The Mystery of the Manic Safety Dancer

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One of the more peculiar internet obsessions is to do with the absurd popularity of Canadian New Wave synth-poppers Men Without Hats. The Montreal outfit were founded at the end of the seventies by the Doroschuk brothers, Stefan (guitarist) and Ivan (vocals, keyboard), and rose to international prominence off the back of their sole successful single, the infuriatingly catchy ‘Safety Dance’. Having released an EP called ‘Folk of the 80’s’ in 1980, the band, with its ever-revolving cavalcade of members, released their first full-length album, entitled Rhythm of Youth, on the tiny Statik Records label (with international distribution picked up by MCA and Virgin). The album was trailered by two singles. The first single was ‘I Like’, which charted in the lower rungs of the US Top 100. However their second single, released in the US the week before the album in March 1982, managed to break into both the US and UK Top 10’s, also managing to top the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play charts. It was an unprecedented success and one which the quirky Doroschuk brothers struggled to follow-up over the ensuing decade of activity.

Like many apparent one-hit wonders before them Men Without Hats should have been destined for a short shelf-life, followed by an obscure reincarnation on the late-90’s nostalgia circuit. Yet their relatively insubstantial body of work has continued to sell steadily, as new generations of young muso’s have been switched on to their slightly haughty brand of baroque synth-pop by the relentless energy of that transcendental break-out hit. Over the last decade, or so, Men Without Hats have made a modest 2003 comeback, that resulted in the album No Hats Beyond This Point, as well as a few festival appearances in 2010 and 2011 (these featured only Ivan Doroschuk, of the original band members). The amount of attention that these low-key activities generated has been nothing when compared to the continued fascination with the bands ‘anthem’, a fascination that in some places has bordered on the creepily infatuated. Most disturbingly the substantial internet attention devoted to ‘Safety Dance’ seems not so much about the song, as about the video. Moreover it generally fixates on an enigmatic presence at the very centre of this pop curio.

It is with the video for ‘Safety Dance’, directed by The Cure favourite Tim Pope, that things become a little like a story that might feature in a Jon Ronson book. Taking a song that already contained one of the most infectiously bouncy dance rhythms in the whole of 80’s New Wave electronica, coupled with lyrics that have an almost childlike glee in incongruous rhymes and repetitions, Pope and Ivan Doroschuk added one of the most bizarrely off-kilter and eccentric pop videos ever made, even by the ludicrous standards of the 1980’s. In the video Doroschuk, the only band member who features, is wandering through some rural idyll of the British countryside, dressed in some romantic French Revolution idea of peasant attire and accompanied by a dwarf in a jester costume (played by Mike Edmonds). After thirty seconds of skipping through wind-blown fields of long grass and gesticulating theatrically to the lyrics, Doroschuk and the dwarf hook up with a deliriously dancing young woman, sporting a wild thatch of long crimped blonde hair, who is kitted up in what looks like some kind of ruffled linen skirt, with a black leather underbust corset and a billowing white blouse. Together the trio head into a small rural village where a group of morris dancers are parading toward the market square. One notable scene sees Doroschuk and his fellow travellers make the bizarre ‘S’-shaped dance gesture whilst standing in front of a gate and a dilapidated farm building, before proceeding into the town to partake in the pseudo-medieval festivities.

Despite Doroschuk’s rather singular appearance (all dark features, angular bone structure and flowing flaxen locks) and exaggerated mannerisms, it is this woman, who appears to be the very embodiment of chaotic human free-spiritedness, that seems to have hooked so many. There is indeed something compelling about this briefest of moments in the spotlight, a true ‘pop’ performance if ever there was one, with the woman’s blithe, ceaseless, skipping and dancing casting an almost hypnotic spell over the viewer. Pope does a magnificent job of centering the video around Doroschuk’s assured, strutting, promenading presence. Yet by using incredibly tight continuity editing, Pope also allows this beguiling presence to insinuate her way into shots as if she were the very rhythm of the song given corporeal form.

In a video for the bands earlier release ‘I Like’, Pope, who was again on directing duties, had used the same woman to man Ivan Doroschuk’s vacated keyboard. As with the video for ‘Safety Dance’ the woman is rarely seen clearly, either because she is in constant motion, or her face is buried beneath her wild blonde mane. At times Pope seems to deliberately play the camera away from her, either featuring her on the very edge of long shots, or cutting away after barely a second. Due to the insertion of an ‘and Sing’ line in ‘Safety Dance’, delivered in a female voice, many fans initially thought that this actress was in fact a member of the band. However, the Doroschuk’s have always stated that only Ivan, of the band members, features in the ‘Safety Dance’ video. Strangely they’ve never actually confirmed who in fact this fleeting presence in their pop careers was. Which is what makes things curious and curiouser.

