Mike Baron asks: IS MOTOWN POWER POP???
What is power pop? Short songs about life and love with at least three chords, soaring harmonies, and a killer hook as a result of those three chords. Two chords don’t make a hook, but I digress. Motown precedes and anticipates power pop in song structure, technique, and effect. Berry Gordy understood that American kids were hungry for…something. Motown succeeded by attracting a white audience. (Has everyone seen DREAMGIRLS? If not, we will wait while you watch it.)
Of course there are differences. The color line is only the most obvious. Motown is drenched in soul, in the grit and ecstasy of the Baptist Church from whence it sprang, and hence, from the blues. Motown was yet another musical offspring of the church and the thin line that separates sacred from profane. One seldom hears white pop groups trying to emulate the call and response of the church, pace Al Kooper.
Although Berry Gordy charted early with Barret Strong’s “Money,” it wasn’t until 1960 and the Miracles’ “Shop Around” that the soul/power pop paradigm began to emerge. Instantly appealing verse and beat: check. Soaring harmonies: check. Killer bridge: check. And a monster hook: check. Smokey set the stage for falsetto pop, inspiring such diverse artists today as Frisbie and Mika. Mary Wells’ “My Guy” appeared in 1964. One can easily imagine a Bangles treatment of this song. Indeed, virtually every Motown hit lends itself to power pop interpretation.
The Temptations and the Supremes have left behind mountains of inspiring material. Imagine Jackdaw4 doing a Temptations songbook. Much of the credit goes to Motown’s army of writers such as Norman Whitfield, Valerie Simpson & Nick Ashcroft, and Smokey himself, who contributed vital Temptations material.
One difference between Motown and power pop is that most of the Motown singers were singers only, relying on that stable of writers. Traditionally, power pop has been original music generated by the musicians themselves. One need only look at the work of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to see the singer/songwriter in full flower. Marvin Gaye died too young, but his self-produced WHAT'S GOIN ON remains an outstanding concept album fusing soul, pop, and jazz in a seamless tapestry. Stevie Wonder exploded into genius in his early twenties, producing a series of records that are unequaled for audacity and pop beauty, beginning with MUSIC OF MY MIND.
Stevie reached across the aisle for rock stars like Buzz Feiten, pioneering a new music that straddled the divide between soul and pop. Stevie anticipated the one-man-band, playing every instrument on MUSIC OF MY MIND himself. He is a master not only of keyboards but percussion as well. The following discs, TALKING BOOK, INNER VISIONS, and FULFILLINGNESS' FIRST FINALE confirmed his status as a pop genius on the level of the Beatles.
In today’s Balkanized music market, would Motown even stand a chance? Not only would it stand a chance, it would conquer. It’s remarkable than nobody is trying to resurrect its spirit and style.
World renowned writer (and comic book god!) Mike Baron, creator of NEXUS and THE BADGER, to name a few, is one of NOT LAME's best friends forever, and we look forward to his visits to the office...and now, you can look forward to his visits to this blog.