Get Up and Dance: “Take me where the rhythm is racy / Let me be a dancin’ fool” – BTS’ “Permission to Dance” Single Review

Permission to Dance is BTS’ third English language single. It follows last year’s hugely successful Dynamite and this year’s follow-up Butter which topped the Billboard 100 for seven weeks in succession (17 July 2021), surpassing the achievements of Dynamite in so doing. And at the time of writing, Butter has passed the baton to Permission to Dance, which topped the chart of 24 July 2021. 

Permission to Dance is written by Ed Sheeran, Johnny McDaid, Jenna Andrews, and Steve Mac and produced by Steve Mac, Stephen Kirk, and Jenna Andrews (Jenna Andrews also participated in writing Butter). Permission to Dance is available on a single album along with Butter and instrumentals of both songs which sold 1,711,870 copies in Korea on the first day of its release according to Hanteo charts. Gaon charts puts this figure higher at over 2 million copies. The difference in the numbers is because Hanteo tracks individual album sales, while Gaon tracks shipment sales and therefore includes albums in stores and not just those that have been bought in store or online.

Image © BigHit Entertainment 

Permission to Dance is different to BTS’ other two English language releases in that there is no rap which situates the song more as classic pop rather than KPOP. In a recent VLIVE (15 July 2021), RM talks about trying to insert rap into the track as they had done with Dynamite and Butter. A decision was made not to do so, as it was felt that rap would change the overall flow and feel of the track. As it is, the overall song structure is more complex than the other songs in that it contains a bridge and a refrain in addition to the typical choruses and verses. Significantly, the refrain connects Permission to Dance to Dynamite: in Dynamite the first part of the bridge (between the post chorus and the final chorus) is: “Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy / Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy / Dy-na-na-na, na-na, na-na, ayy / Light it up like dynamite” while in Permission to Dance, the refrain goes “Da, na-na, na-na, na, na / Da, na-na, na-na, na, na / Da, na-na, na-na, na, na / No, we don’t need permission to dance”. Both parts happen towards the end of the respective tracks. This is perhaps no surprise given that Jenna Andrews has worked on all three songs, on the first as a vocal producer and the others as writer and producer. In addition, the part in the chorus of Butter where the vocal line sing: “Let me show you, cause talk is cheap” means the same thing as “Don’t need to talk the talk, just walk the walk tonight”, also from the chorus, in Permission to Dance, with both stressing the primacy of actions over words. As such Dynamite, Butter, and Permission to Dance are interconnected to each other and can be considered as a trilogy of songs rather than isolated pre-release single tracks whose purpose is to build up anticipation for a forthcoming album. Indeed, although Dynamite is included on both BTS’ most recent Korean EP, BE (20 November 2020) and Japanese compilation album BTS, The Best (16 June 2020) it feels as an addition to, rather than an integral part, of these releases. 

Music Video © BigHit Entertainment 

Dynamite was released on 21 August 2020, approximately five months into the pandemic, at a moment in time where there was no roadmap out of it. By the time of the release of Butter on 21 May 2021, the existence of vaccines and the beginning of mass vaccination programmes seemingly offered hope out of this global crisis. However, the road out of the pandemic was looking increasingly bumpy by the release of the third song in the trilogy, Permission to Dance on 21 July 2021, something which probably was not evident when the song was composed by Ed Sheeran. Having said this, all three songs are celebrations of life, stressing the importance of living in the moment, despite the circumstances which gave birth to them.

Music helps us to negotiate our identities, in bad times as well as good times, allowing us to reconnect with who we were and connect with who we are, promoting and providing resilience. At times of crisis, as at the moment, nostalgia is key as it provides evidence of ‘normality’. The summer trilogy by BTS draws on the history of pop music, and in particular, that of disco and funk, both lyrically and musically. In Permission to Dance, Elton John and his hits I am Still Standing (lyrically) – “When it all seems like it’s wrong / Sing along to Elton John” and “There’s always something that’s standing in the way” – and Our Song (musically in terms of chord progression) are referenced. There are also rhythmic similarities with the Village People’s Y.M.C.A (1978), when at the end of the chorus in Permission to Dance, Jin sings: “When you look yourself right in the eye, eye, eye …”. This is analogous to the instrumental beat which connects Verse 1 and the chorus of Y.M.C.A

