Before the song “Dance Monkey” hit No. 1 in 20 countries, it was a local attraction on the beachfront streets of Byron Bay, Australia.
Written by a busker named Toni Watson, 26, who performs as the solo act Tones and I, “Dance Monkey” uses a plunking keyboard and thumping bass line as a backdrop to describe the very specific life of a street musician: “Just like a monkey I’ve been dancing my whole life,” she sings. “And you just beg to see me dance just one more time.”
In an unlikely twist, that sentiment went global.
A one-time basketball prospect and surf shop employee, Watson moved to Byron Bay, a small resort town south of Brisbane, to play music in a busker’s paradise. She lived out of her van and relied solely on tips from passers-by, who were increasingly mesmerized by the singer’s distinct wail. From her sidewalk setup, Tones and I found a management team and local success with a single called “Johnny Run Away.”
That might’ve been the singer’s peak, as Tones’s team warned her not to get her hopes up for the follow-up single. “Dance Monkey” had been primarily a live sensation, attracting growing crowds for Tones and I’s free public shows. But after its official release last May, the track caught on not just in Australia, where it became the longest running No. 1 song of all time, but around the world, including in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, Canada and Britain.
Written alone in a dark closet in not much more than 30 minutes, “Dance Monkey” has since leapt over to the United States, where it has been a steady presence near the top of the Billboard chart since October, peaking this week at No. 5, alongside acts like Post Malone, Maroon 5 and Billie Eilish. The song has also consistently topped the global charts on Spotify, where it has racked up more than 1 billion streams, and YouTube, where the “Dance Monkey” music video has been viewed more than 664 million times.
In the latest episode of The New York Times video series Diary of a Song, which breaks down how music is made today, Tones and I describes her bizarre journey from local novelty to “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” alongside her managers and the producer Konstantin Kersting.
See how “Dance Monkey” became a viral hit in the clip above.
“Diary of a Song” provides an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at how pop music is made today, using archival material — voice memos, demo versions, text messages, emails, interviews and more — to tell the story behind the track. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.