Footloose: Political Transformations of a Song and Its Meaning

On September 5th in Portland, Oregon, videographers on the scene captured footage of a protester inadvertently lighting his feet on fire as he set off a Molotov cocktail. In a state of panic and distress, the man runs awkwardly towards the crowd of protesters with his feet blazing, caught between getting out of the way of the flames and trying to shake the fire from his feet. Fellow protesters eventually surround him and smother the fire on his feet. As of the date of this writing, the man’s identity has not been made public, but footage of the occurrence has gone viral. Stories featuring this event were covered by global media and even ended up getting coverage on the celebrity gossip site TMZ. 

On September 6th, Dan Scavino, an official in the White House Communications office, tweeted an edited 30-second copy of the video clip accompanied by the anthemic chorus to Kenny Loggins’ 1984 hit “Footloose,” the Grammy-winning theme song from the eponymous movie.[i] The short music video offered no commentary or caption, just the video of the protester with the new soundtrack (the video left out footage of the fire eventually being extinguished).   Scavino’s post was re-tweeted by Donald Trump with the headline, “These are the Democrats [sic] “Peaceful Protests.” Sick!” and has been viewed via Trump’s Twitter account more than three and a half million times, placing it among the most viewed unofficial musical material related to the 2020 campaign.[ii] Following Scavino’s viral tweet, a host of other pro-Trump tweeters uploaded the same clip set to different music, ranging from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Several tweets altered the video, by adding digital effects, to better fit the theme of their chosen song or their own brief commentary. 

What makes Scavino’s video both impressive and troubling is the ease with which his music video confers a specific interpretation of the events in Portland and their larger contexts. It also effectively erases the history and message of the original song and accompanying film. “Footloose,” a staple of 1980s yacht rock, unwittingly aids the connotations of Scavino’s video, which are unique to the current moment. His interpretation of the Portland event is one of schadenfreude: a conservative deriving glee from a protester burning himself in the act of violent disobedience and attempted intimidation. Or perhaps more elaborately stated: a Trump supporter relishing the self-inflicted pain of an uninformed anti-police agitator (a Democrat, a member of Antifa or some other Trump-branded anti-American faction) in the process of breaking the law. 

By adding “Footloose” to the raw footage, the video renders a moment within a series of charged events (BLM, COVID, Trump presidency, rampant inequality) comical, worthy of laughter and derision. This single event should rightly be a catalyst for a series of much larger debates about justice, representation, social and systemic inequalities, and the balance between protest and law. Instead, the moment, the protests, and the historical forces brought together by these events, as well as the history of “Footloose”, are wiped clean, leaving only smug partisanship, hatred, and violence. So how does the use of “Footloose,” a strange bedfellow for a tweet about violence, inform the interpretation of Scavino’s tweet, and what does this say about the ongoing relationships and the dangerous flexibility of music unmoored from its historical moment and politically re-coded? 

Footloose, the song

“Footloose” as a song is an excellent time capsule. Everything from the gated drum sounds and hand claps, synth and organ patches, and twangy rockabilly lounge guitar, combined with the predictable chromatic buildup to the epic chorus, are emblematic of yacht rock. This sub-genre of 1970s and 80s Adult-oriented rock is male-performed and features silky smooth, layered production, big choruses, and harmonic complexity, and savors elite features rather than the working class aspects of life.[iii] The genre of yacht rock conjures up images of men and women with feathered hair, brightly colored and comically oversized clothing churning the dance floor with dad-level dance moves. Much of this imagery owes its legacy to early MTV, which put acts like Kenny Loggins, Hall and Oates, Journey, Huey Lewis and the News, and Toto into rotation.[iv]  

For Scavino’s purposes, the song is also borderline buffoonish: the lyrics are trite and a little too on the nose, and Kenny Loggins’ call to the dance floor sounds contrived and corny. The lyrics of the chorus, featuring phrases like “Please, Louise” and “Jack, Get Back” smack of 1980s conservatism’s astro-turf[v] wholesomeness. The infectious sing-along chorus and earnest back beat are still catchy enough to get heads bobbing, even if only ironically (this is one possible reading, I recommend watching the video). All of this helps to explain how “Footloose” as a pop song remains present enough in the popular imagination that it can become rhetorically effective in a political context 36 years later. The pairing of these two pieces of media—a news video from a recent protest and a smash hit from 1984—are meant to project the flaming protester’s wild gyrations as comical, a painful, ominous call to a dance floor of humiliation. This interpretation seems to carry through: responses to Scavino’s tweet make clear that his partisan message of humor and schadenfreude was received clearly.     

