How to Make Political Pop Without Trying

“Dancing in the Street” joined Motown’s burgeoning canon of amazing records immediately upon its release. But real-life events seemed to elevate the record from music history into American history.

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: 50th Anniversary: Singles Collection 1962-1972
2 April 2013

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.