With its propulsive opening and declarative lyrics, Men Without Hat’s “The Safety Dance” remains an undeniable hit. A club floor-filler with an anti-establishment bent. The “man” in this case? Club bouncers who had no time for New Wave’s misfits.
In 1982, the pop music landscape was changing. Disco was on its way out, and New Wave had sprung up to take its place. This was by no means a smooth translation, and along with a new style of music came a new subculture and style of dancing. Instead of disco’s smooth two-step movements, New Wave fans started pogoing – jumping up and down to the music – and bouncers considered this act a danger to other dancers.
The song’s origins
Ivan Doroschuk, frontman of Canadian New Wave act Men Without Hats, was one of the many pogoers who struggled to have their moves tolerated by club security. “Every now and then [DJs would] slip in Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or ‘Rock Lobster’ by The B-52’s [to their sets],” he told Pop Culture Addict in 2012. “Well, obviously, anybody who was into that kind of music would rush on the dance floor and start jumping up and down and would bang into the guys trying to do their disco two steps. I got thrown out of a lot of clubs because of that.”
Annoyed that he wasn’t being allowed how to dance how he wanted to, Doroschuk turned to the medium he knew best to protest and penned “The Safety Dance,” the band’s first big hit. “We can dance if we want to/We can leave your friends behind, the singer declared in its opening lines. “‘Cause your friends don’t dance, and if they don’t dance/Well, they’re no friends of mine.”
Doroschuk originally conceived of Men Without Hats as a punk outfit, but as the music world shifted, so did the band.
“I just realized that pop music was one of the biggest platforms for getting a message across. So I made the switch from punk guitars to New Wave synthesizers for that reason,” Doroschuk shared in the 2016 book, Is This Live?: Inside the Wild Early Years of MuchMusic: The Nation’s Music Station.
The track was released in 1982 as the second single from Men Without Hats’ debut album, Rhythm Of Youth. Although it took a few months for the song to become a hit in Canada and the US, it eventually climbed up the charts in both countries. At home, the song peaked at No.11, while it did even better stateside, reaching No.3 and spending 24 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
As the success of “The Safety Dance” grew, so did different interpretations of the song’s meaning. Some thought it was a euphemism for safe sex, while others – inspired by the imagery in the music video – presumed it to be an anti-nuclear protest song. In 2020, Doroschuk explained the former interpretation was incorrect, while the latter wasn’t strictly true. “It wasn’t a question of just being anti-nuclear, it was a question of being anti-establishment,” he told The Sudbury Star.
Like many hits of the 80s, the global popularity of “The Safety Dance” was driven by the music video, directed by Tim Pope, who made a name for himself helming videos for The Cure and Talk Talk. During the pre-internet days and era of costly international calls, Doroschuk and Pope discussed the video’s script and treatments by mail, where they both settled on the idea of Doroschuk as a pied-piper character.
The band then swapped the woods of Mount Royal in Montreal for the English countryside and decamped to the town of West Kington, Wiltshire. Pope leaned heavily into the location and incorporated more British imagery into the video, including traditional Morris dancers, a Punch and Judy sideshow, and even a maypole. It was this unlikely setting and Doroschuk’s Medival appearance that set the band apart from their pointy-shoe sporting and perfectly coiffed New Wave peers.
In the intervening decades since its release, “The Safety Dance” has maintained its status as a cult hit. In 1984, “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied it with his song “The Brady Bunch,” and it was later inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2020, alongside Men Without Hats’ most successful single, 1987’s “Pop Goes The World.”
“I’m very honored,” Doroschuk told The Sudbury Star at the time. “It’s just hard to describe. It amazes me every time something like this happens — whether it’s the hall of fame, or popping up in commercials and movies, I’m always amazed [those songs are] still going […] It’s a bit surreal, for sure, but I’ll take it.”