Listen to this track by Montreal new wavers and safety-dancing pop music purveyors Men Without Hats. It’s “Pop Goes The World”, the title track to their 1987 record of the same name. The record was a hit in Canada, even if everywhere else in the world they would remain to be known as one-hit wonders with 1982’s “Safety Dance”.
Even if their fame was only defined by a certain range by 1987, principles Ivan and Stefan Doroschuk still had something to say about the nature of fame , particularly when it came to the music industry. After all, as most musicians do, they spent their energy pursuing it.
What this song does is make a comment on it once removed, and through the persons of Jenny (playing bass), and Johnny (playing guitar), who form a band to pursue worldwide success. Those names even appear in the album credits, along with “a little baby” on keyboards (the one featured on the cover, maybe?), and “J. Bonhomme” on drums, referencing the traditional snowman-styled mascot of the Quebec City winter carnival, and making a pun on Led Zeppelin’s departed stickman at the same time.
But besides the non-traditional band line-up, they throw something else into the mix too with this song, which perhaps aligns it with Cold War 1980s yet remains to be universal here in the 21st century; the end of the world!
The concept album began to make something of a minor comeback by the end of the 1980s, like Prince’s Sign of the Times, XTC’s Skylarking, and U2’s Rattle & Hum. And this one was another, blending in a lot of ’60s psychedelia elements (children’s voices, use of sound effects and distorted audio, acoustic instruments with electronic ones, etc) with ’80s synthpop. The innocent and almost cartoony quality in this song, and on the rest of the record (I always imagined it would make a good soundtrack to an animated story …) is actually a means of talking about more serious issues that may not seem related on the surface, but certainly do interweave in the subtext.
This is a tale of two young musicians who seek fame even while the world sits on the precipice of destruction. Is this pursuit of musical fame and fun just a distraction, an absurdity at times of desperation and crisis? Or is the hope of it the very thing that makes those more serious concerns bearable? In this song, the answer is both at the same time, as illustrated in the buoyant melody and overall aural effect, and the darkness that can be found in the lyrics (“every time I wonder …”). I think if it was one or the other, the material wouldn’t be as compelling.
This theme of fame juxtaposed with the end of the world certainly is a thread to follow in this song, but like the recurrence of Jenny and Johnny as characters in many of the other songs on the record, it’s one that the whole album explores. That’s why they call it a concept album! The closing song “The End of the World” that asks “Will Jenny be older? Will music be heard? Will we all meet again at the end of the world?”
I think this question is still hanging in the air in various forms even now.
After a number of membership shuffles, Men Without Hats is an active concern today. Their recent album is Love In The Age of War, the title of which seeming to suggest that these very same themes continue to fascinate them.