The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor 9781351266642, 9781138577565

An essential part of human expression, humor plays a role in all forms of art, and humorous and comedic aspects have alw

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The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor
 9781351266642, 9781138577565

Table of contents :
Half Title
Series Page
Title Page
Copyright page
Popular Music and Humor: An introduction
Part 1 Historical Antecedents
1 Humor in Early Twentieth-Century Sheet Music: Problems of Contexts and Receptions
2 What Might Have Been left Behind: Popular African-American Female Singers in an Age of liberal Reform
3 Jazz Humor from a Musical Perspective
4 Rubes, Rednecks, and Novelty Songs: The Comedic Tradition in Country Music
Part 2 Humor in Rock Music Genres
5 Grumbly Grimblies, Frozen Dogs, and Other Boojums: Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English Psychedelia
6 The Clown Figure in 1970s Rock Music
7 Humor in Metal Music
8 “Anarchy in Woolworths”: Punk Comedy and Humor
9 “Mommy’s Dead”: The Gallows Humor of Hardcore Punk
10 Hip Hop’s Sophisticated Comedy
11 “The Earth is doomed”: Geek Rock, Humor, and the End of the World
Part 3 Humor in Global Music
12 From Kaiso to Get on Bad: Humor in Trinidad’s Calypso and Soca Music
13 “Call de Contracta!”: Humor, innovation, and Competition in Jamaican Music
14 Play and irony in the Kwaito Music of Postapartheid South Africa
15 Humor in Ugandan Popular Music
16 Absurdity and Nostalgia: Humor in K-Pop
17 Negotiating Blackness in French Rural Spaces: Kamini’s Hip-Hop Comedy
Part 4 Selected Artists I: Humor in Popular Music
18 The “Sly Wit” of Chuck Berry
19 The British Invasion of the Wild West: Country Parody in the Rolling Stones and Other British Bands
20 “I never said I was tasteful”: Lou Reed and the Classic Philosophy of Humor
21 Randy Newman’s Satirical Vision and the Myth of America
22 “You ain’t laughing, are you?”: Humor, Misery, and the Replacements
Part 5 Selected Artists II: Comedy in Popular Music
23 The Coasters: Funny and Not So Funny
24 Lonnie Donegan: From Trad Jazz to King of Skiffle and Variety Star
25 Mountain Butterfly: Dolly Parton’s Transformational Persona in American Country Music
26 The Wacky and Zany World of Flo & Eddie
27 “Dare to Be Stupid”: Covering “Weird Al” Yankovic
28 The Aquabats! Defeating Evil One Show at a Time!
Part 6 The Music Mockumentary
29 “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever”: A Genealogy of the Music Mockumentary
30 “We Must Be Flipping Out”: Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels as a Carnivalesque Subversion of Pop Music
31 All You Need Is Cash: Skewering a legend with the Prefab Four
32 This Chapter Goes to Eleven: This Is Spinal Tap and the Blurring of Authenticity and Fabrication
Part 7 Popular Music and Humor on Screen
33 “Goodnight to the rock ’n’ roll era”: Pavement and the Negotiation of Ambivalence in 1994
34 Looking for the Joke with a Microscope: The Intersection of Music and Humor in Repo Man
35 Humor in the “Booty Video”: Female Artists Talk Back Through the Hip-Hop Intertext
36 Of Shreds, Spoofs, and Participatory Cultures: Parodies of Popular Music Videos in Web 2.0 Contexts
Part 8 Gender, Sexuality, and Politics
37 Ethnic Parody in the Age of Fracture
38 “Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster?”: Humor and Irony in Women’s Hip Hop
39 We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are: Masculine Humor in New Zealand Popular Music
40 From “Tsar Nikolai, Go F*ck Your Mother!” to “Putin, Go F*ck Yourself!”: Musical Humor in Oppressive Regimes
41 After the Laughter: Al-Manawahly’s Songs and the Poetics of Subversive Humor in Egypt
42 “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”: Humor in Protest Music
Coda: Unintentional Humor in Popular Music
Notes on Contributors

Citation preview

The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor

An essential part of human expression, humor plays a role in all forms of art, and humorous and comedic aspects have always been part of popular music. For the first time, The Routledge ­Companion to Popular Music and Humor draws together scholarship exploring how the element of humor interacts with the artistic and social aspects of the musical experience. Discussing humor in popular music across eras from Tin Pan Alley to the present, and examining the role of humor in different musical genres, case studies of artists, and media forms, this volume is a groundbreaking collection that provides a go-to reference for scholars in music, popular culture, and media studies. While most scholars, when considering humor’s place in popular music, tend to focus on more “literate” forms, the contributors in this collection seek to fill in the gaps by surveying all kinds of humor, critical theories, and popular music. Across eight parts, the chapters in this collection explore topics both highbrow and lowbrow, including: • • • • •

Parody and satire Humor in rock and global music Gender, sexuality, and politics The music mockumentary Novelty songs

Humor has long been a fixture of the popular music soundscape, whether on stage, in performance, on record, or on film. The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor covers it all, presenting itself as the most comprehensive treatment of the topic to date. Thomas M. Kitts is Professor of English at St. John’s University, NY, author of a recent book on John Fogerty, and coeditor of Popular Music and Society and Rock Music Studies. Nick Baxter-Moore is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film, Brock University, St Catharine’s, Ontario, Canada.

Routledge Music Companions

Routledge Music Companions offer thorough, high-quality surveys and assessments of major topics in the study of music. All entries in each companion are specially commissioned and written by leading scholars in the field. Clear, accessible, and cutting-edge, these companions are the ideal resource for advanced undergraduates, postgraduate students, and researchers alike. The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor Edited by Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore The Routledge Companion to Music, Mind, and Well-Being Edited by Penelope Gouk, James Kennaway, Jacomien Prins, and Wiebke Thormählen The Routledge Companion to Jazz Studies Edited by Nicholas Gebhardt, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, and Tony Whyton The Routledge Companion to Popular Music Analysis: Expanding Approaches Edited by Ciro Scotto, Kenneth Smith, and John Brackett The Routledge Companion to the Study of Local Musicking Edited by Suzel A. Reily and Katherine Brucher The Routledge Companion to Music Cognition Edited by Richard Ashley and Renee Timmers The Routledge Companion to Screen Music and Sound Edited by Miguel Mera, Ronald Sadoff, and Ben Winters The Routledge Companion to Embodied Music Interaction Edited by Micheline Lesaffre, Pieter-Jan Maes, and Marc Leman The Routledge Companion to Music, Technology, and Education Edited by Andrew King, Evangelos Himonides, and S. Alex Ruthmann

The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor

Edited by Thomas M. Kitts St. John’s University, USA

and Nick Baxter-Moore Brock University, Canada

First published 2019 by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 and by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2019 Taylor & Francis The right of Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore to be identified as the authors of the editorial material, and of the authors for their individual chapters, has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Kitts, Thomas M., 1955– editor. | Baxter-Moore, Nicolas, editor. Title: The Routledge companion to popular music and humor / edited by Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore. Description: New York; London: Routledge, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2018057221 (print) | LCCN 2018059727 (ebook) | ISBN 9781351266642 (ebook) | ISBN 9781138577565 (hardback) Subjects: LCSH: Humor in music. | Popular music—History and criticism. Classification: LCC ML3470 (ebook) | LCC ML3470 .R69 2019 (print) | DDC 781.64—dc23 LC record available at ISBN: 978-1-138-57756-5 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-351-26664-2 (ebk) Typeset in Bembo by codeMantra

from Tom Kitts To Lisa, who makes my life so wonderful and enjoyable To Hayley, Dylan, Julia, and Holly in whom I am extraordinarily proud from Nick Baxter-Moore To Heather, for your enduring love, support, and lust for life To Katrina, I’m so proud to be your Dad




Popular Music and Humor: An Introduction 1 Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore Part 1

Historical Antecedents 11 1 Humor in Early Twentieth-Century Sheet Music: Problems of Contexts and Receptions 13 C. Matthew Balensuela 2 What Might Have Been Left Behind: Popular African-American Female Singers in an Age of Liberal Reform 21 James Martens 3 Jazz Humor from a Musical Perspective 30 Garth Alper 4 Rubes, Rednecks, and Novelty Songs: The Comedic Tradition in Country Music 38 Don Cusic Part 2

Humor in Rock Music Genres 47 5 Grumbly Grimblies, Frozen Dogs, and Other Boojums: Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English Psychedelia 49 Peter Grant vii


6 The Clown Figure in 1970s Rock Music 58 Andy Bennett 7 Humor in Metal Music Deena Weinstein


8 “Anarchy in Woolworths”: Punk Comedy and Humor 76 Russ Bestley 9 “Mommy’s Dead”: The Gallows Humor of Hardcore Punk 85 Dennis D. McDaniel 10 Hip Hop’s Sophisticated Comedy 92 David Caplan 11 “The Earth is doomed”: Geek Rock, Humor, and the End of the World 99 Victoria Willis Part 3

Humor in Global Music 105 12 From Kaiso to Get on Bad: Humor in Trinidad’s Calypso and Soca Music 107 Amelia Ingram 13 “Call de Contracta!”: Humor, Innovation, and Competition in Jamaican Music 116 Sonjah Stanley Niaah 14 Play and Irony in the Kwaito Music of Postapartheid South Africa 124 Tuulikki Pietilä 15 Humor in Ugandan Popular Music 132 David Pier 16 Absurdity and Nostalgia: Humor in K-Pop 141 Sarah Keith 17 Negotiating Blackness in French Rural Spaces: Kamini’s Hip-Hop Comedy 150 Mich Yonah Nyawalo Part 4

Selected Artists I: Humor in Popular Music 159 18 The “Sly Wit” of Chuck Berry 161 Wayne Robins viii


19 The British Invasion of the Wild West: Country Parody in the Rolling Stones and Other British Bands 169 Oliver Lovesey 20 “I never said I was tasteful”: Lou Reed and the Classic Philosophy of Humor 177 Steven L. Hamelman 21 Randy Newman’s Satirical Vision and the Myth of America 186 Theodore Louis Trost 22 “You ain’t laughing, are you?”: Humor, Misery, and the Replacements 195 Timothy Gray Part 5

Selected Artists II: Comedy in Popular Music 203 23 The Coasters: Funny and Not So Funny 205 Lawrence Pitilli 24 Lonnie Donegan: From Trad Jazz to King of Skiffle and Variety Star 212 Mats Greiff 25 Mountain Butterfly: Dolly Parton’s Transformational Persona in American Country Music 221 Pamela Wilson 26 The Wacky and Zany World of Flo & Eddie 230 Thomas M. Kitts 27 “Dare to Be Stupid”: Covering “Weird Al” Yankovic 239 Michael Mooradian Lupro 28 The Aquabats! Defeating Evil One Show at a Time! 246 Eric J. Abbey Part 6

The Music Mockumentary 255 29 “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever”: A Genealogy of the Music Mockumentary 257 Michael Brendan Baker and Peter Lester 30 “We Must Be Flipping Out”: Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels as a Carnivalesque Subversion of Pop Music 266 Scott Henderson ix


