[Think Tank] The Time Paradox of My Life

[Think Tank] The Time Paradox of My Life

Johnny and Baby dance to a song … FROM THE FUTURE!

Perich: Here’s something that’s bugged me for years about Dirty Dancing.

The movie’s set at a summer resort in the Catskills. Johnny (Patrick Swayze), who has just been fired, struts back into the main lodge and reminds the stunned crew that the staff always had the final dance of the season. He takes Baby (Jennifer Grey) by the hand, leads her on stage and gives a vinyl record to one of the staff. The two of them dance like wounded angels, thrilling the crowd and redeeming Baby with her father.

It’s a phenomenal dance scene, don’t get me wrong. And coming when it does in the film, it’s a thrilling climax.

There’s just one problem: this movie takes place in 1963. Based on what little I know about music, it’s impossible that that song could have been written then.

1. The intro of the song features synthesized keys and synthesized harp strings.
2. After the intro, there’s a bass line that’s clearly inspired by funk, which is still at least a decade away.
3. It’s too simple of a production – starts slowly, builds quietly. Given Phil Spector’s dominance in the pop recording industry at the time, a contemporary song would have had the “Wall of Sound” effect.

But I realize that I don’t have a fraction of the musical chops that some other writers have. So I open it to you guys. Is this song even musicologically possible in the setting of the film? If not, why not? And why do we accept it when it comes on?

I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to like this movie, or even this scene. It’s a great scene! What I’m asking is why does it work, given how anachronistic the song is?

Belinkie: My theory is that the characters in the film are not actually hearing “Time Of My Life,” at least the version we are. They’re hearing something era-appropriate, and the movie is “translating” it into a 1987 popular music vernacular. This may sound convoluted, but movies do this all the time. Think about all those films set in ancient Rome, in which the characters speak English (always, for some reason, with British accents). Those filmmakers aren’t suggesting that the Romans really spoke English. It’s an artistic choice to break down some of the cultural distance between us and ancient Rome, so we can connect to the story better.

Examples of musical translation are rarer, but not unheard of. Take A Knight’s Tale, the 2001 Heath Ledger film that always surprises me by being better than I expect. During the opening jousting scene, the soundtrack not only plays “We Will Rock You,” we see the crowd clapping and stamping along with it. This isn’t mere silliness. Wikipedia paraphrases some of the DVD commentary by director Brian Helgeland:

“He justifies his use of music by speculating that even during the 1370s, persons in the main characters’ age group would’ve enjoyed newer, more contemporary music than something that had been around since their great grandparents were young, and opted to use music that would affect the audience the same way late 14th century music would’ve affected the youth of the 1370s. Thus, Helgeland attempted to stylize the movie in such a way as to bring the Middle Ages to the audience, rather than force the audience into the Middle Ages.”


The fact is, when we get into that “Time of My Life” dance number, Dirty Dancing doesn’t seem like a period piece. The era fades away, and we’re just watching a dance. It’s a neat trick, actually.

Stokes: This is something performers of medieval music struggle with a lot. If you try your hardest to recreate the sound waves they heard back then, you can end up with something that sounds very archaic to us. But whatever they thought about the music then – and we know very little about that – they almost *certainly* didn’t think of it as archaic. So by hewing close to the actual sounds, one distorts the experience, and possibly vise versa.

Lee: I’ve always wanted to record a version of “Time of My Life” as it would have sounded in the vernacular. As in, with early 60’s Motown/Phil Spector aesthetics. This would be time consuming but totally doable.

Sheely: I can’t believe that no one has yet suggested the possibility that this is a “Johnny B Goode” situation, in which, entirely off camera, Swayze’s character has time-traveled to 1987 and the record that he gives to the DJ is in fact the Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes 7″, meaning that he single-handedly creates 80s pop.

Thank god he didn’t come forward to 2010:

Although, come to think of it, that is EXACTLY what happens in Hot Tub Time Machine:

Perich: HTTM is an interesting reference because Nick (Craig Robinson) has come back in time in order to redeem his wasted youth.

Is Johnny’s story similar? He mentions when he gets onstage that he learned that there are people who care about other people in the world. Dirty Dancing isn’t just a story of Frances growing up; it’s also a story of Johnny learning how to trust.

Maybe there’s an alternate future where Johnny becomes a bitter loner. Unemployable after getting fired from the Catskills, he drifts from one anonymous town to the next. Then, twenty years later, a magical old man sends Johnny back in time. He shows those stodgy old folks at the summer resort that dancing is supposed to be about energy, athletic exhibition and thinly-veiled dry humping.

[What do you think, faithful readers? Is Patrick Swayze traveling through time in search of redemption? Is he dancing with a power that transcends cultural limitations? Or did he bring pop from the future to give to the present … in the past? And do you want Mark to record a 60s-era “Time of My Life”? Sound off in the comments!]

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19 Comments on “[Think Tank] The Time Paradox of My Life”

  1. JJJ #

    I love your analogy about modern music being a language-like translation of era-appropriate music in movies, well phrased in Belinkie’s first paragraph. I never thought of that! I’m so stealing it!