A devoted little clique of messageboard posting ‘fans’ have become increasingly proactive in trying to unearth the mysterious female figure. Understandably their odd ‘enthusiasm’ has come up against either an outright wall of silence, with the Doroschuk’s essentially mocking all enquiries into the woman’s identity, or a frequently obfuscating drizzle of information from random posters, who claim to know the woman, or have met the woman. Aside from the stalkerish intensity with which some of these individuals have set about trying to acquire information leading to her identity, perhaps the most unusual thing about this whole affair is the way in which it has proven seemingly impenetrable to the all-pervasive modern media scrutiny of the internet age. Like some Warholian experiment in celebrity the video has established this woman as a significant ‘cultural presence’ in the nostalgic imaginations of a group of fortysomethings, yet a ‘cultural presence’ without any actual identity, beyond that of carefree, eccentric, dancing maiden. In this day and age of instant celebrity, where fame is prized above almost all other things, it is as if there is something deeply unsettling about the mysterious lack of identity that animates ‘Safety Dance’.

The internet has given people a direct means to comment upon and investigate all manner of things that in previous decades would have been effectively off-limits. It has redrawn the idea of ‘privacy’ more thoroughly than any other technological invention of the twentieth century (including the CCTV camera). At once ‘privacy’ has been assaulted by the expanded sense of ‘public forum’ that comes with global internet communication, whilst simultaneously the potential for subterfuge has exponentially increased, as people have embraced on-line identities, avatars and alternate profiles as a means of engaging with others on their own terms. The internet age that is advancing upon us has the potential to bring diverse groups of people into direct contact with one another at a greater rate than at any other time in human history. But what of those people who don’t care for such improved levels of ‘connectivity’, ‘interaction’ and ‘networking’?

In the case of the ‘Safety Dance’ saga the resistance to elucidation has clearly indicated a reluctance on the part of the actress to engage with the excitable celebrity culture of ‘fandom’. From the likes of Guanolad and Pierocampa there have been shrine-like websites devoted to expressing an ‘appreciation’ of a woman’s fifteen seconds of fame, almost thirty years ago. Messageboards devoted to the topic and a Facebook page with the specific aim of trying to uncover her identity, give the same silly reasons for being so desirous of knowing who she is, namely, that they want her to know that people really have appreciated her work. Decades ago it would have been almost impossible for such invasive inquiries to circulate with any resonance in the culture. However, with the rise of the internet and its limitless potential for information distribution, even strange little obsessions like this can gather a kind of critical mass that then begins to encroach upon the targeted individual’s life. It’s therefore quite understandable that the ‘Safety Dance’ woman would prefer to remain anonymous, rather than engage with people who feel some kind of entitlement toward ‘knowing’ the superficial details of her existence, as if they are indeed meaningful to them.

On one of the messageboards devoted to this topic a poster had managed to convince the domain operator and other regular user of the messageboard that they did indeed know the ‘Safety Dance’ woman. For a brief period a supposedly current photograph was put up on a separate website. Further enhancing the enigmatic status of this woman, the photograph was quickly removed from its location never to resurface (no mean feat with the ease of image duplication nowadays). The communities that are devoted to this cause were briefly excited into a flurry of activity based upon this photograph, not thinking this may be just a straightforward hoax. Information was supplied from sources that remained as anonymous as the woman herself (something the internet is particularly good at). Apparently she was a local from West Kington called Louise, who had moved to London and become a single mum of two children. In conflicting rumour-fact she was likewise known as Louise and was now living in the Midlands, having turned her back on acting. Some people have argued that she also appears in the ‘Pop Goes the World’ video for the band, but this appears to be a simple case of mistaken identity. Regardless of what is fact and what isn’t, these on-line communities have struck on the name ‘Louise’ as a preferable appellation, giving a vital element of identity to the fantasy figure that has been constructed from a few seconds of footage.

