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March 01, 2007

The Real Thing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Michael Bierut deplores the music in "Dreamgirls" and praises the real thing: the work of the immortal Motown songwriting team of Holland / Dozier / Holland. Great line: "Sometimes our most artless, workmanlike efforts surprise us with their staying power." Hmmm. I'd even dare to pump that statement up a bit. How about: "In the U.S., the art that lasts often turns out to be work that wasn't initially thought of as 'art' at all"?

Here's my own rave about the Motown documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." And here's a posting I wrote about some of the wild and whacky ways American art often seems to work. Key passage, if I do say so myself:

It's simply a fact that most of what's best, most likable and most vital in American art and culture comes in all kinds of surprising packages, and from all kinds of surprising directions. It takes the professors and the cultural gatekeepers decades to catch up -- movies, for instance, were only begun to be acknowledged as a great American art form 40ish years ago.



posted by Michael at March 1, 2007


You've seen the documentary about the Motown musicians, so you might be able to answer my question about how much did Motown's famous songwriters and producers like Holland Dozier Holland and Smokey Robinson contribute vs. how much did the almost anonymous veterans in the Motown house band contribute to the classic songs. For example, who invented the great bassline for "My Girl?" Smokey Robinson or the bass player?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 2, 2007 1:42 AM

Y'know, I wondered about that (the music). What I've read so far really makes me think the songs are more like your standard musical songs, and not Motown or even Atlantic R&B. The movie "Grace of My Heart" tried to recreate the Brill Building sound and failed miserably, even though they had Elvis Costello as one of the songwriters (though he got the closest out of all of them). Just goes to prove you can't really recreate the original.

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 2, 2007 10:52 AM

Since when were Holland / Dozier / Holland "artless" and "workmanlike"? That is very sophisticated and stylish music -- I don't think they would have thought of themselves as artless.

Back in the mid-60s, Bob Dylan used to say that Smokey Robinson was "America's greatest living poet" somebody understood what was going on at the time.

Posted by: MQ on March 4, 2007 12:58 AM

Steve -- I retain few specifics, but the gist of the movie (and no one seems to have contested it) is that the Funk Bros., the house band at Motown, came up with a lot of what's best loved: hooks, bass lines, mucho hummable stuff ...

Yahmdallah -- It can be *very* sad when Broadway shows try to peddle recreations of stuff like doo-wop or Motown, no?

MQ -- I'm guessing, but I think Michael Bierut was speaking as a working commercial artists talking to other working commercial artists, his point being that oftentimes the work that lasts isn't the stuff you think of as special (or as your "real art") as you're making it, but the stuff you think of as mere commission jobs. And yeah, apparently Holland-Dozier-Holland just pictured themselves as doing the job when they were writing their Motown classics. Let's have more such "jobs"!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2007 2:39 AM

I see your point, MB.'s another one. Smokey Robinson was I think a self-consciously ambitious artist as well as a craftsman, and I think he played a central role in many of the very greatest Motown products (e.g. My Girl). For myself, I think the greatest art occurs right at the intersection between craft and self-conscious artistic ambition. It's a delicate balance, which is why great art is rare. Also, since one individual is unlikely to unite all the proper elements of workaday craft responsibility and bold imagination, great art tends to emerge out of collaborative communities and teams. Motown was definitely such a community.

The Romantic myth of the individual artistic "genius" has IMO had a seriously negative impact on art.

Posted by: MQ on March 5, 2007 4:47 PM

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