In the New Yorker today, Rollo Romig reviews Mark Kurlansky's Ready for a Brand New Beat, a book about the radical history of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' Motown staple. Mr. Romig's thoughts include a nice bit of personal local flair about this song and about living in Detroit in the '80s.
I rarely went out of my way to listen to Motown; living in Detroit, you never had to. It was everywhere, even decades after its heyday. Motown was music for which I felt both great pride—all Detroiters did, earned or not—and slight embarrassment. Lots of Motown songs were irresistible; I thought it inconceivable that any singer could be greater than Stevie Wonder, and I still do. But lots of it sounded pretty square, too. I was appalled at the way Motown was milked for maudlin nostalgia in the movie “The Big Chill,” including Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” and David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s obnoxious 1985 cover version of that song seemed to epitomize that decade’s phony enthusiasm. Every time I heard “Dancing in the Street” after the mid-eighties, I cringed. It seemed to me like a simple song too often pressed into service for an easy jolt of uplift, its optimistic fanfare clashing uncomfortably with the hard facts of a city in such bad decline that last week it filed for bankruptcy.
The last thing it sounded to me was dangerous. After 9/11, the radio conglomerate Clear Channel put together a list of some hundred and fifty songs it advised its stations to avoid playing, and the inclusion of “Dancing in the Street” made it seem like a joke. I was immediately curious, then, when I learned that Mark Kurlansky had written a whole book about “Dancing in the Street,” and its supposed status as a radical anthem. Called “Ready for a Brand New Beat,” Kurlansky’s book is comprehensive; no known fact about the song “Dancing in the Street” seems to have escaped its pages. If I’d been wrong all along about “Dancing in the Street,” this was the place to find out.