“All we need is a drummer/ For people who only need a beat,” sang Sylvester Stewart in 1968. We echo this sentiment subconsciously in nightclubs, concerts and proms, shaking our booties and rattling our limbs to dance music with no mind for the lyrical dressing. But a closer look at the words can reveal a layer to the song that goes beyond the dance floor.
Each of these songs is in some way about dancing itself. They might conceal wisdom about love, sex or break-ups. They might even describe a viral disease used by humans to control Australia’s booming rabbit population. This mixtape traverses all these topics, but in each entry we see how the poetry of dance can be refracted to illuminate anything in the hands of a deft songwriter.
We hope this, the first in the ongoing Mixed Bag series, inspires you to notice the lyrics next time you’re under the disco lights, because where there’s words, there’s words worth listening to.
The Black Ghosts: "The Repetition Kills You"
[from The Black Ghosts, Iamsound, 2008]
This disco-drone single off the Black Ghosts’ self-titled debut purports to be about the daily grind, with lines about banging your head against a wall and stumbling through the night. But the chorus’s falsetto backups hint at a celebration of boredom, taking the pulse of daily monotony to the dance floor. Guest singer Damon Albarn gives away the Ghosts’ strategy with the line: “This is a repetition of words/ Dancing needs a repetition to work.” Is the song a lament of a ho-hum life? Nope, just a ruse to get you shaking some booty.
Hot Chip: "Over and Over"
[from The Warning, Astralwerks, 2006]
As they’re wont to do, Hot Chip get into gangsta lean on “Over and Over” with some faux hip-hop threatening: “Laid back/ I’ll give you laid back.” But beyond the intro the song is relentlessly repetitive, celebrating stupor in the same vein as the Black Ghosts. The sentiment is captured by the line “like a monkey with a miniature cymbal.” In Hot Chip’s world, we’re all wind-up toys, clanging around the dance floor, drunk on “the joy of repetition.”
[from 1999, Warner Brothers, 1983]
Prince gets down to business. Frequently. “D.M.S.R.,” which stands for “dance music sex romance,” might as well be inscribed on his tombstone. And even though dance comes first on this list of Prince’s four favorite things in the world, it’s pretty clear which one he favors most as he unleashes his signature sexy howls while commanding us to wear lingerie “2 a restaurant.”
[from B'Day, Sony, 2006]
This once-ubiquitous dance hit latched itself to the public consciousness not so much with its chorus as with its hooky verse, which opens with “To the left, to the left.” Captivated by the siren, it was weeks before I caught the following line: “Everything you own in the box to the left.” Though it’s clearly a “break up and move on” song, its time on the charts was marked by all sorts of “to the left” dance moves -- shoulder shakes, elbow shimmies and that signature of the uncoordinated: the double thumb point.
Kanye West: "Workout Plan"
[from College Dropout, Roc-A-Fella, 2004]
Kanye was ripping off Daft Punk before he even knew it. “Workout Plan” was one of the first disco-driven rap hits of the 2000s, capitalizing on a danceable electro beat and bringing back the vocoder when T-Pain was still in short pants. Some of West’s jokes sounded dated even in 2004 (“Ooh girl your breath is harsh/ Cover your mouth up like you got SARS”). But the verses double as punny skits while the overall theme -- which harkens back to the early-'90s fitness craze -- keeps things so funny that by the time you realize you’re dancing despite yourself, you’ve already broken a sweat.
[from Hail to the Thief, Capitol, 2003]
Myxomatosis, a disease infecting rabbits, has nothing to do with the rest of this song, which Thom Yorke has said is about one’s words getting misconstrued, “mixed up, strangled and beaten up.” But the line about “cheering and waving/ twitching and salivating like with myxomatosis” rings true for Radiohead concert-goers who have found themselves in the throes of Thom Yorke signature seizure-dance. (Try dancing to “Idioteque”: same results.)
The Rapture: "Olio"
[from Echoes, Universal, 2003]
Revisiting the “over and over” theme, the first track off the Rapture’s Echoes mines the melancholic lyrics of post-punk and new wave and throws them over an updated dance beat. Lines like “Trapped in my thoughts/ You repeating like a machine gun/ Phantasmagoria” could be lifted from a Joy Division song. But despite its melodramatic leanings, “Olio” puts the most emphasis on the line “Over and over again,” giving it the dance thrust it needs and diluting the singer’s specific angst into more general unrest.
They Might Be Giants: "Twisting"
[from Flood, Elektra, 1990]
Penning well more than 100 songs together, They Might Be Giants’ songwriters, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, have total control over their lyrics, flexing the ability to turn nearly anything into a metaphor for something else. Here the joke is on R&B dance crazes, like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” The handclaps-and-organ hook is where the reference ends, though; the song and dance get no mention in the lyrics:
She wants to see you again
Slowly twisting, in the wind
Instead, the twist becomes “twisting in the wind,” spiteful revenge exacted by an ex-girlfriend or ex-wife. The duplicity of the line “she wants to see you again” is also in the couplet, “She doesn't have to have her dB's record back now/ But there's not a lot of things that she'll take back.” This wordplay is par for They Might Be Giants, but it’s underscored by another signature move of theirs -- masking their sadder lyrics with a peppy dance jingle. It’s like bad news and a pick-me-up rolled into one.
Kings of Convenience: "I'd Rather Dance With You"
[from Riot on an Empty Street, Astralwerks, 2004]
Bouncing over plinky piano and plucked violins, this Kings of Convenience song is more a wholesome request than a dance-club come-on. It’s a pick-up line shared between two young people at a bar mitzvah, where there’s nothing to drink and no one else around but tweens and their parents. They spell out the logic in the bridge:
The music's too loud and the noise from the crowd
Increases the chance of misinterpretation
So let your hips do the talking
I'll make you laugh by acting like the guy who sings
And you'll make me smile by really getting into the swing
It’s perfectly charming, a scene that’s been replayed at many an awkward middle school dance.
William DeVaughn: "Be Thankful for What You Got”
[from Figures Can't Calculate, TEC, 1980]
This sunny soul jam from 1972 is barely fast enough to fill a cooling-down spot in a DJ’s dance set; its Curtis Mayfield-influenced lilt is more likely to cause slow driving and extreme leaning than move busting. But a slew of modern dance songs are indebted to its famous chorus:
Diamond in the back, sunroof top
Diggin' the scene with a gangsta lean
The gangsta-lean mentality pervades laid-back pop-rap crossovers, effortless dance hits like Terror Squad’s “Lean Back.” For rappers, it’s a way to stay cool and calm, mugging for the music video without breaking a sweat. For the rest of us uncoordinated victims, it’s a welcome invitation to dance without actually dancing -- the Valhalla for everyone whose love for dance music surpasses their ability to physically express it.
Want more? Check out words, music and MP3s at Wordsworth Media.
Photo Credit: Kyle Gustafson/Prefixmag.com
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