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Detroit’s 10 Finest Pop Culture Exports

on August 04, 2017, 12:00pm
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Finest Exports is a recurring feature in which we shine a spotlight on the finest pop culture that a specific city has gifted to the world.

Detroit is a city with its own kind of history. There is no singular artistic vein pulsing through its center — it’s not succinctly posh and cinematic like Los Angeles nor is it as storied and sprawling as New York. Rather, Detroit is the bubbling basin at the end of many tributaries, some small and some strong, that come together to create the city’s vibrant culture. Contributors range from the funky roots of the Motown Sound to the disorderly din of Iggy and the Stooges. But these streams have not always flowed unhindered; the city has weathered great economic, racial, and political hardship as well.

(Also Read: In the Heat of Detroit)

Yet, Detroit’s buzz is growing louder still — slowly, yes, but surely. In the three centuries since its inception, the Motor City has constantly churned out ideas, innovators, and talent with gusto. The varied architecture and layout of the city — from the shore’s Belle Isle to the ornate ceilings of the Masonic Temple — has made it home to many moments of masterful cinema, music, and television. Though varied in its subject matter and medium, the art of Detroit all draws from the city’s energy, one that is resilient, self-aware, and smart.

–Carly Snider
Contributing Writer

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10. Freaks and Geeks

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Set in the fictional Detroit suburb of Chippewa, Freaks and Geeks follows the lives of siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir (who befriend the “freaks” and geeks,” respectively) during the 1980-1981 school year. In addition to its candid portrayal of the high school experience, Freaks and Geeks also launched the careers of several members of the young cast, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps, Jason Segel, and Linda Cardellini. The sitcom also became notable for its strong classic rock soundtrack, which regularly featured tracks by Rush, Van Halen, and Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” as the show’s theme song.

As show creator Paul Feig grew up in the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens, Freaks and Geeks incorporates several nuances that pay homage to its locale. Feig named the show’s town after his own high school, enigmatic math teacher Mr. Kowchevski attempts to console Lindsay by singing “I’m Eighteen” by Detroit-born rocker Alice Cooper, and Detroit Lions paraphernalia makes the occasional appearance in the homes of the characters. Though Freaks and Geeks only lasted one season, the show later gained a cult following that is still going strong nearly two decades after the airing of its final episode.

–Lindsay Teske

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09. George Clinton

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Though born in North Carolina, George Clinton has managed to leave a mighty mark on the Detroit music scene. Clinton started out as a staff writer for Motown in the 1960s, as well as a producer on other independent Detroit soul labels. But the soon-to-be master of funk fully hit his stride when he pioneered the Parliament-Funkadelic music group in 1968. The collective’s style, dubbed P-Funk, helped define the funk cannon alongside fellow trailblazers James Brown and Sly Stone. Though ultimately a funk band, Parliament-Funkadelic drew inspiration from psychedelic rock greats like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.

Despite its origins in the haze of the 1960s, Clinton and P-Funk’s influence is still easily traced. The 1980s and ’90s brought a slew of funk-influenced post-disco and post-punk groups. Clinton, along with 15 other members, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Clinton’s influence goes to show that even those not born and bred in Detroit can draw inspiration from the city.

–Carly Snider

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08. The Evil Dead

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The Evil Dead chronicles the eventful spring break of a group of Michigan State University students — Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Richard DeManincor), Linda (Betsy Barker), and Shelley (Theresa Tilly) — who are tormented by demonic spirits while staying a cabin in rural Tennessee. Debuting in 1981, The Evil Dead would go on to become one of history’s most notable cult trilogies, with the following two films focusing on the happenings of Ash, the inaugural film’s lone survivor.

The Evil Dead franchise recently made the leap from the big to the small screen with the debut of television show Ash vs. Evil Dead. The series is loaded with references to its Wolverine State setting, including a nod to the original film with its use of Michigan State t-shirts and police cars.

–Lindsay Teske

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07. The White Stripes

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The story of The White Stripes is timeless, really: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl get married and start one of the most successful rock duos of all time. The duo began by playing classic Detroit dives alongside local legends such as The Dirtbombs before being launched into the national spotlight by White Blood Cells. Jack and Meg meticulously crafted their public image as a band — presenting themselves as brother and sister, dressing exclusively in red, black, and white, and often using the number three. Blues, rock, and traditional country all influenced the White Stripes’ sound, including Detroit-based proto-punk and garage rock.

The White Stripes’ sound now reaches far beyond the D’s city limits; for example, the opening of “Seven Nation Army” is practically inescapable come college football season. Despite their widespread success, both Meg and Jack (though now separated) keep roots in the city. Meg is still a Detroit resident, and Jack opened a second location of his Third Man Records store, recording studio, and vinyl press downtown. While Meg prefers to keep out of the public eye, Jack often reps Detroit and its growing music scene.

–Carly Snider

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06. Eminem

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Though Marshall Mathers was born in Missouri, the Detroit area is where he became Eminem. The rapper experienced substantial success relatively early in his career upon the release of his sophomore album, Slim Shady LP, on Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment. The album gave Eminem his first Grammy Award in the Best Rap Album category and featured now-popular track “My Name Is” as one of the album’s singles. Eminem’s following two albums, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, won Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album as well — marking victories for three consecutive albums.

