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Id Versus Brain: Why We Love Bad Dancing In Pop
Annie Lord , April 24th, 2018 09:17

From Taylor Swift to Lorde and Sia via Drake, bad dancing in pop is seeing something of a resurgence. Tracing the history of the wonky elbows & dad moves, Annie Lord asks why it's happening now

To imagine pop choreography is to imagine Britney's machinic popping and locking hips, Mariah Carey raised into the air by oiled men in bow ties. Michael Jackson's white glove outlining shapes across his torso, Beyoncé body rolling in front of a triangular shaped army of snapping necks and arms, all moving in ecstatic union behind her.

But these moves, so etched into the history of pop music they are almost inseparable from it, are no longer the norm. From Taylor Swift's new music video for 'Delicate' where she scuttles like an electrocuted spider to Lorde throwing her body around stages in a schizophrenic frenzy, pop stars are unleashing their ugly side. Under these gnarly and disjointed movements the body becomes freeing, rather than a cage for stultifying behavioural norms. As Zadie Smith writes: "The art of not dancing – a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense.”

Bad dancing music videos encapsulate these alternative possibilities in a number of key ways. Initially the pop star appears trapped by social expectation and the need to maintain a respectable public face. Then there is a release, they find themselves invisible or alone; free to roam without the accusatory glare of other humans. There are mirrors, suggesting a confrontation with the unconscious, a window which forces them to delve deep into the psyche. They loose control of a limb, it shakes of its own accord, as though animalistic impulse has colonised the mind.

We see all these elements in 'Delicate', where Taylor Swift finds herself drowning in the opulent surroundings of a dull red carpet event. She gazes dead-eyed into a mirror and finds herself fully alienated from her pouting reflection. Trying to find herself she lodges her head back into a double chin and screws up her perfectly lip-sticked mouth. Soon after she turns invisible, freed from the gaze of the public, Swift ditches her polite smiles and deferential nods and runs wild. Slumping her shoulders over like an ape and slapping her slackened jaw. No longer an automated pop product but a human, she skips barefooted down a muddy alley, the rain pours down her pale skin and she smiles. This time it isn't forced.

'Delicate' lifts heavily from another bad dancing video, Spike Jonze's 2016 Kenzo advert. Set at another black tie event, Margret Qualley feigns enjoyment through a monotone speech before excusing herself. Left unattended, she turns feral: Shaking her face around so hard her skin slackens against the bones of her face and vibrating her body as though an alien is ripping up her insides. Again there are mirrors. As Qualley's kicks pulverise the air around her she is reflected from all sides, forced into an inescapable confrontation with the guts and bones of the self. We also see her become a victim of the tyranny of movement: Her arm throws itself around, she begs it to stop, digging teeth into her hand. Qualley's body is no longer her own. The id has taken over the brain. The flesh becomes a vessel for the anarchy of desire and impulse.

Sia's music videos see the adolescent Maddie Zeigler moving her body in a similarly uncomfortable, gangling stupor. In 'Big Girls Don't Cry' Ziegler – a trained competition dancer who rose to fame on reality television programme Dance Moms – takes the face she so often forces into sticky-sweet smiles and uses it instead to express her inner anxieties. Pulling her eye-sockets, picking her skin apart and suffocating herself on her knuckles. It's like looking into someone else's nightmare.

The choreographer of Ziegler and Qualley's movements is Ryan Heffington. His work focuses on silencing self-censorship. Zeigler explained his methods: "Coming from a competition dance background, I learned you always have to look perfect, to point your feet. Ryan said the imperfections are more beautiful and interesting. That's what I love most—his choreography is about feeling free with the movements: Stick your tongue out and cross your eyes, hold your leg up and keep whacking it with your arm. It takes you out of your comfort zone and lets you be your inner weird self…Ryan's my dance dad. He gave me permission.”

Moshing and contorting herself into bony angles, Lorde is another pop star reclaiming the pleasure and feeling of the body. In the video for 'Green Light' she curves away from the camera lens, plugs in headphones and serenades herself in the mirror so that we see she is moving for herself and herself alone. Then there is her VMA performance where, having lost her voice to flu, Lorde turned a CD player on and lobbed herself around the stage with bare-toothed punk fury, her limbs hungrily absorbing the space around her. After she appeared on Saturday Night Live, people compared Lorde's out of sync tremors to Elaine's routine in Seinfeld, a baby deer and Napoleon Dynamite. She responded in a Facebook post: "one day i will do a normal dance choreographed by a nice person and i will look more like your other favourite performers but we have not yet reached that day ¯_(ツ)_/¯."

