The first thing you notice when you hear "Roxanne" is that it doesn't have a tempo or musical style that's typical of most rock n' roll. From Sting's growling, throaty "ROOOOXXX-ANNE," sounding more like reggae than rock, to his high-pitched falsettos, you can tell right away that this is a different kind of song. There's something repetitive and rigid about the beat—it never wavers, and it moves along quickly but carefully, as if the musicians are anxious to get somewhere, but want to do it right. It is, in fact, a tango.
As you probably know, ballroom dancing and rock n' roll make something of an odd couple. While one coheres to strict beats, which in turn inspire intricate steps, the other makes itself known through screaming guitar solos, hard-driven chords, and crashing percussion. Yet, given the topic of the song, the fact that Sting chose a beat for "Roxanne" that lends itself to partner dancing is oddly perfect, and gives the song a unique quality that has kept it a crowd favorite for years.
"Roxanne" starts with a jarring off-color piano chord followed by laughing, and then launches into the main chords of the song. Like many legendary recording studio mishaps, the piano lead-in happened by accident. While the band was recording the song, Sting tripped and fell onto a piano in the studio and then started laughing, all of which got caught on tape and the band decided to keep it. The rest of the song is a simple interchange of chords within a minor key (a more brooding and haunting style than a major key) that adheres strictly to the tango style, despite the fact that it's all performed on a guitar, a bass, and the drums.
Although Sting originally wanted "Roxanne" to be in the style of a bossa nova, a hybrid of samba and jazz, his drummer, Stewart Copeland, suggested it be a tango instead, and that stuck. The tango originated in Spain but achieved its present-day form in the lower-class districts of Argentina. It's a characteristically fast-paced dance, with quick footwork and a close embrace between the two dancers (usually chest to chest). It is at once a very stiff yet also very sexual dance, and the woman often wears a bright red dress to emphasize the tango's passionate intensity.
The tango works especially well for a prostitution-themed song because it's an incredibly formulaic and rehearsed, and yet also wild and sexual dance. In the movie-musical Moulin Rouge, the song "Roxanne" was reworked into "El Tango de Roxanne," which clarified that it was, for sure, a tango, and also demonstrated the plight of the prostitute through dance metaphors. The scene in the movie centers on the young woman Roxanne, who's at the mercy of not only her pimp, Jacek, but also of all the other male dancers who surround her. The dance number shows the fiery back and forth exchange between a prostitute and her clients as well as her ultimate powerlessness, evident as she collapses in the center of a circle of men after they push her around from one guy to the next. Yet there are moments within the dance where Roxanne shows her own power, captivating her male attendees and leaving them reeling, going from one to the next without really giving any of them the time of day.
The Moulin Rogue people added in some tidbits that further explore the collision between cultural tropes of true love and paid sex. While Jacek is singing to Roxanne in a throaty, menacing voice that she doesn't need to "put on that dress tonight," (though it seems that he wants her to stay in the business), Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young man who is hopelessly in love with another prostitute in the brothel, walks through the crowd of tango couples adding his own spin on things. He sings:
His eyes upon your faceHis hand upon your handHis lips caress your skinIt's more than I can stand!
Why does my heart cry?Feelings I can't fightYou're free to leave me butJust don't deceive meAnd please believe me when I sayI love you!
Christian expresses the main sentiment in Sting's lyrics, which is that he wants more than anything to free his girl from a life of sexual slavery and hopelessness. With the reworking of the song in Moulin Rouge we can see the tango come fully to life and give us a dramatic look at how quickly power and control can be exchanged in the whirlwind underground world of brothels.