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The Science of “the Safety Dance” (and Other Montreal Hits)

Can a computer predict pop success? Maisonneuve puts new technology through the paces.

Hit Song Science (HSS) says that they can predict the hits. You give them money (CND$49.99 per song) and an MP3 file, and they will send you a chart telling you the mathematical hit potential of the music. Songs are analyzed on the sole basis of their “encouraging mathematical patterns,” a curious variety of musical characteristics which may or may not fall in line with those of proven hits throughout the ages. All the other selling points of a song (historical context, moving lyrics, cute haircuts, sexy videos, blog buzz and all-around industry hype) are left out of the equation.

Here’s another way of understanding the process: Imagine the musical notes comprising Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” floating in a vacuum. There are no other identifiers; no pink, fluffy pigtail elastics, no short schoolgirl skirts, no Spears! An unidentifiable businessperson wearing expensive sunglasses and an iPod captures these unadorned melodies, beats and riffs in a butterfly net and runs them through a magical music machine. One to two days later, you receive the song’s mathematical rating, delivered in a handy chart format.

Always up for a potentially devastating technological challenge, Maisonneuve decided to put four Montreal pop hits of past and present to the HSS test, using American hit measurements (it’s possible to also rate songs according to French, Latin or UK hit patterns). Here’s how to read the charts: Based on a scale of 0–10, HSS deems each song as “Close,” “Average,” or “Far” from pop hit success. A chart score of 7.00 or above means that the music alone (without the help of, say, a massive advertising push) has a strong likelihood of hooking listeners—anything lower than that and you’ll need to supplement the music with a huge record deal, a few million to spend on promotion, or great abs.

Keep in mind that HSS ratings apply to the specific recording only and by no means rule out the possibility of an artist super-sizing an “average” song via a killer live performance. After all, what would a machine know about the raucous Men Without Hats opening set for XTC at Théâtre St. Denis in 1980? Or the majesty of Wolf Parade’s first show—an off-the-cuff opening stint for the Arcade Fire? Exactly.

Of course, in our hearts, these pop, indie and synth-pop tracks are all hits—but we’re only human. Let’s hear what the computers have to say.


“Bye bye mon cowboy” (1988)

Hmm, this can’t be right. Mitsou below average? Before becoming a ubiquitous Quebec icon, the businesswoman/actress/radio-host had cut her teeth as a hot, flashy and controversial chanteuse. Mitsou’s first (and only) national pop hit, “Bye bye mon cowboy,” earned her flash-fire teen-idol status across Canada. Some people (well, one Web pundit, at least) even touted the song as “the single notable accomplishment of Canadian culture during the 1980s.” According to Hit Song Science though, “Bye bye mon cowboy” is a freak occurrence of pop hit success. Perhaps the steamy video, once a MuchMusic staple, gave it a leg (or thigh) up?

Wolf Parade

“Shine a Light” (2005)

The buzz around Wolf Parade started last September and our ears are still ringing. This April, the Sub Pop band played two huge sold-out shows at Montreal’s Théâtre National to their hometown crowd. “Shine a Light,” is the hit single (among other worthy tracks) from their first full-length album, Apologies to the Queen Mary. Wolf Parade’s jumbled recipe for success includes keyboards, electronics, drums and guitar—not to mention the gripping and bizarre vocal stylings of Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug. Still, Hit Song Science gives “Shine a Light,” Wolf Parade’s clever and theatrical pop—er, rock—anthem only a borderline report.

Men Without Hats

“The Safety Dance” (1982)

“We can dance if we want to / We can leave your friends behind!”

“The Safety Dance” remains one of the irresistible boogie-down tracks of the 1980s. In fact, its bouncy bass line kept bouncing people across dance floors for an entire decade until the band finally called it quits in 1993 (several remixes and numerous movie appearances have kept the magic alive, however, and the royalty cheques flowing). “The Safety Dance” went Top 10 in twenty countries and even landed these Montrealers, led by the Doroschuk brothers, a Grammy nomination. As Montreal’s “first self-proclaimed post-punk group” (says one reviewer), the secret to the song’s success may have been Men Without Hats’s prescient decision to rock with synthesizers before the practice became commonplace. According to the HSS chart, “The Safety Dance” indeed had “mathematical potential” to become a Canadian new wave hit. When you’ve got such numerical muscle, you probably don’t need a crazy gimmick like, say, a video featuring a medieval dwarf (but this song had that, too).

The Arcade Fire

“Neighbourhood#3 (Power Out)” (2004)

A hit! Science works! The Arcade Fire, proven by people and computers to be a bona fide, lean, mean Montreal hit-making machine (having sold over 250,000 copies of Funeral, their debut full-length album). But what is really important here is that the rating recognizes the band’s unique arrangement/orchestration/flurry/mayhem/fervor of crescendos, strings and xylophones as transcendental smash-hit material. Forget musical genius, a strong work ethic or an underhanded fashion sense. When it’s a hit, it moves you (and the machines, too).