release.

Plus, one- or two-hit wonders is exactly what Motown's history defied. They really were "Hitsville USA". As a "model", as an environment that allowed a lot of groovy music to thrive, they are unparalleled I think. What other record label can lay claim to a similarly long list of known artists and big hits? And "Motown" started in 1960 and kept goin' through Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" in the late seventies.

It's not that there is no other good music. It's just that what Motown offered up does seem unique in the history of the music biz to date.

I do think MBlowhard has a point: youth aren't trying to get a place at the grown-up's table anymore. They've commandeered the restaurant. Essentially, they have become The Establishment. With all the luggage that goes with that. And that has to show. It's like Playboy was so racy when it first came out. Then it became so Establishment as to be passe. Now people are yelling at Janet Jackson to "Put It on!".

Posted by: annette on April 6, 2004 1:46 PM

Motown's okay -- but I always preferred the nitty gritty Stax / Volt recordings.

As at Motown, there you had a similiar "house band" set of tunesmiths & riff generators, a core group who underpinned many of the hits. Booker T. Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper, Isaac Hayes & Dave Porter come to mind. Unlike Motown's house band, they've been much better remembered (and compensated). For one thing, though they wrote tunes for other artists, most of them also recorded numbers for Stax under their own names or in their own bands. "Booker T. & the M.G.'s" had a bunch of instrumental hits, but basically the same four musicians backed dozens of Stax / Volt hits.

Atlantic's R&B stable was pretty impressive, too, even before they bought Stax / Volt.

belonged to they were allowed to record songs with their own bands that also got

Posted by: Twn on April 6, 2004 4:50 PM

I do think MBlowhard has a point: youth aren't trying to get a place at the grown-up's table anymore. They've commandeered the restaurant.

If youth have commandeered the restaurant, it's only because the grown-ups don't go out to eat anymore. You want sophisticated entertainment? Check out the TV: Frasier, HBO's cable lineup (including The Sopranos and Six Feet Under), and Bravo's ongoing West Wing-a thon are just some of the ways TV can beam interesting white-elephant fare into your own living room.

So why bother with, you know, actually leaving the house? (Besides, your babysitter has to be home by eight.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 7, 2004 12:58 AM

I sorta kinda disagree with a premise of your post, Michael. You say (and I paraphrase wildly here) the Funk Brothers were out at night playing real music which allowed them to come back and cook up a tasty riff or so on the pop stuff. And: "They weren’t exploring the farthest reaches of their art, not by a long shot, but they weren’t condescending to what they were doing either." I suggest that maybe you have it backwards. I will always disagree with the concept in art that if it's complex and not accessible to the a larger audience, it must somehow be more sophisticated and artistic if only a few people "get it." To me it simply means it just speaks to fewer people.

Why is it not possible that the pop product is really the sophisticated influential one? Think of the fact that you were able to simply describe in words a musical passage on these Motown songs, and people can think of the exact notes you're talking about. Isn't that the very definition of sophistication and influence?

And what makes a movie by Welles somehow more sophisticated than "Top Gun." I think the comparison is flawed.

And, Rod, you said:
"Pop culture just seems to get worse everyday...I'm not a big fan of Motown, but it's certainly better than today's pop music."

I've felt that way on and off for a couple years now, ever since the govt. deregulated the radio industry and now American radio is proof positive of the destructive effects of monolithic corporations. (That's not a jab at corporations themselves, just ones that are too damn big.) Good music is still being made, but it's ridiculously hard to find as the radio simply won't play it any more. Further, MTV and other TV stations that are supposed to be about music, aren't. And I think I know why (besides the fact that the teen softcore they offer up makes more kids tune in than a raft of videos might), they don't want you to copy the songs off the broadcast, like I did recently. For a very brief moment in time, VH1 was actually broadcasting videos, so I taped it (as it was in the wee hours of the morning, natch). Half of them were great, so I burned a CD of them. This is exactly what the music labels are afraid of. But here's what they forget. I grew to like over half of the songs so much, that I went out and bought those artist's CDs. I've purchased 5 CDs so far from that one self-made CD. Since bean counters and business dweebs run the music companies as if they were making soda pop or soap, they simply don't understand how music is marketed. You get it out there, and get it out there a lot - who cares if some people tape it off the radio or TV? Most are gonna buy what they like. The model right now is to not produce singles, don't put it on TV, force radio to play only what you want people to buy, and try to push one huge hit through attitude and fashion as opposed to the actual music, hoping that someone will go buy the CD - who cares if the rest of the CD is crap? They are selling everything BUT the music.

