Study Guide

Roxanne Technique

  • Music

    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.

  • Calling Card

    "We didn't want to sound like a conventional three piece and that's when we started to cotton on to reggae. It started from there and once we got into a studio and started to hear ourselves back then the sound started developing. Round about the period that we recorded 'Roxanne' we found a way to go and Sting started to write more songs."
    — Andy Summers, guitar and vocals, The Police

    The Police's calling card has probably been their constant need to stand out, to cross the seams of a well-established musical fabric. Throughout their career (mostly spanning 1977-1984) they have embraced a wide variety of musical styles, genres, beats, and singing techniques. This combination churned out hits and gave the Police the staying power that propelled them to the top of the charts and kept them on radio playlists to this day. Though the band unofficially split up in 1984, their reunion tour in 2007-2008 (to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of "Roxanne") made them the highest grossing musicians of '08. Not bad after a 23-year hiatus.

    The three bleached-blonde dudes (yet hardly Beach Boys) from England were among the first white musicians (The Clash did the same a few years earlier) to embrace reggae as a potent hit-maker (Sublime followed suit a decade later, too). The band was formed in 1977 by drummer Stewart Copeland. After a trial-and-error period where quite a few musicians came and went, The Police we know and love came together in July '77 as a trio featuring Sting, Copeland, and Summers.

    "Roxanne" was the song that launched the band into superstardom. Originally the band didn't expect the song to stand out much from the other material on their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour. But Stewart Copeland's brother, Miles, who became their manager, loved it and got The Police signed to A&M records almost immediately. Although it became a moderate hit in 1978, "Roxanne" was re-released as a single a year later and topped the charts in the U.S. Meanwhile, "Message in a Bottle" and "Walking on the Moon" from the band's second album, Regatta de Blanc, skyrocketed to the top of the charts in Britain. After that, The Police staged a stadium-packing world tour and became, for a time, the world's biggest band.

    The Police are known as mavericks (for their bold and risky recording and touring moves), thinkers (for Sting's insightful lyrics, which often allude to literature or potent social issues), edgy musical style, and good-looking charisma. Sting, a former high school English teacher, had a successful solo career after the band split in '84, but not before The Police recorded their last and most popular album, Synchronicity, with the smash hit "Every Breath You Take." Although there doesn't seem much chance of the Police reuniting on a permanent basis, fans can hold out hope that they will continue to get back together for the occasional reunion tour again in the future.

    The Police may not be an official group anymore, but their musical legacy lives on and has been covered and sampled countless times ("Roxanne" has been covered by George Michael, Fall Out Boy, and many others, while "Every Breath You Take" formed the backbone of P. Diddy's tribute to the fallen Notorious B.I.G., "I'll Be Missing You").

    They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and copycats are quick to pay homage to the guys who inspired musical risk-taking for generations.

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