31 All You Need Is Cash: Skewering a Legend with the Prefab Four 273 Kenneth Womack 32 This Chapter Goes to Eleven: This Is Spinal Tap and the Blurring of Authenticity and Fabrication 281 Colin Helb Part 7

Popular Music and Humor on Screen 291 33 “Goodnight to the rock ’n’ roll era”: Pavement and the Negotiation of Ambivalence in 1994 293 Court Carney 34 Looking for the Joke with a Microscope: The Intersection of Music and Humor in Repo Man David A. Ensminger


35 Humor in the “Booty Video”: Female Artists Talk Back Through ­ ip-Hop Intertext 310 the H Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods 36 Of Shreds, Spoofs, and Participatory Cultures: Parodies of Popular Music Videos in Web 2.0 Contexts 321 Martin Butler Part 8

Gender, Sexuality, and Politics 329 37 Ethnic Parody in the Age of Fracture 331 John Thomerson 38 “Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster?”: Humor and Irony in Women’s Hip Hop 339 Gail Hilson Woldu 39 We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are: Masculine Humor in New Zealand Popular Music 346 Nick Braae 40 From “Tsar Nikolai, Go F*ck Your Mother!” to “Putin, Go F*ck Yourself!”: Musical Humor in Oppressive Regimes 354 Adriana Helbig



41 After the Laughter: Al-Manawahly’s Songs and the Poetics of Subversive Humor in Egypt 361 Noha Radwan 42 “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”: Humor in Protest Music 372 Nick Baxter-Moore Coda: Unintentional Humor in Popular Music 380 Nick Baxter-Moore and Thomas M. Kitts 389 Notes on Contributors Index 397



The editors would like to acknowledge those who helped to bring The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor into existence. First, we thank our 42 contributors. They submitted insightful chapters, demonstrated a willingness to revise, and met our deadlines. We are very appreciative of all of them. We thank our respective institutions, St. John’s University and Brock University, for their support and confidence in us. We take great pride in being a part of those institutions. We also thank the Popular Culture Association which provided a forum at its annual conference for the sessions and papers from which this collection grew. We were fortunate to have excellent support from our publisher, Routledge. We consider ourselves especially fortunate to have worked with Genevieve Aoki, Routledge’s Music Editor. Genevieve encouraged us to expand our original proposal from a relatively small edited collection to the large handbook before you. Her support, guidance, and patience, along with her quick responses to our various inquiries, have been greatly appreciated. Above all, however, we must thank our wives (Lisa and Heather) and our children (Hayley, Dylan, Julia, Holly, and Katrina) for their love and patience. They tolerated our long hours of work on this volume, which sometimes interrupted family vacations. We will always love and be grateful to them. Thomas M. Kitts Nick Baxter-Moore


Popular Music and Humor An Introduction Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore

It’s a familiar trope—scenes of human misery intercut with shots of musicians in a studio, performing the latest charity single: “In Norway kids are freezing / It’s time for us to care / There’s heat enough for Norway / If Africans would share.” In a video posted on YouTube, a group known as “Africa for Norway” uses a song to persuade viewers to contribute to “Radi-Aid,” a campaign whereby generic “Africans” are asked to donate their spare heat by storing it in radiators that will then be donated to the Scandinavian country because Norwegians are facing a crisis— that is, winter—that, according to “Rapper Breezy V,” is “kind of just as bad as poverty if you ask me. … People don’t ignore starving people, so why should we ignore cold people?” (“Africa”). It is, of course, a spoof, a combination of popular music and humor to make a point. The video, the song behind the “new charity single,” and “the ‘making-of ’ video,” which has become a regular feature of such campaigns, are all parodies of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” and other well-known examples of what is often called “charity rock” or “conscience rock.” Put together by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ Assistance International Fund (SAIH) in collaboration with the K-Cap Ekhaya Multi-Arts Centre and Ikind Production in Durban, South Africa, the video’s principal function was to challenge stereotypes and promote a more nuanced understanding of the Global South (­Chandler). According to John D. Cameron, “What makes this video funny is its incongruity— citizens of a supposedly ‘Third World’ country trying to ‘save’ the residents of a ‘First World’ country through the traditional mechanisms of charity.” As Cameron notes, “The video also uses a form of self-deprecating humour, understood to be both more persuasive and more ethical than other modes of humour” (283). The combination of incongruity, self-deprecation, and parody made the “Radi-Aid” campaign an effective way to transmit a serious political message and demonstrates the power of humor and popular music in harness. Not all of the songs, videos, and other examples considered in this book are concerned with making serious political points, but they are found at the intersections of popular music and ­humor. Humor has always been a part of the popular music soundscape, whether on stage, in performance, on record, or on film. Just like Elizabethan ballad singers centuries before, blues singers, for instance, have long relied on the double entendre to entertain their audiences; jazz musicians will riff on nursery rhymes like “Pop Goes the Weasel”; country artists build songs off clever wordplay; folk singers reproduce fantastical tales of frogs courting mice; doo-wop groups create nonsense phrases like “rama lama ding dong”; rock musicians employ irony and satire to critique contemporary society; and hip-hop performers make use of dexterous and sometimes 1

Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore

playful, sometimes cutting, rhymes. Of course, popular music is not always allied with humor. Like other cultural forms, popular music is often, perhaps all too often, serious. Popular songs, artists, and performances may be more influenced by, or aspire to, drama, tragedy, pathos, and these moods may be preferred by critics and audiences. As a result, popular musicians who consistently resort to humor may not be “taken seriously” as artists; nonetheless, many do employ humor as one of the vehicles employed to tell stories and to relate to audiences.

Humor and Comedy In 1751, Samuel Johnson wrote that “Comedy has been particularly unpropitious to definers” (202). Louis Armstrong could have been talking not about jazz but about humor or comedy when he said, “Man, if you have to ask what [humor] is, you’ll never know.” And likewise Thelonius Monk might have been defining humor rather than jazz when he reportedly claimed, “I don’t have a definition of [either]…. You’re just supposed to know it when you hear [or see] it” (qtd. in “Jazz / Quotes”). Still, we’ll try to define our terms. While the terms humor and comedy are often used interchangeably, we here attempt to distinguish between the two. In common parlance, “comedy” usually refers to the work of professional comics or to organized, often scripted forms, such as Shakespearean comedies or television ­sitcoms. Alternatively, “comedy” is often viewed as a physical or visual display, whereas “humor” is associated with amusement derived from words (or lyrics in the case of popular music); for example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines humor (or ­“ humour,” as it would have it) as “the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech.” We decided to use humor in the title of this volume and in our instructions to its contributors because, as the OED suggests, it is the broader term, one that can encompass comedy (whether defined as physical or visual display, or as the work of professional funsters, or as organized, often scripted, forms of entertainment), whereas comedy seems to omit, say, the subtleties of satire, especially when the ridicule might be enveloped in bitterness and be funny only to a few. Of course, there is much overlap between the two terms. In a sense we are adapting what Robert Mankoff, cartoonist and cartoon editor at the New Yorker, wrote, All comedy has humor, but not all humor is comedy. Humor is the much broader category of anything that may make us laugh, such as a loud fart at a funeral, which is funny but not comedy. Comedy is a form of professional entertainment, consisting of jokes and sketches intended to make people laugh.

Popular Music Like jazz, popular music might not need definition for its fans. Indeed, one might suggest that all kinds of music are “popular” with someone; hence, it is tempting to define popular music in terms of the size of its audience (analogous to “being popular”—that is, “most liked”—in high school). But most contemporary definitions of popular music focus more on the nature of its production than the breadth of its consumption; the “popular” in popular music denotes the intended, rather than the actual, audience—in other words, popular music is “mass produced,” within a capitalist-industrial model of production and distribution, for a mass audience, in which the term “mass” is characterized more by its anonymity and heterogeneity than by its size. Hence, for purposes of this volume, by “popular music,” we mean the primarily commercially inspired music of the ages of mechanical reproduction and digital (re)production—in other words, of the past hundred years.



Humorous Music vs. Musical Comedy This is a book about the uses of humor in popular music, not about musical comedy, in any sense of that term. In one definition, a musical comedy, play or film, interweaves singing and dancing with dialogue as a means of telling the story which itself is usually light, humorous, and entertaining (“Musical”). Examples include Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Grease (1978), and Mamma Mia (2008/2018). A second definition of musical comedy is the use of music by professional comedians to entertain their audiences. In the 1950s, a number of artists were successful in combining music and often-satirical comedy to fill concert halls and, sometimes, to make the charts. In the US, Harvard (and later UC Santa Cruz) math professor Tom Lehrer employed black humor in songs like “Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park” (1959). Lehrer was an accomplished pianist and composer, and most of his lyrics were set to original tunes although his song about the chemical periodic table, “The Elements” (1959), borrowed the melody from Gilbert and ­Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song” from the musical comedy, The Pirates of Penzance. But it was his satirical, off-the-wall take on contemporary political issues that established him as a hero of the ­proto-counterculture in the early 1960s, addressing environmental concerns (“Pollution,” like all other songs mentioned in this sentence from his 1965 album, That Was The Week That Was), religion and social mores (“The Vatican Rag”), civil rights and race relations (“National Brotherhood Week”), and anxiety about an impending World War III (“So Long, Mom” and “Who’s Next?”). In Britain, the musical comedy duo of (Michael) Flanders and (Donald) Swann toured and recorded their revues At the Drop of a Hat (1957/1960) and At the Drop of Another Hat (1964). Their most famous songs included “A Gnu” (“I’m a gnu, spelt G-N-U / I’m a gnu, how do you do?”), “The Hippopotamus” (which gloried in “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud”), and “The Gasman Cometh,” a satire of the (in)efficiency and hyperspecialization of British tradesmen (gender specific as they then were), as well as topical satires on British politics and current events. It was, for the most part, cerebral humor based on clever wordplay with the occasional descent into deep farce.

