The Meaning Behind “No Myth” by Michael Penn and What He Really Meant by the Line “Someone to Dance with”

Sturdy melodies, clever lyrics, and all-around excellent songwriting were in short supply in the late ’80s, which is partly why Michael Penn‘s “No Myth” seemed so striking when released in 1989. In fact, you’re likely to find a lot of people who will swear that it’s a ’90s song, as it has much in common with some of the smart pop that started to emerge in that decade.

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What is “No Myth” about? How did Michael Penn build it and the rest of his debut album March out of four-track recordings? And why did he really mean by someone to dance with? Let’s go back and find out all the truths about “No Myth.”

The March to March

The surname Penn was well-known in acting circles circa 1989, which is when Michael Penn emerged with his debut album. Many music fans didn’t put two and two together that his brothers were actors Sean and Chris. One listen to March and you could tell that this was more than just a relative of Hollywood royalty doing some moonlighting on the music scene; this was a songwriter of rare ability.

Penn had been honing his craft for close to a decade by that point as the chief writer and lead singer for the band Doll Congress. He decided eventually upon a solo path, which is when he began composing and recording the songs for March on a four-track recorder. When he took those songs to the studio, he made every effort to recapture the intimacy of the original recordings.

In an interview with The Georgia Straight from 1990, he explained what inspired him to write those songs: “Relationships between people, the human condition—these are things that are on my mind a lot, just trying to make sense of things. Some of the things may have a pessimistic slant, but I think there’s a shred of optimism in most of them, or at least a shred of humor.”

“Myths” and Legends

“No Myth” was chosen as the first single from March, which was released in September 1989, and it immediately gained attention for Penn, reaching No. 13 on the pop charts. That would be Penn’s only charting single, even as he continued with a string of excellent albums to follow up.

Maybe fans were drawn to the Beatlesque catchiness of the track. But Penn admitted to the Los Angeles Times that many misconstrued the core meaning of the track. “I think the song’s a lot more cynical than most people got from it, which is perhaps my fault in not being more specific,” he said.

The main issue was the phrase Someone to dance with. Many people took him literally, but he was actually hinting at something else entirely. “My instinct was that ‘dance’ has always been a great metaphor for [intercourse],” he explained.

What is the Meaning of “No Myth”?

“No Myth” lays out the situation in the opening lines: So she says it’s time she goes / But wanted to be sure I know / She hopes we can be friends. A tale as old as time for sure, but Penn elucidates it by getting deep inside what it’s like to be on the wrong end of that sudden decision, especially when you don’t have any answers: She blocked her eyes / And drew the curtains, with knots I’ve got yet to untie.

The narrator suggests the relationship was always trending in this direction: We said goodbye before hello. In the bridge, Penn shows off the nimble wordplay that’s been a distinguishing characteristic of his entire catalog, as he describes this guy’s limbo status: I’m between the poles and the equator / Don’t send no private investigator to find me please.

In the chorus, he imagines scenarios where things might have turned out different: What if I were Romeo in black jeans / What if I was Heathcliff, it’s no myth. Then comes that tricky line: Maybe she’s just looking for someone to dance with. How you interpret it will determine whether you think Michael Penn’s “No Myth” is a love-dazed farewell or a bitter riposte. Either way, the song is just as much a breath of fresh air today as it was when it was so gloriously out of place back in 1989.

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for BMI

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