Eminem has dabbled in acting as well, notably appearing in the Detroit-set film 8 Mile. His role in the film ultimately bought his track “Lose Yourself” to fruition, which, in addition to being beloved by listeners, would go on to win an Academy Award for the Best Original Song category in 2003. Eminem has remained a decorated and celebrated recording artist throughout the span of his career, with 10 No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 charts and several of his albums receiving multi-platinum certifications.

–Lindsay Teske

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05. Iggy and the Stooges

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Iggy and the Stooges embody the Detroit idea of taking something and making it better, louder, and more outrageous. Frustrated with the virtuosic rock ’n’ roll of the late 1960s, Iggy and the Stooges blew rock right off its pedestal. Their sound was raw and wild, with frontman Iggy Pop known for his outlandish stage presence — think smearing his bare chest with peanut butter and rolling around on broken glass. These antics in combination with The Stooges’ abrasive sound went on to shape punk greats like Ramones and The Sex Pistols.

Originally based just outside of Ann Arbor, Iggy and the Stooges didn’t see themselves represented in mainstream rock of the time; the stadium tours looked nothing like their Detroit streets. Rather than rehashing drawn-out guitar solos, The Stooges played what they knew; they sang about youth and apathy over wailing, dissonant instrumentation. The sound quickly took root in the city alongside groups like the MC5 and, later, The Gories. Even though Iggy and the Stooges’ grasp reaches far beyond Detroit, the bars and music venues of the city that made them are still littered with images and homage to the icons.

–Carly Snider

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04. Madonna

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Born Madonna Louise Ciccone, the pop superstar now known worldwide was born and raised in Metro Detroit. Though Madonna moved to New York City at the age of 19 to pursue a career in modern dance, she developed her drive in the D. After her breakout self-titled album in 1983, she never slowed down — constantly recreating and reinventing herself, much like the city that raised her. Each decade seemed to bring more standout moments for Madonna, including her infamous VMA performance of “Like a Virgin” — white lace, wedding cake, and all. 

Madonna’s cultural presence, from her trailblazing music videos to the impressive longevity of her career, has traveled far beyond the confines of her hometown. She remains the best-selling female artist in history and gets credited for pushing the boundaries of mainstream pop musically, lyrically, and visually. Though the “Queen of Pop” now exists — both physically and influentially — outside of Michigan, Madonna has passed some of her hometown pride down to her daughter, Lourdes. Both mother and daughter briefly attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her father, a Chrysler and GM man, would be proud.

–Carly Snider

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03. Francis Ford Coppola

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Detroit-born filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, best known for helming cinematic masterpieces such as The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, has had a groundbreaking career as a director, producer, and screenwriter dating back to the early 1960s. After completing an onslaught of successful films in the 1970s (among which included the screenplay for Patton, the film for which Coppola won his first Academy Award), the filmmaker collaborated with author S.E. Hinton to bring about film adaptations of two of her written works, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, both of which featured actor Matt Dillon in principle roles.

Coppola continued to use his creative eye to bring stories from the page to screen 10 years later, this time taking on a production role in collaboration with his daughter, Sofia Coppola, on her film, The Virgin Suicides. In addition to being something of a family affair, The Virgin Suicides incorporated Coppola’s own hometown roots as it was set in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. In addition to being regarded as an influential figure within the American New Wave era of film, Coppola is a highly decorated creator with multiple Academy Awards to his name, as well as being one of eight individuals to win two Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

–Lindsay Teske

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02. Aretha Franklin

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After getting her start singing in a Detroit church, Aretha Franklin made the transition from secular to soul — the latter of which she has been widely regarded as the Queen of, and rightfully so. A prominent figurehead of the Motown movement, Franklin’s work has absolutely annihilated the charts with a plethora of No. 1 singles and albums. Though her songs “Respect”, “Think”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” are among the most commercially successful, the entirety of her work carries heavy cultural significance and has been beloved for decades.

Franklin’s dazzling musical career resulted in her being the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Today, Franklin continues to perform live, never ceasing to give the gift of her talents.

–Lindsay Teske

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01. The Motown Sound

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The Motown sound is unmistakable — it’s infectious and uplifting while impressive and emotive. Founded by Berry Gordy in 1959, Motown Records permanently changed the Detroit, and national, music scene. Entirely African-American owned and run, Motown birthed artists like The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. The Motown sound is characterized by a driving melodic center, gospel-esque vocals, and soaring horns; the songs were simple in structure but complex in melody.

Motown not only shaped the soundscape of the nation, but also the cityscape of Detroit. Gordy converted various properties into recording and producing studios, bringing in talent from across the country. The products of these studios continue to influence popular music today — Motown samples having shown up in popular songs by A Tribe Called Quest and Run-D.M.C. among countless others. Though Motown hit its stride in the 20th century, the new millennium has not stopped the historic label. Now under Universal Music Group, current Motown artists include Erykah Badu, Migos, and Lil Yachty.

–Carly Snider

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