motown then and now

I love Amy Winehouse. My girlfriend can’t stand her, and suggested to me recently that I try some of the more classic stuff, namely Smokey Robinson. So I checked out a box set of Smokey and the Miracles from the library and have been sampling it at random for a few weeks.

There’s nothing to dislike about Smokey. I don’t agree with irritating 80s band ABC about much, but we are on the same page about what it feels like “When Smokey Sings.”

The thing is, and I’m a little shocked, most of these songs don’t do much for me. The execution is marvelous (though perhaps not miraculous), and the basic sound is like butter and cream. But not every song is catchy, and some of them seem to meander over a melody that’s not really sure where it’s going, and some of the catchier ones are kind of annoying.

But the worst problem is that lyrically and emotionally most of them are of their time — that is, generalized and uncomplicated, odes not so much to the beloved as to love itself. They’re bubblegum, sweet for a minute or two, then flavorless, good only for habitual, unconscious chewing.

They don’t have a lot to do with why I love Amy Winehouse. Part of it’s That Voice, and both Smokey and Amy have their own That Voices, even if Smokey’s is more like wine and Amy’s is more like smoke. Part of it’s the retro stylings, and of course with Smokey they weren’t retro but contemporary.

But a lot of it is what she’s singing about, which is love but not in vague, impersonal, blithe terms. There’s pain and lust and guilt and bliss and resignation and wisdom in there, some of it sounding as young as she is, some of it sounding as old as time, but all of it both personal and universal, specific and general, simple and complicated in all the right ways. It’s not just ear candy, but every flavor you can think of all together in one sublime dinner.

Her personal meltdowns are beside the point, though I don’t necessarily think they’re part of her talent. Maybe they put the darkness into her music, and maybe that’s why it’s more memorable than 80% of the Miracles stuff, but they’re not a reason to dislike her art. Would I like this Smokey box set better if there were more songs in it about losing love and fewer about being in it? I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but then again, there’s “Who’s Loving You,” one of the stone classics on here, and if anything the sweet sad sorrowful question to which “You Know I’m No Good” could well be the answer.

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