hen it comes to music, I take my shits and giggles seriously. The first record I owned was Little Richard’s Shake It All About, his 1992 collaboration with a nursery of precocious Mickey Mouse clubbers. Hearing the group perform “On Top of Spaghetti,” I knew I’d hit on something essential. Humorless rock? An impossible thing: rock can play the straight man all it wants but rock that won’t laugh isn’t rock to begin with, it’s something different and worse altogether.
These are hard times for bands who leaven with levity. Short of calling the music press humor-hostile, I’d argue that the role of musical humor has seldom been more deeply misunderstood. Which isn’t to say that humorous music no longer exists, just that it’s not getting its proper due. Humor holds nowhere near the currency in the indie rock of 2007 as it did in the rock ’n’ roll of 1955. Listeners have been conditioned to vet bands for seriousness before coughing up an endorsement. This would seem to demonstrate critical listening, but I’m here to make the argument that using seriousness as a criterion is actually drooling, uncritical laziness insidiously camouflaged as the opposite.
So whence this laziness? Why would we ever resist humor, in music or elsewhere? What does it say about us as listeners that we do? Will we ever loosen up? This piece will boogie toward answers to those and other, less vexing questions. What follows may in flashes take the texture of a classic “I don’t like what I’m seeing/hearing” grouse. So if you’re sick of grouses, please stick around! This piece needs you more than anyone.
Who gets to decide what’s funny? Where music’s concerned, I’m inclined to say Canadians are, but that would leave Swedes in the lurch, so let’s keep the question open for now. That said, there are some characteristics that are normal (if not normative) with regard to Humor in Music.
Musical humor is fundamentally unique. We tend to think of music as being funny when it has funny lyrics. But unlike literature, music doesn’t have to be about something funny in order to be funny; sometimes it just is funny (kazoos). That’s not to say words can’t contribute to musical humor. Actually, they have double potential: they can be about funny stuff, or they can become part of a humorous musical gesture. And even in the former case, the material ain’t your thespian trouper mama’s: Comedy in lyrics seldom has anything directly to do with class or marriage. Challenged for time, pop sticks in more aphoristic territory: sonic gestures, references on the sly, insults, and the occasional whipsmart one-liner. If you wanna talk classic tropes, it packs some of those, too. When Kevin Barnes chirps, “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway,” over pastoral Casio-funk on Of Montreal’s “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger,” he’s playing a mistaken identity game. Rock has long split sides (and bedeviled dimwits) with such mismatches; the Beatles practically created a sub-genre out of them. The technique is suited to comic uses. Still it takes skill and, evidently, some balls to use it as such.
Why balls? Rock still loves pills and hates parents, so wouldn’t its purveyors relish doing violence to expectations? I know a lot of musicians, talented dudes with nice mustaches, who still equate jesting gestures with self-sabotage. Are they stupid?
No, they’re good businessmen. The critic Robert Christgau said it 2005 and probably before then, too: “Funny never gets respect, because it doesn't give it.” Hence judgments like this:
“They pull no punches (and spare no taste) in an effort that’s quite often simply obnoxious, if cheaply humorous at times.”
That was Stylus editor Derek Miller calling Hot Chip’s Coming on Strong shit on wax. His review was actually one of the toughest the album caught. But if you’re looking for a record that reveals the collective discomfort with humor, look no further. Even critics who ostensibly endorsed it did so with telling tentativeness. Sean Fennessey in his 8.0 Pitchfork review:
“This slightly reconfigured U.S. issue comes off at first like slight pop—novelty even.”