Image © BigHit Entertainment 

Permission to Dance contains all the elements necessary for a sure-fire summer hit, it is musically simple (which is a positive and not a negative attribute for a pop song), its accompanying dance moves can be picked up by anyone, the chorus is memorable, and it has an overall upbeat vibe. This is, however, undercut by a touch of melancholy, for example, when Jin sings: “We don’t need to worry / ‘Cause when we fall, we know how to land”. This can be related at a micro-level to BTS’ struggle for recognition and acceptance in South Korean and elsewhere, as well at a macro-level in terms of the global pandemic which although it seems to be never-ending at the moment. However, this melancholic recognition of life as a struggle is undercut by the knowledge that life goes on and the promise that things will be better in the future. For the moment, however, Permission to Dance, calls on us to dance, to be fully present in the moment, where we can escape from the present and imagine a future where once again, we can be free of restrictions and connect with each other in person rather than through the virtual as many of us having been doing for over a year now.  As the last two lines of the chorus tell us: “Let’s break our plans and live just like we’re golden / And roll in like we’re dancing fools (like we’re dancing fools)”.

Image © BigHit Entertainment 

It is not clear whether there is a deliberate connection to Frank Zappa’s 1979 track, Dancin’ Fool. However, his lament on his lack of dancing ability in the chorus: “I’m a dancin’ fool (Dancin’ Fool) / Dancin’ Fool / I’m a dancin’ fool (Dancin’ Fool) / Dancin’ Fool” takes on an added resonance in relation to Permission to Dance. Barry Manilow also has a song of the same name which he composed for Copacabana: The Musical (1994). This was a theatrical show which was originally based upon his song Copacabana (1978) and the TV musical of the same name from 1985 which starred Manilow. The first verse of the song has the following lyrics: “When I hear a band blowin’ basie / I can count on losing my cool / Take me where the rhythm is racy / Let me be a dancin’ fool”. Unlike BTS, neither Frank Zappa or Barry Manilow could be called proficient in dancing, but the use of the term “dancing fool” in all three tracks connotates a sense of abandonment and subversion of societal hierarchical boundaries through dance. 

Image © BigHit Entertainment 

While the term ‘dancing fool’ is an idiom in English for having a good time free of social and cultural dictates (and not necessarily restricted to dancing itself), it also has specific cultural meanings particularly when in relation to “the dance of fools”.  In Japan, for example, the dance which takes place during the Awa Odori festival, held in Tokushima City, on the island of Shikoku, between 12 and 15 August, is commonly known as the fool’s dance and is accompanied by the chant: “Odoru aho ni miru aho; onaji aho nara odoranya son son!” (It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches; if both are fools, you might as well dance!). In the UK, the fool’s dance is a type of folkdance, associated with pre-Christian religions and pagan magic, and is a celebration of death and rebirth and the carnivalesque overthrowing of social and class hierarchies. The figure of the fool is also a stock character in drama, whose main function is to provide comic relief, and whose presence articulates a call to freedom, as despite their appearance, they are in fact the only ones who see the situation for what it is, and their commentary is therefore crucial to the resolution of the narrative enigma and restoration of normality.

Having said this, perhaps the most evident meaning of the term “dancing fool” relates to the inclusivity of Permission to Dance, in which all of us, despite our proficiency, are called to dance. In addition, the music video showcases diversity, both in its casting and in its choreography, notably addressing BTS’ deaf fans by incorporating the international sign language signs for “fun”, “dance” and “peace”.

Image © BigHit Entertainment 

Permission to Dance is a fitting conclusion to BTS’ summer dance trilogy. It contains a message of hope that promotes resilience at a time of continuing despair. In the accompanying music video, the words “The Wait is Over” are painted on a mural (by Abel Macias, a Mexican mixed media artist, illustrator, and art director) which provides a backdrop to the first pre-chorus which comes into the frame during Jin’s line: “Just dream about that moment”. This makes it clear that the song is looking forward to a future situation in which masks and social distancing are not an integral part of our everyday lives, restricting our movements and our engagement with each other. Permission to Dance encourages the listener to forget their problems, to be present in the moment, and to believe in a future where they do not need permission to dance. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Written by Dr. Colette Balmain

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks again for a great review of Permission to Dance and illustrating some wonderful derivative links to other songs and music. A shout out to the director of the music video would be the cherry on the top (unless I missed it in the piece), as it so brilliantly captures the text and subtext of the lyrics.

    1. Thank you for reading the review. We appreciate your support!

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