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New musical styles are often born from the changing demands of an audience.


of the main proponents of this phenomenon is Motown, a record label and musical

style originating from Detroit, America. Dubbed "The Sound of Young America,"

Motown appealed to mainly the younger generation, both black and white. With hit

single after hit single, Motown took advantage of the specific younger demographic

in 60s America, and Motown music resonated with their values.

When Berry Gordy founded the record label Motown in 1959, he spotted an opening

in the audiences of 60s America. While the popularity of 50s rock 'n roll slightly

receded, other musical styles such as blues from the old cotton mills in the South

began drifting North. However, the blues songs contained messages which were

directed at adults. An example is Howlin' Wolf's 1956 song Smokestack Lightning,

depicting a yearning for freedom represented by a train in the fields of Mississippi.

Berry Gordy recognised that these blues themes would not appeal to the younger,

newer generation, and the rock 'n roll listeners had already grown into adults. He

reasoned that this new demographic which had emerged needed a new style of

music, thus, formed Motown as a pop label and not a blues label.

Much like the word "Motown," a portmanteau of Motor Town, a nickname for Detroit,

the musical style of the record label was also a fusion of different styles. It took

influence from the African-American church songs with uplifting gospel lyrics, hand

claps, and call-and-response structures, combining it with "doo-wop" vocal

harmonies which were performed by African-Americans on the street corners of

Detroit. Yet, Gordy did more to achieve an ideal 'assembly line' system of creating
hits, and made sure songs from his label appealed to all teenagers. He achieved this

through the music itself, the lyrics and the overall presentation of his performers.

Interest in Motown music was garnered through Gordy's endorsement of a

recognisable, almost formulaic musical style. A prime example is Please Mr Postman

by the Marvellettes, released in 1961. The lead singer and backup vocals are mostly

in call and response, while the chord progression remains regular and repetitive,

making the song catchy and memorable. As the song begins, one can immediately

hear the strong backbeat created by drums and hand claps, a feature of gospel

music. This, along with the bright major key of the song, allows an uplifting effect to

be achieved. In contrast to the blues songs of Howlin' Wolf, which a young American

who had never approached a cotton mill would not identify with, teenagers could

easily tap their foot to a Motown song. In addition, these musical elements were

simple enough to be recreated, ensuring that another hit could be produced as soon

as a preceding one began to fall in popularity. Gordy recognised this, and to further

reinforce these elements, he organised the Funk Brothers, a group of session

musicians who played in virtually every Motown single, which contributed to a

homogenised sound. From the perspective of the young American teenage

population growing up in the 60s, who found themselves unable to relate to themes

in blues songs, Motown was the uplifting style they needed. Additionally, due to the

replicable musical elements of Motown, they could guarantee that they could get

more catchy tunes every time they turned on the radio or television.

The lyrics of Motown songs were written to be positive and memorable, also

furthering the aforementioned uplifting effect. Although not written in the early 60s,
Ain't No Mountain High Enough (1966), performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi

Terrell illustrates this. In this song are the words " Ain't no mountain high enough,

Ain't no valley low enough, Ain't no river wide enough." Particularly interesting is that

these words contain no negative connotations, and state that one can overcome any

obstacle to achieve love. The sense of triumph these lyrics give is relatable to those

teenagers who did not suffer through war or work in the cotton mills like their parents

did. In addition, lyrics in this and other Motown songs contained no political

connotations, essentially isolating itself from the events such as the civil rights

movement. This enabled the younger generation to enjoy an escape from this

overarching turmoil.

An aspect of Motown allowing it to resound with audiences of different backgrounds

was the presentation of its performers. For example, the 1965 song I Can't Help

Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) by The Four Tops, which, when performed live, had

the four singers all dressed in identical well-tailored costumes. Nothing seems out of

place, unlike the leather jacket outfits rock 'n roll artists, such as Elvis Presley, wore

in the 50s. Gordy recognised another growing trend in the populace of America at

the time: the advent of television. Less so were new singles distributed by radio;

through television, every song could easily be heard, and seen, by the entire nation.

Consequently, artists who were dressed sensibly and for the television screen would

find more appeal than the rough image of rock 'n roll and blues artists. Additionally

although Motown was produced and performed by African-American artists and

would usually only be heard by a black audience, the performers were trained in how

to present themselves to white society. This allowed Motown to be popular among

audiences of all races, something which had not been achieved by African-American

music before.

In summary, the Motown style was crafted in many aspects to resound with the wider

American audience. Its sound was unique in that it presented soul music memorable,

lively way, using an assembly line process to ensure that if one enjoyed a first song,

they would enjoy the next. The lyrics were written to have positive, uplifting

connotations, to reflect the mood of the young populace compared to the older

generation. Finally, the presentation of artists allowed Motown to be popular with

teenagers of all racial backgrounds. In these regards, Motown was a style born out

of an audience.

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October 17, 2015.

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