The hedge says more about the critical atmosphere than it does about Fennessey. For some reason, he felt the need to slip that caveat into an otherwise glowing review that makes a better case than I could for why Hot Chip are Right for Right Now:
“Lyrics are sung so delicately—fogged up in the cushiness of the production—it’s hard to make out the gangsta-lite gags. This complicates the consternation over whether these guys are ‘serious’ or not. But in a world where 12-year-olds quote 50 Cent to their aunties at Thanksgiving dinner, it’s not hard to understand why Goddard, the rap fan with the baritone, would consider dropping a chorus like the one on ‘Playboy’: ‘Driving in my Peugeot, yeah yeah yeah/ 20-inch rims with the chrome now, yeah yeah yeah/ Blazin’ out Yo La Tengo, yeah yeah yeah.’ Everyone likes everything these days, Cam’Ron to Ira Kaplan. That’s why a group like this makes sense. It’s what separates them from the likes of Goldie Lookin’ Chain and Kidz Bop.”
If the world (save auntie) wasn’t ready for Hot Chip in 2K5, The Warning’s strong performance in last year’s critics’ poll circuit would seem to suggest a climate change. But much of the recent critical love has come despite, not because of, the band’s humor. The Warning is a great record, but it’s not that much better than Coming on Strong—approximately 1% better, if you crunch Fennessey's numbers. A lot of critics had to settle the “serious or not” question before jumping on board. Tom Breihan describing the Chip’s November gig at Webster Hall, his tenth favorite live show of 2006:
“I’d listened to Hot Chip’s album a couple of times, and it sounded like thin and bloodless synthpop poisoned by its smirky irony. But onstage, the band is a full-blooded riot, all ugly clothes and flailing percussion and heartbroken falsetto. I can’t believe I ever thought they were joking. Since then, The Warning has stayed in heavy rotation. It’s funny how these things work out sometimes.”
The Serious Question: Should people be asking it or not? You can probably guess my answer. Aside from having essentially nothing to do with music, debating whether a band is serious (or not) foregrounds the slippery issue of intention. I don’t know my intentions half the time. Intention, so far as it’s relevant at all, reveals itself in action. Forgive the armchair philosophy, but making critical endorsement contingent upon whether or not a band is “serious” presumes a certain sixth sense—the ability to read minds. More importantly, it draws rigid borders around the listening experience by installing an incalculable essence (i.e. seriousness) as a core value.
Borders, if you haven't heard, facilitate lazy listening habits. The Serious Question helps its askers avoid lots of other, trickier questions—questions that cramp styles, throw wrenches, and generally make rocking out a more complicated endeavor.
Of course, the onus doesn’t lay so squarely on the (quasi-)inquisitive. In order for the Serious Question to not seem utterly absurd, there must be bands who answer, emphatically, YES. Call the recent commercial triumphs of the Shins and Arcade Fire the pyrrhic apotheosis of a process years in the germinating: Nearly all the bestselling indie rock bands this decade have exhibited a dolor scarce in mainstream pop. To the extent that one can even generalize about “the record-buying public” anymore, it seems modern ears visit indie rock for the same reason they visit any other store in the strip-mall of digital-age culture consumption: to purchase goods for the pantry. In this case they’re copping to poignant emotions, the kind you can’t find on Paris Hilton’s 24-hour corner—not in labeled form, anyway. To sniff at why people listen to music raises other, more complicated questions, many of them Freudian (and I’m not going there). But it’s pretty clear that a lot of people have a specific archetype in mind when they think of indie rock, and the indie rock bands that have caught on with the most mainstream audience have tended to be ones that confirm that archetype.
A capital problem with hot-ticket indie rock—and a big reason why it’s stuck in a humorless rut—isn’t one of sonics or lyrical content or lack of rapping. It’s structural. Song structure can be reduced to a schematic as easily as it can be toyed with, and schematics may or may not include a window for humor. But they usually don’t. In fact, humor works to unbind structures much better than it helps enforce them, and maybe that’s why comedy finds itself a marginal player in the current clime.
