I witnessed a crime at the White House on television today; beloved Motown songs were murdered by a host of pretenders who choked the life out of the poor defenseless songs.
In fairness, it is nearly impossible to cover a popular Motown song. Those songs were and are so popular and so indelible, that anyone who would cover such a song will inevitably fail. Unlike standards, Motown is not meant to be covered. At its 1960’s height Motown produced (among others) the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Smokey and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, the Contours, and of course the Supremes. (In the 1970’s Motown gave us the Jackson 5 and a little kid named Michael Jackson.) The song crafting out of Motown was top-notch–particularly, but not exclusively, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson. As was the Motown house band the Funk Brothers, finally given their due by the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. But the whole of the Motown sound was greater than the sum of its parts (The one glaring fault of Standing in the Shadows of Motown is that it does not give enough credit to the singers. Despite what the filmmaker believes, not just anyone would have had hits with Motown’s songs.)
Along with possibly the Beach Boys, Motown was America’s answer to the Beatles domination of the pop charts. What other American acts were as critically and artistically successful or as durable as Motown?
Motown was not original per se. For example, the Shirelles were a clear influence of the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas (as opposed to the Ronettes who were the original “bad girls”, but oh how Ronnie Spector could sing.) But Motown perfectly melded a black sound in a white paradigm (and made it palatable for a white audience.) In that Motown changed the face of music. But what really set the singers apart was how they sung the songs: plainly. There were no gimmicks, no melismas, no vibrato, no bells, no whistles. Through that simplicity, they forever took ownership of their songs.
Watching this Motown appreciation special at the White House is painful because it is yet another reminder that popular singers today no longer sing well. They need to show off vocal acrobatics or how well they “interpret” the song, usually by using a behind the beat style. It doesn’t work, and it cheapens both the song and the performer.
Aretha is the mother of the melisma in pop songs. In the early 1960’s Columbia records tried to fit her in a white paradigm by having her sing standards. It didn’t work. Then she went to Atlantic and sang soul and became Aretha Franklin. (For my money Aretha is entirely overrated. Her sixties hits were great, but afterwards she went into steady decline. Now she gets by solely on technique and nostalgia. Give me Etta James any day of the week.) Aretha used the melisma, but she used it sparingly. It was Whitney who made the big voice and the vocal acrobatics central to her performance. Then came Mariah who choked songs to death with melismas and squeals, which led us to today’s popular singers who are Mariah/Whitney imitators, Christina Aguilera being the most prominent.
The off-the-beat singing is an old jazz technique, perfected by Billie Holiday who used it to great emotional effect in a way that had never been done before. In the process she changed the way songs were sung. However, the truth is that it takes a special singer, which Billie Holiday was, to do it well. Compare Holiday to her other legendary peer Ella Fitzgerald who did not put emotion into the song, but sang them straight, particularly in her American Songbook series. Equally masterful. The difference is that Ella sings so plainly that one doesn’t realize how hard it is to do what she did. Therefore the effort goes unnoticed. With an off-the-beat style, it gets noticed. On the other hand, Motown singers sung songs straight, and that’s why we love them.
I wish pop stars would go back to singing songs the way they are written. The greatest pop singers did and do. Who will remember the strangled songs of today in another generation the way that we fondly remember Motown?