13 Musical Gems from So You Think You Can Dance


Recently, I was reminded of how many songs and artists I have discovered by watching Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, one the best reality competition shows on-air (lots of on-stage talent, little back-stage drama). SYTYCD wrapped Season 11 in August, so we will have to slog through the long, cold winter until it returns next May. But in the meantime, let’s revisit some of the fabulous music (and routines) featured on the show.




Season 3, “Are You the One?,” The Presets

I only began watching So You Think You Can Dance in earnest in Season 3. So my chronology begins here, with Mia Michaels’ “Two Princes” routine for Neil and Danny. The slinky dark electronica of “Are You the One?” was the perfect accompaniment for the escalating tension and kinetic energy of this theatrical routine, and the “I’m clapping my hands in your face” moment still delights me. “Are You the One?” was featured on The Presets’ debut, 2005’s Beams; I’ve never found another Presets’ song that I like as much, but their latest single, “No Fun,” is—contrary to the title—a fun piece of electro-dance pop.


Season 4, “Cobrastyle,” Robyn

My first reaction to this Wade Robson group routine was, “Hurray, Nigel has been bound and gagged!” My second was, “Robyn? Is that the same Robyn that sang ‘Show Me Love’ in the 90s?” Indeed it was, and Robyn in her current incarnation, as featured on Robyn and Body Talk, has become one of my favorite artists. She crafts very smart and compelling dance songs (and heartrending ballads), her voice is something special, and she is an engaging live performer. Most recently she has collaborated with Swedish duo Röyksopp on the EP Do It Again.


Season 4, “The Garden,” Mirah

Season 4 of SYTYCD was the Season of Mark Kanemura. He wasn’t a finalist (and, shockingly was eliminated after this very routine), but he is my all-time favorite contestant. He had such personality, quirk, and creativity, and his technical proficiency grew each week. (Lady Gaga, by the way, clearly shared my Mark love; she hired him as a dancer for her Monsters Ball and Born This Way Ball Tours, and he appears in many of her videos.) On this season of SYTYCD, Mark had a memorable “Bleeding Love” routine with Chelsie, but the triumvirate of Mark, choreographer Sonya Tayeh, and Mirah’s “The Garden” were a perfect combination. Tayeh paired “The Garden”—with its slow, heavy beats, xylophone accompaniment, and narrative of lost love—with the first of her many “creepy couple” routines, this one between Mark and a single-stocking-ed Chelsie.“The Garden” seems like an anomaly among the indie pop tracks of Mirah’s debut album Advisory Committee, and is more similar to the tracks on this year’s Changing Light.


Season 5, “Ruby Blue,” Róisín Murphy

Róisín Murphy’s first solo album after the break-up of Moloko, Ruby Blue, contained three songs featured on SYTYCD: “Ramalama Bang Bang” and “Night of the Dancing Flame,” in Seasons 2 and 3, respectively; and “Ruby Blue” in Season 5. Murphy was the go-to artist of Wade Robson (who, sadly, hasn’t worked with SYTYCD for years—how I miss him). After watching Janette and Brandon in Robson’s piece about sneaky, loose-limbed crooks, I had to revisit the previous two routines, featuring first zombies and then a warring angel and devil. Róisín Murphy’s early solo music is wonderfully eclectic and hard to describe: electronic, soulful, and full of erratic rhythms, samples, and strange sounds.


Season 5, “If It Kills Me (Casanova Sessions), Jason Mraz

This entry really surprises me because I’m not a big Jason Mraz fan. But this acoustic ballad (from the We Sing EP) allows the impressive purity of his voice to shine through. The song’s melody and chorus harmonies are beautiful, and Mraz doesn’t get tripped up on his lyrics, as he often does when he tries to be too clever. It’s a straightforward delivery of the story of one friend’s unrequited love for another. Travis Wall, choreographing his first of many SYTYCD routines, crafted for Jeanine and Jason an intimate, fluid piece that effectively uses as prop—a heart necklace—that doesn’t distract from the dancing.


Season 6, “Tore My Heart,” OONA (with Dave Tweedie)

I often think of this Ellenore and Jakob routine as “The Garden 2.0”: same choreographer (Sonya Tayeh), similar style, and a song into which “The Garden” could easily segue. Yet “Tore My Heart” is more aggressive, and, correspondingly, the choreography incorporates hints of a paso doble. I love the horns and the raw power of Oona Garthwaite’s vocals as she wishes nightmares upon her ex-lover. Since “Tore My Heart,” OONA has gone more dance pop, but I hope at some point she produces more music in the vein of this song.


