Reader’s Choice: Dance Monkey by Tones and I…Song #12/250.

The stories behind your favourite songs.

An old time organ grinder and his monkey…from The Steel City, apparently.

While I am waiting for a few more song suggestions from all of you, I have decided to use today’s post as an “Author’s Choice” and tell you the story of a hugely popular song from 2019 called “Dance Monkey” by an Australian singer who goes by the name, Tones and I. Tones is the stage name of Australian street performer Toni Watson. I don’t know her back story well enough to say why being a street performer/busker was her chosen route to employment but, none-the-less, she spent much of her teenage years and into her early twenties on the streets of Australia busking on corners, hat in hand, relying on the kindness of strangers to allow her to be able to eat and to find lodging each day. As you may already be aware, one of the original forms of busking was known as the organ grinder and his monkey. The organ grinder would turn a handle on a box he was holding and music would begin to play. The organ grinder’s monkey would dance and prance about, often times holding a metal cup in his little hands. If the audience approved of the dance then they would put coins in the monkey’s cup. There was no limit on how many times an audience would demand that the monkey dance. If someone made the demand to dance, the monkey had no choice but to dance.

This handmade sign was attached to my classroom door for most of my career. When I retired, it was one of the few things that I kept and took home with me.

I don’t know about you but I was raised in a world in which there was a certain sense of nobility involved in performing labour on behalf of others. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth of England has reinforced the generational notion of service before self. In an age where working collectively toward the goal of creating a better society was strived for, it was easy to see the value in many types of labour. In fact, for most of my teaching career, I had a laminated sign that I stuck on my classroom door that said, “There are no unimportant jobs, no unimportant people, no unimportant acts of kindness“. This sign indicated to all who passed under it that our classroom was going to be a place where they would be valued as humans and recognized for the skills they held and the acts of kindness they displayed. Every child need not have been perfect to be regarded by me and others as having great value. That is a message that I feel has gotten somewhat lost in the hustle and bustle of today’s world.

“Dance Monkey” is a song that describes what it was like for Watson to experience the power imbalance that exists in today’s on-demand world. It paints a bleak picture of the lack of civility that seems to be so common in our interactions with those who we may view as being beneath us in our station in life. The COVID pandemic has really brought to the forefront how poorly we treat so many of the workers who deal with the public such as wait staff at restaurants, cashiers, hospital employees, educators, retail workers and so on. No one should be filled with anxiety over reporting for a minimum wage job due to fear of being assaulted or verbally abused. What makes “Dance Monkey” so successful as a song is that it is not preachy at all. In fact, it is a perfect Pop song…all bouncy and peppy and filled with energy. Just like Pagliaccio, the tragic clown of opera fame, Watson addresses the abuse she suffered at the hands of her audiences in disguise…in this case, as a Pop star singing a Pop song. But, make no mistake, the earnestness of her emotion shines through, making her so easy to root for. Her desire to turn the spotlight on her abusers makes her performance a powerful one that has resonated with audiences around the world. I am sure we have all watched videos of “Karens” in full meltdown mode on social media. It isn’t pretty to watch. I cannot imagine what it is like to experience that on a daily basis. No one should have to imagine that. Toni Watson most certainly did. Unfortunately, it is easy to tell.

Aimee Mann while a member of Til Tuesday.

Songs about underdogs rising up to overcome their abusers have always struck a chord with me. One of the very first songs of that nature that I ever came to know was the 80s classic, “Voices Carry” by Til Tuesday. Til Tuesday was a musical vehicle for singer Aimee Mann. In the song, “Voices Carry”, Mann spoke for all women who have ever found themselves in a relationship, professionally or personally, with a very controlling man. In the song, she describes her life. In it, the man is the one who makes all of the decisions…what she will wear, whether or not she will pursue her dream of being a singer and much more. As the song reaches its conclusion, Mann’s character has finally had enough and decides to stand up for herself in public at a theatrical performance. As she stands up and sings of her desire to be independent and to follow her own path, her partner tells her to sit down and hold her tongue. She sings incredulously:

He said to shut up!

He said to shut up!

Oh God!

Can’t you keep it down!

Voices carry”.

