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Final Fantasy VI's 'Dancing Mad', a critical analysis

6:20 PM on 12.15.2009 // SWE3tMadness

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One thing I’m grateful for in my life is growing up with a background in classical music appreciation. I remember my parents had a record of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf at home, and I would listen to it all the time. The depth of the music was fascinating to my little brain, especially compared to the childish Disney songs and bubblegum-pop hits of the 90’s that I’d otherwise hear on the radio. But the reason why this work helped me with understanding music was that it was specifically aimed at kids in order to teach them how to pick out leitmotifs, or unique, repeated phrases in the songs. Leitmotifs are often used in classical works to tell a story, and certain instruments or melodies can represent people, emotions, events, and other parts of the story. Many soundtracks still continue to use this device in their songs, and can provide interesting clues (or spoilers!) for those listening close enough. Videogames are no exception, and paying attention to details in the background music can often help come to a deeper understanding of what’s really going on behind the scenes.

One videogame that uses leitmotifs to great effect is Final Fantasy VI. Every single character has their own theme, some of which are used elsewhere in the game to signify a connection between the two. For example, Celes’ theme is quite obviously a variation on “Aria de Mezzo Carattere”, the song she performs during the famous opera sequence. It’s not just a coincidence; it represents her growth from an icy Empire general to embracing her love for Locke in the second half of the game, giving her the strength to continue living her life -- just like the character of Maria did in the opera scene. However, one song in the game stands above all the rest in terms of using and manipulating leitmotifs to tell a story, that song is Dancing Mad.

Dancing Mad is, to put it bluntly, the best fucking final boss theme in existence. (Yes, even better than One-Winged Angel!) And while I appreciated the technical mastery of the song and its use of classical styles, I didn’t fully grasp its true complexity and scope until recently. I found a good piano transcription of it earlier this year, and started learning how to play it. It wasn’t until I sat down and started picking the song apart that I recognized how it all fit together, in a perfect character study of the villain it represents. I was always bugged by the fact that Kefka seemed to be the only villain in Final Fantasy history that did not have a memorable final speech to make after the heroes defeated him. He just fades away and the tower collapses around him. Then I realized, that I was looking at his fight in the wrong way. His entire boss theme is his last speech, outlining his rise to power, and lamenting his eventual defeat. In order to break it down and illustrate what I mean, I’ll separate the piece into its four distinct movements.

For Reference:

"Dancing Mad" Part 1

Dancing Mad Part 2

First Movement – Intro (0:00 – 4:29)

The very beginning of this song should be familiar to those who have played through FFVI, as it’s virtually identical to another song: “Catastrophe” that played during the…well, catastrophe on the Floating Continent where Kefka obtains ultimate magical power and effectively becomes a God. However the actual player most likely was expecting a very different payout. Everything leading up to the Floating Continent feels like the finale of the game. The story has already faked you out once (“Sure, suckers, we’ll stop the war and broker a peace with the Returners … NOT!”), so how many of you thought you were actually going to finally fight Emperor Gestahl for real? Only Kefka stabs him in the back and then destroys the world on his own terms.

Wait, what?

The song “Catastrophe” represents that same disappointment, by building up with powerful chords at first and then pulling back right before the climax should hit. The first movement of Dancing Mad hits that climax properly, saying “No more delays! This is really the final boss! We swear!” It downright boasts about it, with a church organ, tympanis, and pseudo-chorale vocals in the background. And, relating this to the boss itself, it represents Kefka boasting about his power as well. He’s become the source of all magic in the world and has spent the last half of the game sniping civilians with his almighty Light of Judgment from his tower, like a bored child frying ants with a magnifying glass, and now you have the audacity to challenge his might? Kefka’s whole motivation for betraying Gestahl was gaining more power, and now he revels in his victory before your hapless band of misfits called a “party”.

Second Movement – Scherzo (4:30 – 8:12)

Power always comes at a price though, and for many villains, that price is often sanity. Okay, so Kefka was batshit to begin with, but in the first half of the game it was funny to watch him prance around in his mismatched motley circus costume … until he poisoned Doma. But then justice was served and he was put in jail, and it was funny to watch him pissed off, making empty threats at revenge … until he was released and massacred all those espers for their magicite at Thamasa and holy shit did he just kill General Leo?!

In short, Kefka seemed harmless at first, because for all his insane anger and curses, you thought that he was just another lackey of the Empire, and would either be defeated for good by your own hand, or the hand of his master if he got out of control. However, as the game continues, instead of making him less intimidating, his nuttiness makes him even scarier as his behavior becomes even more erratic and malevolent. This is all compounded in the World of Ruin where he spends his time using his ultimate power to pick off the lonely survivors for no other reason than he likes killing them. Some people argue that the best villains are ones that have sympathetic backstories, tragic heroes that made a mistake and fell from grace. Kefka is not sympathetic. He is not a tragic hero. He doesn’t care for any notion of honor, loyalty, or goodness. He’s a villain because it’s fun, and this movement takes a sharp turn into a sinister, disjointedly dissonant tune to signify the further descent into madness that ultimate power has brought him.

