The Eighties and Dancing

Did people not have eyes in the 80s?

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.


9 thoughts on “The Eighties and Dancing

  1. Mary says:

    Dude… Ouch! I *love* dancing! Meanie post… Boo! :-P

    Seriously though, while I dislike our culture’s obsession with the pursuit of vacuous pleasure, that doesn’t mean we should do our best to make ourselves as miserable as possible. If there are things that make us happy, and if dancing expresses that joy (I realize this may not be true for you, and that’s fine), they why not? Dancing is one of the ways in which I express joy most naturally. I dance with friends as an expresion of community and friendship. I dance because music that is beautiful moves me to express emotion through dance. I dance because God has made the sunset beautiful and the He has put a song in my heart and, yes, a dance in my step. If we must repudiate dancing, then we must repudiate song, repudiate art, repudiate enjoying the taste of juicy fruit or good coffee. You sound like you’re advocating ascetism, which is NOT Christian, even if many a muddle-headed Christian has portrayed it as such.

    And don’t forget that joy in the LORD prompted King David to dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Some people thought he looked silly. He didn’t care. He was far too God-entranced.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Mary: I didn’t ever say that my view on dancing was normative or even good. It’s just my view. I studied art, and as a designer, I used to hold a job entirely devoted to aesthetics, so I could hardly be repudiating beauty. I can still repudiate *bad* coffee, though, right?

      • Mary says:

        Okey dokey. Glad you cleared that up. :) Yes, you can certainly repudiate *bad* coffee – and bad dancing too. :] I just reread your post and it’s not as uniformly anti-dancing as I first thought. Sorry for pouncing on you. [eats humble pie] :-P

  2. Mark says:

    LOL! There was some pretty naff music, not to mention music videos, back in the 80s, as even I, a self-confessed 80s child will admit. (“Hello group, my name is Mark and I have Belinda Carlisle CDs.”) Back in the day we “danced” to anything: OMD, U2, Duran Duran, New Order … I think you might have missed out by not experiencing a slow dance or two to Spandau Ballet with one of the “popular girls”. Go in peace.

  3. Daran says:

    and then of course there is Prefab Sprout’s King of Rock and Roll…. hot dog… jumping frog… the rest of the song depends on your ears… some people hear alpha cookie… some have a cooking and yet others… albuquerque

  4. Hephaestion says:

    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.

    The “obsession” to sing and dance is driven by desires honed by evolution. We do them because they make us feel good, not for any intellectual reason. Humans sing and dance for the same reason that other animals do them: ultimately to attract mates, or so thinks Dr Geoffrey Miller at the University of Nevada (see The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature).

    “If you can perceive the quality, creativity, virtuosity, emotional depth, and spiritual vision of somebody’s music, then sexual selection through mate choice can notice it too, because the perceptions of ancestors with minds like yours were literally the agents through which sexual selection operated.”

    Music and dance show no clear function in terms of survival, but they do in terms of reproduction. The average American teenager spends about 2 hours a day listening to music. 40% of that music is about romance and sex. Also, musical productivity (on average) tracks sexual interest, rapidly rising after puberty, peaking in early adulthood and then slowly declining. Almost everyone enjoys music and the industry is huge.

    That is not to say that we do these things with the conscious intention of attracting mates. We do many things simply because they feel good, blissfully unaware of the broader evolutionary drivers. It doesn’t have to be singing and dancing – any virtuoso performance will grab the attention, from football to ice-skating, cooking to tea-making. We appreciate artists. “Art” suggests superiority and high achievement, something that is difficult to achieve and difficult to fake. This is how we (unconsciously) advertise our genetic wares.

    It’s not so much what is produced by the artist, but that it can be produced. Artistic ability is a fitness indicator. According to Miller, “Applied to human art, this suggests that beauty equals difficulty and high cost. We find attractive those things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health, energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time.”

    So we are driven to pursue things that give us pleasure, such as eating, drinking, dancing, singing and having sex because these are things that are selected for, either through natural selection or sexual selection. In evolutionary terms, these are things that work, that are successful.

    We’ve been artistically inclined since before recorded history without detrimentally affecting society. So, go ahead, dance if you want to. The “selfish pursuit of pleasure”, whether through music or dance, feels as good now as it did 10,000 years ago, and is just as harmless.

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