Novelty Songs Less cerebral than the work of Tom Lehrer, Flanders and Swann, or the Danish musical humorist Victor Borge, is the comedy novelty record. There are different kinds of novelty songs—the title itself is something of a misnomer in that such recordings date back to the earliest days of recorded music—but, generally, “novelty” songs are those which don’t meet the profile of a typical popular song; they don’t fit an established popular music genre and they don’t deal with conventional subject matter. They tend to fall into two major groups. First, there are dance craze songs, like “The Twist” (a US #1 hit for Chubby Checker in 1960), “The Locomotion” (a US #1 for both Little Eva in 1962 and Grand Funk Railroad in 1974, and a #3 hit for Kylie Minogue in 1988), “The Macarena” (Los Del Rio, first released 1993, but a huge worldwide hit in its “Bayside Boys” English-language remix in 1996), or more recently, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” (#2 Billboard Hot 100 and #1 in many other countries, 2012). The second kind of novelty song, more relevant to our discussion, is the comedy novelty song. They are lightweight, often the epitome or nadir of “low comedy.” If not parodies (in which new, humorous, lyrics are set to original-sounding melodies and arrangements), they rely on simple musical constructions so as not to detract from the humor of the lyrics. Comedy novelty songs have even shorter shelf lives than other types of pop songs, and like other novelty songs, most are one-hit-wonders (or at best, one of only two or three hits achieved by their respective artists). They may be ephemeral, but sometimes these lightweight hits can tell us much about a culture’s sensitivities and evolution. It is unlikely that “K-K-K-Katy” (recorded by Billy Murray in 1918) with its stuttering, “gawky” protagonist could be a hit today. Songs, like “Please No


Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore

Squeeza Da Banana” (Louis Prima, 1945) or “Chinese Mule Train” (Spike Jones, featuring Fleddy Morgan, 1950), that mock the accents of immigrant groups, now probably wouldn’t get radio play; but not only were both songs considered funny and harmless upon release, but Italian Americans also took pride in “Banana” by Prima, whose mother immigrated from Italy and whose father was the son of an Italian immigrant. Later examples suggest, however, that novelty songs can help a culture identify its boundaries and sensitivities. After “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” by Napoleon XIV (the performing alias of recording engineer/songwriter Jerry Samuel) peaked at #3 in 1966, many US radio stations pulled the record from the airwaves for its insensitivity to the mentally ill. The record has the distinction of taking the deepest Top 40 dive when it fell from #5 to #37 in a single week. However, the song peaked at #4 in the UK with no public backlash. Charlie Drake’s “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” (produced by George Martin) was a Top 20 hit in both Britain and the US in 1961, and a #1 in Australia in 1962, despite its insensitivity to Australian Aboriginal culture. In 2015, after a complaint from a listener, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation determined the song was offensive and issued a permanent ban on playing it. In earlier times, novelty songs also served to parody both musical trends and popular artists and celebrities; as such, they were precursors to both musical mockumentaries such as This Is Spinal Tap (discussed elsewhere in this volume) and the work of comedy artists such as Jimmy Fallon in his impersonations/parodies of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young (see Sullivan). For example, in Britain, the Barron Knights created composite skits containing spoofs of contemporary chart stars such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, Donovan, Sandy Shaw, and even the Ronettes, on such recordings as “Call up the Groups” (1964), “Pop Go the Workers” (1965), and “Merry Gentle Pops” (1965). They started out playing originals, but the Barron Knights subsequently made a career out of parodying both the songs and performance styles of other bands. But, while humorists such as Tom Lehrer, Flanders & Swann, and the Barron Knights may have influenced a few artists in subsequent generations, and while films such as Singin’ in the Rain and Grease undoubtedly shaped dance routines in many popular music videos, this book is not about musical comedy in either sense introduced earlier, nor is it focused on novelty songs. With odd exceptions that include Alan Sherman, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the Flying Conchords, often considered in comparative contexts, the principal concern of our authors is with the ways in which musicians use humor as a way of reaching listeners or audiences in order to tell their stories rather than ways in which comedians use popular music as a way to advance their humor.

Humor Is (Mostly) Local: The Influence of Music Hall Humor was part of the recordings and performances of most stars in the 1950s and early 1960s, including Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Elvis Presley, and Bobby Darin. However, in the 1960s, young musicians began to take themselves very seriously. As the influence of the wordsmith Dylan and the musical innovations of the Beach Boys and the Beatles took hold during a time of escalating social crises, rock and folk musicians, in particular, found themselves both celebrated and constrained as spokespersons for the emerging counterculture. With the rise of the album, which outsold singles for the first time in 1967, musicians strove to create, as Brian Wilson put it, “complete statement[s]” (qtd. in White 252), both musically and lyrically. The pop song was no longer limited to three-minute duration or to topics such as love, teenage angst, or dreams and aspirations to a better life. Indeed, the rock musician’s popularity depended on ambitious, meaningful works, and liberal politics. With this development, seriousness began to banish the humor—unless embedded in barbed satire. Perhaps because of the emerging generation gap, American rock musicians did not want to be identified with the mainstream favorites of the previous generation. They worked to look different, to write different music, to perform differently on stage, and to be artists and social 4


commentators, not mere entertainers which to them seemed to imply at least some shtick. E ­ nglish musicians, however, were less afraid to be, at times, playful and funny. While they certainly took themselves as seriously as American musicians and ambitiously created masterpieces like Sgt. ­Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Beggar’s Banquet, they were not afraid to demonstrate the influence of music hall. While they are often equated, the British music hall and American vaudeville traditions differed in important respects. Music hall, as a form of working-class entertainment, was enjoyed across age groups in Britain, and, in addition to other forms of humor (slapstick, nonsense, verbal), included a strong element of political satire, especially mockery of the upper classes, that was largely absent from American vaudeville. For example, “Burlington Bertie,” written by Harry B. Norris in 1900 and performed most famously by one of the best-known male-impersonators of the music hall era, Vesta Tilley, gently mocks the aristocratic young men of the “leisured class” who spend time in the Burlington Arcade, a pedestrian precinct off London’s Piccadilly and one of the predecessors of the modern shopping center. More subversive, however, was the answer song, “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” credited to William Hargreaves (1915), a music hall staple about an unemployed man from Bow, a borough in the working-class East End of London, who likewise would strut his stuff in the West End to mock the pretensions, and idleness, of the upper classes: “I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten-thirty / and saunter along like a toff / I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand / then I walk down again with them off.” The irreverence displayed in music hall songs mocking the upper classes was also extended to other social divisions and mores. In her recording of “A Little of What You Fancy” (written by Fred W. Leigh and George Arthurs, 1915), Marie Lloyd humorously challenged contemporary values concerning gender, sexual activity, and alcohol consumption. The song opens with the declaration, “I never was a one to go and stint myself / If I likes a thing, I likes it and that’s enough!” Lloyd then declares her fondness for stout (a heavy beer that some women think might make her fat), declares her willingness to take a separate vacation if that’s what her husband wants (with the suggestion that it might lead to something more), and encourages a young couple on a train to cuddle and spoon, all “because a little of what you fancy does you good.” Many British rock musicians of the 1960s included elements of music hall in their performances and recordings. Ray Davies of the Kinks satirized the pretensions of the upper class (or perhaps just of the bourgeoisie) in songs such as “A Well Respected Man,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Dandy,” and “Sunny Afternoon.” In “A Well Respected Man,” Davies lampoons such bourgeois, middle-class values as consistency, reliability, punctuality, healthiness, and “Doing the best things so conservatively,” while his protagonist’s mother promises to find him a suitable partner to make him a winner in the “matrimonial stakes” by marrying up. In the last verse, Davies extends his usual vocal delivery by adopting an upper middle-class accent when singing about “stocks” and “shares” and the “regatta,” the quintessentially upper-class sporting event. The simple melody and chord changes, the sing-along rhythm, and the easily remembered chorus (“And he’s oh so good and he’s oh so fine / And he’s oh so healthy in his body and his mind / He’s a well respected man about town / Doing the best things so conservatively”) are strongly reminiscent of the conventions of music hall songs (see Kitts 65–67). Interestingly, of the influence of music hall on his music, Davies said, “For years and years I denied it. … I think that’s because music hall is, in rock and roll terms, quite an uncool thing to be associated with. … But music hall was undeniably an important influence” (qtd. in di Perna 200). In “Lazy Sunday,” the Small Faces delighted in nonsense words, “Root-de-doo-de-doo, a-root-de-doot-de doy di,” not as backing vocals but as a verse, and Steve Marriott ­exaggerated his cockney accent, a typical delivery technique of music hall performers. Tellingly, “Lazy ­Sunday” reached #2 on the UK charts but only #114 in the US. While not essentially comic, both the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty Four,” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and “Your Mother Should Know” (from Magical Mystery Tour, 1967) could have easily been music-hall 5

Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore

numbers, as could Paul McCartney’s “You Gave Me the Answer” from Venus and Mars (1975). In the early 1970s, Marc Bolan and T. Rex had huge hits in Britain with songs that featured perhaps nonsensical, or possibly psychedelic, lyrics like, “Girl, I’m just a jeepster for your love” (“Jeepster,” 1971, UK #2),” or “Telegram Sam, you’re my main man” (“Telegram Sam,” 1972, UK #1), and “life … will be easy as picking foxes from a tree” (“Solid Gold Easy Action,” 1972, UK #2). From 1970 through 1973, T. Rex had ten singles in the Top Five in the UK. In the same period in the US, “Get It On” (1971) peaked at #10, with “Telegram Sam,” their second highest charting US single, reaching only #67. There could be several reasons for this disparity—for example, “glam rock,” the broad subgenre into which T. Rex is usually subsumed enjoyed much less popularity in the US than in the UK—but certainly one would include the elusiveness or silliness of his lyrics to the ears of the American rock audience. While American audiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to prefer more direct, less absurdist, less humorous, and less playful lyrics—after all, these were serious times—there were, of course, a few exceptions, and there has been, always it seems, Bob Dylan, the contrarian. Dylan not only wrote scathing satires but also wrote essentially comic if not silly songs that stimulated his listeners to decipher the lyrics in search of allegories, metaphors, and deeper meanings, like “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” (1970) or “Clothes Line Saga” (1975). Dylan could be absurdly humorous. He begins “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” (1965) with “I was riding on the Mayflower / When I thought I spied some land / I yelled for Captain Arab [sic],” who is hunting for Moby Dick. Eventually, the singer is thrown into an American jail for carrying a harpoon, gets released, removes a parking ticket from his mast, sets sail, and wishes Columbus “good luck” as he sails out, and the navigator enters the port. Years later, Dylan could include jokes in his songs. “Po’ Boy” (2001), for example, is a series of jokes, even a knock-knock joke: “‘Who is it and where are you from?’/ Man says, ‘Freddy!’ I say, ‘Freddy who?’ / He says, ‘Freddy or not here I come.’” To the rock audience, especially from the 1960s on, comedic rock acts have lacked musical chops and authenticity. The comedian, musical or otherwise, assumes a persona, unlike the major rock acts who deliver authentic self-expression. The Holy Modal Rounders, the Bonzo Dog ­Doo-Dah Band, Flo & Eddie, the Rutles, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the Aquabats are not, at least in an obvious way, being themselves, expressing their own frustrations, pleasures, and angst. They are entertainers, comedians, and, for the most part, perceived as lacking authenticity—a vague concept but one which rock audiences demand. Thus, the rock-comedy act is marginalized, garnering only a niche share of the pop music market, usually playing clubs or opening a bill as opposed to headlining the larger theaters and arenas, and, usually, not selling many records. “Weird Al” is only perhaps an exception. Despite earning several gold and platinum albums, as well as a #1 album with Mandatory Fun in 2014, he has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 35 years after his first album was released.

