Diana Ross Mixes It Up on 'Supertonic'

Photo: Crop of album cover

Diana Ross' Supertonic begs the question: what does Motown music mean in 2020?

Supertonic: Instrumental Mixes
Diana Ross


29 May 2020

Classic Motown music of the 1960s was not the sound of Black America but famously billed itself as the "Sound of Young America". That said, Motown artists such as the Temptations, the Supremes, and the Miracles sold a lot of records and exposed white audiences to black music. The crossover success of Motown artists was a source of pride in the black community.

As tame as Motown may have seemed in terms of political and social content during that decade, the fact that black artists were big stars was itself a somewhat radical statement. Seeing these successful artists on one's television vis a vis the Ed Sullivan Show or Johnny Carson and playing clubs like the Copacabana was important in and of itself. Just being black and popular made them subversive. Their songs were a sort of code for white people being down with the Civil Rights Movement. (Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I remember having a friend give me his copy of the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" because his father didn't want him playing black music in the house.) Songs like Martha and the Vandellas 1964 joyful hit "Dancing in the Street" were banned from some radio stations because they were thought to incite violence.

Which brings us to Diana Ross's latest release, Supertonic, a remix album of nine of her classic hits into dance tracks. It was released digitally on 19 May (CD and vinyl will be available on 26 June), a time when there are riots in the streets of America's major cities in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Now Motown's music was always meant to be danced to. Their artists took choreography lessons, and their songs were at the center of many dance parties. But times, artists, audiences, and clubs have changed.

Several of the nine tracks here have already been released as singles and topped Billboard's dance charts, including "Love Hangover", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", "I'm Coming Out / Upside Down" and "The Boss". These remixes by Eric Kupper and produced by Ross were created from the original multi-tracks of the masters taken from the Motown vaults. Kupper adds lots of bouncy beats, reverb, and electronic effects to the primary material. One feels compelled to raise one's hands in celebration on the dance floor.

Although these days raising one's hands is often accompanied by saying, "Don't shoot." Updating Ross's old songs to sound more modern ironically makes the new versions seem dated. The time for dancing has become passe during a period of marching and mourning. That is not a reflection on Supertonic as much as a reminder of how much context means when listening to music. Songs with lyrics such as "Surrender" ("You've used me and abused me / 'Till I felt like I wanted to die) and "No One Gets the Prize" (So we scandalized and criticized / And then we learned how to despise") unintentionally suggest different meanings than when the tracks were initially released.

Diana Ross is a superstar with a long and illustrious career as a member of the Supremes and as a solo act. She continues to tour and record more than 50 years after her first single. Her new release resonates with her past achievements, but who will listen during a time when COVID-19 has closed nightclubs, and the streets full of angry protestors is an unanswered question.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.