There are two issues that this use of “Footloose” illustrates. The first is the complicated relationship between expression and meaning, particularly in the overdetermined realm of political advocacy, where audiences are politically homogeneous, and criticism takes a backseat to reinforcing partisanship. This is particularly true of Twitter and similar platforms where users choose who and which hashtags they follow, creating an echo-chamber effect. Perhaps it is easier for media-makers to re-code on politically similar platforms that already carry specific connotations. The second issue is the tenuous relationship between popular music (or music made popular) and other media that are initially concurrent. Mentioned above are coiffurial and  sartorial aspects of yacht rock that seem to follow representations of Kenny Loggins, Hall and Oates, and similar performers long after they have changed their appearances. However, there are often more substantive social contexts that shape both the production and reception of music and other media. These relationships are easily severed. One example is the eponymous film that the song “Footloose” was written and recorded for. The relationship between the film and the Trump presidency make the theme song a contradictory fit for an advocacy video. In spite of this, the video itself was quite effective, with hardly a mention of the actual film or the relevant social issues that it raised in 1984 (discussed below). 

The example of “Footloose” reinforces a key characteristic of music: that its signifying chains are loose, and that as time separates music from the contexts and purposes of its genesis, the collective meanings of the constituent parts can be re-coded. In his analysis of the voice, Mladen Dolar comes to the conclusion that song is an excellent form of expression, but fails as a mode of communication (2006). In searching for the role of the voice in creating meaning and authority, Dolar hears powerful emotional and affective cues in song, invitations to contemplation and abstraction, but not the (more) direct messages of speech. Although speech acts can be ambiguous, they exist within a closed system of differences, one that limits variation and prizes intelligibilities, while still being prone to challenge and expansion (Laclau, 1996). Created outside of this context,  song becomes a loose signifier, a vehicle for emotion, movement, and engagement, but without durable communicative meaning. 

This is true for music in the absence of extra-musical factors, like fashion, image, album, and video. These factors inject additional levels of meaning at the time of articulation, when music’s original affective, textual, and relational patterns are formed. But these links break down almost immediately, particularly in the current multi-media environment and in the context of pro-sumers like Scavino (those who are both producers and consumers, as is the case with tribute videos, lip sync, Tik Tok dances, etc.). Media communities, particularly on social media, allow for the immediate exchange of subjective interpretations and re-interpretations. Digital tools enable re-framing and dispersion among ideologically homogenous user bases. All of this begs crucial examination of music, images, politics, and intellectual property: are song writers’ and performers’ politics part of their image and is that subject to intellectual property protection, particularly in overtly politicized media?

Footloose, the film   

Footloose was released in 1984 and went on to gross some $80 million. It was also nominated for two Oscars, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy, all for the music, and scenes of Kevin Bacon dancing have become iconic images of the 1980s. The plot revolves around a high schooler  from Chicago (Ren, played by Kevin Bacon) relocating to a small Midwestern town which is dominated by the heavy-handed morality of the local minister (Rev. Moore, played by John Lithgow). On Rev. Moore’s forbidden list are rock music and dancing. We find out later that his son was killed in a tragic automobile accident after a night of dancing, driving him to impose strict moral codes in the name of saving the town and caring for his flock. Ren arrives at a pivotal moment: Moore’s daughter (Ariel, played by Lori Singer) is rebelling and the local high school is taking censorship to extreme lengths. Ren confronts adults, authority figures, and peers who see his urban ways as a threat, but in some cases also as a salve for Moore’s harsh repression. His solution is to challenge the town ordinance against dancing and hold a high school dance. With the help of Ariel, who provides him with biblical passages about dancing, and his boss at a local mill, he is able to find the space and the permission to host a dance.

The message of the movie is typical Hollywood heavy-handedness. It portrays a stereotypical antagonism between city and country, the conservatism of small-town America and the hedonism of the big city. It also depicts the characters in ways that tend towards the two-dimensional: high school girls who are ready to party with the city kid and express big-city dreams, high school boys who are threatened by change and competition and react violently, and school administrators and clergy who stifle youth and creativity. However, the narrative of the movie is less a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, and more of a lesson in tolerance, synthesis, and compromise. Characters on the ideological extreme of conservatism, the school principle and librarian, the young jealous local boys, are firmly rejected by the main characters and are excluded from the picture-perfect Hollywood ending. The big-city protagonist wins a victory by compromising and adapting to a wholesome version of himself. The local minister sees the error of his ways and tacks to the center, still conservative, but more accepting. For most of the characters, compromise is the main feature of their development.

