The moment I heard this was written in oral history style, I added this book to my TBR so fast I can’t even. In fact, I found out early enough that I requested (and received) an e-ARC from NetGalley. I naturally haven’t gotten around to writing a review until post-pub date, because that’s how things go (and because this last five weeks of work has been…intense). But the main point is that I freaking LOVED Daisy Jones and the Six, it was a Top Ten of 2019 for me, and this seemed similar (as far as style and topic) so I figured I’d be into it. Wow – I was RIGHT.
It’s the early 1970s when Nev, a British singer-songwriter, “discovers” Opal, a young Black woman, at an open mic night at a bar in Detroit. Nev invites her to be his partner in a rock duo group for the small Rivington Records production company. After a so-so debut album release, they agree to participate in a small showcase of all Rivington Records’ talent, despite some reservations about the other acts. When a chain of reactions leads to a tragic finale to the event, Opal and Nev’s responses, emotionally and politically and musically, catapult them onto a nation-wide stage. Years later, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton grabs an opportunity to interview both Opal and Nev (and their associates from those years at Rivington, as well as others involved in the violent showcase event and their following years, specifically, Opal’s friend and stylist Virgil Lafluer), as press for an upcoming reunion show. Her personal connection to Opal and the duo’s music causes emotions to flair and some ugly and difficult truths to emerge leading up to the final time Opal and Nev take the stage together.
Well, I was right and wrong. This is both like and very unlike Daisy Jones. I stand by the fact that, if you loved that book, you’ll also love this one, but I also have to boldly say that this one is just that much better. It takes the things I loved about Daisy Jones – style and topic – and adds some freaking phenomenal and hard-hitting socio-political context. Before I talk more about that, I just have to reiterate right here that I think the oral history style of story-telling is one of the most versatile and engrossing and I get lost in it so quickly and easily and wonderfully. Also, in this case, I actually really enjoyed the addition of the writer’s POV. Since Sunny, as the journalist compiling all this oral history, has such a personal connection and insight into the story herself, getting that additional perspective added in was unique and a very compelling POV through which to examine Opal and Nev’s story. Plus, I was really into the way real life activists and musicians and famous names (Questlove, Quentin Tarantino, Gloria Steinem and lots more) are dropped/quoted about Opal and her character and in response to the Showcase and any/everything else covered in the novel. It was so fun!
Alright and now, the socio-political context aspects. I loved what Walton did presenting the way that art and music are a way of both promoting and questioning a status quo. She leans hard into the way it can be used to start or give momentum to a movement or highlight areas where social justice is needed/people are being failed by their county and fellow people. But at the same time, she is able to communicate how it can also fail us, how it can bring people together in a surface-level way that actually ends up doing nothing to address inequalities outside the shared interest in listening to or creating it. And there is, similarly, an intense look at the way the music industry takes advantage of music as art that could make change and bends it into something that’s only goal is profit and fame. These explorations and demonstrations are all represented and intertwined wonderfully, within a context that also looks more individually at the musicians for whom this is both a higher calling but who also must make concessions they’d rather not because the music is also their actual livelihood. The way many of the characters, but especially Opal, must compromise within that framework, and the way those decisions impact their lives, relationships, public persona, and internal satisfaction/mental health is gripping to read. Similarly, the moral dilemma struggle for Opal, that of taking advantage of Black pain to succeed being offset by the spread/audience her activist ideologies could be spread to is difficult, but fully portrayed in its complexity. And the way that Nev deals with this, or, really, doesn’t have to, is just as clear and difficult message about the reality in this country when it comes to race. So basically, here, I just want to repeat the incredible nuance with which Walton handles the examination in the confluence of racial tension and divide throughout (more recent) US history, the power dynamics within the US as a nation and within the music industry as a sub-cosmos, and the way music/art play such a major role in public opinion and true change in this inequality related to the worth of Black lives, both historically and today.
I was completely absorbed into this story and story-telling. Walton created an iconic character with Opal, and then took that larger-than-life persona and gave readers a look at the real person behind the façade in a way that felt so genuine. She also tackles thorny conversations about race and fame, and chronicles the way music turns into a performance, a movement, a something even greater and with a life of its own, in a way that both interrogates and entertains. Just really a spectacular and mesmerizing novel!
A few (ok, maybe more than a few) quotes that I marked while reading:
“There was no escape to be had, anywhere, by being so damn regular.”
“The music itself don’t have a color. It’s a continuum that starts with the drum and branches out from there. The industry and the money, that’s what can mess everything up.”
“See, this is what I say about America – we always gotta be assigning shit, always labeling and stuffing it in a box. Always dictating who’s allowed to own what. But end of the day, that don’t have nothing to do with the music, you dig? The music is fire and passion and soul, and however you express it is how you express it.”
“Here’s the thing I’ve learned: When you approach art with the goal of making a quick and dirty buck, that’s fine; sometimes it has to be done. But nothing that happens as a result should come as a surprise to you.”
“My armor was me, my best asset. It kept me protected in this world. A world that either hated me or just didn’t know what to do with me.”
“I wanted to curate this story standing on the premise that the lives and legacies of Black men […] cannot be reduced to the awful shit white men do to them. That the voices of Black women like Opal should not be discounted or diminished in deference to those who have hijacked our shine whenever it suits.”
“…there’s nothing like the first time you take on a thing that scares the shit out of you and discover the intensity turns you all the way on.”
“It’s dangerous, yeah, to make art that has people stepping back and thinking critically about the world and the institutions and the orders that we’ve allowed to have control over us. Someone’s always going to be upset; someone’s always going to feel implicated.”
“There’s too much work to do in this revolution and too many people to wake up. Too much to fight. Nobody has time to get waylaid by fear.”
“Many things can be true at once, and we must find inspiration in the materials we have.”
“Wasn’t that a glimmer of hope that truth could check power, and isn’t hope the entire point? The reason any of us raise our fists and run our mouths? The reason we dare to imagine a “better” exists?”
“But aren’t we supposed to be better and smarted because of the challenging art that makes us uncomfortable? Isn’t the culture better for it? Or does that only apply when heterosexual cisgender white men do the challenging?”