Over the past few weeks I have become increasingly familiar with the song “Dance Monkey,” by the oddly titled singer-songwriter Tunes and I. This song first became a smash hit in Australia, where it has been #1 for a period of almost four months to date, and it has since become a longtime #1 hit in the UK while also rapidly rising the charts in the United States. And while there are some people who love the song and some people who dislike the admittedly rather harsh voice of the female singer of the material, the song has layers of irony that I do not think have been sufficiently well understood and I will do my best to discuss at least some of them today, seeing that the song is itself both a massive exercise in cynicism as well as being a hit that has become massively popular in large part due to the cynicism of the music industry as a whole. I do not consider this to be necessarily a good thing, but I do believe it to be an important thing, and something that has not really been sufficiently discussed. When a song that openly mocks and expresses frustration with the workings of the music industry is simultaneously promoted around the world by that same music industry, something is going on that requires our attention.
“Dance Monkey” is by no means the first song that has become popular and well-known that expresses frustration with the music industry. Indeed, there is an entire selection of such songs which is worth discussing. Let us keep in mind that the following selection is by no means a complete listing of such songs, but rather a selection of the broad scope of such songs across time and genres. Just this year a song became a massive hit that expressed the emptiness and futility of success in the pop music world in “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” by Panic At The Disco!, which was once a group but has since become a one-man operation. More than 20 years ago the singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb turned her frustrations about label interference into her recording in the expectation of a hit into a song called “I Do,” which itself rather predictably became a hit. A similar experience led to similar results by Wheezer with their successful alt rock single “Pork & Beans,” where a track showing frustration with label attempts at marketing a hit single through dubious means itself became a hit single that justified after the fact that very label interference. Even as far back as the 1970’s the song “Have A Cigar” by Pink Floyd showed the cynicism that band had with ignorant label executives who promised glittering prizes and ignorantly asked which member of the band was Pink. An even earlier example and a tragic such story is that of the doomed power pop band Badfinger, whose first hit “Come And Get It” expressed a cynical view of taking the money and running, coming itself from the soundtrack to a cynical movie of opportunistic behavior called The Magic Christian. The band, in retrospect, should have walked away from a fool and his money, but they did not and paid a terrible price for the corrupt business practices of those around them, including their two talented songwriters being driven to suicide in despair over what had happened to them in the music industry.
Nor is it unusual for bands to be tired of their biggest hits. One of the enjoyable aspects of watching compilations of one hit wonders is seeing how an act deals with the sudden and massive and lasting popularity of one song over an entire body of work. Some acts lean into their status, pointing out rightly that it is far better to be a one hit wonder than to have no hits at all. Other acts, though, appear offended to have even been popular and want nothing to do with the heavy weight of a hit single that mainstream audiences may love but which may compromise the sort of reputation that the act has sought to maintain. For example, the singer-songwriter Imani Coppola reached the top 40 with her single “Legend Of A Cowgirl” and had no interest in mainstream success or in continuing to play that song in concerts after it gained popularity. She wanted hipster glory of being obscure and talented but unappreciated by the masses, and that is what happened. Similarly, Carl Anderson found that the success of his sweet but middle of the road romantic ballad “Friends and Lovers” threatened his credibility as a jazz vocalist, and so he was reluctant to celebrate his successful adult contemporary duet because it clashed with the image he wanted to build for himself. It is rare, though, for an artist to express being sick of a one-hit wonder song and its lingering effects in one’s first and possibly only hit. Usually one has to wait at least a little while to be sick of the music industry machine, and not be sick of it from the very start of one’s musical career.
What is to account for this premature cynicism? And why would the music industry want to promote a song that expresses such a cynical motive, which amounts to a serpent devouring its own tail or a demented kingdom being divided against itself? On the one hand, it is clear that cynicism sells and that the music industry has correctly judged the interests of the music-listening audience in expressing their disdain and cynicism towards the dark satanic mills of the music industry by giving them a song that is simultaneously an artistic example of such disdain while hypocritically being a product of that criticized music industry. Even in the act of consuming and appreciating a song like “Dance Monkey,” one is promoting the same music industry that one views with contempt and disdain. We cannot help celebrating industry plants and machinations and corruption even while being hostile and dissatisfied about it. Is this conscious irony or unconscious hypocrisy on the part of Tones and I? Does she know that her life is likely to resemble her song, in that either she will be defined by one massive hit or she is going to be pressured by her labels and producers and others around her to do it all again and create another song to be enjoyed and consumed by a mass audience so that she can fulfill her own obvious careerist ambitions as a musician? Do we as audiences recognize that however hostile we may feel about the music industry that even the celebration of newcomers and apparent outsider acts and genres and means of listening to music itself is providing ways for our consumption to be shaped by corporate interests and the fulfillment of the ambitions of careerist musicians? The tangled interconnections between creators and consumers and marketers are difficult to explore in good faith and open honesty, and it seems that we have lost our way in looking for the good life by settling for trite hypocrisy and cynicism. How will we rise above it?