>Lyrics, (Mis)Heard

>In a previous post, I mentioned the experience of mishearing lyrics, only later to have them corrected. At the time, I was not able to come up with an example of my own, nor did I receive much help from Beth.

Since, though, I was reminded of the song “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. This is not my favorite song, but I enjoy it when I hear it (any distaste I have for it springs from overplay — a phenomenon I call the “‘Cats In the Cradle’ Effect”). Until recently, however, whenever I heard it, I would sing along to the chorus, “Yes, save the dance.”

Obviously, I didn’t even know the title of the song, which again is an interesting instantiation of the exact type of atextual interaction that my previous post was attempting to explore. I could have discovered the song’s title by doing a little research, for sure, but I didn’t really care that much.

Corporate-run radio stations have largely done away with mentioning the names of the songs that they play. This might signal “we all should know,” and it might even encourage outside research for those listeners who are interested in being “inside” whatever loose association comprises any specific radio station’s listenership. But it seems more likely a sign of a general agreement that “if you don’t know, it doesn’t really matter.” Enjoyment of music is not (necessarily) predicated on an identity with the musician, any more than enjoyment of a book is (again, necessarily) linked with some personal association with the author. Further, as is obvious from the above example, neither is music (as literature) enjoyed primarily through a personal connection with the lyrics as written.

People will take issue with this last assertion, and produce examples of song lyrics that touch the soul, or hold so much meaning for them. I am not attempting to say that lyrics don’t matter. I would go so far as to suggest that the lyrics are a major part of what makes modern music so important as cultural product. I am only arguing that, insofar as lyrics do create impact – whether emotionally or socially or politically – they do so largely “as heard” rather than “as written.”

My experience with “The Safety Dance” is appropriate to illuminate at least part of this idea. If I had any interest in listening to the song closely, I would probably have noticed that the first lyrics of the song actually spell out the title. My experiences were instead visceral, bobbing my head and drumming the steering wheel and singing “Yes, save the dance.”

I learned the correct lyrics, and thus the title of the song, only when it was re-released as part of a Glee compilation that Beth bought. The reason I find this example so compelling is that learning the correct lyrics didn’t actually illuminate anything about the song. In fact, the new idea of a “Safety Dance” further mystified what was for me was a relatively straightforward dance song. With my original chorus, the song is about “leav[ing] your friends behind” and dancing in spite of those who might nay-say or poo-poo. Because “your friends don’t dance” it is presumable that they would prefer you not either, and my original chorus suggests that it is these friends from whom the dance must be “saved.”

But a “Safety Dance?” A “Safety Dance” would make sense in the context of further lyrics which described how to do it. Might I suggest,

Put your hand out front and all say “stop!”
Blow that whistle, wave ’em through like a cop.

But in the actual song it seemed to point in the direction of some unknown content, some assumed understanding of which I was obviously ill-informed. I was suddenly an outsider.

Regarding the actual meaning, Wikipedia says:

The writer/performer, Ivan Doroschuk, has explained that “The Safety Dance” is a protest against bouncers stopping dancers pogoing to 1980s New Wave music in clubs when Disco was dying and New Wave was up and coming. New Wave dancing, especially pogoing, was different from Disco dancing, because it was done individually instead of with partners and involved holding the torso rigid and thrashing about. To uninformed bystanders this could look dangerous, especially if pogoers accidentally bounced into one another (the more deliberately violent evolution of pogoing is slam dancing). The bouncers didn’t like pogoing so they would tell pogoers to stop or be kicked out of the club.

So there you have it. I am struck by the distance between the song’s original contextual intent (as propounded by its performer) and its relevance to me as a contemporary listener in the utterly decontextualized environment of corporate-run radio. And yet, even with the lyrics misheard, I was easily able to enjoy the song.

I’m curious as to the possibility that it was just such a mishearing which allowed my easy incorporation of song. I am also interested in the way the song creates meaning for Beth, who now associates it directly with a certain fictional situation from Glee which has close to nothing in common with the original context. But that’s for another day. Here, let me just give you this:

Pick your favorite anachronism.


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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