If popular music sometimes seems like one continuous song about love, the Motown catalogue can seem especially so. Collectively, Motown’s singers and songwriters captured every side of a love relationship, beginning to end. And even if that subject matter is common in music, the Motown discography, taken as a whole, offers a big-picture view that catalogues life’s excitements and disappointments in specific, visceral ways. To read through a list of Motown song titles is to travel through shades and stages of the heart, from infatuation to love to utter despair, from “Whole Lot of Shakin’ in My Heart (Since I Met You)” to “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” to “My World Is Empty Without You”. The songs of despair stand out as especially vivid for me. There are numerous classic songs that come to dark conclusions about life: “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)”, “My Heart Can’t Take It No More”, “I’ve Lost Everything I’ve Ever Loved”. The Motown labels were full of singers and songwriters that were exceptionally skilled at capturing sadness.
My favorite of Motown’s sad songs are those that capture the feeling of desperation in a very specific way, like the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”, or those that phrase the pain in big, iconic ways, like Jimmy Ruffin’s song that asked the existential question, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ album track “I’ve Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying”, written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, is iconic in a similar way. For me it sums up the whole Motown enterprise, the way we were kept entertained but at the same time reminded of our deep fears and disappointments. It’s a party song, full of party tricks: a litany of dance styles, a get softer/get louder section. It starts with crowd noise and an invitation, “Gather round me swingers and friends / Help me forget my hurt again.” But it’s clear he’s not about to forget. She’s the only girl he ever loved. And she’s gone, forever. If the title could work as a slogan for Motown, the song itself works as both a dance song and a tearjerker. Robinson’s call for the music to get softer is the most touching part for me, his voice carrying more pain than he should be letting show at a party.
That’s part of Robinson’s genius, and why he exemplifies for me Motown’s status as great American chroniclers of sadness. The saddest songs, in general, are those about the inner loneliness and heartbreak that no one else knows about: the feelings we keep hidden. Robinson co-wrote and sang several, including two of the greatest: “The Tracks of My Tears” and “The Tears of a Clown”. If the former carries sadness in its sound, the latter takes more of the dancing-to-keep-from-crying route, with giddy music written partly by Stevie Wonder. In both songs, it’s Robinson’s voice that truly breaks the listener’s heart, the way he can capture excitement and regret in the same breath.
With its chorus, “The Tears of a Clown” shows some movement towards observational writing, away from a strictly first-person point of view. There may be a similar movement in Motown’s discography. Even when Motown artists sang of social issues, inner sadness still played a key role. Surely “What’s Going On” fits along this same continuum of documenting life’s heartbreaks, even as it looks outside the self, towards the world.