"Calling out around the world / Are you ready for a brand new beat / Summer's here and the time is right / For dancing in the street"
Some people concluded that this stanza was calling young African Americans to engage in protest – even violent protest.Deep Thought
Martha Reeves dismissed the allegations, saying "Dancing in the Street" was nothing more than a party song. And songwriter Mickey Stevenson has said that the song was inspired by the sight of both black and white kids playing in the streams of water from fire hydrants on hot summer days.
But civil rights activists added fuel to the controversy when they began to play the song at rallies. One of these was H. Rap Brown. Brown became active in the movement while a student at Southern University. He rose through the ranks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) eventually becoming chairman in 1967. But by 1968 Brown had grown disillusioned with the moderate tactics of mainstream civil rights organizations. He joined the Black Panther Party and argued that violence might be necessary to redress the historic crimes committed against America's blacks.
Brown's interpretation of "Dancing in the Street" may have been understandably more political than most. Song co-writer Marvin Gaye (who later released his overtly political "What's Going On"), also denied any political intent, although he later admitted that more than any other Motown group, Martha and The Vandellas "came closest" to saying something political. "It wasn't a nearly conscious thing, but when they sang 'Quicksand' or 'Wild One' or 'Nowhere To Run' or 'Dancing In the Street', they captured a spirit that felt political to me. I like that" (Smith 170).
"They're dancing in Chicago / Down in New Orleans / Up in New York City"
"Dancing in the Street" takes us on a mini-tour of the United States.Deep Thought
If this type of listing off American cities seems familiar to you, well, it should. It's a common trope used in American songwriting, poetry, and literature.
A few years before "Dancing in the Street," rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry released his single "Sweet Little Sixteen," which describes a teenage fan wanting to follow around her favorite bands. Berry lists off a whole bunch of U.S. cities. Soon after, the Beach Boys ripped off "Sweet Little Sixteen" in "Surfin' USA," which listed off places in California to the exact same tune. Can you think of any other songs that try to convey the vastness of the United States by checking off places one by one?
"Oh it doesn't matter what you wear / Just as long as you are there / So come on ev'ry guy grab a girl / Ev'rywhere around the world"
Note that the lyrics of this song (regardless of any connotations that might be read into it) are anything but rebellious or revolutionary.Deep Thought
These lyrics are catchy and upbeat, but they're also controlled. Let's contrast it for a moment (we know, it's a big contrast) with Lady Gaga's 2008 hit "Just Dance," in which she describes losing her keys and phone. The Lady Gaga song is about letting go, feeling the music, and enjoying the eye candy; it's meant for club play. "Dancing in the Street" is, at least on the surface, about having a wholesome, family-friendly time. Dance partners are conventional—guys pick girls, not even the other way around—and you don't have to be dressed to the nines.
This all comes back to Motown's core mission, which was to produce music by African Americans and for African Americans, but mainstream enough to appeal to white listeners as well. That's why Motown resisted so much when Marvin Gaye, one of this song's cowriters and a hitmaker in his own right, insisted on releasing his "What's Going On," a lament about the Vietnam War and a call for people to really think about its consequences.
"Philadelphia, PA / Baltimore and D.C. now / Can't forget the Motor City"
David Bowie and Mick Jagger internationalized the Motown classic in their 1985 cover by adding Brazil, the USSR, China, South America, Australia, France, Germany, the UK, and Africa to the list of places called out to dance in the street.Deep Thought
David Bowie and Mick Jagger recorded their version of "Dancing in the Street" to support Live Aid, a two-continent concert put together by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia.
The Bowie-Jagger cover was recorded in London. It climbed to the top of the British charts and reached number seven on the US Billboard Hot 100.
The lyrics, which had been interpreted politically during the 1960s, received a more salacious re-interpretation after Bowie's ex-wife Angela revealed in a 1990 interview with Joan Rivers that she had caught Bowie, who identified as bisexual, and Jagger in bed together (asleep, as it turns out). Needless to say, the rumors flew, even though both Bowie and Jagger both denied that they had had an affair.
"All the way down in L.A. California / Not to mention Halifax, Nova Scotia"
Halifax, Nova Scotia? This is turning into one heck of a tour.Deep Thought
Nothing against Canada's maritime provinces – they're a beautiful part of the world. But you have to admit, after Martha Reeves has finished running us through Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philly, Baltimore, DC, Detroit, and LA – pretty much every great city of the African-American diaspora – you probably weren't expecting the next stop to be... Halifax.
Moral of the story: finding someplace to rhyme with "California" isn't as easy as you might think.