I see signs of this changing already. I predict in about 4 years, we will again hear rock and roll on the radio, and music will be accessible again. (Salon had an article recently entitled more or less: "People like rock! Who knew?")

And finally,

Michael wrote (in these comments):

"I suspect that the lack-of-fun-ness of much contempo popcult has to do with its all-engulfingness. It isn't alternative anything, for one thing. For another, it's big international-conglomerate-media business. So there's lots of anxieties and pressures surrounding it, and on a scale that wasn't so in, say, the early '60s. There's little that's larky about today's pop culture, and much that's terribly high-pressured. People pretty much exhaust and kill themselves making pop culture these days, and the strain and the high pitch tell in the product. IMHO, of course.

"I'm cooking up a theory that the prevalence of Goth and horror imagery around today has to do with the horror-show all-engulfing thing that pop/electronic cult has become. It's effective and addictive, but this is how it finally makes you feel: like a death's head, or a skeleton that's being made to dance with a cattle prod. It seems to leave a lot of people feeling very burned up, and burned out. It's become something you have to defend yourself against."

That's dead-on. Pow! The only thing I would add is that teens have always responded to doom and gloom in the arts, because it's a pretty scary time in life, and so they respond to that kind of art. They also respond to the happy, uplifting stuff, but lately it's been somehow made uncool to like happy music, so most kids don't listen to that stuff with each other, but just alone in their rooms. I think this will change back to being more balanced as it was in the past, too.

Here's why I think that's the case. A couple weeks ago, I was hanging out on the deck with my daughter. I was playing an eclectic mix tape and the teens hanging out in the yard next to mine were playing that death-stuff. When one of their songs ended and they could hear mine, I could tell they liked it. They shut their music off, and listed to what I was playing (all the while pretending they weren't). I think a lot of it is just getting it out there and exposing them to it.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 7, 2004 11:35 AM

A quick pause here: I think we may be tripping over the old description-vs-judgment problem. I'm referring to Motown as a Golden Age in popcult not because I like it (though I do), but because it's generally accepted as such. I'm using it as a descriptive term, not as a judgment term. (It's hardly up to me to decide whether an art era is a Golden Age or not. I get to have opinions, but I don't get to write or rewrite history.) The reason '70s folk-rock isn't a Golden Age in popcult is because there's no cultural consensus that it is. You may or may not like '70s folk-rock, but whether or not it's a Golden Age doesn't really depend on your personal opinon, it depends on cultural consensus. Something isn't a Golden Age just because it's a personal fave, it's a Golden Age because that's the rep it's acquired over the years. You may or may not think it deserves the rep, but that's a matter of personal opinion, not of cultural consensus.

To take an example we can probably all be a bit more objective about, how about Dixieland jazz? That's another Golden Age in popular culture -- again, not because you like Dixieland, or I like Dixieland, but because over time it's acquired that rep. We're all free to quarrel with the rep, or prefer other eras, but that doesn't affect the culturual consensus. FWIW, I like Stax/Volt better than Motown too, but like I say that has no impact on whether Motown is a popcult Golden Age. Over the last 45 years, that's the status and rep it's acquired.

It's like "greatness." Is Henry James one of the Greats? Even though I've never enjoyed reading him, I'm happy to agree that he's one of the Greats. Why? Because he just is -- he's (rightly or wrongly) been granted that status by the culture. (Over time the status may be taken away from him by the culture, but that's not in any individual's hands.) It's got nothing to do with your opinion or my opinion, and everything to do with simply acknowledging that that's the status he's got.