The above generalizations on musical humor danced square around an important consideration: that humor is always, to some extent, gonna be an eye-of-the-beholder thing. I might go one step further, actually, to argue that songs are never simply funny or not—they’re funny or not depending on what you do with them. Yes, folks, there’s an interactive twist to this Humor in Music biz, so grab a mitt if you’re game. Look, for instance, at Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’”: not inherently hilarious, but if one conducted an experiment, listening to the song on repeat for 24 hours uninterrupted, would that be funny? I think so. Call this potential for humorous engagement Chamillionaire’s “sense of humor.” Or don’t, but against his open system we can pit the opposite: music that forestalls humor by working—consciously or not—from a schematic that has no patience for games.
Most indie rock bands who manage to turn mag cover profits (whatever those are) generally forestall humor. If you’ll abide something so inelegant as a list: Interpol, Modest Mouse, the Shins, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, and Death Cab for Cutie all ash-coat their music where humor threatens to beam through. While I appreciate the variety in the group, there’s a common thread of a toxic fabric: Many of these bands’ songs, the hits in particular, pivot around a decisive turn; a passage, doggedly labored for, from despair or anxiety to (qualified) hope. This turn might take place in the music or the words or both. But mark the volta in songs like Interpol’s “NYC,” Bloc Party’s “Like Eating Glass,” the Shins’ “Saint Simon,” even something as chirpy as Peter Bjorn And John’s “Young Folks.”
There probably isn’t anything inherently bad with this kind of structure, even if it is rigid and one-dimensional. But there is something troubling about the way it turns up again and again in the most popular indie rock on the shelves. It’s as if that’s the hole in the market. However multivalent the aesthetics of indie rock, however apparently different the sonics of Funeral are from those of Turn on the Bright Lights, this emotional sculpting keeps the music in a safe, salable range, within which humor draws frowns. Check your ’Pod—the best stuff out there subverts the structural norm. Not coincidentally, it also tends to be way funnier than anything on the charts. Experimentation, even when it cordons itself from mainstream society and makes stringent demands of its consumers, is defined by aesthetic open-mindedness. And humor, naturally, migrates where it’s tolerated.
I’ll get into examples after two qualifications. One is that indie rock seems to be showing signs of emergence from these structural doldrums, which date back at least to the bleak early aughts, possibly even to OK Computer. Destroyer’s Rubies rode its labyrinthine nine-minute opener to some of last year’s most heartfelt hosannas. Animal Collective have turned up in a Crayola commercial. Sound of Silver probably won’t do Wincing the Night Away numbers, but it’s well positioned (MetaCritically speaking) to change a few lives.
Hedge #2 comes by way of an anecdote: Of all the songs on my iTunes playlist entitled “DEPRESSING PLAYLIST,” which I created to help research this assignment, the Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go” might best exemplify the voltaic structure I just decried. Incidentally, I love that song to pieces. It also features one extremely hilarious sonic gesture: The plinky galloping synth line right at the turn celebrates 8-bit MIDI chintz almost as resplendently as Destroyer’s “Notorious Lightning.”
So there are exceptions. I mean, this is life.
Art Brut would seem to present another glaring counterexample here: hilarity only bought them, what, bi-continental exposure, countless Top 10 places, a Metacritic 83? But Art Brut are really fucking special, and must be treated as such. They’ve made cranking the volume itself funny. Theirs is not (always) third-listen humor, like Sunset Rubdown’s or the Hold Steady’s or Coldplay’s, it’s that real testy-grab shit: take-no-prisoners piss-takes larded with bracing conversational wit.
Then again, it’s also not. Bang Bang Rock and Roll’s best snarfs came from the quiet, deferred pleasure of watching confused connoisseurs fumble with it. Many acknowledged the Brut’s funny without actually finding much fun in it. Back in Spring ’05 people just couldn’t figure out what to do with them. You’d see kids at shows with their Moleskines calculating rough estimates: 25/75 joke-to-serious, blog it!
