How to Make Political Pop Without Trying

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: 50th Anniversary: Singles Collection 1962-1972

Because it’s been ten whole minutes since someone last published a screed decrying the state of rap music.

Not long ago, a woman let her teenaged son take over the dial on the car radio. Big mistake. Instead of the reliably comfortable R&B of her favorite station, she was immediately subjected to song after song seemingly about nothing but strippers, alcohol, and other accoutrements of nightclub life, or at least how it’s been portrayed in rap songs of late. Her son didn’t seem to have a problem with any of this, but it offended her sensibilities on numerous levels.

She wondered if this is what rap music has finally become. Not that she’s a prude in any respect: there’s plenty of rap on her iPod; and in fact her middle son and a relation on her father’s side are both rappers. But the stream of songs about boodies and sex and whatnot pouring out of her radio reminded her what most people outside rap’s core demographic – and many folks inside it as well – can’t stand about the music.

In those eyes, rap’s all about boodies and sex and whatnot, or drugs and guns and whatnot, or money and brazen consumption and whatnot, or some other ghetto pathology or whatnot. What happened to us? Where oh where, the lament goes on, is the mindset of the Golden Age, that period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when rap was said to be black America’s CNN, not its crime blotter?

Where is the music, they beseech, that rises above all that whatnot, to talk to and about our better angels, or at least imagine solutions and alternatives to the grim realities of life in the ‘hood?

It’s certainly not on the radio, and it hasn’t been on the radio in ages, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are artists like the Coup and Killer Mike, who make speaking truth to power their personal business. There are Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest, who speak out against the violence gripping the ‘hoods of their native Chicago. There’s the Roots, who devoted their 2011 album undun to exploring the contradictory swirls of defiance and nihilism driving many a young black male life nowadays. And any number of rappers have weighed in on the issues of their hour, in their own way, without pounding their chests for having made a political statement.

Yet as admirable as their work is, finding the one song that speaks to and of this moment, that can galvanize those who aren’t plugged into the alpha and omega of current rap, is a little tricky. Maybe that’s because it’s so much harder to have a mass hit these days, with the former pop monoculture broken off into a ‘skillion’ Facebook pages and Pandora channels. And, as our befuddled mom discovered, commercial black radio playlists aren’t going out of their way to foment social change.

It may also be that making a socially riveting song in any particular moment is harder than it seems. The standard bearer for political rap is, of course, Public Enemy, and Chuck D still represents that standard after nearly 30 years in the public eye. But for all the band’s politically charged work, no one song sits at the sweet spot of righteous indignation and mass appeal quite like “Fight the Power” (1989):

“Fight the Power” had, and still has, everything. Its hook grabs you from the jump, and an irresistible beat refuses to let you go. Chuck D breaks off some of his most memorable lines ever, and Flavor Flav is at his second-banana best. It captures the energy of its time, the summer of 1989. It is perfectly suited for jump-starting both a political rally and a block party (or a movie that’s a little of both – it accompanied the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). And in case anyone missed any of those qualities, its title — a simple declaration anyone can easily remember — is invoked 31 times.

“Fight the Power” represents a curious dynamic of political pop music. We admire the artists who devote themselves to making socially-minded statements. Activists draw sustenance from their catalogues, their music is part of the movement’s spiritual glue. Yet what we remember most are the songs that get to us in an emotional and visceral way, that propel us into action. We thank these artists for fighting the good musical fight, but what we love best are the hits.

The same dynamic plays out when dialing it back a generation. The late ’60s and early ’70s were ripe with politically charged black pop music. Artists like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Gil Scott-Heron were seen as sages as much as pop stars for their incisive commentaries. Numerous others had their say, but which songs do we remember most about those days? Two, really: James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”.

They couldn’t be more different in tone: the former is jaunty self-assertion, the latter is inward reflection turned outward to the whole of society. But they have a lot in common. Both songs grab your attention in the first ten seconds. Both have simple lyrics that don’t require advanced political theory to grasp. Both have rhythms that carry you along effortlessly. And both deploy their titles as call-and-response hooks, irresistibly fun to sing out loud at either a rally or a party.

And yes, they both, perhaps the most impactful songs of two artists with long and well-honored careers, were massive hits.

The one thing those songs and “Fight the Power” have in common is that they were designed to be impactful. Their creators knew how to make great records, and they deployed those skills in the service of speaking in and to the tenors of their respective times. But there’s another type of pop song that becomes a social anthem – the kind that seems to capture its moment without really trying.

Dialing it back a little further, the mid-’60s saw so many issues coming to such a head with so much passion and momentum, music reflecting the ‘a-changin’ times couldn’t help but happen. Even songs that didn’t have a hint of protest in their core got claimed by the zeitgeist.

Enter “Dancing in the Street”.

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas recorded it for Motown in July 1964. They were not the first choice of the song’s writers/producers, Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Gaye. The trio thought to pitch the song for recording by Kim Weston (Stevenson’s wife), but needed someone to record a demo for Weston to work from. While they were playing around with the backing track, Reeves was in the building; they asked her to give it a shot.