Yahmdallah -- Great to see you, and thanks for the pop music thoughts and info. Why aren't you writing for the Times about pop music? As for "sophistication," I'm using that descriptively (and not judgmentally) too -- jazz simply is more sophisticated (in the sense of technically complex) than pop music is. It's harder and more difficult to understand and play. (Which, as you point out, doesn't make it better.) Also, to be realistic, I suspect it's likely that the music the Funk Brothers liked performing most was the jazz -- after all, they did it for love, while they were doing the Motown for money. I don't think that means we have to love their jazz better than their Motown, but I do think it's simply realistic to acknowledge that a lot of people who create (and created) pop culture probably loved the higher arts (again, a description, not a judgment) better than they did the pop culture they took part in creating. Seems to me that the important distincition is whether they were snotty and dismissive towards the popcult they were paid to make, or whether they brought their talents to it with humor and generosity (despite almost certainly caring more about other kinds of music), and the Funk Bros. clearly did their Motown in a generous spirit. These days, for reasons that are a little myserious to me, and as X (commenting above) points out, a lot of people who have some sophistication but get paid for creating popcult are quite dismisive or superior about it. So you wind up bouncing back and forth between pure-pop people (sometimes talented, but limited) and pissy sophisticates, and that combo of limited and bitter gives a lot of current popcult a bad spirit.

Interesting to learn about kids and their taste for doomy stuff too. Funny how they think feeling happy is kinda square. Although don't the contempo bubblegum pop people peddle music that claims to be happy? But does it really have anything like the spirit-lift that Motown music has?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2004 12:20 PM

The reason '70s folk-rock isn't a Golden Age in popcult is because there's no cultural consensus that it is.

That's a cop-out, Michael, as you of all people ought to know. You don't get to smash the canon when it suits you, then hide behind it when it also suits you.

As for rewriting history, let's take a moment to remember that that history, shall we? The early '60s didn't become a Golden Age of pop until the '80s, when boomers became the self-appointed guardians of culture (as what guardian of culture is not?). Before that, the music of Motown -- or indeed, the music of the Beatles -- was not considered worthy of high-critical attention. Me no like, said the highbrows, longhairs and Brahmins.

Of course, these people were wrong: They weren't boomers, after all. But one suspects that if cows were to become cultural critics, we'd be reading about the clang of brass bells. Now that was music!

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 8, 2004 2:01 PM

Tim -- Ask a roomful of reasonably knowledgeable pop-music fans whether or not Motown represents a Golden Age in popcult. What response do you think you'll get? I'd bet it'd run about 90% yes. Ask the same crowd whether '70s folk-rock was a Golden Age in popcult. I bet you'd get a roomful of loud laughter. These ratios may change someday, but for the moment it's what we've got.

I'm afraid I don't understand your vehemence about this. It's really just a matter of definitions, which aren't that hard to agree on. Do you simply dislike Motown? Fine with me, although that doesn't make it not a Golden Age. The fact that you disagree with some Canon or other doesn't mean the Canon doesn't exist. I can argue that the modernist-architecture Canon is all screwy and will soon be revised, and I can even do my best to suggest how it might best be revised. But that doesn't mean it isn't (at least for the moment) the Canon.

You seem to come back to the Boomer thing over and over, and you seem a bit transfixed by the cultural-critics thing. What's all that about? My wonderful 79-year-old mother-in-law was dancing to a Motown song after dinner the other night with a happy smile on her face -- she's no Boomer. And cultural critics don't always play that big a role in these discussions. Jazz, folk music, and movies had histories (and best-of lists) long before the intellectuals got hold of them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2004 6:09 PM

Being a Detroiter I will mention a couple things that might be of interest.

If any of you find yourself in Detroit do visit the motown museum at hitsville.It is literally a step back in time as the motown co left Detroit much the way the military leaves a base_they just left w/o taking anything with them.The candy machine, the receptionists desk, the furniture, the calender are all there just as they were when motown left for Ca.It is almost eerie.

However the console(mixing board) and the studio where so much of the recordings were done is completely intact.There is talk of a fance new museum which disturbs me as this museum house on Grand blvd is unique.

Which brings me to my 2nd point.There is a website:The fabulous ruins of Detroit; it's creator is Detroit artisit Lowell Bosoleill(sp)it is a wonderful sight dedicated to Detroit.An offshooot of the site is the soulful Detroit forum.Many of the players in 60's soul music contribute to the forum.For example Mike Mclean the man that built the mixing board and studio(maybe the 1st individual to cobble together an 8 track recording machine)has been a frequnt contributor as well as the children of 4 tops singer Levi Stubbs.

As for the funk bros I know this is not popular with the current sentiment but the funk bros were Benny Benjamin,James Jamerson,and Earl Van Dyke the rest of them came later;but those three realy were the core of motown.

Posted by: drew on April 9, 2004 6:34 PM

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