The year is 1968, and on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr steps out onto a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee and is assassinated. A week later, on April 11th, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act and many newspapers run with the narrative that all is now well. This has such an effect on the national psyche in America that the writer James Baldwin struggles to drum up artistic support for his notion that more still needs to be done—Motown does not answer his call.
In fact, the legendry musical highway of Motown is actually a tricky one to navigate. It might look like one of modern music’s most inviting spring meadows on the surface, but all the gold plates mask a lot of nettlesome vines that have to be judiciously dissected in order to picnic amidst the beauty of a bounty of hip shifting hits.
On the one hand, its founder, Berry Gordy, gave an army of struggling black artists a start and supporting foothold from which to flourish. In the process, he also imparted the world with an array of superb soul-pop anthems on a list as long as a road to Rome, and yet his legacy is far from straightforward.
Although it must be stated that Gordy was dealing with a bit of a catch-22 because of the racist realities of the world at the time, thus, he had to fight a battle on both fronts and ensure that his artists were protected. Nevertheless, he ruled Motown with an iron fist and all of those gilded pieces of musical perfection often came at the expense of progress and politics.
Ultimately, his hit crafting method proved a little too constricting by the time that the 1960s really got swinging and slipped into the socially conscious glare of the ‘70s. Stevie Wonder’s classic album Where I’m Coming From foreshadowed the end of Motown and heralded in a new age that Marvin Gaye would also crystalise with What’s Going On, released only months apart in what is arguably (if not definitely) the greatest year in music: 1971.
Often the backstory of an album can get in the way of the work itself, but when it comes to Where I’m Coming From and What’s Going On, the genesis is inseparable from the art that followed. Firstly, when it comes to Stevie Wonder, he was bafflingly only 21 when his 1971 record was released and yet somehow it was his 13th studio album.
Wonder’s prolific childhood output is symptomatic of the way that Motown worked. Gordy recognised that the key to his label’s success was dominating the radio waves and as such he instilled in his artists a need to churn out a constant stream of radio-friendly singles. The result of this practice was so productive and precise in its gold-plated excellence that it spawned a genre title of its own.
This single churning method is characterised by the fact that up until Wonder and Gaye made a stand in the ‘70s, very few Motown albums can be said to be classics—they were a label that traded in singles and in many ways the world was thankful for that. The issue, of course, is that a hit single has to appeal to the masses; it has to be succinct, and it most certainly has to be radio-friendly. In the process, the Motown juggernaut squashed creative individualism by making artists seem like they were part of some corporate machine.
Once more, it is worth reiterating that Gordy would argue that it was better to have black artists in the industry causing a subtly subversive stir simply by being there, rather than having a slew of silenced voices pushed away from the mainstream. This notion, however, began holding less water when protest anthems ranked high in the charts in the latter half of the 1960s and the youth were fully behind the vital civil rights movement.
After all, the zeitgeist was an overwhelming force of its own, it hurtled towards the future in a cacophonous mass of accelerated liberalism, movements and mayhem. It was travelling so fast that certain creatively stagnating Motown artists felt it was leaving them behind. They saw their contemporaries – and even their white peers – making musical waves, kicking up a commotion that called for change and prophesied a brighter future through poignant visionary works.
All the while, they were stuck making the same songs about lovers and dancefloors and essentially ‘working for the man’. This issue was that those lovesongs were usually unquestionably brilliant. Thus, it can’t be ignored how truly bold and brave a stance it was when Wonder and Gaye defiantly barnstormed the independent artistic milieu of the 1970s and made masterpieces—and unflinching ones at that.
There is no question mark at the end What’s Going On, or even an exclamation for that matter, it is a simple declaration of “What’s Going On” – this is what is happening around us is the simple message within. Wonder’s equally prescient record makes much the same statement.
As the aforementioned writer and civil rights figurehead James Baldwin once said: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it […] But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”
The triumph, in this case, is that Motown’s brightest stars braved failure for something bigger than success and delved into the plashy depths of a civilisation eternally docked in a tempestuous bay, and they emerged clutching an amassment of flaws elucidated with unfettered clarity, and they somehow transfigured them in a boon of exultant joy ala the glorious Motown sound that spawned them in the first place. Their message is a simple one—it is never too late to make a change.