She did so, twice. Take two became history.

All thoughts of Weston or anyone else recording the song ceased immediately. The Vandellas, Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelly, were quickly rounded up to add backup oohs and aahs. The backing track was dynamic, even by Motown standards – a trumpet fanfare kicked things off, and a hard backbeat groove (a departure from the Motown norm of the era), punctuated by tambourine slams on the two and four, made sitting futile. The title was mentioned 26 times in the song’s two-plus minutes, ensuring maximum stickiness. The bridge, in which the music shifts to a minor key while Reeves declares “it doesn’t matter what you wear”, is a composition lesson onto itself. And of course, there was Reeves’ soaring, urgent lead vocal.

Berry Gordy, who had the final say on what singles would be released, thought it was the quintessential hook-happy pop record. “Dancing in the Street” hit the streets 31 July.

It would climb to number two on the pop charts, denied the top rung only by Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”. It spawned cover versions by everyone from the Kinks to the Everly Brothers to Petula Clark. The Mamas and the Papas’ version, more hippie-pop and less groove-heavy, was a hit in 1966. In time, it became something of a rock standard; even an early incarnation of the Carpenters had at it:

(Relax: the sight and sound of Karen Carpenter getting busy on a drum kit emblazoned with her name – not the band’s name, her name – was a revelation on multiple levels for me, too.)

“Dancing in the Street” joined Motown’s burgeoning canon of amazing records immediately upon its release, and in most cases the news would have ended right there. But real-life events seemed to elevate the record from music history into American history.

Its release followed by just two weeks a major riot in Harlem, which would be the precursor to a string of long, hot summers in urban, black America. Five days after its release, the bubbling conflagration in Vietnam was ratcheted up a notch after a series of incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Elsewhere, young activists were being trained that summer to go down into Mississippi to register blacks to vote; three of them – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – would be found dead weeks after they turned up missing. The Republican Party nominated arch-conservative Barry Goldwater for president, and the Democrats refused to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party at its convention.

And if all that was not out-of-this-world enough, on the very day “Dancing in the Street” was released, Ranger 7 beamed back pictures from the moon.

In other words, many of the storylines that made the ’60s ‘The Sixties’ were escalating just as “Dancing in the Street” hit the street. And throughout the next few years, especially when it came to racial confrontations, it came to seem that the record was a ubiquitous, integral element of it all. The record (and it was always the original, never any of the covers) was part rallying cry, part anthem – the one song that captured the tension and exhilaration of the times. But further, an urban legend emerged that it did so on purpose.

Will a New Song Emerge to Start Political Rallies and Block Parties?

Mark Kurlansky, a master at extracting macro from micro (his previous books examine the cultural histories of cod and salt, among other subjects), takes on that legend in his new book Ready for a Brand New Beat, with a subtitle almost as long as the song itself. Frankly, the thought is a tough nut to swallow, even as Kurlansky assembles a somewhat circumstantial case to explain how it took hold.

Structurally, it takes him forever to get to that case. The first 100 pages are essentially backstory on the history of rock, Motown, and the ’60s. It’s obviously important to establish the situational context of “Dancing in the Street”, but little of Kurlansky’s lengthy exposition will be news to anyone familiar with those histories, and it’s hard to imagine the reader who isn’t already familiar with them who would be attracted to this book. Similarly, the last chapter, about Motown after “Dancing in the Street”, is largely superfluous to the main point. A lot less of all that would have been equally effective; for much of its span, Ready for a Brand New Beat feels like an overly padded long-form article or e-book.

When he finally gets around to the subject at hand, Kurlansky captures a fascinating moment in time. Essentially, people read into “Dancing in the Street” what they were feeling as political beings in a highly charged era. The notion became so widespread, Suzanne E. Smith borrowed the song’s title for her 1999 book, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit.

“Dancing in the Street” swiftly became the ignition for both block parties and political rallies. Concerning the latter, Kurlansky quotes Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown talking of how the record, with its modern snap and popping crackle, supplanted the spiritual-based freedom songs that soundtracked the previous few years of black activism in setting the tone for mass meetings. In that respect, the record’s impact carries through to this day: can you recall the last big political campaign event that didn’t have a pop hit blaring through the loudspeakers?

To front-liners like Amiri Baraka, “Dancing in the Street” was always seen as code for black people taking it to the streets (and Kurlansky points out how, for some folks, the ‘Street’ of the title became pluralized in their minds, to represent some sort of more expansive movement) – or as Public Enemy would put it a generation later, partying for their right to fight. Subliminal messages of resistance embedded in black music was nothing new to 1964, of course, and Kurlansky tosses out teasers that maybe, just maybe, the song’s authors might have been thinking such thoughts.

