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.