Parody and Satire If novelty songs and most parodies are “low” comedies with the intent largely to make us laugh, satires are “high” comedies with serious purposes intended to enlighten listeners, change minds, and rally listeners to action. Satirists, by nature, are subversive, shaping opinions and actions to alter the status quo, whereby tragedy and tragedians end their works with a restoration of the established order. In Laws, Plato seems aware of the dangers of satire and believes comedy should be tightly regulated: “We shall enjoin that such representations be left to slaves or hired aliens, and that they receive no serious consideration whatsoever. No free person, whether woman or man, shall be found taking lessons in them.” And, “No composer of comedy, iambic or lyric verse shall be permitted to hold any citizen up to laughter, by word or gesture, with passion or otherwise” (7: 816e; 11: 935e). In other words, Plato recommends that attacks on individuals or institutions need to be controlled; if expressed at all, they should come from “slaves” or hired aliens, those 6


seen as outsiders who lacked power, who were least likely to effect change. Such sentiments resemble V.C. Clinton-Baddeley’s comment on the British music hall: it was like “the rude boy attacking pomposity with a pea-shooter” (81). Plato saw the subversive intentions of satire as did John Dryden, who said that a satire is “an excuse for revenge,” either on the state or on individuals. Certainly, personal satires have occurred through popular music, as stars compete for fans and attentions. Hip hop has become notable for its “beefs.” Perhaps none has had such a tragic outcome as the feud between 2Pac (Tupac Shakur) and Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls). Shortly after 2Pac was shot and robbed in New York City, Biggie released the B-side “Who Shot Ya” (1994), attacking what he identified as ­Shakur’s ­paranoia: “I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek/ Your heartbeat sound like sasquatch feet/ Thundering shaking the concrete.” Although B.I.G.’s song did not mention 2Pac by name, Shakur took it as a personal insult. He responded with an attack on Smalls and other East Coast rappers in “Hit ’em Up” (1996): “Grab your Glocks [guns] when you see 2Pac / Call the cops when you see 2Pac / Who shot me, but your punks didn’t finish ….” The vicious wordplay had a tragic outcome as each was murdered, allegedly by supporters of the other. Such interpersonal wordplay has never been limited to hip hop. Twenty-five years earlier, John Lennon and Paul McCartney attacked each other on their solo albums. On Ram (1971), ­McCartney recorded two songs which Lennon took to be about him: “Too Many People” and “3 Legs,” the two opening tracks, included the following lyrics offensive to Lennon: “You took your lucky break and broke it in two,” “When I thought you was my friend … you let me down,” and “My dog got three legs but he can’t run.” Lennon responded later that year on, somewhat ironically, the Imagine album. On “How Do You Sleep?” Lennon was more direct and aggressive: “The only thing you done was yesterday,” referring to McCartney’s classic song, and “The sound you make is muzak to my ears / You must have learned something in all those years.” Nasty stuff. Satirical humor is often a feature of “answer songs”—those songs which respond to another tune that has already proved popular. For example, in 1974, the southern-rock band Lynyrd ­Skynyrd responded to Neil Young’s critiques of race relations in the South in “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972) with “Sweet Home Alabama.” Ironically, none of the line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd at this time was from Alabama (the founders largely hailed from Jacksonville, Florida), but that didn’t stop the band singing “Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her / Well, I heard ole Neil put her down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow,” before extolling the virtues of the state (“Where the skies are so blue”) in the chorus. West coast singer-songwriter Warren Zevon often took satire to the edge and his song “Play It All Night Long” (1980) responds to “Sweet Home Alabama” by repeating the worst of stereotypes about white trash in the American South. Zevon’s verses raise images of incest, inbreeding, Vietnam-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and excessive drinking-to-­ forget before plunging into a chorus which is both darkly humorous and possibly in very poor taste, following the 1977 airplane crash that killed two members of the band and other members of their entourage: “Sweet home Alabama / Play that dead band’s song / Turn the music up full blast / Play it all night long.” To square the circle, there is also a certain irony in the fact that Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (the summer song of 2007) draws musically on both Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (1978), suggesting perhaps that Rock, or his production team, has an ear for a musical hook, but perhaps not for the incongruities on which irony and satire are based. Of course, satire—like much humor—is topical, dependent on the local, that is, present time and current events. Satires were largely absent from popular music before the mid-1960s. Yet rock and roll frightened the older generation in the 1950s. The gatekeepers tried to submerge rock and roll as an undercurrent in popular culture. Recognizing that rock and roll had the potential to subvert current mores just through its rhythms alone and song titles, many radio stations banned Link Wray’s “Rumble,” fearing that the aggressive guitar sound with feedback, distortion, and 7

Thomas M. Kitts and Nick Baxter-Moore

tremolo, along with the title, might incite youth to turn to juvenile delinquency. “Rumble” has the dubious distinction of being the only instrumental ever banned from American radio in several marketplaces (“Rumble”). Your Hit Parade, an immensely popular television program from 1950 to 1959, resisted featuring the new rock-and-roll hits. When they did, the show’s regular cast took the “jungle” or the edge out of the songs, often mocking the hit. Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which peaked at #1 on Billboard and Cashbox, was staged in a haunted hotel complete with cobwebs, skulls, disconnected hands, and staffed by Charles Addams’s creepy but comic characters, with Morticia singing “I get so lonely” in an absurdly deep tone. Elvis also had to endure singing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog on The Steve Allen Show in 1956, and Ed Sullivan, later that same year, directed his camera operators to film Elvis only from above the waist. In June 1956, subsequent to Allen and the Hit Parade performances, John Crosby wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that “If there’s anything that will knock this craze into oblivion, it’s laughter—and the laughter has started.” Thus, the gatekeepers used satire for revenge and tried to silence the new and bold music. However, pop artists struck back beginning in the 1960s when the lyrics caught up with the subversive rhythms of rock and roll, and blistering music satires have rained down ever since from Dylan’s “Masters of War” (1963) to Grandmaster Flash’s and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982), Green Day’s “American Idiot” (2004), and Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” (2015).

The Origins and Goals of this Collection The Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor was conceived in the spring of 2016 at the Annual Conference of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association in ­Seattle, WA. Music Area Chair Tom Kitts had invited presentations on the general topic of “Popular ­Music and Comedy.” The enthusiastic response to the Call for Papers, the dozen subsequent presentations, the well-attended sessions at the conference, and the presenters’ noting of scant secondary resources suggested the need for further study of this neglected topic. Hence this volume. Most scholars of popular music, when they do consider humor, tend to focus on satire or irony, or what might be called the “higher” or “more literate” forms of humor, even though “lower” forms, including physical forms of comedy, also have their place in the writing and performance of popular music. But no one has considered in a sustained study how funny popular music artists, and their fans, can be. The breadth of essays in this collection is an attempt to begin to fill the gap as the most comprehensive treatment of the topic to date. This collection considers all kinds of humor, diverse critical theories, and various popular musics in an attempt to explore and understand the significance of humor to popular music. While our principal focus is on popular music as “mass music” since the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s, we also consider some of its precursory musical forms from the first half of the twentieth century, including the blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, early country (or “hillbilly”) music, and various folk musics. Geoculturally, our emphasis is mostly on genres and artists from the English-speaking, Anglo-American world, for reasons of linguistic accessibility for the majority of likely readers of this text and because that is where, arguably, many major developments in popular music have occurred in the past century. At the same time, for broader context, for the purpose of comparison, and with music from around the world more easily accessible in the digital age, the collection also encompasses case studies of humor in selected musical forms from other parts of the world, such as Central/Eastern Europe, Egypt, France, Korea, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda. The digital age has also heightened our sensibility to the manifold ways in which popular music reaches audiences; therefore, we also thought it important to consider intersections of popular music and humor in film, television, video, and social media. Last, but not least, we wanted to bring 8


attention to the political and social uses and implications of mixing humor with popular music in discussions of such topics as gender, sexuality, and political protest. We have organized this text into eight parts: Historical Antecedents; Humor in Rock Music Genres; Humor in Global Music; Selected Artists I: Humor in Popular Music; Selected Artists II: Popular Music and Comedy; The Music Mockumentary; Popular Music and Humor on Screen; and Gender, Sexuality, and Politics. We have also added a Coda on unintentional humor in popular music. The section titles give a sense of the scope of the volume and the widespread importance of humor in various musics and cultures. In total, the volume offers an extensive, multidisciplinary examination of the multiple relationships between popular music and humor. We hope you will find it enlightening and perhaps a bit entertaining too.

Works Cited “Africa for Norway: New Charity Single Out Now.” YouTube, uploaded by SAIH Norway, 16 Nov. 2012, Cameron, John D. “Can Poverty Be Funny? The Serious Use of Humour as a Strategy of Public Engagement for Global Justice.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 2, 2015, pp. 274–90. Chandler, Caitlin. “Radi-aid: The Making of a Viral Video.” The Guardian, 26 Nov. 2012, www.theguardian. com/world/2012/nov/26/radiaid-norway-charity-single. Accessed 21 March 2018. Clinton-Baddeley, V. C. The Burlesque Tradition in the English Theatre after 1660. Methuen, 1952. Crosby, John. “The Craze.” New York Herald Tribune, 18 June 1956, sec 2, p. 1. di Perna, Alan. “A Kink’s Kronikle.” Guitar World, Jan. 1997, pp. 54ff. Dryden, John. “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire.” Andromeda, edited by Jack Lynch, Accessed 12 Aug. 2018. “Jazz / Quotes.” MusicBrainz, Accessed 11 Aug. 2018. Johnson, Samuel. “The Rambler. No. 125. Tuesday, May 28, 1751.” Samuel Johnson: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt, U California P, 1977, pp. 202–06. Kitts, Thomas M. Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else. Routledge, 2008. Mankoff, Robert. “Untitled.” The New Yorker, 27 Jan. 2014, untitled. Accessed 19 Aug. 2017. “Musical Comedy.” Definition. Collins English Dictionary, musical-comedy. Accessed 14 Jan. 2018. Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edited and translated by E. Hamilton and H. Cairns Princeton UP, 1978. “‘Rumble’ Riles Censors: 1958–1959.” The Pop History Dig: Rock Music History, topics/link-wray-rumble/. Accessed 21 Aug. 2017. Sullivan, Lindsay. “Jimmy Fallon’s 5 Best Rock Star Impersonations.” Rolling Stone, 15 Jan. 2016, www.billboard. com/articles/news/6843933/jimmy-fallon-best-impersonations-neil-young-dylan. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018. White, Timothy. The Nearest Faraway Place. Holt, 1994.


