October 17, 2013

The woman who taught the Motown stars to behave in a manner that read as "class."

It's Maxine Powell, who died on Monday at the age of 98.
“Mrs. Powell was always a lady of grace, elegance and style, and we did our best to emulate her,” Martha Reeves, the former lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I don’t think I would have been successful at all without her training.... Every asset of my personality has been by her influence... Even to the end, she was making sure that I was standing with posture and exuberant grace.”
She scolded the Supremes about how they were dancing the shake. “You are protruding the buttocks... Whenever you do a naughty step like the shake, add some class to it. Instead of shaking and acting tough, you should roll your buttocks under and keep smiling all the time.” She showed them how to do it and: "They were shocked that I could do it and at how much better it looked my way."

Maybe you're thinking: Why aren't there any Maxine Powells around anymore to class up the pop stars of today? But there must be. They're simply classing them up to suit the taste of our time, which is to say putting them somewhere near the edge of what is acceptable to the big majority. More is acceptable today because of what went on in those earlier years. Dancing the shake at all — rolling the buttocks — was near the edge of acceptability in the 1960s. So that Powells' modification — smile when you roll those buttocks — shaped how people felt about such things and was part of a process that got us where we find ourselves today.

The NYT obituary — at the link — doesn't mention the topic of race (other than to say that Powell founded a finishing and modeling school "which placed the first black models" (was it only for black women?)). But it's hard to ignore that Motown succeeded in making black performers popular with white Americans, who might not have liked them so much if they hadn't been remade in the way Powell taught. What does it say about American racism? It was Powell's idea of what white people wanted and didn't want.

It worked, so who can say what would have happened if some other approach had been used?

30 comments:

A. Shmendrik said...

How exactly does one do the Shake without protruding the buttocks?

Paul said...

"They're simply classing them up to suit the taste of our time, which is to say putting them somewhere near the edge of what is acceptable to the big majority.'

Yes twerking is the new "classy".

Meade said...

I learned to "act white" from Smokey Robinson who learned it from Mrs. Powell.

Ann Althouse said...

"Yes twerking is the new "classy"."

You miss the point. The twerking you see from Beyonce or Miley Cyrus is a classed up variation of something else that you are not seeing. There is something over the edge that the commercial pop stars refrain from doing.

rhhardin said...

It has to be kept interesting. That's what veils are for.

rhhardin said...

Three veils is optimal.

Paul said...

"You miss the point. The twerking you see from Beyonce or Miley Cyrus is a classed up variation of something else that you are not seeing. There is something over the edge that the commercial pop stars refrain from doing."

No. You missed the point.

The point is that pop culture is degrading and in a death spiral. When the sole trajectory is to further coarsen behavior for it's shock value you can use your imagination to see where that leads as each new attempt to go over the edge becomes passe and loses its verve.

Bob Ellison said...

Paul said, "The point is that pop culture is degrading and in a death spiral."

Alas, I'm old enough to have heard this refrain many times.

betamax3000 said...

Japanese Schoolgirls in Knee Socks Don't Twerk. Yet.

betamax3000 said...

The New Craze Will Be the Evolution from the Shake to the Twerk to the Bukkake. A Ring of Background Dancers Simulating Ejaculation on the Pop Star. Scandalous, I Tell You.

And There Will Still be Room to Go on the Spiral.

betamax3000 said...

In the Bukkake It Is Important for the Background Dancers to Be "Standing with Posture and Exuberant Grace," with Special Attention to Buttock Placement. And Wrists. Exuberant Wrists.

madAsHell said...

The point is that pop culture is degrading and in a death spiral.

Agreed, there is less focus on the music, and more focus on the images. I'm convinced the demographic is 14 year old girls, and 18 year old wanna-be thugs.

Although, I'm sure my father said the same thing.

betamax3000 said...

You Put Your Right Hand In
Then Your Right Hand Out
Repeat and Repeat
And Shake It All About
While the Singer Sings
With a Sparrow-Face Pout
Now You're Doing
The Bukkake

betamax3000 said...

A Sixty-Two Year-Old Madonna in Fish Nets and Leather Cone Bra Will Do the Bukkake at the 2020 MTV Music Awards to Show She is Still at the Cutting Edge.

betamax3000 said...

Miley Cyrus Will Sat "That is So 2018."

Meow.

Henry said...

The point is that pop culture is degrading and in a death spiral.

I'm going to have fun introducing my son to Richard Pryor. But not yet. Not until he can legally drink.

Beta Rube said...

Is this post suggesting that class, grace, manners and restraint are "acting white"?

If it is I disagree. Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, among many others, did not need lessons in appealing to white people.

George Grady said...

It was Powell's idea of what white people wanted and didn't want.

I don't think you can simply put thoughts like this into Powell's head. Motown's music was extremely popular with both blacks and whites, and it was hardly the first example of black musicians and performers being popular with both blacks and whites. So, in any case, it seems that Powell had a pretty good idea of what people wanted and didn't want, whether those people were black or white.

Meade said...

@Beta Rube, my point is that even so-called white people - people who pass as "white" - have to be taught, at some point, to "act white".

William said...

It sometimes takes the passage of years or, at least, months for a dance craze to appear silly and ridiculous. The twerk has speeded up that process. Miley's twerk became passé and camp without ever passing through a moment of hip and cool.

YoungHegelian said...

If I remember correctly, if you wanted black performers who hadn't been coached to "act classy", you bought artists on the Stax label rather than Motown.

But, that may have all been Stax's PR at work rather than business reality.

rhhardin said...

Death spirals are born out of correction.

A pilot in clouds can't tell if he is turning.

Supposing he is turning : he notices his altitude dropping and speed increasing. He fixes it by raising the nose. This unfortunately does not raise the nose but tightens the turn that he does not know about.

This makes his altitude drop faster and speed increase further.

He either pulls off the wings with g-forces tightening the turn or impacts the ground, whichever comes first.

That's why the turn indicator was invented. Believe your turn indicator, ignore what it feels like you're doing.

Correct recovery : center the turn indicator with the rudder, then center the ball with the ailerons, then control the speed with the elevators.

The elevator correction is delayed until you're not turning and not banked.

It starts with knowing about the turn.

Bob R said...

It worked, so who can say what would have happened if some other approach had been used?
Another approach WAS used at Atlantic/Stax.

Bob R said...

Missed YoungHegelian's comment.

rhhardin said...

My internet access is being controlled by a mouse.

He's by the back fence nibbling insulation off the telephone wires.

The internet cuts off when he climbs the now bare wires and rattles them, for about ten minutes at a time.

The telephone company doesn't have a phone tree choice to cover this.

The Crack Emcee said...

"Puttin' on a show - Entertainment!"

Meade said...

"My internet access is being controlled by a mouse."

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you
[heads up - and now down - for Hardin's scythe!]:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

fivewheels said...

I thought this post was going to be about the malaprop "every asset of my personality" instead of "every facet," which I think she meant.

I blame the reporter, not Reeves.

Mary Beth said...

The point is that pop culture is degrading and in a death spiral.

I blame the waltz.

Mitch H. said...

Meade, where did you find an English translation of that Burns poem, and for god's sake, *why*?