Last time I went on for a bit about what it is that makes music (and art in general) successful, and I thought truly good art must be a mature exploration of a shared experience or emotion. As I said, one of the genres of music that routinely fails to delve below the surface is dance music.
Nothing in the last week or two has done anything to alter my view on that, but as my wife has been digging up some nostalgic party music for a big birthday that she is planning, I was confronted again with the impossibly pervasive obsession with dancing in the Eighties, and one particular song that I seem to have radically misunderstood.
I hate dancing. People who are dancing just look impossibly alien to me. It all might stem back to Grade 6, when for the first time, our school class party was a disco, and some well meaning teacher dragged me out from under the table to insist that I participate in the popularity-ranking exercise that was about to take place. As it turns out, I was the most desirable of all the outcasts. The kids engaging in pre-teen romances all got to dance together first, while the rest of us waited for a partner to become available. Once Popular Girl X had had a go with her boyfriend, she surveyed the nerdly gathering on the side of the dance-floor, and with a palpable sense of relief, grabbed me before anyone else did, which would have forced her to pick from further down the food chain. I’m that cool. Not knowing how to dance, I uncomfortably tried to mimic her sidestep-fingerclick routine in the hope that no-one would notice.
I was not, then, an adopted child of the Eighties, because everyone then seemed to take dancing as seriously as politics or bubble perms. Having listened to too much Eighties music in the last few weeks, I’ve discerned a few ways in which dancing is used as a theme:
- Dancing as dancing: songs in which dancing means dancing.
- Dancing as a celebration of youth
- Dancing as a symbol of the struggle of life (Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark comes to mind)
- Dancing as a symbol of rebellion against ‘squares’ or ‘the man’
- Dancing as a symbol of protest, either against seriousness or oppression
So dancing can appear in 80s music as the most empty-headed motif imaginable, or as a heavily potent symbol. It appears in the worst pop nonsense and some of the best musical artistry of the era. I mistook one particular song for the former, but I’ve recently come to think of it as the latter. That song is Safety Dance.
We can dance if we want to
We can leave your friends behind
‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance
Well they’re no friends of mine
I say, we can go where we want to
A place where they will never find
And we can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind
And we can dance
We can dance, we can dance
Everybody look at your hands
We can dance, we can dance
Everybody takin’ the cha-a-a-ance
A song that demands that one must have a love for dancing is likely to rub someone like me up the wrong way, and when its sound merely imitates a hundred other pop songs from that period, and when it includes the lyric ‘everybody look at your hands’, I couldn’t help thinking it was the worst that the 80s had to offer.
However, once I saw the video, I immediately changed my mind, and even then, only because of the last half-a-second. The bulk of the video involves the band members dancing around in Medieval circus dress with the assistance of some vertically challenged people. The very last few frames, however, are split-second flashes of bombs, planes and other war machines.
The jarring contrast of war with frivolity completely changes what the song seems to me to be saying. There are a few possibilities, of course – it might mean to be a longing for a simpler time when we weren’t capable of self-extinction as a species. But given the tongue-in-cheek presentation of song and video, it might well be intended as entirely ironic. Perhaps the band is critical of the obsession with dancing, because the selfish pursuit of pleasure creates a culture of apathy or even denial towards the serious social issues that we all face, as typified by modern warfare. So what I had taken to be the typical example of the empty-headed 80s dancing cult might actually be intended as a criticism of it.
Whatever the Men in Hats were trying to communicate, I’ve managed to convince myself that there is much more than meets the ear. I sleep that much better at night.