Part 1

Historical Antecedents

In Part 1 of the Routledge Companion to Popular Music and Humor, we include four chapters, each focusing on a seminal popular music tradition that loomed large in the imaginations of listeners in the early part of the twentieth century. Each of these musics (Tin Pan Alley, the blues, jazz, and country) has had a lasting impact on popular music since World War II. Their influences may seem to recede at times, but their vitality and flexibility have energized much of what appears on the charts today. In Chapter 1, “Humor in Early Twentieth-Century Sheet Music: Problems of Contexts and Receptions,” C. Matthew Balensuela studies the pop songs of Tin Pan Alley with a focus on the sheet music, which, unlike today, then accounted for much of the revenue for composers. S­ ituating the music in a historical, social, and musical context, Balensuela notes how much of the quaintness, parody, and clever wordplay may be lost on listeners with the passing of time, but the songs, like the pop songs of any era, often concern the follies, problems, and joys of love. As ­Balensuela also details, some of the genre’s then acceptable humor developed from the racism and xenophobia of both audience and composer. Such misguided principles have, unfortunately, lingered in pop music and the music industry, but, with the passing of time, they have also been attacked by pop artists. Several chapters in this volume consider the horrors of racism and xenophobia. See, for example, Theodore Trost, John Thomerson, Mich Nyawalo, and Nick Baxter-Moore. In Chapter 2, James Martens shifts the discussion to the blues in “What Might Have Been Left Behind: Popular African-American Female Singers in an Age of Liberal Reform.” ­Martens focuses on how the movement to integrate African Americans into the cultural mainstream in the post-World War II years left behind some powerful African-American forms of cultural ­expression, specifically the blues as sung by African-American women. To be successful in those postwar years, African-American women often had to compromise or “clean” their material, both lyrically and sonically. As a result, raunchy expressions of empowerment had to be abandoned, which created a more submissive image. However, as we read in two later chapters by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods and by Gail Woldu, women of color rediscovered power and control in not so subtle images of sexuality in both hip-hop lyrics and videos. In Chapter 3, “Jazz Humor from a Musical Perspective,” Garth Alper uncovers the “healthy vein of humor” that has infused jazz since its inception. While most studies of humor in jazz

Historical Antecedents

approach the topic from a cultural or anthropological perspective, Alper considers the humor from a musical one. He considers how jazz musicians juxtapose styles, build off tradition, and mock and deconstruct familiar sounds and melodies. Focusing on artists like Oscar Peterson, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and others, Alper’s astute observations illuminate the sometimes subtle wit of jazz. As Nick Baxter-Moore notes in a later chapter on protest music, the transmission of meaning in popular music is not solely dependent on words, even in a highly literary society. Hence, Alper here focuses on examples in which humor is found in the way that jazz is performed rather than in lyrics. Don Cusic, in Chapter 4, traces the roots of humor in country music back to folk tales, the minstrel and medicine shows, and onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and the television screen with Hee Haw. In “Rubes, Rednecks, and Novelty Songs: The Comedic Tradition in Country Music,” Cusic considers artists like Uncle Dave Macon, Little Jimmy Dickens, Roger Miller, and Ray Stevens, and recurring techniques like the comedic twist in story lines, the clever wordplay in the lyrics, and the use of comic characters like the country bumpkin and the rube. As the author concludes, the humor in country music and its stage shows has long been marked by a “corny sophistication,” which continues to evolve, as demonstrated in Pamela Wilson’s chapter on Dolly Parton and Oliver Lovesey’s on the country parodies of British Invasion bands. These four chapters look at four major genres of music and reveal how humor, to one degree or another, has been a significant part of that genre. In jazz, while the humor is not as essential as it is in the other genres, the jazz musician, more often than not, creates humor by surprising the audience as he toys with conventional sounds and well-known melodies. In country music, however, humor is integral and has been since its inception. Even its most “serious” performers, like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, needed to include comic relief in their sets. The audience would have expected it. Similarly, Tin Pan Alley was expected to turn out comic and novelty songs. As with country, the humor could sometimes be at the expense of non-white or immigrant groups, but the strategy was to evoke laughter and add to the fun of perhaps a home gathering with the pianist and vocalist performing with sheet music before them. For African-American female blues singers, humor had a more important purpose: to help them cope with oppression and to empower themselves in a too often hostile world. In Part 1, as we see in later chapters, each music has developed its own type of humor with different nuances, strategies, and purposes, all in an effort to entertain and enlighten audiences and to either challenge or reinforce cultural codes.


1 Humor in Early TwentiethCentury Sheet Music Problems of Contexts and Receptions C. Matthew Balensuela

One the most popular songs published in 1915 was Al Piantadosi and Alfred Bryan’s pacifist anthem, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” which sold 650,000 copies in the first three months of the year (Van Wienen; Zeiger). The work sparked a number of musical responses over the possibility of America going to war in Europe, including Jimmie V. Monaco and Grant Clarke’s “What if George Washington’s Mother Had Said: I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a ­Soldier” (1915) and Eugene Platzmann and Happy Mack’s “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Slacker” (1917). Almost buried among the serious posturing of war and peace were comedic parodies of the song, which can be almost incomprehensible to the modern observer, such as Jack Frost’s “I Didn’t Raise My Ford to Be a Jitney” (1915) and Herman Paley and Charles McCarron’s “I Didn’t Raise My Dog to Be a Sausage” (1915). The story of Frost’s song is quite bizarre to the casual listener today—a man is driving his new Ford when a total stranger jumps into his car and offers him a nickel for a ride. Knowing the song by Piantadosi and Bryan is needed to get the musical quotations between the original and parodies (such as the similar melodic contours in the chorus sections), but without knowing the history of the jitney bus this song is not funny, just odd. In its time, however, it was a clever parody of one of the most popular songs of the day combined with recognition of one of the most revolutionary social changes of the time—using personal cars as taxis. Early twentieth-century song composers created thousands of works which have had varied histories. A few of them are seen as classic songs of enduring value, now considered part of the Great American Songbook. Some songs are still well known, but are linked today to a specific time and place in the distant past. Most songs of the time, however, have faded into obscurity. As a result, Tin Pan Alley songs may be contemporary standards or obscure historical curiosities. Finding humor in this vast array of songs, many of them considered extraordinarily funny in their own times, raises concerns of how something funny at one point in time can be considered offensive later. This essay addresses humor in sheet music of the early twentieth century (rather than in performers and recordings). The comedy in these songs lies in the wit and wordplay of the lyrics, the narratives and situations the songs describe, the clever use of quotation of other songs, and the integration of new musical styles of jazz and dance music into popular songs. In addition, the illustrated front covers of the songs often involve a humorous cartoon or caricature.


C. Matthew Balensuela

Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook The term “Tin Pan Alley” is used to describe a style of American song published individually as sheet music roughly between 1890 and 1945, which blended the traditions of parlor song and vaudeville numbers with the newer musical styles of ragtime, jazz, and popular dances. The term literally applies to West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in New York City, where several music publishers were housed. To promote their newest songs, the publishers hired pianists to play their songs to prospective customers, entertainers looking for new songs for their acts, or producers of musicals. These “song pluggers” created such a din, according to legend, that the sound along West 28th Street was like the banging of tin pans. While some musicians composed both the lyrics and the music (Irving Berlin, e.g., in his most famous songs), it was common for teams to work together on a song, often a pair of a composer and lyricist. Tin Pan Alley songs had simple melodies that featured repeating phrases within a narrow range, about an octave. The singers usually sang one note for each syllable, making the music easy to learn and remember. The texts featured witty wordplay and, in the novelty songs of the time, often told a narrative story in the third person. The piano parts were written for the amateur musician and featured traditional accompaniment patterns that stressed the clarity of harmony and form of the song. Over time, piano parts began to feature jazz-styled influences such as rags as well as popular dance styles, such as the fox trot. A typical Tin Pan Alley song began with a piano introduction (drawn from themes in the song) that might conclude with a repeating pattern before the singing begins (a “vamp” from vaudeville traditions of dialogue before the song), followed by a repeating pattern of verse and chorus. The most famous songs from the Tin Pan Alley era have found a continuing place in popular music in what is now referred to as the Great American Songbook—a loose body of songs that continue to be performed as popular ballads, love songs, and jazz standards. For many musicians, these songs can be compared with German art songs of Schubert as worthy of analysis (Forte; Wilder) and individual interpretations (Magee). They are mostly sentimental in tone focusing on the problems of love and loss, rather than a political or social moment. The works included in the Great American Songbook are not usually comedic, but many are humorous with witty approaches to the music and words. In “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1929), Irving Berlin portrays the aspiring, well-dressed sophisticate with shifting accents of the new jazz style, most notable in the chorus: “If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to / Why don’t you go where fashion sits? / Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The lyricist Dorothy Fields was famous for her ability to create clever rhymes from slang and unexpected turns of logic. Turning the typical love song as catalog of all that is wonderful in the relationship upside-down, “A Fine Romance” (1936, written with Jerome Kern) lists all that in going wrong in the singer’s current love affair: “We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes / But your as cold as yesterday’s mash potatoes” (qtd. in Furia 220).

Novelty Songs and Parodies In its heyday, Tin Pan Alley was notable for the promotion of the novelty song, which Charles Hamm defines as a song written in a “narrative mode, developing a comical, satirical, or suggestive scenario” (29). As Thomas Hischak explains, these songs “served as a barometer of the public’s temperament, providing songs about the latest inventions, dance steps, crazes, people in the news, current events, and even slang expressions and catchphrases. … [I]t is difficult to determine if the craze led to the song or the song led to the craze.” Many novelty songs, therefore, are so closely linked to a specific event that they are seen today as signifiers of earlier times, such as the hundreds of songs written around World War I (Gier)—the listener today hears the song as it was at the time of its creation and recalls an era or event in a nostalgic mode.


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The trait of some songs to be rooted in a particular time was used to spectacular effect by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the scene where the computer HAL’s higher cognitive functions are destroyed. As David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea) removes parts of the computer’s memory, HAL attempts to stop Bowman by pleas and logic while regressing to the early stages of its creation (“Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it…”) when it suddenly recalls an earlier memory and starts singing a song it was taught: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do …” as its voices get slower and lower. The quotation of “Daisy Bell” (1892), written by the British songwriter Harry Dace, provides a sudden juxtaposition of nostalgia with the horror of erasing HAL’s consciousness, but it is notable for its deep resonance within the movie. The song is about a new technology for moving people faster (the bicycle) sung by computer in a spaceship (Boylan). It also signifies that the failings of the computer were present from its initial creation and programing. Teaching the computer to sing the song demonstrates that it was impossible for HAL to understand some basic knowledge humans take for granted: what being on a bicycle feels like, what love is like, and that killing the crew members to complete the mission is wrong. Just as “Daisy Bell” is the best known of many bicycle songs, Gus Edwards and Vincent Bryan’s “In My Merry Oldsmobile” (1905) is probably the best-known car song of the early twentieth century. Songs about cars provide a good example of the flood of novelty songs associated with a specific time and event. There were dozens of novelty songs written about Henry Ford and the Model T that present humorous situations and narratives. The sturdiness of the Model T was praised in C. R. Foster and Byron Gay’s “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” (1914) and the romantic potential of being out in a car was the subject of songs like “On the Old Back Seat of the Henry Ford” (1914) by Lawrence and Will Dillon. Henry Ford himself was the subject of several songs for both positive and negative aspects of his public life. His attempt to bring an end to World War I with his Peace Ship was celebrated by Fredrick Coots and Ray Sherwood in “Mr. Ford You’ve Got the Right Idea” (1916). The satirical “Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me” (1927) by Billy Rose, Dave Stamper, and Ballard MacDonald appeared soon after Henry Ford apologized for a series of anti-Semitic editorials in the Dearborn Independent (which he owned). Written as a dialogue between two Jewish speakers, the song begins “Oyoy gevalt gevalt, Vuts de mattuh, Abram?” before the chorus, “I was sad and I was blue but now I’m just as good as you / Since Henry Ford apologized to me.” The mass production of the Model T in 1915 lead to the unintended phenomenon of car owners creating an unlicensed taxi service known as the jitney bus because the cost of a ride was a nickel—a “jitney” in the slang of the time. Dozens of jitney bus songs were written in just two years (1915–1916) extolling the joys of driving a jitney to make millions of dollars ( Joseph B. ­Carey’s “Father Is Driving a Jitney Bus,” 1915) or riding a jitney to act like you already had ­m illions (Charles Ruddy and Joe Garrahan’s “Take Me Out in a Jitney Bus,” 1915). Parody songs and witty quotations between songs were a central part of the humor in Tin Pan Alley compositions, making many of them nearly incomprehensible to modern listeners who no longer know the source of the quotation. Tin Pan Alley composers, however, were able to rely on the wide range of musical knowledge held by their customers. Peter Burkholder has noted the “patchwork” nature of many Tin Pan Alley songs (such as George M. Cohan’s quotation of patriotic tunes) as a source for similar techniques in the music of Charles Ives (322). The popularity of parody songs with the simple change of new words to a well-known song (“sung to the tune of ______” in the style of “Weird Al” Yankovic today) is documented in the large number of parody sing-alongs in movie theatres. At the Embassy in Fort Wayne, Indiana (which opened in 1928), for example, there was a “Parody of the Week” sing-along (Mathiesen and Mathiesen vii). Within these contexts, a parody mashup of the two biggest social moments of 1915—the antiwar movement and the jitney bus phenomenon—to create, “I Didn’t Raise My Ford to Be a Jitney” seems almost inevitable.


