Bruce Springsteen, Dancing in the Dark (1984)
From Born in the USA, 1984
It’s the 4th of July so what better artist to review than Bruce Springsteen? I really should review “Born in the USA” itself, but I don’t feel like reviewing that song so I’m reviewing “Dancing in the Dark”. When this album and this song came out I must admit I was not a fan of Bruce Springsteen. For one, he was too popular and huge, and people like my parents liked him. Two, I couldn’t identify with the lyrics at the time, and if you don’t like his message, you’re not going to like Bruce. This album was titanic in the 1980s. In the USA there were 7 top 10 singles from this #1 album, and “Dancing in the Dark” was the highest charter, topping out at #2. It’s odd that a #1 album with so many singles didn’t produce a single #1 single.
I remember 3 or 4 years after this album came out having a conversation with my friend, who didn’t even like Springsteen, hearing him say that “nothing good has come out since ‘Born in the USA’”. (He denies ever saying this). At the time my other friend and I scoffed at the notion of course, and proceeded to make a mix take full of great songs that came out in the 3 or 4 years since “Born in the USA”. The irony is that it is likely that in retrospect, few if any of the songs on that now-lost mix tape were as good as most of the songs on “Born in the USA”.
But I digress; 20+ years down the road, I’ve learned to appreciate what Springsteen brings to the table. Overall “Dancing in the Dark” is a frustrating song for me. It is a potentially great song seriously hindered by some horrible 1980s production. It is the sort of song that plays better in my head than it does on the stereo. I’m willing to bet that it is a killer live song. Strip away the 80s junk and I believe you are left with a classic.
I particularly enjoy the lyrics to “Dancing in the Dark”. The lyric is told from the perspective of a man who works nights in a dead-end job, wants to write a book, and is generally uninspired with either. He’s looking for a spark to get him motivated with life, and is hipping to find it (likely) at a bar, dancing in the dark. At first blush it’s a downtrodden lyric, but on deeper analysis not hopeless. There’s a nice balance and depth there. It really is a great vocal. Bruce sings it with passion and applies a nice flowing melody to it. Also I do think it has a good tempo.
And the vocals have to be good because there is so much about the production of this song that is awful! In general the song succumbs to mid-80s production pitfalls. The drums are the biggest problem. Any subtleties in Max Weinberg’s drumming are processed out completely. They may as well have used a machine. The snare in particular is awful; a heavy gated reverb is applied to it, a hallmark of 80s drum production. That gated sound can be used to good effect but I don’t like it here. The production nearly completely reduces Max’s contributions to bass and snare, although you can hear some hi-hat in the quieter parts of the song. The bass guitar is pretty anonymous, pretty much hitting eighth-notes and riding the roots of the chords. This part of the band is criminally underused on this song.
Also there is too much synthesizer keyboard sound applied to the song. Probably the most enduring sound of the song is a cheesy sounding synth repeating the chorus melody over and over and over nearly ad nausea through the entire song. And for some reason they thought it would be a good idea to add even more synth “texture” on top of the song. Obviously I don’t think that was a good idea.
Not all is lost musically. Although his contribution is limited to the close-out of the song, I really enjoy the sax solo by Clarence Clemons. Also Steven Van Zandt’s guitar has a nice, breezy, almost Roger McGuinn sound to it, and I think he plays very well on this track.
The song busts out of the gate and just barrels along, alternating between verse and chorus with the slightest gap between them. The verses consist of two repeated melody lines, on which the second one Bruce usually gets a little agitated (“Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face!”). This is followed by a single line with a slightly elevated melody (“I ain’t nothing but tired, man I’m just tired and bored with myself“), and then back to the original melody, with one change; the bass line drops to a lower note. It’s actually a nice effect. This leads directly into the chorus, which introduces a new melody in the first line (“You can’t start a fire, you can’t start a fire without a spark”) and then settles back into the original melody for the “title” line of the chorus. It’s a nice flowing melody line that sounds very natural.
The payoff of the song for me is a single bridge after the second chorus, where the song shifts briefly into another set of chord changes and Bruce introduces another, more hopeful set of lyrics (“You sit around getting older there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me / I’ll shake this world of my shoulders, come on baby the laugh’s on me”). Then the song settles back into the familiar refrain for the final verse/chorus, and on to the finish line.
You can’t mention this song without mentioning the video:
Dancing in the Dark Video
This was 1984 and music videos were a big deal back then. I think everyone who is of my generation remembers this video, particularly in retrospect for Courtney Cox dancing on stage with Bruce at the end. I always thought the video was pretty cornball back then, and watching it now I still think that. One thing that annoyed me greatly back then was how cheerful he looked singing the song; I think I always interpreted the lyric as more desperate and wanted Bruce to sing it with more earnestness. I do concede that there is this element of the pick up line in the song (“I need a love reaction come on now baby give me just one look“), and playing up that angle would result in a more animated, bouncy performance. And, hell, the title is “Dancing in the Dark”, so I concede that some dancing around is warranted during the performance.
I get up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning, I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired, man I’m just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
You can’t start a fire, you can’t start a fire without a spark
This guns for hire even if were just dancing in the dark
Message keeps getting clearer, radios on and I’m moving round the place
I check myself out in the mirror I wanna change my clothes my hair my face
Man I ain’t getting nowhere just sitting in a dump like this
There’s something happening somewhere baby I just know that there is
You can’t start a fire...
You sit around getting older there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me
Ill shake this world off my shoulders come baby the laugh’s on me
Stay on the streets of this town and they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you got to stay hungry hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action I’m sick of sitting round here trying to write
I need a love reaction come on now baby give me just one look
You cant start a fire…