As we trundle headlong into another season without measurable rain in Tha City of Angels (or anywhere else, for that matter — climate change is real, folks), another thing seems real: the lack of a distinctive sound to help us define what is shaping up to become a second FULL YEAR of this “thing” that’s keeping us all socially distant and masked up. In years past, I could easily define where I was in life by what was #hawt on the airwaves. “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s. “Good Times” by CHIC. “Beat it” by MJ. “When Doves Cry” by Prince and the Revolution. “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. “Will the Wolf Survive” by Los Lobos. “My Philosophy” by Boogie Down Productions. “Fight the Power” by PE. “Radio Gaga (Live Aid 1985 version)” by Queen. “Discotheque” by U2. And jams of more recent vintage as “Every Corner” by Julie Plug, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, with a wee bit of help from Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, “Firework” by Katy Perry, “Tonight” by Jay Park, and “Go Away” by 2NE1. Ahh, yes, time was, a whole raft of these songs and many others occupied a “Wear Me Out” section on my iTunes playlist. many of them still do.
This summer, though, felt as musically barren as this never-ending heat wave we’ve been enduring. I mean, a monstrosity as “Stay” by Kid Laroi and, [gulp] JUSTIN BIEBER a “defining” summer song?” Dude, I don’t think so. When one of the most compelling songs this summer is in fact a warmed-over version of a hit that came out back in FEBRUARY ahead of Super Bowl Sunday (The Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” with a new vocal track by Ariana Grande), then THAT’s when we all know we’re scraping the bottom of a dry musical barrel.
Instead, this summer of caution and exasperation has crystallized for me in two older songs that I’ve been playing incessantly online for the better part of summer. One, by an uncompromising musical pariah, comes from an album I have absolutely cherished since I first bought it in 1990, but inexplicably don’t have as part of my iTunes library. The other, a memory from my years of KKKatholik Skewl ambivalence, has allowed me to reflect deeply on the Nixon years that I grew up in.
The subject matter of Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds”) seems specific to late 1980s London, but in light of way too many recent incidents here in America, is disturbingly resonant: British patrol officers investigating a burglary and advised to be on the lookout for Black suspects chased a couple of local teenagers who were puttering around on borrowed mopeds. The two, in a desperate panic to evade the cops, crashed their mopeds and died at a petrol station. This assumptive profiling, with predictably lethal consequences, reminds me that Sinead was telling us something we shoulda known all along, but we are only now waking up to: peoples of color aren’t valued in this society, one in which Whyte Permissiveness to Oppress is a right seemingly given by a God that isn’t relevant to us any longer.
The sheer joy of the Fifth Dimension’s “Dont’cha Hear Calling to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” from Amir “QuestLove” Thompson’s masterful SUMMER OF SOUL was a much-needed highlight of the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and it was inevitable that Hulu would position the documentary — about the legendary and long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of summer 1969 — as a summertime release. I watched it, again, on a big screen to take in all the goodness of the experience, and while folks will have to watch the film on Hulu, people who have access to YouTube can watch the “Summer of Soul” Premiere Viewing Party held on Juneteenth at the site of the Harlem Music Festival, now Marcus Garvey Park (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rITd_tlRlw&t=839s; the segment featuring two original members of the Fifth Dimension, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. starts at :13:59). If you’re watching the film on Hulu, the full segment is about twelve minutes in, intercut with a revealing commentary by Marilyn and Billy that underscores the group’s struggles to be fully accepted by the African American community. If you want to jones on the original versions of the two songs captured in the film, go to here:
So, it’s back to downtempo trip stylings. I’m not gonna sit around waiting for something good to save my summer. If I want that, then I’ll save up my bones to spend on Beyonce’s latest. Now if you excuse me, I got a recall ballot I need to fill out and mail in…
Summer of Soul poster. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Fox.
Author’s Bio: Abraham Ferrer was born a gemini, and to this day lives in alternate musical galaxies: on some days, he wishes he were Stevie Wonder, and on others, Joe Strummer. Since the early ’80s, he has been a staff member at Visual Communications, the nation’s premier Asian Pacific American media arts organization, a place where folks have grooved to tunes ranging from The Stylistics to, ahem, 2 Live Crew. Characteristic of most VCers past and present, Abe functions as a human Swiss Army knife, contributing collateral and publication design, photography, grantwriting, and film curation and event programming and organizing.
The Fifth Dimension at the Harlem Cultural Festival, 1969. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Fox.