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Revisiting J. Lo's Motown Tribute

It's worse than I remember

By Azaria BrownPublished 3 years ago 5 min read

In 2019, the Grammy’s surprised us all by enlisting the help of Jennifer Lopez for their Motown Tribute. J. Lo surprised us even more by agreeing to do it. The performance itself was...a bit lackluster.

But, let’s go back to the beginning of the story.

BERRY GORDY AND MOTOWN

After a successful career as a songwriter and helping write, produce and release records for artists like Smokey Robinson, Marv Johnson, and Jackie Wilson, Berry Gordy Jr. incorporated Motown Records after he and his sister had been operating under Tamla Records and Anna Records, respectively. Between 1959 and 1966, had purchased at least seven homes in which to carry out administrative duties and employed nearly 500 people.

In the ‘60s, Motown had over 100 top 10 records across five different labels/imprints. During this time, artist development was a large part of the label. Motown artists were known to be extremely polished and well groomed. There were two reasons for this extreme grooming: 1) Many of the artists were young and from a low socioeconomic background, which meant that they were more inexperienced than other, older artists 2) a polished appearance was necessary in order to crossover to white audiences. These young artists participated in the Motortown Revue, which allowed them to work on their craft and allowed audiences to preview performances. Motown also held weekly Quality Control meetings to ensure that all artists stayed on top of their game and kept their performances extremely polished.

The Motown label also created the Motown Sound, which was only able to be created because of the focus on artist development. Artists practiced together day in and day out and this intimacy affected the process of music creation. Using the Motown Sound created tons of classic, timeless records.

Though Motown was always known for soul music, they also had imprints that released Latino music, country music, gospel music, rock music, jazz music, rap music and spoken word records. Motown was responsible for records from artists like Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, the Contours, the Spinners, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Lionel Richie, Rick James, Teena Marie, Boyz II Men, Debarge, Johnny Gill, India. Arie, 702, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu and Kelly Rowland.

Motown Records was the most successful soul label ever and was incredibly instrumental in integrating black artists into pop music.

JENNIFER LOPEZ

J. Lo’s entertainment story begins in 1986 when she landed a role in a film called My Little Girl. She then performed in several musicals before being selected as a backup dancer for New Kids on the Block in 1991, which led to her dancing on In Living Color and on stage with Janet Jackson. J.Lo landed many successful acting roles after this including, Money Train, Blood and Wine and Selena.

After the start of her successful acting career, she released her debut album, On the 6. She went on to release seven more albums and landed roles in over 25 films. Throughout her music career, J. Lo often faced criticism for her limited vocal range and for having other singers like Ashanti, Christina Milian, Natasha Ramos, and even Brady sing on her tracks (many also believe J.Lo was an industry plant, but we won’t talk about that here).

J. Lo’s presence is important for American Latino representation. Not only did she play Selena Quintilla in the legendary biopic, but she is one of the only Latinas to achieve her level of musical and film/television success in the American entertainment industry. She’s a fantastic actress and dancer, however, the criticism she has received is not unwarranted.

THE PERFORMANCE

The first issue is that this tribute is six minutes long. Six minutes for hundreds of top tens, countless solo and group acts and a trailblazing corporation. That just isn’t enough time. J. Lo begins with a rendition of “Dancing in the Street,” and then transitions into “Please Mr. Postman.” At 1:09, she starts “Money (That’s What I Want),” at 1:31 “Do You Love Me?” at 2:04

“ABC,” at 2:18 “My Girl” with Smokey Robinson, at 2:57 “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with Alicia Keys, at 3:20 “War,” at 3:35 “Square Biz,” and finally at 4:16 “Another Star” with Ne-Yo. She was not given adequate time to perform any of the songs. Beyonce was given 15 minutes at the VMAs to perform the Lemonade album and I’m not comparing the two women, but 15 minutes would have been a more fitting time. The quick pace of the tribute didn’t lend itself to the “polished” appearance Motown artists were expected to have.

The look of the performance wasn’t Motown-esque either. At the beginning, J. Lo wears a Supreme-ish outfit, but quickly changes into a leotard, which is common for her, but not for the Motown artists from the era of music Lopez was performing.

The fleeting presence of Alicia Keys, Smokey Robinson and Ne-Yo tells us that artists like these were available. Instead, Alicia and Smokey had a combined stage time of less than one minute. They were accessories in this performance. As aforementioned, J. Lo is an artist that profited off of the backing vocals of black artists. The Grammy’s took an opportunity away from black artists who would have been better suited for the job. A label responsible for so many black mainstream artists, should have been honored by black artists. No one is saying J. Lo couldn’t have been a part of it, but it should have been spearheaded by black soulful artists, since that is what Motown was about at its core. Also, Jennifer Lopez recently did a Prince tribute, an Elvis tribute, and a Celia Cruz tribute. Would it have been the end of the world to let someone else have this one?

This is not as simple as “not being black enough.” Award-giving bodies have been out of touch with audiences, especially black audiences, for years, years, which is why people care about those accolades less and less. This tribute shows how out of touch the Grammy’s are. The highest awarding body in music, can’t do a good tribute and that’s just sad.

CONCLUSION

I doubt that this will be the final Motown tribute. The influence of Motown is endless and since the Grammy’s dropped the ball, there is little that could be done that is worse than this. There is so much room for improvement here. I really hope another award show, or Todrick Hall, redoes this. And call Jennifer Hudson, Riley, Jazmine Sullivan, Ledisi, Luke James, Boyz II Men, Kelly Price, Keke Wyatt for goodness sake. Give black artists their shine. There are so many living Motown artists that I wish would have been a part of the tribute as well.

concert

About the Creator

Azaria Brown

25. I'm a writer and illustrator. I like films, television, books, music, politics and being black.

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    Azaria BrownWritten by Azaria Brown

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