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Senior Year

Senior Year, 1965: Motown Charm-School Graduates

by Rachel Devitt

Senior Year, 1965: Motown Charm-School Graduates


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Motown's indelible impact on pop-music history is a direct result of the talent on the Detroit-born label's roster. Berry Gordy and his team sussed out the most skilled and (equally as important) the most likable kids they could find, often plucking actual kids out of obscurity (and high school), turning them into polished, professional pop stars. But Motown's success was also undoubtedly due to the well-oiled, machine-like way the studio ran, taking ridiculously young diamonds in the rough and putting them through the label's "factory" system, which included training in everything from music and dance to, yes, fashion and manners.

Mrs. Maxine Powell was the label's charm-school mistress, responsible for teaching all those young artists how to behave (and perform) like ladies and gentlemen -- specifically, ladies and gentlemen who could appeal to the widest cross-section of Americans. It's a complicated part of Motown's history, one that's been criticized for everything from its gender politics to its "Fordist" strategy of music-making (in which artists were "designed" to be somewhat anonymous and interchangeable) to its emphasis on mainstreaming in a musical era of stringent racial stratification.

On the other hand, Motown not only produced some of the most significant and beloved songs in pop history, it also helped change the landscape of American music, breaking down decades-old demographic barriers. (And while labels today don't typically employ a Ms. Manners type, teams of stylists and image consultants are commonplace.) Mull over the politics while you immerse yourself in some of the pop riches bestowed upon us by Motown's young charm-school grads.