Dance Music and the Tragedy of Hedonism

I have always been struck by how many extremely popular dance music songs are when actually reflected on, incredibly sad. And yet this is completely contrasted by the context in which we listen to them – hitting the dancefloor with friends, working up a sweat at the gym or throwing a party.  It is a strange phenomenon – almost as if, consciously or unconsciously, the tragedy of hedonism is ingrained into the music.

To research this idea fully, I went through dance music classics, listened to them carefully and read the lyrics. Here is what I found:

Rhythm Is a Dancer by Snap – the lyrics are all concerned with freeing your mind and joining in as you lose yourself to the rhythm. It is a beautiful sentiment despite the pretty bad rap: I'm serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer. But the song sounds so sad – as if it is self-reflective and knows that these moments come and go, and they can’t last forever.

What Is Love by Haddaway – repeatedly questions what love is and keeps asking, ‘Baby, don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me no more.’

It’s My Life by Dr. Alban - which asks the world to ‘Stop fighting me, stop killing me’ and repeats, ‘It's my life, my worries (it's my life) / It's my life, my problems (it's my life).’

These were the first three I looked at and I wondered if this was trait unique to the 80s, so I moved forward in time into the 90s:

Show Me Love by Robin S – is all about heartbreak:

Heartbreaks and promises
I've had more than my share
I'm tired of giving my love
And getting nowhere, nowhere

Gypsy Woman by Crystal Waters – famous for the ‘la da dee, la dee da’ refrain, is a poignant, touching song about a homeless woman who thinks of herself as beautiful despite the fact ‘She's homeless, she's homeless / As she stands there singing for money.’

Insomnia by Faithless – about, well, not being able to sleep unsurprisingly:

Keep the beast in my nature
Under ceaseless attack...
I gets no sleep
I can't get no sleep

I then moved into the 2000s and up to the present and kept finding the same:

Romeo by Basement Jaxx – another dance classic about heartbreak:

'Cause you left me laying there
With a broken heart
Staring through a deep, cold void
Alone in the dark

Say Something by Tiësto – about potentially losing a love:

Say something
I'm giving up on you
I'll be the one
If you want me to

Heartbroken by T2 – another which does what it says on the tin:

I'm heartbroken (without your love)
I'm heartbroken ('cause I've had enough)
I'm heartbroken
And I don't know what to say
I've never felt this way

Look Right Through by Storm Queen and MK – is all about feeling invisible:

Seven long years
Of moving through the streets
Letting people in
But they don't talk to me
They look right through

I then switched and tried to find any that were purely upbeat and positive. Of course, there are some, but they are harder to find and, in my opinion, nowhere near as good.

I am not a musical expert, but one commonality, as well as having sad lyrical themes, is that the majority are in a minor key, often associated with evoking a feeling of sadness. There are several studies on why the minor key makes us feel sad, but it does seem to be universal across cultures. Interestingly, there has been a rise in the use of the minor key in popular music, with roughly half of top 100 in recent years in the minor key. Still, with regard to dance music, it does then beg the question: Why does so much music designed for when we are meant to be at our happiest use a sound that actually makes us feel sad?

It is certainly true that we may not really register this when we are dancing along to a song. And it is also true that we often don’t reflect on the lyrics and just get taken along by the beat. However, it is still interesting that the lyrics to many dance classics are quite clearly sad and full of pain when we mainly use them to feel good, laugh, and dance with friends.

Deep down, a lot of them, capture a very beautiful and poignant truth. The truth is that life is full of pain, and sometimes, we want to run from that pain into a hedonistic state where we can just be. However, these moments of joy and blissful ignorance pass, and we all know deep down that hedonism isn’t the answer. These songs are beautiful reflections on that very truth.

The greatest dance song of all time (I will not have this argued), Freed From Desire by Gala, articulates the futility of desire as a source of happiness. And one of the things we should be most ashamed of as a society is that this song only ever reached number two in the charts, beaten by I’ll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans. Gala’s song tells us that seeking money, fame or power as sources of fulfilment is a fool’s errand. It tells us that an attachment to desire will ultimately lead to suffering and that we should instead strive for ‘freedom and love.’

If dance music normally encapsulates our futile search for bliss in moments of hedonism, joy and happiness – then Gala reminds us that true contentment can be found when we are ‘freed from desire’ with our ‘mind and senses purified.’ Now, that is a sentiment I can happily dance to. Na-na-na-na-na, na-na, na-na-na, na-na-na.

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