    Mark I eagerly await your mash-up video :)


  2. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    To nitpick Brian Helgeland’s DVD commentary just a little bit: I don’t buy the claim that that for the youth of 2001, “We Will Rock You” is the new hotness. That song was almost a quarter century old by that point. Sure, you get all riled up stomping and clapping at sports events, but so do your parents. Hell, so do your grandparents.

    If you wanted to give the effect of “Hey, Grandpa! Why don’t you go shove your plainchant and suck on these polyphonic motets!”, what music would you use? Beautiful Day? Midnite Vultures? (Both were nominated for Grammys in 2001.) I don’t think so. The former is too user-friendly and the latter is self-consciously a throwback to grandpa’s music or at least dad’s. Maybe something off the Marshall Mathers LP?

    So. Thought experiment. It’s 2001. You want to alienate and confound your parents. If they give even a hint of “Hey, what are you listening to, champ? That’s actually pretty cool!” you have failed. What do you blast on the stereo?


    • Adrian #

      Something from Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy by Mindless Self Indulgence.


    • FadHawk #

      I’d have to throw Godsmack- “Whatever” in there. Nu-metal though it may be, it was 2001. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME3Ahe8z16k

      Maybe also Korn’s “Freak on a Leash”?

      Eminem’s “Kim”, as mentioned below, is definitely going to avoid your parents thinking it’s in any way cool (hopefully), but I just don’t see it used to better effect in the scene from A Knight’s Tale.


    • Sylvia #

      Something by Lamb of God, probably.


    • Hazbaz #

      I think Animal Collective’s Danse Manatee would work quite well.


    • Timothy J Swann #

      System of a Down worked pretty well at that point, I recall.

      I would also suggest Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but for different reasons.


    • Valatan #

      And of course, my issue with that commentary is how ridiculous it is in the context of how anachronistic EVERYTHING in “A Knight’s Tale” is. From the naked wandering Chaucer, to the general refusing to go the front lines in a real war because it would take him away from the tournament circuit, to almost everything.


  3. fenzel #

    “It’s 2001. You want to alienate and confound your parents. If they give even a hint of “Hey, what are you listening to, champ? That’s actually pretty cool!” you have failed. What do you blast on the stereo?”



    • fenzel #

      And I don’t want to link to the NSFW video, but the better answer is probably “Smack My B*tch Up” by The Prodigy.


        • fenzel #

          (by the way, I know I’ve mentioned this before on the site, but my buddies and I in college used to have a game where we’d play that song on the stereo with the window open, and take turns slightly turning up the volume until somebody decided they couldn’t do it anymore)


    • HmSkl #

      I would probably have to say almost anything by Rancid’s self titled 2000 album.


    • Paul #

      Really? Limp Bizkit is going to confound my parents or your parents? You aren’t giving them much credit. This is such transparent idiot frat boy party anthem dreck. As a counter point, I offer Outkast’s B.O.B. The lyrics aren’t very repetitive and come so fast that what bits parents might pick out would likely be rather disconcerting.


  4. Brian #

    I second Eminem “Kim” because “Smack my B*tch Up” isn’t that alienating or confounding other than the one lyric, same with “Roll’n.” “Kim” is non-stop talking and the music itself is grating. I was gonna say Slipknot “Left Behind” because it was also nominated for a Grammy, but it’s not as raw and alienating as “Kim.”


  5. rtpoe #

    What’s happening here with the music is what I believe is called “semiotic transposition” (hereafter abbreviated as “ST”). I’d be more certain if I could find a clear definition of the term, and not something shrouded in the jargon of literary and artistic criticism. As I gather, ST comes in to play when translating literature from one language to another. The translator cannot just swap words; he or she must translate the *meaning* of the words. When it comes to things like colloquialisms, a literal translation doesn’t work. For example, a straight translation of “What’s up, Doc?” into Latin has you asking a physician what is above him. You really want something like “Quid novum, Magister?” (literally, “What’s new, Master?”). These alterations make the work more understandable to the intended audience.

    ST is more often used in the “translation” of non-verbal symbols. In the “Dirty Dancing” case, the aforementioned music is given a different arrangement than what would be appropriate for the actual setting of the movie in order to provide the audience with the proper emotional cues.

    And actually, if you look at the top songs of 1963, music was all over the place. The “originators” of rock and roll (e.g. Elvis, Chuck Berry) had fallen from dominance while the British Invasion had yet to occur. There were foreign language songs, instrumentals, “easy listening” tunes, novelty songs, folk rock… The year started with “Telstar”, an avant-garde instrumental, at the top of the US charts. You cannot describe the whole year with just one musical style. So a bit of electronica with a proto-funk beat is something that just possibly could fit right in…


  6. Gab #

    If the goal is alienating my own parents specifically, I’d likely go with “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” by Jay-Z, and there is a story behind why.

    To alienate the older generation(s) in general, “Liquid Dreams” by O-Town. I was totally a boy-band-enthusiast, but that’s one song I regret being enthusiastic about when it was new.

    Although, I may be tempted to pick something from 2000, like “The Thong Song” or “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” just to give them stuff they for sure wouldn’t “get.”


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