November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Disco Inferno | Watch- and Listen-Alikes for Meg Medina’s “Burn Baby Burn”

25982606Set in Queens during the summer of 1977, when serial killer David Berkowitz (known then as the Son of Sam) terrorized the city of New York, Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn (Candlewick, Mar. 2016; Gr 9 Up) is aptly named; the novel crackles with tension. Nora Lopez fears not only the murderer but her brother, Hector, whose behavior is becoming more and more erratic. While she longs for a life with possibilities, reality—seeing her mother work long hours and trying to contribute to her family’s funds herself—has a way of making her dreams seem out of reach. Like many teens, Nora finds a sense of fun and escape in movies, TV, and music, and pop culture references, from Parliament to Carrie to the Eagles, add flavor to Medina’s novel. Teens may want to read the book while listening to the bands and singers Nora mentions. So which tunes would have been on our protagonist’s playlist?

A dance lover and a self-professed fan of Donna Summer (“Love To Love You Baby”; “On the Radio”) and Vicki Sue Robinson (“Turn the Beat Around”), Nora would probably have kept Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From,” Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights,” and KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Keep It Comin’ Love” in constant rotation. Though these songs, like most disco music, had a peppy vibe, there were also examples of deeper, poignant tunes. Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” (released two years after the book was set) was inspired by an experience of one of Summer’s assistants, who was mistakenly assumed by a police officer to be a prostitute, and its lyrics have a more melancholy undertone (“Bad girls/Talking about the sad girls/Sad girls/Talking about bad girls, yeah/See them out on the street at night, walkin’/Picking up on all kind of strangers”).

Similarly, “There but for the Grace of God Go I” was another dance hit with wry lyrics that belie its infectious beat. Released by disco funk group Machine in 1979, the song describes a young couple who abandon their roots and move to the suburbs for what they believe to be a better life (“Carlos and Carmen Vidal just had a child/A lovely girl with a crooked smile/Now they gotta split ‘cause the Bronx ain’t fit/For a kid to grow up in”), only for their daughter to embrace the same world they were attempting to escape. Educated by her best friend Kathleen’s feminist mother and a neighbor, activist Stiller, and all too aware of life’s dangers (“But you can’t always trust a cop, especially not if you have the wrong skin color or a last name like Lopez.”), Nora would definitely have appreciated these offerings for more than just their infectious beats.

Movies, too, play a role in the book. Though Saturday Night Fever hadn’t yet been released in the summer of 1977, there’s little doubt that Nora would have lined up around the block to see it when it released the following December. The story of working-class Italian American Tony Manero (played by a young John Travolta) certainly would have had familiar elements for her. Living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with parents who write him off as a loser, and working in a paint store by day, Tony comes alive on Saturday nights on the dance floor at 2001 Odyssey: the one place where he shines.

While rhythmic and up-tempo, the film’s music reflects a pain and a yearning with which Nora would have identified. From its thrumming, insistent opening riffs, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” conveys an in-your-face swagger, and its lyrics evince anger (“Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around/Since I was born”) and desperation (“Life goin’ nowhere. Somebody help me.”). “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing” evoke the slick, cool factor of disco nights, while the group’s other tunes, such as “More Than a Woman,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and the plaintive “If I Can’t Have You” (performed here by Yvonne Elliman), have a tender feel that sets the tone for Tony’s burgeoning romance with dance partner Stephanie and softens the film’s hard edges. And, of course, Saturday Night Fever also includes the Trammps’ pulse-pounding and utterly energetic “Disco Inferno,” whose lyrics give the novel its title.

Though Nora would have understood Tony’s desire to leave, to escape his toxic family and friends and find a better life, her ethnicity and gender make her far more self-aware. She would certainly have had something to say about his rampant chauvinism (Tony shames friend Annette for promiscuous sexual behavior that he admires in his male companions), and the revelation that he’s been benefiting from white privilege (such as when he’s given a prize in a dance competition that should rightfully have gone to a more talented Puerto Rican couple) is an eye-opening shocker to Tony but wouldn’t have been surprising to Nora.

Released more than two decades after the events of the novel, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999) also explores the lives of a group of Italian American residents of the Northeast Bronx in 1977. Though the characters are older than those of Burn Baby Burn, the music is perfect for those seeking more disco hits: Abba’s “Fernando,” the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” and the aforementioned “There but for the Grace of God Go I.”

While Nora turns up her nose at punk rock (“The Ramones are nothing I’d spend ten hard-earned bucks on.”), readers with more hard-core tastes may appreciate a scene from Summer of Sam featuring “Hello from the Gutters,” a punk song that takes its words from one of the letters Berkowitz sent New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin (“Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C., which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood.”).

Finally, how could we discuss the Seventies without a word about rock? Teens who, like Nora’s brother, Hector, and her love interest, Pablo, prefer rock and roll may want to seek out groups like Led Zeppelin (their album Houses of the Holy, featuring the mournful “No Quarter” and the reggae-influenced “D’yer Maker,” and their Led Zeppelin IV, which includes the groundbreaking “Stairway to Heaven,” are musts for any aspiring rocker). Those who prefer a softer sound will appreciate the Eagles, especially the song that Pablo and Nora listen to while parked together: their slow-paced “Hotel California,” known for its strange, poetic lyrics.

See also:
Burn Baby Burn Book Trailer
Interview: Sizzling Seventies: Meg Medina on Burn Baby Burn
SLJ’s Starred Review: Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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