Bang Bang Rock and Roll was an exercise in social awkwardness before it was a favorite album. Watching on-the-beat consumers sniff around it resembled one of those painful moments when you’re not sure if she means to air-kiss you or the dude behind you. In other words, Eddie Argos’s detached first person stonewalled listeners expecting routine entry via personal aesthetics—the rub, maybe, but not the point. Ultimately Bang Bang came too balls-to-the-wall to oppress us with a point, so listeners forgot the rub and banged on. But its Aristocrats-length lead-in gradually revealed the extent to which we all approach music with a certain critical hesitancy, a desire to pin down before we cosign. Virtually all the indie rock that makes it to the charts aims to preempt that difficult but vital process: Because if mediation is the journalist’s job, why should bands have to do anything but offer up their expression for evaluation on its own terms? Fair enough, but what if journalists aren’t doing their job?
When criticism fails to criticize, smart bands criticize themselves. Because what’s worse, really, calling attention your own flaws or having a number do it for you? Strategically self-effaced, Art Brut did their diagnostic dirtiest while we sat around waiting for the punch line. Call them a benevolent parasite: Bang Bang Rock and Roll made satirical mincemeat of anyone who posed the Serious Question (everyone), then returned the favor by exposing that question as Bad For Music.
It’s true most people don’t like being told the things they care about are “funny.” I say: Tough noogies for them. If you deny music’s capacity for humor, you might as well tell pain and sadness to fuck off, too. Why don’t you make a list? Top 10 Feelings It’s OK for Music to Express. Of course no one with half a brain would actually question music’s right to be funny. But there’s more at stake still. I think music that lets in humor can achieve higher highs, bluer blues, and broader expressive extremes all around than music that doesn’t. I mentioned Of Montreal up-article. “A Sentence of Sorts in Konsvinger” is probably one of the saddest songs possible. It also evokes Toejam & Earl in its hilarious sonic mise-en-scène. The dualism’s no paradox; the tonal extremes interpenetrate and enhance each other. Another good example is this loose group of Canadian nü Romantics you’re seeing now. A lot of people consider Sunset Rubdown’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming one of the heavier records to come out of that scene. I think its weight actually has more to do with Spencer Krug’s wicked sense of humor (cf. the lyrics, funny instruments, out-of-nowhere showtunes mawkishness at the end of “Us Ones in Between”, etc.) than with his disturbing voice or his warped sonics.
I see how humor might threaten some. Indie rock has historically come under criticism for its “whininess” or “self-pity”—in other words, for taking itself too seriously. The sting of those lazy, reductive insults might help explain the bias against levity: perhaps listeners who remember life (way) before the Shins debuted at #2 feel protective of music’s right to express angst, rejection, and self-pity without being mocked or emasculated. But trying to protect the passion or importance or resonance of the music you really care about by barring humor is just a cheap way of avoiding awkward confrontations with yourself.
Think for a sec: How many records have you applied the “'serious' or not” criteria to? How many times have you decided humor trivialized an “otherwise” good album without pondering how successful the album would’ve been without humor? Do you take it for granted that humor, especially of the irreverent variety, usually hurts not helps? Indie rock and indie-rock journalism don’t hate fun. But the Serious Question is symptomatic of a serious undervaluing of musical humor. “Funny” bands routinely tickle critics. Think of Clor, the Diableros, Exploding Hearts, the Fiery Furnaces, the Futureheads, LCD Soundsystem, Man Man, Mclusky—I’ll stop at M in my iTunes. But reviews of these bands often talk around the music’s silly or flip aspects and focus instead on serious issues like form, without considering how those elements might be related. If the Unicorns are innovative, it’s because they take daring risks with songwriting syntax, like sometimes playing two (2) bridges on the same track, and not because they put their entire fucking musical enterprise on the line by writing quasi-fable lyrics that aspire to total retardation. Critics shouldn’t treat humor like an ant on the watermelon; they should treat it as they do serious elements like polyrhythms. Likewise, bands who glut us with bankable voltaic structures should be challenged to challenge us more. If these changes came to pass, laughter would almost certainly reclaim its place in the scene. And the music would be loads better for it.
By: Sam Ubl
Published on: 2007-04-09
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