Considering the on-line activity regarding this mysterious individual it has been surprising that a sturdy wall of privacy has remained around her identity. All the verifiably public figures who were involved in the video have been unable,or unwilling, to supply any information. This leads one to consider the possibility of a particularly sophisticated Garboesque piece of mythmaking being undertaken by all those concerned with Men Without Hats. Perhaps, when realising the interest in this woman’s presence Ivan Doroschuk and his band mates have deliberately gone about cultivating this rather bizarre mystery, anticipating the small-scale, cult allure it may bring to their work. Alternately, all concerned could just be ensuring that a request for privacy is maintained. As has been mentioned, the truly bewildering element to this whole story is how such a seemingly insignificant piece of pop culture has been invested with a much more significant point and purpose. The inability to acquire knowledge, to experience the internet immediacy of contact, to observe the current celebrity circus rules applying, makes the ‘Safety Dance’ woman an uncomfortably alienating presence, that belongs to a bygone era. In her own way the ‘Safety Dance’ woman is comparable to a J.D. Salinger, or a Greta Garbo, in the way that her silence authenticates an air of mystery around her. Unlike both of those artists however, there is not only the post-vacuum status of the reclusive star, but the Warholian obscurity of the instant celebrity lacking the context of a body of work. It is as if this woman existed merely for the duration of the videos, with no past and no future. Maybe this is the extra ingredient which continues to make the ‘Safety Dance’ video so daftly compelling. In this inscrutable female presence an emblem of ‘pop’ modernity is outlined, which calls into question our current complacencies and assumptions about celebrity, fame and fandom. It also points up our modern inability to cope with such lacunae in our narratives of the ever-swelling public realm.

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Hipsters are Doing it for Themselves

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Is there anything more annoying than a ‘hipster’? Well, yes, the person(s) who uses such a term to identify a sector of the population, with an utter disregard for the suitability of such a moniker. After all a ‘hipster’ was originally a jive-talking, jazz groupie, desperate to be seen in all the right circles, following the proscribed lifestyle traits of the jazzmen and women, but with none of the skill, flair, or talent for creating wonderful music. Nowadays, lazy hacks and cultural commentators seem to bandy the word around in relation to any young person who adopts a considered, usually slightly aloof, pose toward society, regardless of whether they are actually producing anything of merit, other than just simple affectation. Chances are if you come from a privileged, American, college-educated background and profess an affection for irony and whimsy, then you’ll probably be labeled thus.

It seems that one of the quickest ways to get landed with the ‘hipster’ tag is to develop a serious following on Youtube for your homemade video content. Last year the talk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, much to the chagrin of a more seasoned performer, was the live appearances due to be made by a twenty-year-old ‘satirical’ songwriter from the States, called Bo Burnham. Whereas the likes of Tim Minchin had worked about a ten-year grind of comedy clubs and fleapits before breaking into the big time, young Burnham had managed to have a much greater degree of ‘instant’ celebrity foisted upon him in little over three years of Youtube videos and high-profile live shows.

A few years prior to Burnham’s emergence, Edinburgh had been taken by a similar internet-based, Youtube-hyped, media frenzy around Glaswegian comic Brian Limond, aka Limmy. In the space of about a year he’d had upward of a million hits on his website www.limmy.com and at least a 100,000 hits on many of his Youtube postings. By the end of 2006 he was making live appearances, had featured in The List’s (the Scottish equivalent of TimeOut) Hot 100 of the Year and was rumoured to be in discussion with BBC Scotland about a television show (that has since appeared in 2010 and had a second series in 2011).

Both of these comics were utilising Youtube’s attention-grabbing possibilities as a means of building up strong word-of-mouth about their video creations. In both cases there seemed a real sense that the Youtube work was intended as nothing more than a calling card for greater things and could thus be viewed as an alternate paradigm for media career-development. Rather than cutting their teeth in low-level comedy clubs, or putting together a promo reel and sending it around production companies, both Burnham and Limond were showing a belief in their work finding a wide audience, thus making them irresistible media commodities. Far from the cooler-than-thou posing and zero-work ethic popular conception of the hobbyist ‘hipster’, this was clearly two hard-working and committed, creative individuals, exploiting the best self-marketing tools at their disposal.

Perhaps taking things even further down the line of internet self-sufficiency and creative entrepreneurship has been the rapid rise of the musician couple Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. Their collaborative work under the title of Pomplamoose, a play on the French word for grapefruit – pamplemousse (yes, that’s how precious we’re about to get), has seen them covering everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Beyonce. It was a 2009 cover of the latter’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), that broke the couple into the Youtube big-time, pulling over eight million hits, as of August 2011.