Season 6, “What’s a Girl Gotta Do?,” Basement Jaxx feat. Paloma Faith

Prior to Season 6 of SYTYCD I only knew of Basement Jaxx via “Where’s Your Head At.” I was unaware of their prolific output and numerous collaborations, e.g., with Siouxsie Sioux on “Cish Cash” and Kelis on “Scars” (featured on Season 7 of SYTYCD). “What’s a Girl Gotta Do?” also introduced me to Paloma Faith, and her throwback style well suits this zany circus of a song and the Alice in Wonderland-on-LSD group number by Tabitha and Napoleon. Basement Jaxx’s Junto was released in August, and you have may have seen the twerking-robot video for “Never Say Never”; Paloma Faith just released the retro-soul A Perfect Contradiction (check out “Only Love Can Hurt Like This”), and she appears in the recent song and video for the BBC Music all-star cover of “God Only Knows.”


Season 7, “Paris Is Burning,” St. Vincent

While I had been aware for a while of St. Vincent, for some reason I had never really given her music a listen. That changed as soon as Season 7, Episode 1’s small-group routines were kicked off with Travis Wall’s “Paris is Burning,” featuring Kent, Lauren, Kathryn, and Mark (I’d honestly forgotten Mark danced in this routine). Wall brilliantly captured the “dark waltz” aspect of the song, which was complemented by the dancers’ styling as fancy vagrants. I’ve been a St. Vincent fan ever since; her music has a chill and intellect to it that somehow isn’t off-putting. And she can really play guitar. If you haven’t seen her performances on last season’s Saturday Night Live, check them out—they are wonderfully weird.


Season 7, “Acapella,” Kelis

Tessandra Chavez’s group jazz routine to “Acapella” is pure exuberance and led me to realize there is more to Kelis than “Milkshake.” 2010’s Flesh Tone features both “Acapella” and “Scream” (used in SYTYCD Season 9); it sounds like a playlist for a discotheque of the future, each song separated by an electronic, instrumental “segue.” Kelis again changed gears with this year’s R&B Food, proving her ability to constantly evolve.



Season 8, “Cathedrals,” Jump, Little Children

Admittedly, I didn’t remember this Stacey Tookey piece for Clarice and Jess; it’s fine, but it blends into myriad other contemporary routines on the show. However, the song “Cathedrals” is beautiful and unforgettable. There are certain songs that cause a hitch in my chest whenever I hear them, and this is a prime example. I missed Jump, Little Children in the late 90s, and the rest of the album on which “Cathedrals” appears, Magazine, sounds like music for Party of Five (in fact, another track, “B-13,” is used in a Po5 episode); before their break-up in 2005, Jump, Little Children developed in a more power pop direction. In the group’s canon, the string-laden “Cathedrals” is unique in its majesty.


Season 9, “You!,” The Creatures

The Creatures was an offshoot of Siouxsie and the Banshees, comprised of Siouxsie Sioux and Banshees drummer Budgie. SYTYCD used “Standing There” in Season 5, but it was the bells and woozy vocals of “You!” in Mandy Moore’s jazz routine for Amelia and Will that really captured my attention and led me to 1989’s Boomerang. The Creatures experimented with a variety of styles during the course of their collaboration, but their songs were consistently anchored by Budgie’s creative percussion and Siouxsie’s distinctive voice.


Season 10, “I Am the Best,” 2NE1

Mark’s back again. I’m not intentionally favoring Mark routines, I swear; I just happen to like the musical choices he inspires, or in this case, chooses. “I Am the Best” is a K-Pop confection by way of India, and Mark created a truly unique routine for him and Jenna that can only be described as a jazz/vogue/Bollywood mash-up. “I Am the Best” garnered 2NE1 a slew of awards in 2011 and 2012, and you can currently hear it in a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 commercial. But I’d much rather associate it with Jenna’s braid, a red-lips couch, and Mark’s bonkers dance routine.


Season 11, “Like Real People Do,” Hozier

This is the song that inspired this entire post. Hozier released his self-titled debut album the week before last; it’s excellent—a combination of blues, soul, gospel, and folk that I highly recommend. One of his ballads, “Like Real People Do,” was featured in the most recent season of SYTYCD, in an uplifting and sweet Travis Wall routine for Jessica and Casey. I first had heard Hozier earlier in the summer, when “Take Me to Church” accompanied the closing credits for episode 3 of The Leftovers (one of the best episodes, by the way). The song instantly piqued my interest, and then hearing “Like Real People Do” convinced me that the quality of “Take Me to Church” wasn’t a one-off, and that Hozier was an artist of true talent and diversity.

Tell us: what are you favorite songs/routines and choreographers/dancers from So You Think You Can Dance?