Can a song truly define an era?

Can a song truly define an era?

In his bestselling books Cod and Salt, author Mark Kurlansky tries to prove that two seemingly prosaic commodities—guess which—have played pivotal roles throughout history (or at least the sliver of it cluttered up by humans). The premise yields mixed results, but it’s an approach that’s become increasingly popular: viewing the vast panorama of the past through a tiny aperture. Kurlansky’s new book does something similar, only his window has shrunk even more. In Ready For A Brand New Beat: How “Dancing In The Street” Became The Anthem For A Changing America, Kurlansky observes the relatively narrow span of the ’60s via one song: Martha And The Vandellas’ 1964 hit for Motown, “Dancing In The Street.”

“Tumultuous” has become the default adjective for the ’60s, and Kurlansky, brimming with boomer bombast, plays it to the hilt. But he backs it up, resulting in a strong, sensitive, insightful book—one that I enjoyed enough to name one of my favorites of 2013 so far. Still, the book overplays its hand right out of the gate. The introduction ends with this sentence: “In June 1964 the social, political, and cultural upheaval that would be known as ‘the sixties’ was about to explode, and Martha Reeves, knowing little about such things, has just sung its anthem.”

The problem is—specifics of the recording date aside—the name “Martha Reeves” could have easily been replaced in that sentence with “Curtis Mayfield” or “James Brown” or “Sam Cooke” or a dozen others. And that’s just sticking with R&B and not considering, say, Nina Simone’s seminal 1964 jazz hit “Mississippi Goddam.” But Kurlansky brooks no pluralism here; “Dancing In The Street” is, according to him, the anthem of the ’60s. The one and only one that fully emblemizes the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and a host of other issues of the decade, all in one tidy, impeccably catchy package. In short, it’s the one song that truly defines the entire era. But can any one song really do that?

It’s tempting to think so. Bombast, after all, is not exclusive to boomers, and it’s no fun to be a music fan of any age bracket or persuasion unless you can cut loose with a little overblown hyperbole here and there. Music is a passionate thing, and speaking about it passionately is part of the fun of fandom. “Anthem,” though, is a tricky word, and Kurlansky exploits its slipperiness. When he needs it to mean “a song that brings people together in celebration,” he does that. When he needs it to mean “a song that distills the essence of an entity or idea,” he does that too. And when he simply needs to use it to make shit sound all bombastic, he’s not above that.

But the fact remains that anthems are often chosen with the benefit of hindsight, then retroactively assigned a larger role in history than they may have actually had. A glaring example is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was one of many competing, ad hoc national anthems the United States had before finally being enshrined as the official one in 1931, a century after Francis Scott Key’s poem and John Stafford Smith’s music were arbitrarily mashed up by Key’s brother-in-law. Decades of testing and tempering later, it emerged as the once and future national anthem.

That’s what Kurlansky, with nothing but noble intentions, tries to do in Ready For A Brand New Beat. Not that “Dancing In The Street” isn’t a worthy candidate for the anthem of the ’60s. As Kurlansky vividly details in the book, the song—much like “The Star-Spangled Banner”—was a serendipitous alignment of talent and circumstance, the kind that seems to scream some sort of divine providence. Ready For A Brand New Beat recounts how Reeves, already an established Motown star, wandered into Hitsville U.S.A. one day just as Motown songwriters Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson, and Ivory Joe Hunter were playing back a track they’d just recorded, one that tapped into the latent electricity in the air of America. Ten minutes and two takes later, Reeves had recorded a vocal track. She thought nothing of it. The rest is history.

Like history, though, anthems are determined by the victors. Reeves herself, by Kurlansky’s account, is a modest woman in her 70s who still lives in Detroit in spite of its bankruptcy and decay, recently even serving as a city councilwoman. She may be a victor by the metric of cultural criticism, but like so many Motown alumni, she’s benefited less from having sung a decade’s ostensible anthem than might be naturally expected. “Dancing In The Street” has fared better. Having weathered a couple of fairly iffy covers in the ’80s—including Van Halen’s decent one and Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s not-so-decent one—the song is mostly remembered by music fans of all generations as it should be: an exercise in pop perfection, consummate in both conception and execution while remaining simply, instantly universal. Even when roughly translated.

Maybe yoking “Dancing In The Street” with the mantle of anthemism is just too much. In attempting to deify the song, Kurlansky inadvertently dehumanizes it. At its heart, it’s just a song. A good song. A great song. Okay, one of the best songs of the ’60s, if not all time. But to ascribe so much portentous, prophetic significance to giant hooks, infectious beats, impeccable melody, and innocuous lines like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear / Just as long as you are there”? To pump an entire zeitgeist into such an ephemeral confection and expect it to hold up to the strain? It may be done to songs all the time, for better or for worse, from “Hotel California” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but that doesn’t mean those songs end up better—or better loved—for it. Not even the most patriotic American walks around listening to “The Star-Spangled Banned” on their iPod. One can hope.

Maybe the question isn’t can a song define an era, but should it? Once that onus has been dumped upon them, songs rarely survive as songs unto themselves. They take on baggage—for instance, in the case of “Dancing In The Street,” the struggles and angst of an entire generation. Becoming an anthem can become anathema. As much as I loved reading Ready For A Brand New Beat, I wish it had offered a more broad account of how “Dancing In The Street” came into being and why it remains so amazing today, as a living, breathing, moving piece of music—not how it's supposedly chained to a certain time, place, and bedrock of events. Dancing isn’t so easy while carrying that kind of weight.