In the Present Culture War

This story is as much a parable for the current moment as it was in the midst of the Reagan revolution, with its culture wars, conservative Evangelism on television, and urban discontents of the 1980s. A simple reading of the film is the triumph of urban values in a small town, but a closer read reveals that Ren adapts to his new home as much as the town elders and his classmates adapt to him. There is a powerful element of compromise and a search for a middle ground that wafts over the triumphant ending of the film. However, the film lacks some nuance; it is clear that caricatured representations of small-town life are used to set up the plot and appeal to urban and suburban viewers whose stereotypes of flyover country set the scene. These include the exaggerated, two-dimensional depictions of the preposterously zealous high school principle, librarian, town police, and the high school bully and his gang (whose truck is adorned with ridiculous buck antlers and his act of partner violence against Ariel is never addressed apart from cementing their break-up).             

In the midst of continued, divisive ideological wars fought over control of bodies and cultural expressions, Footloose offers a meaningful expression of compromise and acceptance, although not without its problems. The violence that precedes this compromise is treated as normal or even necessary. Violence is shown as an unavoidable element for triumph, as Ren and his sidekick Willard have to beat up arch nemeses Jim and his gang before entering the dance, and Ariel’s final breakup with Jim is cemented with him beating her (an act that is never remarked upon, even by Ren). Exclusion of those with unaccepted ideologies is unproblematically accepted. Those who are open-minded, either small-town religious or big-city progressive, are seen as the victors. While imperfect, Footloose has a message that is as relevant to 2020 as it was to 1984.   

But all of the nuance, context, allegory, and messages of “Footloose” are erased in the hands of a skilled media maker (there are many imitations of Scavino’s tweet, most are clunky and churlish). The accompanying expressions—a peppy dance tune with an “aw, shucks” text that evokes small-town innocence, the flair and flamboyance of the 1980s, the liberation of freeing bodies from the strictures of conservatism, and a spirit of acceptance—are flattened and re-made to suit a radically hateful, violent and ahistorical agenda. The joy of dancing, forbidden and otherwise, is graphed onto a moment of pain, that of the protester, but also the larger pain from systemic violence and inequality in black communities. Their plight and its truths are flattened by Scavino’s re-framing of the moment as one to be laughed at rather than one to be reckoned with. The message of the protests against police brutality, their histories and lived realities, are negated, and with them, the Hollywood-glossy notion of harmoniously resolving differences through positive communal actions. Though few of us see a Hollywood ending to the current culture wars, especially after the recent verdict in the case of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, it is disheartening to experience a dismissal of this nature, particularly one whose efficacy depends on re-signifying beloved music and severing it from an original context that speaks so clearly to the present moment. 

Conclusion

At present there is little that can be done about this phenomenon. Tribute videos, lip sync, dance videos, and the like have been protected under legal statutes that lag behind the speed of technology. It is also unclear whether regulation or an updating of intellectual property laws are desirable—for each instance of uses that seem to fly in the face of the makers’ intent, or our own interpretation, there are others that we agree with and support. Placing strictures on the uses of music seems counterintuitive and runs counter to the spirit of creativity. But there is a blurred line when it comes to politics uses—do the makers’ intentions matter and are the politics of their art protected, even in pro-sumer spaces like Twitter or Tik Tok? With popular music, is there a case where we can talk about intent in the singular, given the nature of the popular music industry? These are questions for much larger discussions concerning artists, legislators, and law enforcement, but it would be beneficial to have musicological engagement in the discussion. 

-Justin Patch


[i] This message was tweeted from Scavino’s personal Twitter account.

[ii] This is in comparison to other unofficial campaign-related music tracked by Trax on the Trail in 2019–2020.

[iii] Other yacht rock acts include Hall and Oates, Toto, Billy Joel, REO Speedwagon, Boz Scaggs, Christopher Cross, and others. See Llewellen Hinkes-Jones, “Downtempo Pop: When Good Music Gets a Bad Name,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2010; and David Dye and Talia Schlanger, “That 70’s Week: Yacht Rock”, NPR.org, March 15, 2017,     https://www.npr.org/sections/world-cafe/2017/03/15/520254333/that-70s-week-yacht-rock.

[iv] See videos for Kenny Loggins “Playing with the Boys,” Huey Lewis and the News “Heart and Soul,” or Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True,” for examples. Note, none actually feature yachts; the terms was added later.

[v] The term “astro-turf” is used to delineate between grassroots movements and those that wear the veneer of being “of the people” but are underwritten by private interests. 

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