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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

The irony and unity in hearing a crowd singing"Dancing On My Own"

Robyn's 2010s-defining hit is narratively unfitting such a response... but deep down, such an act really makes a lot of sense.


Irony is a terribly misunderstood and overused word.


Far too often, people improperly label coincidences as situational ironies. No, meeting an old friend in an unexpected location isn't ironic; it's coincidental that you happened to be at the same place. Similarly, tripping and falling after making fun of someone doing the same is coincidental, because there's a lack of expectation of the personal consequence. Even music isn't immune from confusing the terms, as Alanis Morisette's "Ironic" hardly contains any irony at all, and when it appears, it's quite tenuous.


There are some times, however, when irony is undeniable — like hearing a bar-going throng belting out the lyrics to Robyn's "Dancing On My Own," as I overheard near my apartment last night The song does have a club settings in its lyrics, but its theme couldn't be more solitary in that moment, so hearing a crowd singing it tends to make me 1) laugh, and 2) question how I think of the song, one of the best of the 2010s.

In multiple ways, "Dancing On My Own" preceded or perhaps signaled the arrival of key trends in popular music. It hit the airwaves ahead of the electronic dance boom that took off in earnest a year or two later, and it reintroduced the sad dance anthem to the masses, an under-recognized part of EDM's half-decade stint of popularity. (Listen to the lyrics to Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child" or Calvin Harris' "I'm Not Alone" and tell me those reflective narratives aren't sad.) Taking inspiration from disco artists like Donna Summer and Ultravox, Robyn tells a story of seeing her partner dancing intimately with someone now, contemplating her actions before resorting to just dancing by herself despite the pain. The combination of her singing through her near-breakdown and the song's icy beat makes the narrative more tangible on a solo listen, and the higher synth layers after the chorus drive home the sadness even further.


So what is it that makes "Dancing On My Own" and other sad dance tracks so alluring in multiple types of settings? It all comes down to the idea of dancing through the pain and sadness of life. If you're around my age and you listen to this song on your own, you'll have a hard time stopping yourself from singing and at least moving a little bit to it. Even at a lower point, the song caters to you because Robyn's narrator is describing how she gets through a harrowing personal experience, one that causes her to really question herself before she resolves to dance on her own.


In a larger social setting, however, this personal understanding gives way to hopes for emotional solidarity. We crave for people to understand our emotions, especially when they contrast with the greater scene around us. We're not always happy when we go out — we may do so to ease the pain of a difficult stretch in our lives, and beneath our happy surface, there are deeper emotions that we can't escape. Even if we try to put up a façade for the whole night, we'll end it unsatisfied if we don't feel some kind of greater connection to at least one person. Hearing "Dancing On My Own" in a bar or a club — akin to the lyrical scene — may very well remind people that they aren't by themselves in feeling sad or out of place, even while they outwardly present themselves as confident or enjoying the moment.


As the student mass that flocks to the bars and clubs of Berkeley enters a stressful week, it's honestly quite fitting that the DJ chose to include "Dancing On My Own" in their set. Everybody's going through it right now, and in hearing such a song, the patrons (and those who live close enough) are reminded that their emotional landscape is a shared one, and there's always comfort in that. I say keep on dancing, and Go Bears.

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