No Particular Place to Go

This is a relic of another time. Sure, of course Chuck Berry’s DNA is in nearly every strand of popular music. That basically can’t be overstated. But this song belongs to its time, a time when pop music could encompass nothing deeper than the innocent, inherently adolescent and particularly American joys of cruising down the open road and cuddling with your sweetheart. This was in 1964, and Berry’s acolytes were already hard at work breaking those thematic limitations wide open. Soon rock music would become a respectable art form, and songs about riding around in cars would come to seem hopelessly inane. But to view it in context, there’s a reason so many of Berry’s songs appear lyrically shallow and confined to dumb topics like cars and dating. Chuck Berry was one of the most popular black artists of his time, and he achieved that by not sounding too black. He helped integrate the market with hit songs that charted outside the ‘race music’ demographic, and it was partly because on the radio, he sounded white. And it still holds true today that if a black artist wants real mainstream popularity, they have to scrub their work clean of any uncomfortable references to the true reality of their lives, leaving them with not much to sing about except cars and dating. While the censorship is less explicitly pronounced now, we still see that politically outspoken artists experience harsh backlash; witness the hordes who rushed in to call Beyonce the N-word on Twitter because she chose to perform a socially conscious song at the Superbowl instead of an inane one. So what we see in Chuck Berry’s performance isn’t really the lightheartedness of a more innocent time. We see an artist forced to work within very narrow confines of acceptability.

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