That Motown Moment

Earlier tonight I was half-watching ‘Witness’ while trying to decide whether the Microsoft Sidewinder joystick I’d bought today was shit or I was stupider than toads.

In the background I could hear the strains of an old-time Motown classic, during a suitably syrupy part of the film. Without even being able to make out what song it was, I knew the film was traversing its Motown Moment.

This Motown Moment (MM) is of course an important part of contemporary white American culture. I’ve seen countless films and TV shows spring into their own MMs, with varying levels of success. It’s in ‘Mystic Pizza’, it’s all there is in ‘The Wonder Years.’ What does it signify?

It shows (mostly) white Americans getting on down with some black music, as long as that music is at least thirty-plus years old. It shows them being “down” with their darker brethren, at least for the two minutes of schmaltzy jigging. It shows they *care* (man).

Think about the choice of music. Imagine a Motown Moment with, say, ‘Juicy’ by Biggie Smalls as the soundtrack. Or ‘Niggers’ by The Last Poets. Doesn’t really gel, does it? The music of the MM has to be completely safe, shorn of any possible political content and, hopefully, nothing more than a sunny paean to love, boardwalks or my girl. Of course, when those Motown songs were originally coming out, they were immensely political by their mere presence and social context, as John Water’s slinky film ‘Hairspray’ highlighted.

But Watts Riots and de-segregation are not the past that the MM enshrines. It’s there to commemorate pushbikes with streamers on the handles, corner stores selling icy root beer, JFK, hope, idealism. An America of dreams and noble ambitions, pre-Vietnam, pre-Nixon. An America that, as much as Morrissey’s conception of England, never existed.

It’s Hollywood trying to paper over all the old ugly cracks, all the Amos & Andys and pop-eyed black Mammys. The truth is never wholly easy: JFK sent the first troops into Vietnam and shared his women like a factory porn mag. Most of those idyllic corner stores wouldn’t have served a “colored” customer even if they’d heard their “jungle music” on the radio. The America of Hoover and Cointelpro sent the FBI pushing drugs and guns into black neighbourhoods to try and diffuse the Panthers Commie threat. What a sunny, happy, beautiful world.

Age makes everything mundane. Even the most revolutionary, innovative and troubled artists of the Motown golden age end up becoming the ad-man’s dream, the saccharine background to corporate wankery. Perhaps in forty years time we’ll have Hip Hop Moments where ageing romantic leads rap along to ‘Fight The Power’ or ‘My Philosophy.’ I can see the dollars rolling in now…