Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today, instead of doing an album review, we’ll be dissecting a song. Peaking at second place on Billboard’s singles chart – beat out of number one by Prince’s When Dove’s Cry – Dancing in the Dark is rarely regarded as Bruce Springsteen’s best song, but nearly universally his most popular. Though not the biggest hit to be written by the Boss – that title goes to Manfred Mann’s 1977 cover of Springsteen’s 1973 debut song “Blinded by the Light,” which became a Billboard number one hit – it is the biggest hit Springsteen himself recorded. It has been streamed more times on Spotify than any of his other tracks – three million more times than his second most popular, Born in the USA. Hell, the track was so successful, that even the B-side, Pink Cadillac, pierced the top 40. But what made this song such a hit? What about it hit that nerve in the popular culture that rockets a song to that level of fame? Well, to find the answer to this, we’re going to look at a few different versions, starting with the Studio
[Dancing in the Dark]
We’re going to begin by just looking at the chords of the song first – they are what will be applicable to every version you hear. If you look at the structure, it’s actually very close to the twelve bar blues. The first four bars are based on the one chord, but then bars five and six are built on the four, returning to the one for the seventh and eighth bars. To mix things up, Springsteen has added a relative minor to each chord, but it builds very little suspense.
After the eighth bar is a significant shift in mood, but the song continues to follow the blues formula. The ninth and tenth bars are built off the five chord, as a classic blues would. Springsteen separates this portion of the song by not using the relative minor he was using in the verse. On the eleventh bar, he changes the blues formula by going to the four chord instead of the one, and bringing back in the relative minor.
The way Springsteen builds suspense in those ninth and tenth bars is probably the most interesting and powerful thing about this song’s chord structure. The removal of the relative minor resonates with the listener, making them almost wake up from the trance they had been put in by the comparatively monotonous verse. That’s why so much merchandise referencing this song is in reference to that lyric.
But, of course, there’s more to songs than just chord progressions. Let’s look at the words. Lyrically, the song is quite melancholy. It is a portrait of a man who feels isolated, who feels he’s missing something, who has found the only way to feel is to the club. It’s like the 80s version of Saturday Night Fever. And though the upbeat production may make the tune dancable, the lyrics don’t hide their darker nature. We can hear that the narrator has a great self-esteem issue in lyrics like
“I ain’t nothing but tired/I’m just tired and bored with myself”
“Check myself in the mirror/gotta change my clothes my hair my face”
There are hints of a broken relationship in the mix as well. The bridge exposes this with
“Sit around getting older/there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me/shake the world off my shoulders/c’mon baby the laughs on me”
This desperation is lost on the listener, though. The chorus sings hope. “Can’t Start a fire without a spark” suggests that there is still a chance, if she will join him to go dancing in the dark. That’s all people paid attention to when it was on the radio in the 80s. They liked that hope and the dancing. Everything else in the song was forgotten – similar to the phenomenon that occurred with Born in the USA, but without the politics.
But what variation is there between versions? Let’s continue with the 1984 studio version. In this iteration, more tension is rooted in how and when the electric guitar is played. The guitar is not in the majority of the song, because the majority of the song is in the one chord. Springsteen holds back the guitar, using it only on the four and five chords. This makes the tension of those chords yet more powerful. During the four and five chords, he also suspends the iconic riff. The riff is only used when the song is at a neutral point, making the listener more comfortable as a result. Listen to the chorus into the verse to hear what I’m saying.
However, the song fits into this odd niche between truly big and truly small. It’s an upbeat song, but it’s not quite anthemic like some of his other works are. However, on the Tunnel of Love tour, he turned it from an upbeat dance tune to an epic with a wall of sound. Listen to this cut from a 1988 show in Los Angeles, recently released as part of Springsteen’s remastering and issuing of previously unreleased live shows.
He gears up the audience with his guitar riff and Weinberg’s drums, setting a much more rocking tone for the same dance tune. Once he counts off, the iconic synthesizer plays.When he begins singing, his phrasing on this version is much much better than the studio version. He places greater emphasis on individual words, so some take hold more effectively than in the studio.
Once he gets into the swing of the song, the addition of the Love Horns also has a huge impact on the tension of the song. He doesn’t use them as often as he does the electric guitar on the studio version, making their presence all the more powerful.
However, while that version brings more power through addition, the same can be achieved through subtraction. Listen to this version from the 1986 Bridge School Benefit concert, in which Bruce plays with only back up guitarist Nils Lofgren and accordionist Danny Federicci.
I love everything about this performance. Everything in the previous versions – the riff, the horns, the synthesizer – it’s all stripped away. In the first verse and chorus, all that you hear is Bruce’s guitar and his overwhelmingly passionate voice. He builds on this in the second verse, when Federicci begins to play. This addition fills the void that the synthesizer left, but its addition doesn’t dwarf Springsteen himself.
And as the instruments add tension, so too does Springsteen’s vocals. Though he sounds cool and collected in the first verse and chorus, by the bridge he is singing with an intensity not found elsewhere.
The other great part about this iteration is that it’s the first one in which, in my opinion, Springsteen accurately and adequately conveys the desperation and depravity in the lyrics. Hidden behind catchy synth riffs and horns in other versions, lines like “I ain’t going nowhere/I’m just living in a dump like this” and “take a look in the mirror/wanna change my clothes my hair my face” can get lost. The emphasis on the vocal performance in this cut makes the emotional impact of the song verbal in addition to musical. It’s one thing to build tensions and melodies that evoke simple emotions, but another to connect those simple emotions to specific feelings – and great music has to do both.
I think each of these cuts has its merits. The two live cuts generate emotions much better than the album version, through their two very different methods. What the album version has going for it is that it’s more dancable – but if you want to dance to this song, you should be listening to the Arthur Baker cover that Springsteen commissioned for precisely this reason, which I won’t get deeper into because I don’t have a lot to say about it. Each of these cuts seems to be better than the studio version, making me wonder what would have happened if he’d used those mentalities when recording the album, Born in the USA.