If you’ve been to more than five variety shows, you’ve probably heard these songs, maybe over and over again. C.J. Lazaretti takes a look at the backing tracks that burlesque crowds have heard too often.


The soundtrack of a burlesque act needs to convey a clear effect to its audience. It doesn’t work if the artist is the only one who finds the music funny, sexy or scary. Understandably, burlesquers tend to go for immediately recognisable tunes, but it is quite baffling that so many should pick the same ones. Hundreds of jazz, rock, soul and dance hits from this and other decades are equally up to the job.

Is this generation of bump-and-grinders approaching the genre from a limited background of cultural references, genuinely unaware of other musical options? Or are these girls simply out to rip off each other? Some of these songs, though, are now so common it would be hard to even point out potential victims of plagiarism.

If you’re a regular at British variety shows, you’ve probably heard these tracks enough to get an instant feeling of “here we go again” after the first two or three notes.


Dolly Parton, Nine to Five

The ultimate feminist statement about women joining the work force. The only one, you might think. What’s not to like? It’s got a positive message of female empowerment, and a nice danceable beat guaranteed to get the ladies in the house jumping and swaying along. It’s now been so overdone, though, that you’re more likely to get the ladies to cross their arms and nod absently to the beat instead, while they wait for something to happen that they haven’t watched a hundred times before.


Marilyn Monroe, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend

The bombshell of bombshells, a big Broadway show tune and expensive jewellery. The only thing that could make this a more obvious soundtrack for glamour and decadence is champagne – a lyrical omission likely to be compensated for with a good shower of glitter at the end of many acts flogging this dead horse. These rocks lost their shape long ago. A little more creativity will make a far better friend to any girl.


The Benny Goodman Orchestra, Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)

Another vintage knee-jerk. You want swing? Why not go to the king of swing straight away? Make sure you get his top hit, too, and you’re good to go. To go nowhere, that is. This tune is so ubiquitous – and not just in burlesque – that it would take a good 50 years without any airplay to make its lively brass grooves and infectious jungle beat sound fresh again.


David Rose and His Orchestra, The Stripper

Why this tune is such a frequent burlesque soundtrack is beyond me. It could be something in the title. Ironically, the track that’s become nearly synonymous with burlesque was an early-60s pastiche of music from wartime revues, effectively making its current use nostalgia for nostalgia. Dull as can be, but at least it proves modern bump-and-grinders can read.


Muse, Feeling Good

The single most overused track in modern British burlesque, and also the hardest to explain. Granted, it’s faster and punchier than the classic Nina Simone recording, which makes it easier to dance to. But why this particular song in the first place? Its shuffle beat and chord progression have been a staple of blues-based music for most of the 20th century. It’s not even that recent a hit: Muse’s version was released in 2001. Would it fall out of favour if, say, the Kaiser Chiefs released a cover of Fever? Whatever the case, this one’s so overdone that a Feeling Good tax could fund a burlesque labour union independent from Equity.


These tracks take precedence even over other obvious choices. I’ve heard Moonlight Serenade a few times in cheesecake acts, but there’s an ocean of big bands virtually untapped by vintage-minded performers, with Count Basie and Artie Shaw being just two of the biggest names.

Notable modern absences are even more puzzling. I’m constantly surprised that burlesque is not inundated by Madonna routines (though I say this with an incipient fear of starting an avalanche of pink glove peels to Material Girl). Prince is sexy as hell, and yet no tributes come to mind other than Agent Lynch and Fancy Chance. Is there an Act of Parliament banning non-drag performers from using Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and other disco greats? Where are the Bo Diddley acts? The Supremes acts? The Depeche Mode acts?

Innovation is always preferable to repetition, and I’m as eager to watch acts with completely unexpected soundtracks as anyone who’s been to more than five revues. But patterns will emerge, in any art form, and that’s the point: recurring burlesque backing tracks could be a lot more diverse, and still be obvious.

Which does at least bring a silver lining of potential to it. In fields like music and drama, it often feels like everything has been done. In burlesque, the possibilities are still largely untouched.


See also: The New Wave of Live Music in Burlesque