The man’s a punk. Give him that.
Ivan Doroschuk wrote The Safety Dance, an international hit for the Montreal synth-pop robots Men Without Hats in 1982. The song, along with the group’s Pop Goes the World, was recently inducted in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Safety Dance is about nonconformity. “You can act really rude and totally removed,” Doroschuk sang, a rebel back when the free world was ruled by Thatcher and Reagan.
Today we’re ruled, in many ways, by COVID-19. Physical distancing is the protocol. Public social dancing is frowned upon, even disallowed. But there’s been a push back on that. The scofflaws are holding dance parties. Today’s libertarians are anti-maskers. Should we be allowed to dance if we want to?
Doroschuk says yes.
“Men Without Hats come from a punk background,” says the band’s singer and chief songwriter. “The song is about the resisting of blandly following the pack, and to follow your own inner voice.”
Of course, that free expression might come at a cost to others. Hats are optional, but masks? “I don’t think it’s my role to be making pronouncements on that,” says Doroschuk, 62, speaking from Vancouver Island, his home for the past two decades. “I’m happy we live in a society where people can express themselves freely.”
Though The Safety Dance was on the pop charts nearly 40 years ago, it has never really gone away. Over the years, the song has appeared in everything from prime-time cartoons South Park and Family Guy to an episode of the hot new HBO series I May Destroy You.
“My son discovered Men Without Hats through a Crazy Frog video,” Doroschuk says, referring to the hop-happy video game character. “He was eight years old. That’s how he found out who I was.”
Of all the pop-culture moments the catchy tune has enjoyed, Doroschuk’s favourite is a 1984 parody version. “When Weird Al Yankovic covered it, I was quite proud. It was a badge of honour for me.”
Yankovic is cleverly satirical, but his talents fall under the general heading of novelty music. Which is what The Safety Dance, with it’s dance-pop gaiety and weirdly staccato chorus, is sometimes confused for.
The song is clearly anti-establishment, though. “I had decided to use pop music as a vehicle for the ideas that I had and the messages I wanted to get across,” says Doroschuk, currently in the studio making a new record, Men Without Hats Again. “Sex Pistols was good, but ABBA reached more people. That was my outlook.”
Once a song is written and recorded, the message is out of the songwriter’s hand. At the time of the song’s release, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was under way. Some thought The Safety Dance was a call for safe sex.
The word “safety” is on people’s mind more than ever now. On Sept. 20 and 27, a physically-distanced and “100-per-cent joyful” outdoor group activity called Safety Dance is happening in Picton, Ont., where participants are invited to “proudly” move to the music of Men Without Hats. The wearing of safety colours, helmets and masks, while optional, is encouraged.
“The song has been used on both sides,” Doroschuk says. “I’ve seen videos of The Safety Dance telling people to mask up and not to mask up, which is precisely the point of the whole thing. Interpret it the way you want.”
For decades, Men Without Hats has gone without hits. The band was mostly dormant from 1993 until Doroschuk resurrected it in 2010. The comeback album Love in the Age of War came two years later. The group has toured steadily ever since.
They’re a nostalgia act now. Doroschuk has written a dozen songs for the new album. Does he still write for hits? Does he have another Pop Goes the World or The Safety Dance in him? What’s the objective?
Doroschuk recently played the new tracks to Derek Shulman, the former singer of the band Gentle Giant who later became a successful record executive. They talked about what makes a great Men Without Hats pop record. The songs have to be fun, they agreed, with lyrics that on the surface are amusing and innocent, but with a message underneath. And it has to have instantly recognizable keyboard riffs.
“These are the things I work on,” Doroschuk says. “These are the things in the back of my head when I’m in the studio, and these are the things that people enjoy from what I do. I try to continue that.”
The man’s a songwriter. Give him that.
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.