And then she adds quietly, “I wish he would just let me talk”.

Demeaning. Dehumanizing. Debilitating. Abuse in any form is a soul crushing thing to endure. For those who summon the courage to speak out as Aimee Mann’s character did in this song or as Toni Watson does in “Dance Monkey”, the very act of doing so can appear most powerful and inspirational. *(You can watch the video for “Voices Carry” here). ***Lyrics version is here.

There are other songs in which abusers and cheaters get theirs such as “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks), as well as a song like “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood that get audiences whooping and cheering for the woman as she exacts her revenge. However, in both of those songs and many others of their ilk, there is something almost cartoonish about the comeuppance that the abusers receive. Right from the start we all know a beatdown is on tap and that these jerks are going to get what’s coming. However, in real life, it is not always so easy to stand up for oneself, let alone exact any form of retribution. As outsiders, we often listen to tales of ill-treatment at the hands of others and question why the victim “put up with it”. Why didn’t they “just pack up and leave”?! But, in reality, it isn’t that easy to simply leave. The reasons for being in the situation a victim finds themselves in are often far more nuanced than any observer can possibly imagine. It definitely is not easy to stand up for yourself when you are constantly beaten down by a person or by many people. So, when somebody like Toni Watson does that very thing, it seems like a revolutionary act of the highest order. When you watch the videos of Watson singing…first, on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, as well as a performance from an outdoor festival in Australia, watch the reaction of the audiences. They are all ready to wrap Watson up in their warm, protective embrace. There is something just so likable about her. She presents, not as a performer who is making a statement but more as a survivor of something that must have been very tough to endure. As a society, we seem to regard survivors with more compassion and patience than we do those who are merely victims.

The song, “Dance Monkey” holds the record in Australia after being in the #1 spot on the charts for nineteen consecutive weeks. In the UK, Watson tied a record held by Whitney Houston and Rhianna for consecutive weeks atop the British charts. The song sold over eleven million units and has been downloaded on social media over one billion times. It was Australia’s 2020 Song of the Year, as well as being the most played song on the radio in Australian history. In the links below, I will include links to the two performances mentioned previously above. But I am also going to include a couple of cover versions of this song to show you how popular it is worldwide and how the message it contains has swept the planet. “Dance Monkey” is truly a worldwide phenomenon.

I will conclude by issuing you all a challenge. Knowing you as I do, I suspect that this challenge will be easy to accept and to complete. Here goes…let’s all make a concerted effort to lessen the burden that others bear on our behalf. There are many people who perform labour for us who end up being impacted by the choices we so cavalierly make. For example, the next time you are shopping at the grocery store, thank the cashier for his/her effort and when you get to your car and unpack your groceries, put the shopping cart where it belongs so that some minimum wage earning high school kid doesn’t have to dodge traffic by having to collect carts left strewn all over the parking lot. I always put my cart away properly and have actually been thanked for doing so by staff. It isn’t hard to do the right thing for others and lessen their burden. A second easy thing to do…the next time you go to a restaurant, be patient. The wait staff are working as quickly as they can. Offer thanks to the cook who worked in a hot kitchen to make your meal. And yes, if you can, please leave a tip. It is surprisingly easy to be pleasant to those who are working on your behalf. These are just a couple of examples of how we can make life easier for those who work hard in a public setting. That civility seems to be in such short supply is a real commentary on the state of our society right now. We need to all do better. Making the lives of others better is a mindset that allows us to always think of how our actions are impacting those we come in contact with. It shouldn’t take a song about abuse like “Dance Monkey” to do our thinking for us and make us the better version of ourselves we need to be.

The link to the video for the song, “Dance Monkey” as sung by Toni Watson, from Late Night With Jimmy Fallon can be found here. ***Lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Dance Monkey” as sung by Toni Watson, from an outdoor music festival in Australia can be found here.

The link to the video for a cover of “Dance Monkey” performed on piano in a London subway station by pianist Peter Buka can be found here. ***This guy is terrific!

The link to the video for cover versions of “Dance Monkey” as performed on TV shows such as The Voice, from around the world can be found here. ***This video really illustrates what a global phenomenon this song has become.

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