Third Movement – Toccata and Fugue (8:13 – 12:33)

This is really the most complex movement of the whole piece. It really may not seem like it, since it only involves one instrument and is probably the shortest out of the four sections. Despite this, it’s still an evocative virtuoso performance that hides several layers of meaning. First of all, it shifts from the “madness” of the second movement to a more uplifting, almost hopeful mood, reminiscent of a religious service. And if some of it sounds familiar, it’s because much of the melody has been shamelessly lifted from Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, probably the most famous organ piece of all music history. All of this serves to set up Kefka as having achieved divinity, a point that even his appearance during this part of the fight beats you over the head with. For reference, the above picture is the third tier of Kefka’s boss battle. And here is Michelangelo’s Pieta.

But instead of playing this straight, all the religious symbolism is a mockery.

In Kefka’s mind, there is nothing worthwhile in the world. No faith, no hope, no love, and certainly no gods. After all, look how easily he stole the three goddesses’ powers at the Floating Continent. He’s displaying himself as this enlightened being to try and hammer home the fact that everything that the heroes are fighting for, everything they hold dear is worthless if he is the most powerful being in the world. The savior that is represented in the Pieta is supposed to be the paragon of humanity, a physical manifestation of light and truth. By putting himself in that position, with the glorious hymn of praise in the background, he’s denying the existence of that light, and saying that the only thing present in human hearts is despair and destruction.

It can be easy to overlook this layer of sacrilege and simply assume that Kefka is just another villain with a god complex. However, leitmotifs come to the rescue again! As you listen to the music, pay attention to the countermelody beginning at 8:28. It’s Kefka’s theme transposed into a different key. Despite all the posturing, Kefka is still the same deranged clown, only dressed in a different costume out of spite.

Fourth Movement – al Fine (12:34 – 18:38)

I’ll be honest. This part of the song always bugged me. The beginning of it opens up with a reprise of the opening theme from the very start of the game. Unlike “Catastrophe”, this song is replicated exactly, driving home the fact that you are now at the very end; the story has come full circle. Kefka’s ultimate form descends from the heaven in a blaze of glory to end it all. The rest of the song has been absurdly epic, and the player or listener assumes that the final final movement will be the coup de grace, and eagerly awaits the conclusion of this auditory masterpiece as Kefka delivers his final words…

And then the percussion kicks in. No more orchestration, no more pseudo-latin chanting, and the once-proud church organ has been replaced by a smaller, dinky reed organ. It was such a huge departure from the rest of the song that it was very disappointing to me at first. Then I stopped looking at it as a piece on its own, but the finale for Kefka’s character. So he’s gained ultimate power, raged against the heavens, and spat in the face of all the hopes and dreams the heroes carried with them to the final boss showdown. But despite his taunts, they’ve already beaten his twisted tower, and he’s now forced to fight all the heroes face-to-face rather than simply smiting them from above. The façade hinted at in the third movement is now apparent and rapidly crumbling away. He’s losing, and now begins to realize that all his power may not be enough to defeat the heroes. Why not?

If you notice the music, it’s a remix of Kefka’s theme and ”Battle to the Death”, the song that plays during the fights against Atma weapon and the three goddess statues. His final theme, the leitmotif that is supposed to represent what he stands for, stands for nothing more than destructive power and his own ego. All his HATE against the “chapters from a self-help booklet” cannot save him now.

And he knows it. After throwing the biggest temper tantrum of his life, the song abruptly shifts again. But instead of anger, hatred, or even fear of his impending doom, the music becomes sad. I said earlier that Kefka was not sympathetic. I retract that statement in light of this final coda. He’s spent the entire game “building a monument to nonexistence”, but now that he’s facing it himself … he has no rage left. Only acceptance. He says nothing as he fades away in death, as there is nothing left to say. His whole purpose in life was to create destruction and chaos, so being utterly destroyed himself seems a fitting end.

In conclusion, Dancing Mad is the most well-constructed, complex, and thought-provoking boss theme in videogame history. Not based on the song as a whole, but on the details and progression of the piece through the battle. It perfectly represents the villain you fight, as well as the journey through the game to come to that point. Other epically-orchestrated themes may have the advantage of better sound quality as technology progressed, but the strength of this song relies not on the clarity of sound, but how that sound is manipulated and constructed to build a piece that stands on its own as a work of art.

Bonus Features

Live Orchestrated version – PLAY concert at the Sydney opera house.
Black Mages ver. Part 1 and Part 2

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