C. Matthew Balensuela

Ethnic Novelty Songs and Coon Songs Along with parody songs, the Tin Pan Alley songs with the clearest humorous intent were novelty songs that featured narratives of ethnically identifiable characters, dialect, and musical allusions to national or racial traditions. Subjects of ethnic caricatures in early twentieth-century sheet music were any group considered to be outsiders from the Anglo-Saxon Protestant m ­ ainstream, including newly arrived immigrants such as the Chinese (Garrett; Moon), Jews (Slobin), ­Italians, and the Irish (Hamm 30–54). The most notorious songs of this genre are generally referred to as coon songs, derived from a derogatory term for blacks. As Abbott and Seroff describe them, “Coon songs, with their ugly name, typically featured lyrics in Negro dialect, caricaturing A ­ frican American life, set to the melodious strains of ragtime music” (17). The songs, composed by both white and black musicians, were most prominent from around 1880 to the end of World War I and were popularized in both vaudeville theatres and in published sheet music (see Neal). As James H. Dormon describes the genre, “Almost without exception coon songs were calculated to be hilariously funny. … This was in a word happy music, despite the grossly offensive lyrics as judged by modern sensibilities” (453). Without question, the songs depict the ugliest racial stereotypes of the Jim Crow era, portraying blacks as deserving to be segregated from whites because of their inherent inferiority. One of the best-known, and most notorious, songs of the genre is Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike to Me” (1896). Its anonymous male narrator tells a tale in dialect that, despite treating his girl well (“always bou’t her presents by the score”), Lucy Janey Stubbles is leaving him for another man (“And now ma honey gal is gwine to quit me”) only because, as she says, “All coons look alike to me” (although it is probably because she wants to spend money her way rather than waiting for presents). The song is in a traditional form of a piano introduction (with vamp) followed by an alternating verse-chorus structure. The piano, as described by Richard Crawford, “approaches the style that would soon emerge in piano ragtime” (491)—a swinging bass accompanying a dotted and syncopated melody. The comedy in the song comes from the jaunty feel of the music contrasted with the despair of the singer. When the singer wails, “She’d no excuse, to turn me loose,” expressed in ascending octave leaps in the melody and short, chordal responses (stop-time) in the piano, the listener is meant to laugh at the narrator’s situation, not empathize with his despair. The song is not less racist because the composer is black. Instead, it demonstrates the impossible balancing act black musicians had of providing white audiences with entertainment that reflected what whites thought blacks should act like and sound like (see Salem). How else would a marginalized African-American composer be able to have a little bit of the financial stake in the music world—a world that like the vast majority of American society was reluctant to accept African Americans and the talent they had to offer? Coon songs and other racist ethnic novelty songs might be dismissed today if they occupied a small part of the Tin Pan Alley repertoire, but these songs speak to the tenor of the times, selling millions of copies, and were composed by the most iconic composers of the era. One of Irving Berlin’s most famous songs, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), is a positive representation of black musicians (“It’s the best band in the land”); he also wrote several “humorous” songs that mirror the racist views of the time, including “Colored Romeo,” “Alexander and His Clarinet,” and “Do Your Duty Doctor!” (see Hamm 68–75). Among his most studied songs with black protagonists are opera parodies, including “That Opera Rag” and “Opera Burlesque.” Obviously written to be funny, these songs use similar derogatory terms and concepts for blacks as “All Coons Look Alike to Me.” “That Opera Rag” (1910, see Berlin I, 136–39), with words by Irving Berlin and music by Ted Snyder, tells how a black house painter, Sam Johnson (described in the song as an “op’ra darkie”)


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was “op’ra mad” and in his rapture of hearing a German band play an excerpt from Verdi’s “Rig’letto” [sic] falls from his painting scaffold. The song is in a typical Tin Pan Alley form with a piano introduction (with a vamp) and a verse-chorus structure. The music uses clichés of ragtime style such as a syncopated melody with stride piano accompaniment, but throughout the song are quotations of Verdi’s Trovatore, Bizet’s Carmen, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (Hamberlin 187–209). The last quotation in the song, however, is Stephen Foster’s “Home, Sweet Home”— despite his love for opera, Sam Johnson cannot escape who he is. “Opera Burlesque” (1912, Berlin II, 166–79) tells the story of Ephraham (another “opera darkey”), who becomes obsessed with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera, composed in 1835 and loosely based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, describes how Lucia is manipulated by her brother Enrico to abandon her true love, Edgardo, so that she can marry Lord Arturo and save their fortune and estate, Lammermoor Castle. The climax of Act II is the wedding of Lucia to Lord Arturo and the betrayal of Edgardo sung as a sextet representing the tortured emotional states of the main characters. Given the deep emotional trauma of the ensemble, it is surprising that the sextet had an independent popularity at the turn of the twentieth century in arrangements for popular instruments (piano and guitar) and were frequently quoted by composers of the time (Hamberlin 216)—a triumph of the music over the text, perhaps. As an independent work, the sextet could signify high cultural sophistication on the parts of the arrangers, performers, and listeners. Berlin’s reimagining of the sextet begins with a direct quotation from the opera in ¾ time (although transposed from D-flat major to B-flat). When the voices enter with the words, “Let’s sing some Ragtime Opera,” however, the music moves to a moderate duple (cut time)—the tempo and meter of ragtime (Hamberlin 218). Ephraham becomes enraptured with the sextet from Lucia from hearing performances of it, buys the music, and then looks for “colored men” to perform the sextet with him. The ensuing performance goes wrong (“Off the key, off the key!”) and although Ephraham attempts to stop the singers, the music continues as an unstoppable force (“Keep it up, keep it up, keep it up!”). The song is not in the typical verse-chorus structure, but is a through-composed work that recognizably parallels the sextet (changing the heavily dotted and ornamented polyphonic writing for simpler rhythms and a more homophonic structure). As a parody of the opera, the music is not heavily syncopated and does not use ragtime clichés beyond the moderate tempo and duple meter. Since the story is narrated in the third person, the song is not written in dialect—the characters for the most part speak in plain English, although the text does contain derogatory terms for blacks. A first reading of these songs by Irving Berlin is that black Americans who aspire to appropriate high culture will meet with failure that is worthy of ridicule and laughter. But another part of the humor in these songs comes from the juxtaposition of opera (highbrow culture) with ragtime (lowbrow culture). Larry Hamberlin in his study of “Tin Pan Opera,” however, suggests that it certainly makes sense to avoid a too-literal reading of “Opera Burlesque” as a put-down of African-Americans. At a time when no American composer and few American performers in the classical tradition were recognized as equal to their European counterparts, the cacophony of Ephraham’s vocal ensemble … might be interpreted as a commentary on the futility of all efforts to claim classical music as part of an American cultural heritage. (220–21) Hamberlin argues that there are contradictory meanings in Berlin’s opera/ragtime songs. The first, and most obvious, meaning is the racist narrative of the disasters that result from blacks seeking to appropriate white culture. A second reading, however, sees the black characters as representing all Americans (of every race and ethnicity) who seek to appropriate high culture as


C. Matthew Balensuela

represented by opera and questions that desire. Americans already have their own musical culture and don’t need to aspire to the trappings of European traditions (208–09). In Irving Berlin, Songs from the Melting Pot, Charles Hamm seeks to present Berlin, a Jew from an impoverished background, as empathetic to the characters he depicts in these opera parodies: Like the “op’ra darkies” in these pieces, Berlin himself was fascinated with the operatic repertory and its performers. He frequently attended the Metropolitan Opera House where, like Ephraham and [h]is brethren, he was an outsider because of his origins and his social status at this period in his life. In his “coon” songs cast as operatic parodies, blackface may have functioned as a mask for Berlin, enabling him to deal with his attraction to a musical genre in which he could not fully and openly participate. (76) Berlin lived the contradictory life of the characters in his songs. He began as an outsider to ­A merican society, whose Russian family immigrated to America when he was five, and was able to appreciate the unique contributions blacks were making to American music with ragtime while admiring the traditions of opera. Nevertheless, he also understood the social hierarches in America that made coon songs and ethnic novelty songs comedic in the 1910s and could borrow the language for comic effects in his songs. Richard Crawford’s reading of “All Coons Look Alike to Me” supports the argument that the black musical style used in coon songs was becoming an important pillar of white American culture. A listener can appreciate the importance of these songs in American music history by omitting the text, which was clearly the most comedic aspect of the song. Crawford argues that the music seems to outweigh the force of the racist words. Tapping into a vein of high-spirited energy, whatever the emotional cost, the music resists self-pity and the notion that even rampant racial prejudice and political oppression could defeat the spirit of people capable of inventing music this joyful, appealing, and complex. As the new century began, white Americans were finding themselves beholden to blacks for music that seemed, more than any other, to catch the modern spirit. (491) Coon songs and other ethnic novelty songs were considered to be among the most humorous and comedic of the era, but now demonstrate how systemic racism affected every aspect of American life. In presenting stereotypes of black failure, these songs provided justification for legal segregation and a rationale to assume blacks could not succeed in American society. The humorous aspects of these songs at the time of their composition work on several levels, but the most obvious is in the narrative story and the lyrics, which can be interpreted through the Superiority Theory of humor—white purchasers and performers of these songs are laughing at blacks, whom they see as inferior (see “Philosophy”). The humor of the musical quotations of operas can be interpreted through the Incongruity Theory—where we expect one thing (a Tin Pan Alley song) and get something else (an opera quotation). To hear these songs today is to confront the profound inconsistency of the texts with modern beliefs of equality, although we can appreciate the clever use of quotation and parody. Crawford suggests we do not focus on the words but on the notes to find the value in these songs—another triumph of the music over the words. Hamberlin and Hamm ask the listener today to consider the tremendous contradictions present at the creation of these songs, which may provide different readings of these songs than the most obvious ones. James Dormon addresses these irreconcilable contradictions more broadly. Despite attempts to be humorous, coon songs expressed “a necessary socio-psychological mechanism for justifying segregation and subordination.” But, paradoxically, these songs allowed black performers and composers to prosper financially. The black musical traits in these songs helped popularize musical styles like the blues and ragtime and “provided the necessary bridge to the popular performance style that 18

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came to be called ‘jazz’ in the early twentieth century” (466–67). Affluent whites may have bought Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike to Me” because it reinforced their beliefs in their superiority over blacks through their comedic texts, but over time the popularity of the musical style (the notes rather than the text) elevated the value of black contributions to music (see Abbott and Seroff ). While moving past the most simplistic readings of coon songs and other ethnic novelty songs does not make them comedic today, contextualized interpretations of these songs bring out their most basic contradictions—songs intended to denigrate and diminish minorities and exclude them from full participation in American life had exactly the opposite effect over time.

