The soft rebellion of the Motown girl groups

December 13, 2016

Sometimes rebellion comes wrapped in the softest disguise. Protestors can arrive by stealth. But I think the change they may enact can be as powerful as any which arrives via noisy foment and obvious complaint.

The right to peaceful protest has been championed by the US; writer Naomi Wolf says: “Peaceful, lawful protest – if it is effective – is innately disruptive of ‘business as usual’. That is why it is effective.”

And one of the best examples of this must be the girl groups of the Motown movement, exemplified by the Supremes.

Throughout the Sixties, when Motown was at its most dynamic and popular, the girl groups were at its core. Immaculately coiffed and dressed in elegant cocktail dresses, danced in the sensual and feminine manner they were designed to please, soothe and charm, not challenge or frighten.

Yet the songs they sang broke boundaries and hinted at change. Groups like the Marvelettes, the Andantes, Martha and the Vandellas, as well as the Supremes – who inspired the movie and musical, Dreamgirls, helped black musicians make the playlists of mainstream radio shows. They influenced white musicians, and indeed they still do.

The lyrics spoke of more than bubble gum dreams. Heat Wave, which reached number 4 and was nominated for a Grammy, explored a woman’s heated desire for her lover.

In Nowhere to Run, writer Lamont Dozier claims the strident piano pounding was inspired by looking from his window and seeing tanks coming down the Detroit streets.

He’s All I Got covers the treacherous waters of female gossip and backstabbing – all to an infectious beat.

Meanwhile Dancing in the Street was inspired by the sight of people on the streets of Detroit, dancing in water sprayed from fire hydrants to cool off. Its subliminal message was a call to arms: it became a metaphor for riotous protest born of despair and indignation, capturing the mood of rebellion at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

It’s interesting to note that when covered by David Bowie and Mick Jagger in the 1980s, the song feels altogether safer and more fraternal.

After the protest and quiet rebellion, the girl groups’ later legacy was more feminist: the girl group phenomenon of the 1960s faded but female musicians continued to be successful and influential at Motown, and in music generally.

I like to recognise and reflect and celebrate that those divas – they had the power to change the world, and they knew it and used it. There were wills of iron under those velvet dresses, reminding us all that, as Mahatma Gandhi – the original voice of peaceful protest – said: “In a gentle way you can shake the world.”

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions