BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 22 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 166

Playing for Laughs in Pop Music

‘Pop today is a broad church, but no one would ever argue that it’s not fun’

BY Dan Fox in Opinion | 22 SEP 14

The Kinks, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), 1969, back cover art by Bob Lawrie. Courtesy: BMG

In July this year, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s new album, Mandatory Fun, reached number one in the US Billboard charts, selling over 100,000 copies in its first week. Spoofing tracks by Iggy Azalea, Lorde and Pharrell Williams, Mandatory Fun is Weird Al’s first number one album, but he’s been lampooning pop songs since 1976. Retrofitting chart hits with dorky puns and lyrical twists, Weird Al’s project has always been one of innocent humour, whether turning Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ (1982) into an exhortation to finish your dinner (‘Eat It’, 1984) or gleefully undermining the misogyny of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ (2013) by turning it into an ode to grammar (‘Word Crimes’, 2014).

Weird Al follows in the tradition of musical satirists such as Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman. Lehrer found fame in the 1950s with piano-led ditties on topics such as ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ (1959) and Sherman in 1963 with ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’, a spoof letter home from summer camp. Not quite novelty song territory – which tends towards zany concepts and maddeningly repetitive hooks – the spirit of their music was more vaudeville crossed with university comedy revue; witty rhyming couplets, whip-smart topicality, musical parody. Music nerds might also detect in Weird Al’s songs strains of Frank Zappa poking fun at the commercialism of the hippie movement in the late 1960s, or perhaps Eric Idle and Neil Innes’ note-perfect Beatles spoof, The Rutles (aka ‘The Pre-Fab Four’).

Pop today is a broad church, but no one would ever argue that it’s not fun – fun to dance to, fun to whistle whilst doing the dishes. Yet fun is not the same as being funny: Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj or Lady Gaga, for example, aren’t playing for laughs. And if gloom has descended on certain corners of mainstream pop lately – singers such as Lana Del Rey or Lorde project a precociously dark fatalism worthy of 1960s teen tragedians like The Shangri-Las – rock music appears to have had a complete humour bypass. Big-hitters such as Arcade Fire, Beirut, Coldplay, Grizzly Bear, The Killers, Muse and The National all traffic in earnest anthemics, built according to the same stale and melodramatic formula: quiet verse, sung in a croaky and pained voice, bursting into BIG LOUD CHORUS with propulsive guitars, galloping drums and a whole lot of corny, triumph-over-adversity hamming, seemingly custom-made for car advertisements. Elsewhere, ponderous atmospherics and touch-me-and-I’ll-crumble vocals are the order of the day. The XX have found huge success in layering expressively hoarse whispering over sparse electronics and funereal guitars. Both beautiful and boring, you can hear this fragile mumbling in James Blake, Beach House, Cat Power, Local Natives, Wild Beasts and dozens of other bands. It cracks no smiles, and admits no sense that even under the worst circumstances there is still laughter, however grim. (According to a 2006 survey, Monty Python’s 1979 song ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ was voted third most popular choice of song at funerals in the UK.)

Writing recently in The New Yorker about Mandatory Fun, Sasha Frere-Jones argued: 'Weird Al has been cool for so long because pop makes everybody feel uncool; he is the only one to admit it has made him a pop star.’ Musical comedy has certainly never been ‘cool’ in the traditional sense: effortless, knowing, rebellious, sexy. (The sorcery of cool only works if you agree not to laugh at it.) But Weird Al’s brand of wackiness is not the only way to use humour in music. Many musicians used to be comfortable employing laughter as a way of subtly inflecting a song’s meaning or creating sonic texture, but today the comfort zones are heart-on-sleeve sincerity or self-consciously ‘dark’ posturing. There are exceptions: Susanne Oberbeck’s industrial/electronic project, No Bra, continues to needle in provocatively funny ways at identity stereotypes and London’s Fat White Family have recently resurrected the loony nihilism of us band Butthole Surfers (who were masters of the comedic album title, my favourite being 1988’s Hairway to Steven), but it’s become harder to find much to laugh about in leftfield music.

