The Meaning and Story Behind “Reflections” by Diana Ross & the Supremes and How It Marked Both the Beginning and End of an Era at Motown

Diana Ross & the Supremes put together a staggering run of hits in the ’60s. The group and their label (Motown) changed with the times as the decade progressed, with deeper songs and more sophisticated sounds the end result. “Reflections,” the band’s 1967 smash, found Ross and company hitting a particularly heady high.

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What is the song about? How did it show off Motown’s dedication to keeping up with the competition in the pop music world? And why was it one of the last hurrahs for their most famous team of writers and producers? Let’s reflect on everything that went into “Reflections.”

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Berry Gordy Jr. proudly ran a hit factory at Motown. Like all factories, improvements and innovations occasionally needed to be made. In the case of this prestigious label, they made sure to never get too stagnant with how they approached their record-making. Gordy, his producers and writers, and his artists and instrumentalists, all kept their ears to the ground to make sure they weren’t left behind.

“Reflections” shows just how clever the brain trust were in trying new things without abandoning what worked for them in the past. The legendary James Jamerson, whose bass can be heard on countless Motown songs, still forms the bedrock of the track with his nimble, melodic work. But producers Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier added the unique sound of an oscillator to create a Morse Code-like effect. This effect mirrors the predicament of the song’s protagonist, who is, in her way, desperate for help.

In an interview with Songfacts, Dozier explained what he and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland had in mind when writing the song:

“It’s about when the love has gone bad, or when things have changed in life. One thing in life that’s ever-changing is tomorrow is always different from today. Things change for many reasons, and you have to be aware of why, and what is happening around you. You have to adapt to the changes in life. That’s what that was about: your reflection on how things used to be, can be, and will be, hopefully.”

The Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting and producing team was as unassailable as any in the music business throughout the ’60s. But as the decade wore on, a rift grew between the team and Gordy. They felt they were being shortchanged for their efforts, while Gordy pointed to their contracts and stood his ground.

It came to a head when the trio decided to leave Motown in 1968. While they eventually worked with Motown again down the road, their departure signaled the end of the first golden era of the label. And “Reflections” turned out to be one of the last gasps of that incredible reign.

What is the Meaning of “Reflections”?

“Reflections” undoubtedly holds a place as one of the darker and deeper songs in the classic Motown catalog. The poetic twists employed by Holland-Dozier-Holland simply can’t be ignored, as on the lines, No love to shield me / Trapped in a world that’s / A distorted reality.

Those lines sum up a lot about the song, as the narrator is endlessly trying to reconcile the beauty of her memories that dominate her mind with the cold reality she now faces: As I peer through the window of lost time / Looking over yesterday / And all the love I gave in vain. She doesn’t pull any punches about what’s been done to her: Right before my eyes / My world was turned to dust. Even with her trademark cool cloaking some of the hurt, Ross lets some of the anguish boil the surface by song’s end.

“Reflections” just missed the top spot in the U.S. pop charts upon its release in 1967. It foretold a coming era at the Motown label, when the experimentation would ramp up and the songs would tackle tougher topics with regularity. But that likely wouldn’t have happened in quite the same way if Holland-Dozier-Holland hadn’t started the ball rolling with this wonder of a song.

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Photo by James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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