In 1959 Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. This year is the 50th anniversary of what I consider to be the greatest record label in pop music history. The beauty of Motown rests in its general commitment to a Fordist model of music production which values specialized talents over the omni-talented-singer-songwriter-folk-myth that has been flinging mediocrity in our faces since 1975.
With a few notable exceptions, he or she who is the better singer, is not the best lyricist. The great lyricist is not usually the great composer. The great composer is not the great musician and so on. And yet, because we so comically personalize music (oh my god, it’s like Fiona Apple knows me), we place irrational value in the notion that the musician’s final product as a pure, untampered with expression of the artists’ inner soul. Despite aggressive marketing to the contrary, this is almost never the case.
For anyone who ever thought two seconds about it, it would be obvious that pop music is, and ought to be, a collaborative and technical effort. I don’t want the same person working at all levels of production just as I wouldn’t want to watch the a Martin Scorsese film, starring Martin Scorsese, score by Martin Scorsese, edited by Martin Scorsese. Imagine the pathetic state of the film industry if it labored under the same stigma the music industry must! Of course I’m aware that very few films are great, but pound-for-pound, it remains one of our more thriving mediums and that it also has a strong tradition (necessity) of artistic delegation is not coincidental.
This pop music folk myth also tends to favor the medium of The Album as opposed to the generally superior and more endearingly humble “single”. How many artists really merit the event of The Album? Most would be better suited to just write songs and release them as singles, and only if they have a solid enough run to necessitate it, compile a “best of” ten years down the road thus actually ensuring the consumer that their $15 will be well spent. This I propose as an alternative to the crap-shoot we’re expected to make when we hear a promising single on the radio and must take our chances when we lay down some serious cash for a Natalie Imbruglia CD.
The self-righteousness just oozing from every syllable of the hipper-than-thou LP collector’s tight lips “I prefer to listen to the whole album as one piece–the way the artist intended”, makes me want to slit my wrists with their record needle.
Berry Gordy got all of this and that’s why my favorite Motown act, the Supremes, stand up as a pop group of such colossal stature (they are but one of a startling catalog of acts about whom the same could be written). Their singles collection (many albums worth), boasts the transcendent work of a collaboration of geniuses, and packs a punch nearly unmatched. For our women’s interest bent, let it be once more stated that Motown was built on the backs of The Supremes and other women (Martha and the Vandellas, The Marevellettes, The Velvettes ), who topped the unprecedented dominance of women on the pop music charts in the early years of Motown and mid-to-late years of Brill Building. This was the great era of the pop single, which, thanks to file downloading, is the unit of pop music once more.