Monday, July 22, 2013

Martha Reeves: Dangerous radical?

I haven't posted much here lately. I think the reason is that I'm feeling more and more like an old curmudgeon. I have liked very little of what I've been reading or watching on TV, and I am listening to fewer and fewer current musicians. I hate writing negative reviews all the time, so I haven't been writing. But what the hell, I guess I'll embrace the inner curmudgeon and take another shot at reviving this blog.

I'll start with a book I liked but which also had some serious problems. The subtitle of Mark Kurlansky's book tells all: Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America. His thesis is that in 1964, "Dancing in the Street," the classic Motown recording by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, became a rallying cry-song for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This kind of pop culture history is catnip to me, and I don't usually ask for more out of these books than accuracy and entertainment.

Here, the author overreaches, I think, and makes claims too big for him to handle. I was a child of 8 in 1964, and came of age in the 60s, and I agree that "Dancing in the Street" does sound anthemic: it opens with an explicit call to the world, name-checks some big urban centers where unrest did eventually occur (Detroit, New York), and has a classic line about when such unrest often explodes ("Summer's here and the time is right..."). Kurlansky does quote some civil rights activists as remembering that the song did fit in with their ends, and it may have been used on occasion as call to congregate. But to call it "the" anthem of the 60s seems to be a mistake. Songs I can think of that might deserve that title more include "We Shall Overcome," "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and "A Change Is Gonna Come."

What I like about the book: 1) the mini-history of Motown, with some fun tidbits about Berry Gordy and Marvin Gaye (who co-wrote the song)--did you know that Gaye wanted to be the black Frank Sinatra?; 2) the account of the writing and recording of the song. The author spends too much time trying to get someone to admit that the song was actually written to be a call for revolution. No one does (and Reeves in particular forcefully denies that the song was meant to be anything but a party song), and Kurlansky didn't have to try so hard--what really matters is not what was intended, but how it was received by its audience.

What I didn't like: 1) the mini-history of the civil rights movement which at times seems trivialized; 2) the writing--even though Kurlansky has written bestsellers, the writing here is at a college freshman first-draft level. An example: in writing about the early Motown hit "Money," he says: "The song 'Money," written by Berry Gordy, was a song about the obsession with money. Chroniclers of Motown have made much about how this song was about money." My comments: wordy; combine for better flow. I ran into awkward sentences like this throughout. He consistently refers to the Billboard pop top 100 chart as the "white chart," which is incorrect and unfair. It was the mainstream pop music chart, differentiated from the R&B chart and the country & western chart. Even calling the R&B chart the "black" chart, as he does, isn't really accurate.

Still despite these problems, the book was interesting and a fast read. My advice would be to check it out the library rather than buy it, unless you're a Motown academic.