But he contradicts that idea through interviews with Stevenson, Hunter, and Reeves. While they certainly were not immune to the battles going on in society, they assert that they weren’t trying to add fuel to that fire. If there’s any extra edge to the record, Kurlansky reveals its probable source: Reeves prided herself on getting a song right the first time and was not at all pleased about having to do that second take of “Dancing in the Street”; a little of that pissed off-ness surely echoed in her singing.

The one thing the most feverish adherents to the notion miss is that Gordy would never have released anything even remotely confrontational as a pop single in 1964. If anything, his activism was towards mass acceptance, not mass protest. Motown’s acts were singularly polished, groomed, and staged to appeal to middle America. The Supremes made cultural history by appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in gowns and beehives, not at a civil rights rally in jeans and T-shirts. Gordy was not about to sanction music that would signal a threat to his target audience’s comfort level. In fact, he remained notoriously risk-averse when it came to politics in music even as the ’60s marched onwards; he rebuffed “What’s Going On” at first glance in 1970, finally blinking only after a high-stakes game of chicken with his stubborn kind of fellow/mercurial superstar.

“Dancing in the Street” wasn’t the only black pop meme back then that took on larger-than-life assumptions. Los Angeles deejay The Magnificent Montague’s on-air catchphrase “burn, baby, burn”, originally an exhortation to a musician deep in the groove, became a rallying cry of the 1965 Watts insurrection. Such use became so widespread so quickly after the riots started, he was asked to stop saying it for a while and complied. But that didn’t stop the association from burning itself deeply into mass consciousness, as Kurlansky traces the etymology forward to Sarah Palin’s infamous “drill, baby, drill” chant of 2008.

Yet for all his meticulous reciting of timeline entries and factoids, Kurlansky makes no mention of a song whose life and afterlife parallels “Dancing in the Street”, Aretha Franklin’s 1967 breakthrough hit, “Respect”. She, its performers, and its producers invested something in it no one could have anticipated from Otis Redding’s original version two years earlier. A few scant weeks after Aretha’s record took the country by storm, Redding told the throngs gathered at the Monterey International Pop Festival that his composition wasn’t really his song anymore (then sang a blistering, Aretha-fied version of it anyway).

Aretha’s version would have been a game-changer no matter when it was released, on musical terms alone. But it came out in 1967, which had a much different political and cultural vibe than 1965, the year of the original record. By that time, people were taking Aretha’s record to mean a whole lot more than the face value of the lyric “give me my propers when you get home.” It’s impossible to estimate how much of her record’s impact was due to the timing of its release. But, as with “Dancing in the Street”, it’s equally impossible to separate the timing’s impact from its place in our musical history.

The time, ultimately, was right for songs that made a social statement. Many overtly tried and succeeded powerfully. “Dancing in the Street” was and is a great record – it still makes sitting futile. And hearing it even today evokes the emotion and memory of an era when things began to feel different for black folks when it felt like a change was not only gonna come but was in fact already in inexorable effect. It’s perfectly understandable how folks so tired of suffering, and so wired to flip the societal script, could hear such a powerful song and believe the future was not just now, but right now. More than any other record, “Dancing in the Street” embodies Motown’s famous branding slogan “The Sound of Young America”.

So kudos to Stevenson, Hunter, Gaye, Reeves and the Vandellas, and the Funk Brothers studio band for making a timeless record. But if “Dancing in the Street” has any big-picture, sociopolitically anthemic qualities, they are of its execution, not its intention. It did not seek the kind of greatness ascribed to it as Kurlansky chronicles. It simply woke up one morning and found that greatness bestowed upon it.

Indeed, it has most of the same elements as the more overtly political hits discussed earlier. But there’s one crucial element it doesn’t have – the actual desire to make a political statement. That was compensated for by its audience, which projected its own attitudes and hopes onto what was originally just another summertime hit.

And in that summer of 1964, people were already in the street, not necessarily dancing but in motion, nonetheless. The battles for societal and global change were already underway, or soon to escalate, or both. Folks really didn’t need a pop hit to galvanize them into action. The existence of one so seemingly tailor-made for the moment, however, certainly did not hurt.

Half a century later, we’re in the summer of Trayvon Martin and coming to grips with his killer’s acquittal. Masses have taken to the streets after the verdict, just as they did after the act. Even President Obama felt compelled to interrupt the normal flow of events and make his feelings known.

Hip-hop has, naturally, made numerous references to Trayvon. The Village Voice recently compiled several in a blog post (“Rhymes with Rage: Hip-Hop Inspired by the Death of Trayvon Martin”, 15 July 2013), and there’s probably another blog post’s worth or so to come. But will that mom hear any of them on the car radio if she ever again in life lets her son twiddle the knobs? Will one come to represent this moment in black American life? Will there be one, should we hear it months or years from now, that summons the energy and emotion of 2013? Will a record emerge to start a new round of both political rallies and block parties?

Time will tell. But odds are that if such a song does happen, no matter its lyrical content, it’ll have lots of hooks and a really great beat.