Dienstag, 12. April 2011

Black History #4: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Motown

Protestantism is a leading force since the days of its appearance. It’s vigor in shaping the self and thereby shaping our modern western world or culture can’t overestimated. The way we think of ourselves, the way we behave towards ourselves, others and the world is deeply influenced by protestant ethics. The crucial point is, that this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with faith in god or Jesus or any other form of transcendental believe. Virtually to the contrary protestantism has an inherent tendency towards the mundane, toward worldliness. Its impact is safeguarded even in firm states of godlessness. Its ethics of self-control, rationality and individual responsibility are beneficial all over the place, they are hotbeds for constitutionality and capitalism, and last but not least they are reshaping aesthetics towards an appreciation of frugality and purity, of transparency and integrity. Renaissance music was a harbinger for what was happening a few years later, even before the discovery of the new world.

Fundamentally music doesn't match protestant aesthetics. Especially its physical features are divisive. Its effects on the body and on our sexual urges, its temptations are opaque and dangerous, unpredictable and therefore potentially unaesthetic. Early protestantism was not only iconoclastic but was also highly dubious concerning music and musical praise. Music was never stamped out but nevertheless its relation towards the modern world kept being strained and ambivalent: Is there pure and authentic music, music that is not undermining reason, that is not tempting you to do wrong, making you stupid? These questions are still vivid all over the place although it’s religious origins are spilled. No music critic – bourgeois or Marxist – would ever praise a piece of music only by referring to immediate sensations, because by that he would either be condemned as philistine or pretentious. Attempts to integrate music into western protestant culture lead to the most bizarre monstrosities:

Even though 4’33 seems to be an extreme example it kind of is an ideal-typical piece of western music if you think of music in terms of physical sensation.

I’d claim that Motown – planted 1959 in Detroit – managed the first major comprising integration of music and protestant culture. Whereas Europe always had and probably still has the tendency to over and over again associate bodily music with some kind of transient teenage deviation, subversion, utopia or madness (just think of Madchester) and by that to sideline it, the American culture and social structure somehow provided the catalytic soil for an immediate elevation and extensive integration of music into western culture. And I do not first of all think of the sort of industrial, assembly line mass production of chart hits in the early Motown headquarter Hitsville, but of the expressive accomplishment to incorporated protestant ideals of clarity, purity and rationalized self control into some kind of physical and fleshly sophistication, making Rock’n’Roll look blunt and Jazz and earlier R’n’B appear like some kind of failed attempt to escape minstrelsy.

The first number one hit single of the Supremes in 1964 ‘Where did our love go’ is kind of a blueprint: hi-end production, clear and tidy sound quality, an economically reduced instrumental and rhythmical arrangement and precise polyphonic vocal tracks, propelling but tempered syncopation, conveying on the one hand sort of some emotionality and sensuality, but on the other even more a sense of self control, discipline and rationalized frugality. This is protestant ethics warped in and thereby most effectively boosted by a rather soulful and rhythmical sonic outfit, this is high modernism in its most encompassing formula, approaching not only reason but also its carnal fleshly foundations.

These qualities are typical for lots of Motown releases. Another example would be ‘The Miracles’ ‘Shop Around’ from 1960:

Motown was and is music for black people and white people alike. Its pleading for rationality and reasonability responded to both races aspirations to lead a better, more prosperous and happier live, to cast of the chains of traditions and social divison and segregations. Nevertheless it kind of represents a loss of some maybe not too bad black qualities in black music and to a big extend an adjustment to mainstream culture and mediocrity. There are no easy answers.

To be continued!
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