Humor in Cover Art A final topic to consider in the humor of Tin Pan Alley songs is, ironically, the first thing a person sees in the sheet music for these songs—the front cover. Sheet music publishers used the front covers to entice customers, and in comedic songs they often displayed humorous artwork and images of the popular comedians who sang them (Goldmark 201–10). Songs about the Model T and the jitney bus demonstrate the variety of ways covers can convey the humor of the music. The cover of C. R. Foster and Byron Gay’s “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” (1914) presents a cartoon of a chaotic road with some cars speeding along (to the shock and terror of various farm animals) while others are stopped for repairs. To preview the idea that riding a jitney bus is like being a chauffeured millionaire, the cover of “I Want to Ride in a Jitney Bus” (1915) by Theodore B. White and Howard Kocian depicts a wealthy woman in fine clothes being driven through a crowd of adoring gentlemen. A cartoon of a car overloaded with passengers on the roof, running boards, and fenders presents a classic image of the crowded jitney bus on the cover of Byron Gay and Charley Brown’s “Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus” (1915); Gus “packed ’em on the fenders and he packed ’em on the hood / he packed ’em by the dozen and the other dozen stood.” This cover also had an inset frame so that photographs of different comedians who performed the song could be inserted at different printings. Through these covers, the publishers could promote the song to buyers, but once purchased, and lost amid the shuffle of the other sheet music the customer owned, the covers could serve as a reminder of the song’s humorous content. (A quick Google search will yield images of the cover art for most of the songs discussed in this paper.) The intended humor in ethnic novelty songs also extended to the covers, which often featured racially insensitive caricatures of the song’s protagonists. Coon songs can be easily identified by covers with demeaning cartoons of blacks. The cover of “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” ironically, features the femme fatale, Lucy Janey Stubbles, looking over a group of suitors who are all clearly different from one another. Her defense for her actions is clearly contradicted by the cover, adding to the humor of the song (see Crawford 490).

Conclusion The songs of Tin Pan Alley with the clearest humorous intent—parodies and ethnic novelty songs—are the ones most difficult to find funny today. In parodies, few people today understand the sources being copied, making the songs merely odd and quaint. In ethnic novelty songs, listeners today find the racist language too offensive to see any humor. Building wider contexts of these works to account for the sources of the parodies and to explain the contradictions the composers faced when they wrote their works make these songs important historically, but by the time the contexts and possible interpretations of the songs are reviewed, the intended humor in them has evaporated. Nevertheless, songs with humorous wordplay on the problems and joys of love remain in the public consciousness as a small reminder of the thousands of humorous songs written during the Tin Pan Alley era. 19

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Works Cited Abbott, Lynn, and Doug Seroff. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. UP of Mississippi, 2007. Berlin, Irving. Early Songs. Part I: 1907–1911. Edited by Charles Hamm, vol. 2, A-R Editions, 1994. ———. Early Songs. Part II: 1912–1913. Edited by Charles Hamm, vol. 2, A-R Editions, 1994. ———. Early Songs. Part III: 1913–1914. Edited by Charles Hamm, vol. 2, A-R Editions, 1994. Boylan, Jay H. “HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey: The Lover Sings His Song.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 18, no. 4, Spring 1985, pp. 53–56. Burkholder, J. Peter. All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and Uses of Musical Borrowing. Yale UP, 1995. Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. W. W. Norton, 2001. Dormon, James H. “Shaping the Popular Image of Post-Reconstruction American Blacks: The ‘Coon Song’ Phenomenon of the Gilded Age.” American Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 1988, pp. 450–71. Forte, Allen. Listening to Classic American Popular Songs. Yale UP, 2001. Furia, Philip. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. Oxford UP, 1990. Garrett, Charles Hiroshi. “Chinatown, Whose Chinatown? Defining America’s Borders with Musical ­Orientalism.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 57, no. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 119–73. Gier, Christina. “War, Anxiety, and Hope in American Sheet Music, 1914–1917.” Music and Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, Winter 2013, doi:10.3998/mp.9460447.0007.102. Accessed 22 May 2018. Goldmark, Daniel. “Creating Desire on Tin Pan Alley.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 90, no. 2, Summer 2007, pp. 197–229. Hamberlin, Larry. Tin Pan Opera: Operatic Novelty Songs in the Ragtime Era. Oxford UP, 2011. Hamm, Charles. Irving Berlin. Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907–1914. Oxford UP, 1997. Hischak, Thomas S. “Tin Pan Alley.” Grove Music Online, 31 Jan. 2014, ­Accessed 22 May 2018. Magee, Jeff. “Irving Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’: Ethnic Affiliations and Musical Transformations.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 84, no. 4, Winter 2000, pp. 537–80. Mathiesen, Thomas, and Penelope Mathiesen. A Catalogue of Brenograph and Lantern Slides at the Embassy Theatre, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Accessed 22 May 2018. Moon, Krystyn R. Yellow Face: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s. Rutgers UP, 2004. Neal, Brandi A. “Coon Song.” Grove Music Online, 16 Oct. 2013, Accessed 5 Apr. 2018. “Philosophy of Humor,” Revised 2016. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, humor/#IncThe. Accessed 22 May 2018. Salem, James M. “African American Songwriters and Performers in the Coon Song Era: Black Innovation and American Popular Music.” Columbia Journal of American Studies, html. Accessed 22 May 2018. Slobin, Mark. Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants. U of Illinois P, 1982. Van Wienen, Mark W. Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War. Cambridge UP, 1997. Wilder, Alec. American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. Oxford UP, 1972. Zeiger, Susan. “She Didn’t Raise Her Boy to Be a Slacker: Motherhood, Conscription, and the Culture of the First World War.” Feminist Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 6–39.


2 What Might Have Been Left Behind Popular African-American Female Singers in an Age of Liberal Reform James Martens The assault on racism, segregation, and Jim Crow in post-World War II America was relentless, conscious, and unconscious, from the dance halls to the Supreme Court. It was, in retrospect, an accomplishment in which liberal America can now take some pride. Those opposed to a racially divided nation went from victory to victory in the years from the war’s end to the mid-1960s. In 1946, the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams signed two African-American players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, breaking the color bar in that sport, and in the following year, Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in major league baseball. In 1948, President Truman signed Order 9981, ostensibly desegregating the army. Throughout the 1950s, the development of nonviolent civil disobedience, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., revealed the morally untenable position of the prewar southern conservatives. The Supreme Court decisions on race, again and again, went against the convenience of tradition, and President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” promised equality of opportunity, while white pop singers belted out black rhythm and blues on once segregated music charts. In 1956, as part of these heady days of social progress, historian Kenneth Stampp wrote The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South, an attack on a once prevalent notion that ­A merican slave owners had been benevolent and that the plantocracy and its bondsman worked cooperatively, thus explaining the lack of rebellions in American slave history. Stampp rejected this apologist position, and argued instead that black people’s responses to bondage were varied and rational. Stampp believed in history’s importance to the present, and that to understand the African American of the 1950s, it was essential to comprehend the black historical experience as accurately as possible. His research led him to conclude in the now famous Introduction of his book that blacks and whites are biologically the same, an assertion that inspired a generation of historians to seek the truth in the past in order to alter the present—another victory for the forces of liberal reform. Stampp spoke of the “irrelevance of [the biology] of race” in his time when he explained that in writing the book, “I have assumed that the slaves were merely ordinary human beings, that innately Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less” (vii). After conceding all the problems and setbacks, in terms of racial issues and political witch hunts, the postwar years were a time of positive advancements in civil rights as huge strides were taken to break down the centuries-old barriers of racism and segregation. In the classroom, in


James Martens

professional sports, and on the dance floor, by the end of the 1960s, America was a truly more liberal and progressive state in terms of race than it had been at any other time throughout its history. And without a doubt one of the most obvious areas of racial openness was popular music. The folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s on campuses and in coffee houses introduced wonderful acoustic blues singers to college audiences and revived many a dormant career. In addition, the hip, the cool, the in-crowd embraced mature and innovative jazz instrumentalists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. After June 25, 1949, Billboard jettisoned the category “Best Selling Retail Race Records.” In order to reflect a more “enlightened time,” and acting on the advice of Jerry Wexler, the music industry publication introduced R&B charts, without such obvious concern for color (Tyler 4–6). In 1958, Billboard created unified charts. Meanwhile, historians of the American slave experience, influenced by Stampp, pushed and prodded, poked and pulled at interpretations of the past, employed new and nontraditional sources to offer a series of more exacting theories of the Negro in bondage. While conceding that blacks and whites were biologically the same, the New Left historians argued that their historical experiences were different as a result of their respective relationships to power. Lawrence Levine, for example, asserted “cultural diffusion between whites and blacks was by no means a one-way street with blacks the invariable beneficiaries” (444). What had evolved were two Americas, each defined by race: two Americas that were shaped in relation to one another, but different nonetheless. Desegregation was an attempt not to create a synthesis but to incorporate the visible minority into the culture of the mainstream, defined by a liberalism that was both bourgeois and European. Now a half century removed from the period, with a US that has had its first African-American president, it might be worth looking back and, as Stampp had done, reexamine the past, the halcyon days of liberalism in America. This chapter examines popular music by African-American female singers and their culture that were both marginalized in the process of racial integration up to the mid-1960s. It seems that liberal America has been too self-congratulatory, leading to similar oversights that Stampp revealed in the work of historical apologists. It was not, I would argue, out of malice, nor out of conceit, but out of exuberance that important aspects of prewar black America were unconsciously forgotten in the postwar years, defined by a white middle-class desire to do what was right. Writing about the consequences of the integration of professional sport and the demise of the Negro Leagues as it affected black communities, Rob Ruck has maintained that while the game on the field improved with the inclusion of the best African-American players, black communities suffered in unanticipated ways.1 Local black businessmen who had sponsored teams lost their influence. As a form of entertainment, sport at its highest level became unattainable to poorly paid African-American workers; large stadiums that embraced black players were not as welcoming to black fans or employees; and there was a sense of loss within communities such as Pittsburgh’s African-American areas of the Hill District and Homewood. Ruck revealed that there was an obvious loss of vibrancy and community pride within African-American neighborhoods after 1948, in part due to the integration of professional sport (170–210). It would seem that with the demise of race records, as well as small African-American-owned record labels, and with the appearance of desegregated clubs, bands, and orchestras of mixed races, and the emergence of postwar African performers as top-rated stars, there were, as in sport, unintended consequences that have been ignored in the euphoria of liberal successes. In this context, I offer some possibilities that stem from questioning what happened to the black female singers who had been so important to “race music” of the Depression era. By the 1950s, the often bawdy, cheeky, and sexualized innuendoes and “naughty” humor common to music by, and for, African Americans of the segregated pre-World War II years had little place in an age of liberal reform. This was especially true of women who sang these types of songs. Historically, in African-American communities, women, mothers, aunts, grandparents, and older siblings often played an important role in educating young people to the realities of their 22

