Gerald Posner: Motown: Music, Money, Sex, And Power

Gerald Posner: Motown: Music, Money, Sex, And Power

At the height of Motown's success in the mid-'60s, the record label founded by Detroit native and compulsive gambler Berry Gordy couldn't lose. Motown groomed local unknowns into international stars, supplying the acts with can't-miss songs written by the likes of Smokey Robinson and Holland/Dozier/Holland, and produced with an ear toward how big hooks and constant repetition of lyrical and musical phrases would sound coming out of a transistor radio. Once Motown's roster had hits, the cycle of success perpetuated itself, as DJs, TV producers, and record distributors fell into line, eager to (or afraid not to) push whatever Gordy and his aggressive staff told them to push. Gerald Posner's book Motown: Music, Money, Sex, And Power documents the label's salad days, laying out the combination of accidents and shrewd business that stoked the company's rise, as well as the roots of arrogance and greed that eventually choked it. Posner is an investigative journalist known for his clear, rational political and historical inquiries, and at times, his interests don't synch up with the inherent drama of the Motown saga. For obsessively researched facts about who Gordy was sleeping with, who he hired and fired, and how he bullied his colleagues and underlings, Posner's the man. But the book's most riveting sections detail the rigorous quality-control process and artistic choices that defined "the Motown sound." The author has the chops to make those passages gripping, but not the insight to make them the center of the story. At times, Motown fumbles along, reading like a set of even-toned facts, none more important than the other. Still, events shake themselves out fairly well, particularly when Posner approaches allegations that Gordy cheated his artists out of royalties by secretly overcharging them for career incidentals and selling their records off the books, in bulk, as cutouts. Posner also does well to position Diana Ross as the exemplar of everything brilliant and terrible about Gordy's Motown methodology. Gordy's attraction to the singer led him to lavish attention on her career at the expense of arguably more talented performers, and though his keen gambler's sense–which told him when to take chances and when to make more conservative appeals to white record buyers–made Ross a sensation, her subsequent egomania helped drive away her equally successful contemporaries, effectively dissipating Motown's family atmosphere. Though Posner never goes far enough to make it a thesis, Motown is really about the equivocations of fame, and why musicians put up with what they often do, giving their careers over to men who make them celebrities, but leave them broke.

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