Ciara gets her superfreak on during racy 'Motown 60' Rick James tribute

Lyndsey Parker

Motown 60: A Grammy Celebration aired on CBS this Sunday, featuring such luminaries from the “record label that changed the world” as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Thelma Houston, and Smokey Robinson, and even a heartfelt speech by Barack Obama. But the surprise breakout performance of the night came when Ciara — basically cosplaying as Rick James in beaded Mary Jane Girls braids and a skintight spacesuit onesie, and looking like the kind of girl you read about in new wave magazines — got her superfreak on to a medley of James’s most popular street songs.

Ciara at Motown 60. (Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images)

Ken Ehrlich, the Grammys’ television producer who oversaw the all-star event, told Yahoo Entertainment that the sexy tribute was “absolutely” Ciara’s idea, right down to the glittery 1970s styling, and Ehrlich felt it was important for the special to honor all eras of Motown. “Everybody thinks of Motown in the ’60s, the original Motown, that Motown era. When you hear the word ‘Motown,’ you think about the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie, and Smokey.” he said. “But then in the ’70s and ’80s, it changed. In the ’70s, there were some really great things that they did.”

Ciara performs at Motown 60. (Photo: Lester Cohen/Getty Images)

Twitter was divided Sunday when weighing in on Ciara’s spectacle, with some fans saying she slayed, some detractors saying she was “disturbing” or downright difficult to watch, and others questioning the appropriateness of a tribute to a man who served two years in prison for assault, false imprisonment, and sale of a controlled substance after beating a woman unconscious at a Hollywood hotel in the ’90s.

Ehrlich told Yahoo that he knew that Ciara’s risky performance might not connect with older or more conservative viewers, but he felt it was ultimately a success. “When you do a show where you try and do something for everyone, by definition there are going to be some people who will relate to some things more than others. From my vantage point, which was backstage looking at a bunch of monitors with camera angles, I thought it came off really well, and I thought the audience really got into it. But granted, it is maybe a little bit less of an era than the iconic Motown years.”

Still, Ciara’s wild, hip-thrusting disco number may have been the closest thing to the wild watercooler moment of 1983’s Motown 25 special, when Michael Jackson famously moonwalked and blew viewers’ minds. “We knew we weren’t going to match what Motown 25 was; I mean, you can’t,” Ehrlich admitted. “And so, our intention was to honor the music that was made by the label.”

Ciara performs at Motown 60. (Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images)

On a related side note, unlike the also-problematic Rick James, Jackson was barely acknowledged during Sunday’s Motown 60 telecast — other than the inclusion of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and the Jacksons’ “Dancing Machine” during two different medleys featuring Ne-Yo, and a Michael photograph during an In Memoriam segment while Wonder crooned “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” At the time of the Motown 60 taping in February — two days after the 2019 Grammy Awards — the Leaving Neverland documentary, detailing Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of two young boys, had just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and had created quite a stir. However, when asked by Yahoo Entertainment, at that time, if the absence of Jackson in Motown 60 had anything to do with the Leaving Neverland controversy, Ehrlich merely said, “I prefer not to comment on that. It’s better not to.”

Other highlights of Motown 60 included John Legend’s tribute to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album and 75-year-old Diana Ross performing three songs representing her film career: “Theme From Mahogany,” Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache,” and Fanny Brice’s “My Man.” The latter was a direct serenade to Motown president Berry Gordy, whom Ross dated from 1965 to 1970, with their daughter, Rhonda Ross Kendrick, sitting with Gordy in the audience.

“I had insight, because in the conversations I had with her, she came because she wanted to be there for Berry Gordy,” Ehrlich told Yahoo of Ross’s performance. “Her relationship with Berry goes way beyond an artist and a record company president, as everybody knows. So, that’s what this was about. So, the songs that she sang, she was very quick to tell me that she knew that Berry always loved the song ‘My Man’ from Lady Sings the Blues, and that was the song she felt she wanted to sing for Berry, and she did. And it was very emotional, and it got him, and it got her. You could see it on their faces.”

Berry Gordy, Rhonda Ross Kendrick, and Diana Ross. (Photo: Lester Cohen/Getty Images)

When introducing the show during the Feb. 12 taping at Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater, Ehrlich summed up Gordy and his record label’s legacy perfectly: “There’s no more important figure in music than Berry Gordy. … [Motown] wasn’t the sound of black America. It wasn’t the sound of white America. It was the sound of young America.”

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, Tumblr, Spotify.

Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle’s newsletter.