My Favorite Soundtrack: Dirty Dancing
You'll... have... the time of your liiiife!
Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing tells the story of the transformative summer when our young heroine (played by Jennifer Grey) comes of age, evolving from her childhood nickname of “Baby” into an adult human named Frances (the birth name she shares with Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet). This big change happens in ‘63, when Baby goes on vacation with her parents and goofy older sister to Kellerman’s, a very-square, very-wholesome, very-upper-class resort in the Catskills Mountains. There she meets Johnny Castle (played by Patrick Swayze), the sensitive bad boy with whom she falls in love.
Baby just graduated high school but it seems like she already has it all figured out. She plans to join the Peace Corps and then attend Mount Holyoke College, where she’ll study the Politics of Underdeveloped Countries. Her father really wants her to connect with one of the Ivy League-bound boys at Kellerman’s, but none of them share her desire to pursue a social justice lifestyle. (To wit: when one of these jerks hands her a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Baby’s like, “Fuck you, bro.”)
But there’s a seedy underbelly at Kellerman’s and Baby, the budding rebel that she is, quickly gravitates to it. It consists of some of the resort workers, and these workers’ favorite activity is something Baby’s never seen before: dirty dancing. Their de facto leader’s the super-cool, black-and-leather-clad, cheap sunglasses-sporting Johnny Castle, a poor dance instructor who’s officially paid to teach the older women of Kellerman’s how to “clean dance” and unofficially paid to have sex with them. He’s exploited and misunderstood, but ultimately a good person with big dreams of his own.
In a very clunky plot twist, Baby becomes a part of Johnny’s world when she borrows cash from her dad to help pay for an abortion for Penny, Johnny’s regular dance partner. Since Penny’s pregnant, however, she can’t dance with Johnny at a big-money gig at a nearby resort, the Sheldrake. Without this paycheck, Johnny’s doomed. And so Baby, who can probably recite the Port Huron Statement from memory but is pretty uptight and has two left feet, volunteers to fill in for Penny. As Johnny teaches Baby to dance, the two quickly fall in love, but then Baby’s father finds out and he forbids her to see him. After Johnny’s falsely accused of stealing a guest’s wallet—it was actually a seemingly harmless old couple, the Schumachers, that stole it, which only adds to the film’s severe anti-old-people stance—he’s banished from Kellerman’s. But that’s not the end of Johnny and Baby…
One of the strangest things about Dirty Dancing is the soundtrack. The songs range from big hits one would’ve heard in the summer of ’63—The Ronettes’ “Bye My Baby,” Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” the Five Satins’ “In The Still Of The Night”—to songs released in the ‘80s—Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” Swayze’s “She’s Like The Wind,” Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.” This is initially confusing, because the film takes place in 1963. At one point, Johnny even sings a song to Baby that wasn’t released until 1987, which is impossible. This is dumb and sloppy, right?
No, it’s not. Dirty Dancing begins with the voice of Frances in the present day. She’s looking back on the summer of ’63 from ‘87, and so songs from her present are slipping into her past. As Frances, who is probably now a tenured professor of comparative literature at Oberlin, might say, the function of Dirty Dancing’s ahistorical soundtrack is to articulate how history is restructured through memory. Looking-back, Frances might say, is never a static gaze upon a static entity, but always an act of rewriting.
At 32 million copies sold, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack is one of the highest selling albums of all time. It held onto the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for 18 weeks, went multi-platinum, and a 20th anniversary edition was released in 2007. When DD hear these songs outside of the context of the film, we automatically think about Baby and Johnny and that magical summer at Kellerman’s. So here are some of the standout tunes from the soundtrack and the classic DD moments that go with them.
THE CONTOURS – “DO YOU LOVE ME?” (1962)
This plays the first time Baby experiences the workers doing their dirty dancing. It happens in a forbidden zone—“NO GUESTS ALLOWED”—that Baby penetrates after randomly carrying a watermelon. She’s never seen dancing like this. The workers are basically dry-humping on the dance floor. At first, she’s repulsed; but then, she’s intrigued. And this is where Baby meets Johnny. They even dance a little bit, and for the first time, Baby really shakes ‘em down.
THE SURFARIS – “WIPE OUT”(1963)
This plays during Johnny’s first dance lesson with Baby. She struggles. She lacks rhythm. She’s uptight. Johnny tries to loosen her up. And there’s that great moment when Baby practices alone on that little bridge and, frustrated, she kicks it with her white Keds. Classic DD!
ERIC CARMEN – “HUNGRY EYES” (1987)
The first time Johnny and Baby make a genuine connection on the dance floor. Baby’s getting the moves down. Her Keds morph into shiny high-heeled dancing shoes. Her and Johnny are falling in love, gazing into each other’s hungry eyes. But Baby still laughs when Johnny does that one arm move. It tickles!
BRUCE CHANEL – “HEY! BABY” (1961)
To escape the monotony of the dance studio, Johnny takes Baby out into the woods and they practice balancing on a log. He’s like some sort of Zen warrior dancer. Johnny tells Baby his tragic backstory, and about how he became a dancer. Baby wears all white, Johnny wears all black, and they dance on a log together. I’m tempted to say they have the time of their lives on that log, but that happens later. Also, note that this song has the word “Baby” in it. Get it?
SOLOMON BURKE – “CRY TO ME” (1962)
The sexiest moment of the movie. Johnny and Baby have just been honest about their feelings; all the cards are on the table. “The reason people treat me like I’m nothing is because I’m nothing,” says Johnny. But Baby sees it differently. She sees his talent and potential and she loves him so hard it hurts. She grabs his ass; he grabs hers. And they dance, slow and hot, gripping and swaying.
PATRICK SWAYZE – “SHE’S LIKE THE WIND” (1987)
The absurd hit song Patrick Swayze contributed to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. (FYI I wrote about Swayze’s music for Noisey before: “Patrick Swayze – The Lost Tapes.) It plays during the saddest moment of the film, when Johnny’s been banished from Kellermen’s. It all goes to shit. Him and Baby kiss; he sadly drives away. Johnny’s gone and Baby has forever changed. She no longer fits in with the world around her. But now part of her is missing. Ironically, it is he that is like the wind.
BILL MEDLEY & JENNIFER WARNER – “(I’VE HAD) THE TIME OF MY LIFE” (1987)
The moment we’ve all been waiting for: the annual Kellerman’s talent show! Normally, Johnny leads a big dance, but he’s banned! But he comes back! He says “Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” and they dance! In 1963 to a song released in 1987! Before the epic finale, though, Johnny makes a speech where he dedicates the last dance to Baby: “…somebody that’s taught me that there are people willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them. Somebody who’s taught me about the kind of person I want to be.” This speech reveals that Dirty Dancing is a film about the evolution of Baby and Johnny. They have contributed to each other’s growth, so it’s not a man-changes-woman narrative. They celebrate this collaborative transformation with one last dance. By the song’s end, Baby has become Frances.
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