Though it is enjoying a resurgence, bad dancing is nothing new. In 'Once In A Lifetime' David Byrne of Talking Heads endures an existential crisis via loss of control of the body. An arm flies up unprovoked, his chest shudders and his skin is wet and balmy as though he's at a Pentecostal revival service and the Holy Ghost has entered him. Then there's his 'Take Me To The River' performance where he wears a suit 20x too big. As he looks down at his stiff jerking hips, their movement made obvious by the fabric jutting out of him, they are no longer his own, hypnotised by some alien desire to move.

There is no doubting that bad dancing must be cathartic to perform, ridding the body of all the nodding, hand shaking, inculcated pleasantries we swallow to function as accepted players in society. But how freeing can it be when it is curated under the corporate glare of pop music?

When he's not reinventing himself as 2018s Bono, Drake uses bad dancing less to get in touch with his inner freak and more to become a viral megalith. His moves in 'Hotline Bling' were so Dad, it wouldn't be surprising to see him driving around Toronto in a Volvo. Fans loved it; tweets compared him to anything from a weirdo uncle with PTSD to a guest at a Kosovan wedding. Hours after its release, the video was repeatedly photoshopped and shared. Fans forced his flailing arms to play tennis, season pizzas and even wield a light sabre. Drake's rotating phone hands and slow-mo air spanking was so ridiculous, it invited communal participation in a continuous sharing of repurposed imagery. Through our own work Drake was glued to our Facebook feeds for weeks. This was no mistake, dance choreographer Tanisha Scott who appears at the end of the video told Complex: "all those memes and mashups — he knew that was going to happen." Now endless think pieces from corporate publications use Drake as a case study on shareable content: From 'Hotline Bling' to Viral King.

Drake is not the only bad dancer taking over the internet. When Armie Hammer performed some loveably oafish dancing in 'Call Me by Your Name', people changed the films 80s anthem to a number of lame dance floor fillers from 'Dancing Queen' to Harry Styles' 'Kiwi'. Thom Yorke's odd moves in 'Lotus Flower' – crinkling his hands like he's casting spells and lolling his head drunkenly on his shoulders – was also extensively memed. People made him audition for Black Swan and move to Willow Smith's 'Wip My Hair'. Swift's double chin moment in 'Delicate' was screenshot and captioned with anything from "my multiple personalities trying to come out on the first date” to "when you see a cute dog but can't pet it.”

Taylor's decision to be all goofy jazz hands and foaming at the mouth demon may have been fun to film, but it also indicates a shrewd change of tactic. Delicate is the third single to come off the back of Swift's 6th studio album, Reputation. The two previous releases which attempted to provide Swift with a sexier, more streamlined aesthetic were notable duds. We see her in Look What You Made Me Do bathing in diamonds, firing a mock ak-47 at the camera and sat surrounded by snakes on a golden throne. She swaps the image of cute blonde country girl who bakes cookies with fans to bad gal Tay-Tay who wants everyone to shut-up and leave her alone. Though her legion of Swifties loved it, the release saw the singer fall prey to the hydra-headed meme-marketing machine Drake mastered with Hotline Bling. Thigh smacking and hip-rolling in front synchronised backing dancers, the internet drew mocking comparisons to Beyoncé's Formation choreography. One user Tweeted: "Okay ladies, here's some white desperation” others changed the hot sauce line to "I got mayonnaise in my bag”.

Bad dancing sells because we crave "authenticity” from celebrities. The confessional nature of Instagram makes want them in all their spit-ridden, putrid, bad-mouthed honesty. We crave intimacy, the cyber version of riffling through someone's bins. Their sticky eyes as they awake from sleep, cheeks still crinkled from the pillow, talking into the front camera on the toilet, their acne exposed by filterless no-makeup selfies. We would rather Taylor Swift with a double chin than a pout, we would rather Drake doing the salad toss dance than Drake repping gun fingers. We thirst for "truthfulness” even though that truth is entirely constructed.

Bad dancing operates as a rebuke to the conventional spectacle of set routines and sweating torsos. As these pop stars throw themselves in weird shapes they are unshackled from the requirements of a public face, able to express their inner monster. It can be infectious. But that doesn't release these moves from the requirement to cater to a mass audience. Less dance like no one is watching, more dance like because the internet is.