Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” Saved My Life, Sort Of
Let me explain...
Still from "Dancing in the Moonlight" via YouTube.
"Dancing in the Moonlight" is an absolutely mental song. It is – and I'm talking about the Toploader cover, now, not the original by King Harvest or the 1994 junkanoo version by Baha Men (which is a thing that exists, by the way) – totally fucked. I don't want to know what darkness lurks in the past of someone who wrote that keyboard melody. The one that just sort of goes in and stays with you forever, like an embarrassing memory. That time you were making small talk about popcorn with the guy who works at the corner shop but you zoned out counting change and only caught the tail end of a sentence that sounded like a question so you took a stab in the dark with, "uh, no?" and then had to spend the rest of the conversation pretending you don't know what cinnamon is; that's the keyboard melody of "Dancing in the Moonlight". It is an unshakable full body cringe.
The comedic value of Toploader's "Dancing in the Moonlight" has already been identified within two key moments of British entertainment. Once in an episode of Peep Show, where it plays in the background of a JLB office party while Mark asks Sophie about her childhood pets in order to figure out her email password and she interjects to, very on-brandly, exclaim "Ooh! I love this song!" Then there's its appearance in Chris Morris' jihad satire Four Lions, in which four useless terrorists from Sheffield attempt to carry out a bomb plot at the London marathon. Omar, Waj and Hassan (but not Barry, obviously), sing along to it as they drive down the M1 getting all honked up to commit suicide.
Contextual differences aside, the dynamic of these two scenes is quite similar. The reason why "Dancing in the Moonlight" is so funny, I think, is because of the relationship between its two conflicting interpretations. There are only two types of people in the world: those who genuinely think "Dancing in the Moonlight" is sick, and those who think "Dancing in the Moonlight" is not sick. When the twain interact, humour occurs. The first lot simply enjoy the song and think little else of it, while the latter consider its very existence a personal attack and anyone who doesn't share their hatred for it complicit in the downfall of mankind. "Dancing in the Moonlight" is a reflection of personalities at odds; judgement versus innocence; lack of ability to enjoy anything wholly versus… happiness(?); deeply rooted pessimism versus a kind of pleasure that elicits eye rolls because it is being gained from something perceived to be lacking in value, like a BuzzFeed listicle or the films of Hugh Bonneville.
The song is also funny because, like, have you heard it? There is a moment 2 minutes and 26 seconds in where vocalist Joseph Washbourne shrieks like a crow being shot, which I don't think has been fully addressed, and some bass thumps later in the song that sound less like an artistic choice and more like someone tried to barge down the door of the recording studio to prevent Toploader from making such an upsetting piece of music. Have you noticed how "dancing in the moonlight" is the end of every single verse as well as the end of the chorus and also the beginning of the chorus? Madness. In the YouTube comments someone has written, "The guitarist lives down my road," which really could be the be all and end all of commentary.
But I have some additional opinions on it based on the fact that it saved my life… sort of.
It was a joke, at first.
My flatmate and I were chronically hungover one morning when that keyboard line – that keyboard line, the one that sounds like car sickness – came floating across the living room from the stereo. She buried her head inside her shirt and slid slowly down the sofa. I laughed. A lot. Until my stomach felt like a bag of bruised fruit. I didn't feel hungover anymore – I felt dizzy with joy, like I'd mainlined maple syrup. The degree to which she hated it only made it funnier. After that I brought it up constantly. I dropped it during every hangover, every time the group chat got too livid, whenever someone fucked up in a really inconsequential way. It became the punchline of everyday tragedy. Then it began to take on its own meaning.
The basic framework of a depressive episode, for me, involves a lot of repetition. I wake up, play the same 3 songs (carefully selected for their lack of emotional resonance) on repeat for the 50 minutes it takes to get to work, eat the same sandwich for lunch, go home and watch endless episodes of a TV series I have already seen endless times until I pass out. If I can't get out of bed then I just skip straight to TV, which is how I recently burned through 90 episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine in three days. There is safety in the familiar. Breaking routine could mean having to deal with something unexpected, which is out of the question. As I clambered through this season's particular episode – Depression 2017, Summer Collection – there were a substantial number of days where all I could do was listen to "Dancing in the Moonlight". It became a sort of accidental mascot for my madness.
Sat on the top deck of a bus on my way to an Important Function that I desperately wanted to avoid because I was too anxious not to drink and too unstable not to do several regrettable things after two beers, I stuck on "Dancing in the Moonlight" to gas myself up. The day after, as I scrolled back through my texts, DMs, camera roll and the havoc wrought within – just countless permanent errors – I made a playlist that featured "Dancing in the Moonlight" 25 times and turned it up so loud I couldn't think. One especially bad morning I got up and knelt at the foot of my mirror to brush my hair. I didn't even manage to pick the brush up before my brain said NOPE and my body involuntarily tilted to the side – like how a motorbike would fall over without a prop stand – and landed on the carpet with a thud. After about an hour of lying in the foetal position I mustered enough energy to smack my hand down on my laptop keyboard to play the "Dancing in the Moonlight" playlist. Can you think of an image more pathetic than a small adult crying in their pants to "Dancing in the Moonlight" on repeat? No, you can't. It is hands down the world's most pathetic visual. It's like a scene that would've been cut from a Simon plot line of the Inbetweeners for being too awkward. After two spins, I got up and picked out a t-shirt.
It's obvious why it works. "Dancing in the Moonlight" helped get rid of a negative feeling one time and now I'm psychologically programmed to respond to it positively, like the Pavlov's dog of admin rock. A part of what makes me spiral in the first place is the fear that one day I'll completely snap and become a regular at a high street coffee branch, which I will visit every single morning to order the same thing and sit in the corner muttering urgently about "the spiders" with glassy, fearful David Icke eyes. The only way to end the spiral is by introducing something so ridiculous it forces me back into a state of self-awareness. It's as if, as long as I can still recognise "Dancing in the Moonlight" as one of the most hilarious pieces of music ever released, everything will be ok.
"Someone wrote this song," I whisper in my own ear, "An actual human being sat down in a room and composed the sonic equivalent to a whimsical screensaver and released it to the joy of many. This song literally sounds like a desk tidy. It sounds like every sad pub disco, poorly attended birthday party and lifeless work-do you have ever attended in your life condensed into one very earnest jam about dancing that is literally impossible to dance to without looking like a wanker. It is a packet of Jaffa Cakes arranged in a tower formation on a paper plate. It is those in-store adverts in Sainsbury's that feature people of all ages jumping about next to some salad and words like RUMBA!, BOOGIE! and MOSH! It is Mark Corrigan sticking a pencil in his ear to appear less uptight, and it is a Marks and Spencer's birthday card, and it is a knackered parent necking a pint in Brewers Fayre while their child almost suffocates in a ball pit. It is everything sentimental and completely fucking pointless about average British life masquerading as a party anthem couched in multiple references to the moon. 'It's a supernatural delight'. Is it? IS IT? Or is it the manager of a call centre giving everyone a half-day to go to Techniquest?
Doesn't sound so terrible, actually. Perhaps you should get up and put a shirt on."
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