Conte and Dawn’s work with Pomplamoose incorporates lots of intriguing elements of modern internet-based media productions. First of all they have a ‘gimmick’, as they are not just covering pop songs, but they are creating a new medium, of sorts, called the VideoSong. The VideoSong, as Conte defines it (Conte appearing to be very much the tech-head of the duo) is an authentic approach to video presentation, essentially what you hear is what you see, and if at some point you hear it in the mix, then it will be seen somewhere in the video. This is straight out of The White Stripes guidebook, as by placing these restraints upon themselves, they manage to make relatively innovative videos that belie the cheapness of their production, by seeming, at first, so hypnotically strange. In this respect it helps that the duo are both Californian-photogenic, with Dawn’s abstracted air of knowingness mainlining a great deal of Golden-era Hollywood close-up coyness and Conte’s high-energy mugging acting as a perfect foil.

Another trick that the duo have not missed is the idea of promotional tie-ins. From the moment they started doing the cover material as Pomplamoose, they have also been canny enough to find simple ways of promoting their own digital releases through iTunes, Tune Corps. and ReverbNation, selling over 100,000 downloads of their own material alone. By attaching sales features to their Youtube videos and drawing in subscribers to their Youtube channel they’ve been able to target an audience for their products directly, cutting out the middle-men of the ailing record industry.

Furthermore, Dawn and Conte have realised that they are themselves part of the product that people are buying into. As Pomplamoose’s videos have garnered more attention, Dawn and Conte have conducted more interviews, and have ingeniously stapled on a Vlog segment to most of their later releases, that gives the fan a tiny flavour of their lives, whilst allowing the duo to promote their latest merchandise, or tour dates.

At each stage of the duo’s expansion in popularity Conte and Dawn have shown a keen market awareness, to go alongside their infectious enthusiasm for the creative process. Dawn has also harnessed such internet-funding models as Kickstart to enable her to acquire donations from fans to help fund an album release. During 2010 Pomplamoose even branched out into advertising, providing a couple of cover versions for two car companies Hyundai and Toyota. It was their appearance in the Hyundai commercials that seemed to bring some degree of critical backlash against them, with its wall-to-wall coverage during the holiday season in the States managing to alienate a sizable viewing audience. However, the money that they’ve brought in from such work must surely be able to sustain their creative endeavours over the next few years.

Aside from Pomplamoose’s canny marketing and careful exploitation of a new on-line creative business model, they also do have some talent. The most striking thing about their videos is the quality of the photography, which adds a touch of class to their homemade approach. Although their cover versions are interesting, I wonder how effective they would be when robbed of the added visual stimuli that is, after all, part of their creative package? Whilst Dawn’s solo material meanders around in Madeleine Peyroux ‘loveliness’, Conte’s efforts actually bear some comparison to fellow bedsit luminaries such as Elliott Smith and Quasi, only with slightly smoother edges. The duo also seem to be genuine in their desire to promote a do-it-yourself aesthetic for the 21st century music scene, with Conte, in particular, spending hours of interview time talking about the various technical aspects of home-recording and music production. Clearly it has helped Conte to have musical friendships with the likes of Ben Folds, but this still should not detract from the admirable amount of genuine hard work and effort that both Dawn and himself have put into getting their music and creative ideas out there.

A more low-key, but equally fascinating example of Youtube creative promotion, comes courtesy of fellow Californian Kate Freund. Fitting the modern stereotype of ‘hipster’ far more snugly, Freund is one of those people who seems to be trying their hand at a little bit of everything, without ever really breaking out in one particular direction. Along with her partner, comicbook artist and comedian, Rob Schrab (of Scud infamy), she has worked on the long-running internet/live event Channel 101, indulging in a spot of hilarious film parodying (Le Typewriter and The Legend of the White Tiger), whilst also pursuing her own animation and modeling interests. Perhaps her most noted Youtube effort is the ‘fanvideo’ for The Magnetic Fields ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’, that has had over 300,000 hits and has been tacitly accepted by the band, in much the same way as Jon Salmon’s ‘fanvideo’ for MGMT’s ‘Kids’. Whereas, Pomplamoose have integrated many facets of advertising and promotion alongside their creative output, Freund seems to be content with simply allowing her Youtube channel to act as a business card, or flyer, for her creative output. Yet the very fact that comic work of the quality of The Legend of the White Tiger is being made so readily available, shows that the tired notion of ‘hipster’ ennui is no longer really viable in an increasingly ‘can-do/will-do’ internet-led creative media age.