Historically speaking, rock musicians weren’t afraid of their funny bone. (The tension between jocularity and bravado in hip-hop is a whole other story.) Surreal whimsy was stock-in-trade for many British bands of the 1960s. Take The Beatles. They had their light interludes – ‘Yellow Submarine’ (1966), ‘Octopus’s Garden’ (1969) – but also comedic nods to music hall such as ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’ (1967) or ‘Piggies’ (1968). The Beatles were big fans of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who fused 1920s-style dance songs with avant-garde absurdity, psych rock and cack-handed jazz. ‘The Intro and the Outro’, from their 1967 album Gorilla, introduces ‘Adolf Hitler on vibes, Princess Anne on sousaphone […] and digging General de Gaulle on accordion’. Championed by The Beatles, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Robert Wyatt, Scottish poet and musician Ivor Cutler became a national treasure with his gently surreal and funny vignettes. Humour was part and parcel of British psychedelia: post-Empire, anti-establishment satire doused in hallucinatory, Alice in Wonderland pastoralism. The albums The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968) and Arthur: Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969), both by The Kinks, embody this comic tendency particularly well.

Madcap absurdism, albeit far more gothic, was a staple part of the US musical underground too. In the early 1970s, The Residents began dismembering pop music and using the parts to build nightmarishly funny musical hybrids, stitching together show tunes, musique concrète, punk and jazz. The humour in their music lies primarily with sound itself: silly detuned voices and cheesy electronics worked into densely arranged concept albums. Later that decade, bands such as The Cramps and The B-52s drew on 1950s rock ’n’ roll, horror and science-fiction B-movies, injecting a psychotic irony into the punk and new wave scenes. As with The Residents, their appeal lay not just in lyrics but in the comedic qualities of twanging tremolo guitars, dated keyboard sounds and nasal or guttural vocal styles. Formed in the 1980s, Ween stewed punk, country, soul and many other genres to create a uniquely funny form of stoner pop; their 1991 LP The Pod featured ‘Pollo Asado’, possibly the first and only psychedelic song about Mexican food. From the late 1980s, the duo Bongwater brilliantly satirized the entertainment industry with singer Ann Magnuson’s droll narratives including ‘David Bowie Wants Ideas’ (1989), ‘Nick Cave Dolls’ (1991) and ‘What’s Big in England Now?’ (1992). 

Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist, 1985, cover art by Stefan Viterstedt. Courtesy: Alternative Tentacles

It’s satire that’s been the mainstay of comedy rock ’n’ roll. In the mid-1960s, US band The Fugs railed against the hypocrisies of free love (‘Group Grope’, 1966) and military adventurism (‘Kill for Peace’, 1966). Devo’s comically uptight paranoia was sparked directly by the shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970. Hardcore band Dead Kennedys attacked Reagan-era politics using black comedy in songs such as ‘California Über Alles’ and ‘Kill the Poor’ (both 1980), whilst Negativland gained notoriety in the 1990s with ‘sampledelic’ collages poking fun at US gun laws, evangelical Christianity, Pepsi and the band U2. In 1970s Britain, punks such as X-Ray Spex used satire to face down sexism and racism; Ian Dury and John Cooper Clarke wrote quick-witted songs about everything from physical disabilities to class prejudice. Ska band The Specials, although never out-and-out comics, used wryly funny social observation about class and youth culture in songs such as ‘Nite Klub’ (1979) and ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ (1981) – much as Pulp would do in the 1990s. Cornershop’s early records confronted stereotypes of British Asian life with disarmingly funny and bittersweet songs such as ‘Breaking Every Rule Language English’ (1994) and ‘In the Days of Ford Cortina’, which was released in 1992 on ‘curry coloured vinyl’. From 1993 until the mid-2000s, Country Teasers, fellow travellers with TV satirists such as Chris Morris and Armando Ianucci, laughed remorselessly at racism, sexism and political correctness with country-garage records including Satan is Real Again, Or, Feeling Good About Bad Thoughts (1996) and The Empire Strikes Back (2006).

Pop may no longer be the vehicle for social change it once was, but with the world as screwed up as ever we need more to laugh about than cute Weird Al songs. And there’s only so much use for nice middle-class kids emoting earnestly about their sensitivity. Today, crooning in a silly voice or making your guitar sound like an elephant farting underwater might be the most radically serious thing a musician can do.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).