Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mystery Dance

On the cover of his first album, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello strikes a Buddy Holly pose, but the album's music has less Buddy Holly in it—except for "Mystery Dance." Its stops and starts and driving shuffle rhythm recall "Not Fade Away," but Costell0's lyrics provide a completely different perspective on eternal love, the main subject of so many of Holly's songs. "Mystery Dance" shows how early rock-and-roll's euphemistic presentation of sexual desire in terms of dancing and romantic love leaves its listeners unable to just "do it."

The "mystery dance" of sex is what the singer wants to learn, but in the second verse, when an opportunity to try it out comes up, he and his potential partner are at a loss:

Well, I remember when the lights went out.
I was trying to make it look like it was never in doubt.
She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew.
So both of us were willing but we didn't know how to do it.

The music offers Buddy Holly as a possible place to learn about such things, while the first verse turns to another possible source of information about love for teenagers:

Romeo was restless; he was ready to kill.
He jumped out the window 'cause he couldn't sit still.
Juliet was waiting with a safety net.
He said, "Don't bury me 'cause I'm not dead yet."

Romeo and Juliet are exemplary figures of teenagers in love who are misunderstood by the world around them: the outside world does not want them to "know how to do it." But even they do not actually show or tell their audience what to do when the moment of truth comes.

If classic literature and pop music fail, maybe pornography will help:

Well, I was down under the covers in the middle of the night,
Trying to discover my left foot from my right.
You can see those pictures in any magazine,
But what's the use of looking if you don't know what they mean.

In fact, it's not just pornographic pictures that don't help (in this case, not with sex, but with masturbation), but those "in any magazine": sexy advertisements don't do the job either.

Perhaps the singer ought to ask someone for help, which is what he does in the chorus:

Why don't you tell me 'bout the mystery dance?
I wanna know about the mystery dance.
Why don't you show me 'cause I've tried and I've tried but I'm still mystified.
I can't do it any more and I'm not satisfied.

In a sense, though, he does not ask for help: though he wants to know how to do "the mystery dance," he actually asks why nobody will tell him or show what to do. In a way, he's wondering why nobody has given him a sex-ed class!

The demo version of "Mystery Dance" contains one last verse that turns to one other possible source of information, beyond literature, music, and magazines:

I'm gonna walk right up to heaven dodging lightning and rods.
I'm gonna have this very personal conversation with god.
I said, "You've got the information; why don't you say so?"
He said, "Well, I've been around, and I still don't know."

Religion doesn't help either, and the singer is left with nothing to do but repeat his frustration while the song fades out: "I can't do it anymore and I'm not satisfied."

The singer's lack of satisfaction echoes another bit of earlier rock-and-roll, of course: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Even Mick Jagger, though, does not offer any help to a frustrated young man: he talks about how unsatisfied he is because of how the radio and the television present images to him that do not satisfy him. Only in the song's final verse does he address sex specifically—but only to refer to a girl who turned him down! We all know that "Satisfaction" is about "the mystery dance," but it's no help for that song's frustrated singer either!


The Buddy Holly feel of "Mystery Dance" is already gone by the time the Attractions start playing it:

And these days, the song can sound quite different:

When Bob Dylan does that to his songs, people hate it!

1 comment:

Paul Baer said...

I saw the acoustic version of Mystery Dance when they played Atlanta last year and I loved it!