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social situations (see Blassingame 94, 20–21; Gutman 216–30). Through messages and ideas in children’s stories traceable back to West African and West Indian folk tales, slaves learned survival skills in a world of white domination, passed on, often by female community leaders. As Levine and others have pointed out, stories and songs contain subtexts and lessons in survival, using signifyin’ for example, the use of one symbol or idea as code for something potentially more threatening, suggestive, or sexual. The practice of signifyin’ developed from West African stories of the “signifyin’ monkey” that outwitted the powerful lion in these seemingly playful children’s stories. In this way, an African-American community could assert independence, defiance, and survival beneath a veneer of what seemed to the outsider to be wit and humor. Cynthia Mahabir shows how this operates in both African-American music and in calypso of the West Indies, asserting that humor in the blues is purposely “framed in ambiguity” (57). Shobana Shankar reveals in her work that black women prisoners of the 1920s and 1930s used Christianity and spiritualism as signifiers for the less acceptable “hoodooism” in their jail songs (192). The coded messages here were understandable to the community of prisoners but undetectable to outsiders. This type of misdirection was common throughout African-American social education and public expression. This long tradition of females as storytellers and educators may account in part for women stars dominating American blues and jazz in the first half of the twentieth century. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who worked for the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Company, a traveling show (which also sponsored a Negro baseball team) told her all-black audiences that she wanted her loving “Morning, Noon and Night”: “Ma wants her little lovin’ Pa / Morning, noon and night.” The lyrics of her song “Prove It on Me Blues” (1928) did little to hide her bisexuality from African-American audiences in the racially segregated world of the American South: “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, / They must have been women ’cause I don’t like no men /… ’Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me / Sure got to prove it on me” (Abbott and Seroff 145). Female vocalists like Rainey launched the 1920s boom in “race music” in the US as millions of records were sold to African-American listeners. Certainly, the best known of these divas was Bessie Smith. Marybeth Hamilton suggests that, following the emergence of popular music by and for African Americans, there was a shift in lyrical themes from work songs to those of a personal and sexualized focus but often with the same humor and innuendo (“Sexuality” 145–48). These songs often reflect the attitudes of strong and independent women, such as Rainey and Smith, and provided encouragement for young African-American women migrating from the rural south to large northern urban centers in search of work. The blues and jazz queens of the 1920s and onward contested male hegemony as well as Jim Crow by using innuendo, signifiers, and double entendres as their predecessors had done as far back as slavery (Sanjek 140). Sippie Wallace, for example, advises her female listeners that to make life more tolerable, they might prefer “A [Different] Man for Every Day of the Week” (1926), thus implying in her very cheeky way that no one man has the skills and talents to keep any woman happy. Leisure in black America, the other America, in the first half of the century was raucous and vibrant in its celebration of the weekend, payday, making the rent, and even worshipping. In after-hours clubs, juke-joints, bars, booze cans, tent revivals, and community fairs, African-­ American entertainers performed a style of music that was both musically and lyrically a reflection of their own culture. It was music by and for African Americans, and it was less constrained by mainstream Protestantism and middle-class morality. Black America seemed better able to embrace and rationalize both sides of sin and virtue, as heard in the music of Sister Rosetta Tharp, who scored a success with the gospel-tinged “Up Above My Head” (1948) but also had a turn with the more playful and suggestive “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” (1942). Dancing was exotic, sensual, and passionate, and very “physical,” a release from the constraints of daily life (see ­Erenberg 40; Frith 15–17; Levine 200–01). “We gonna be rasslin’ when the wagon comes / … Gimme a reefer and a gang o’ gin / … Do the shim sham shimmy till the risin’ sun,” sang Bessie Smith in “Gimme a Pigfoot and A Bottle of Beer,” her 1949 jibe at Harlem’s Cotton Club with its high 23

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prices and highbrow crowd. Music could be lyrically witty, playful, and outrageously sexual—it could be sexual in a way that was rarely openly embraced by white America, and certainly not by middle-class white American women. Even as late as 1960, English music writer Paul Oliver still referred to these songs as “pornographic” (114–16). Pre-World War II blues and jazz was riddled with humor of various kinds that reflected a black America. Levine notes that humor is a “social phenomenon” and an integral part of the black culture (358). Angela Yvonne Davis reminds her readers that African-American women’s ability “to defy the hardships visited upon them” can be found in the music and lyrics of black music of the time (81). This same reality of coping through music was recognized in Hamilton’s discussion of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”: “When you get good lovin’ never go and spread the news / It’ll build up to cross you and leave you with them empty bed blues” (qtd. in Hamilton, “­Sexuality” 133). Minstrel show star Trixie Smith was billed as “a pleasing singer of humorous Negro songs,” who spoke directly to her audience in a form of coded resistance (Duval Harrison 244). In “Jack, I’m Mellow” (1938), she celebrates her use of marijuana: “I’m goin’ to put a nickel in a slot machine / And play my solid sender / I’m goin’ to strut, peck and Suzie Q / Have alone a bender.” Escaping an often-dreadful life through music and dance, live audiences and record buyers could laugh at life, ever so briefly, in a uniquely African-American way (Duval-Harrison 6). Race records and black female singers extolled the virtues of chauffeurs (Memphis Minnie) and handymen (Alberta Hunter) in ways unthinkable to mainstream America: “And do you know sometimes he’s up way before dawn / Busy cleaning the rough edges off my front lawn / My man is such a handy man.” Lil Johnson instructed her lover to “Press My Button, Ring My Bell”: “Come on baby, let’s have some fun / Just put your hot dog in my bun / And I’ll have that thing / That ting-a-ling / Just press my button, give my bell a ring” (1935). The closest to this kind of hokum in the pop music of white America during the interwar years seems to have been “Birds do it / Bees do it / Even sentimental fleas do it / Let’s do it / Let’s fall in love” (Cole Porter, “Let’s Do It,” 1928). The music and lyrics of “Let’s Do It” were more demure and playful than the raunchy delivery common to the humorous songs found on race records. The most complex and universally popular of female African-American singers in this climate of innuendo and double meanings was Dinah Washington. Between 1944 and 1948, she had 39 hits in Billboard’s Race Records and Harlem Hit Parade charts, only one of which reached beyond the Race Records category. In 1956, after Billboard moved to eliminate racially based charts, Washington began to enjoy much greater success with 19 charted hits between 1956 and 1963. However, it was not simply a result of redefining charts that affected Washington’s success. Her early hits included the extremely witty and naughty paean to her dentist, “Dr. Long John” (1949), as well as songs such as “New Blow Top Blues” (1947), a parable in which drug and alcohol abuse and infidelity result in humorous consequences when the singer is chased off by her boyfriend’s wife, “a 45-packin’ mama, and I ain’t goin’ to try that no more.” Her first two hits in 1943 and 1944, “Salty Papa Blues” and “Evil Gal Blues,” could never have escaped the Race Record charts in the 1950s. Lyrics such as “Papa why you so salty / Why do you bring me down … / There’s no complaint / When my other man comes around,” and “Yes, I’m an evil gal, don’t you bother with me / I’ll empty your pockets and fill you with misery,” do not reflect a white middle-class America. Following the demise of record rankings based purely on race—that is, in the heydays of postwar progressives—Washington put aside her earlier, “naughty” style of songs, and emerged as a star with the release of hits such as “Unforgettable” (1959), “What a Difference a Day Makes” (1959), “September in the Rain” (1960), and “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” (1962) (see “Dinah Washington”). Will Friedwald calls Washington the best blues singer of her age but contends that her early work, such as the ode to the “trombone,” “Big Long Sliding Thing” (1954), was far superior to what he calls the “junk and material totally unsuited for her” recorded later in her career. The early hits had an “infectious swing” and a witty double meaning, while, in her later crossover 24

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recordings, the wit was gone and she was accompanied in a subdued orchestral manner (382–84). Elijah Wald argues that in the mid-1950s, African-American stars such as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Johnny Mathis became available to a larger record-buying audience through “color blind ballads” such as “Unforgettable” (1954), “All the Way” (1958), and “Misty” (1959) (193). ­Regrettably, Washington struggled in her personal life with a variety of problems, some s­eemingly related to the difficulty she found in straddling the life between black and white America. Late in her short life, she was criticized for doing too little, too late, for the Civil Rights movement (see Cohodas 421–22, 453–54). Postwar liberal America was white, protestant, and middle class. It might embrace black stars, but not the prewar black American culture that had produced them. Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, two remarkable talents, lent their gifted voices, timing, and phrasing to a maturing approach to jazz that proved much more appealing to a broader record-buying public than was the jazz and blues of the black communities of prewar America. “A Tisket-a-Tasket” (1936) stands, not as a highlight of the Great American Songbook, but as a testament to the remarkable talents of its singer. Fitzgerald, by the war years, had abandoned such recording as “Wacky Dust” (1938) and “When I Get Low, I Get High” (1936), songs about cocaine and marijuana, accompanied exuberantly by Chick Webb’s swing orchestra, in favor of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1945) and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (1945), songs more chaste than those with double entendres and antisocial practices more common to African-American blues and jazz. Ruth Brown, another talented black vocalist of the late 1950s, under the tutelage of Atlantic Records, was recast as a singer “with a smooth ‘uptown’ style of Rhythm and Blues,” again more palatable to a larger and whiter audience (Brackett 63). This gave her wider appeal across racial lines, but Brown still never really transcended the R&B charts. By contrast, Victoria Spivey, Alberta Hunter, Memphis Minnie, and the many other female blues and jazz singers were less easily reconfigured because of age, appearance, and lack of cooperation. The rollicking version of “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton, released in 1953, was condemned to the R&B charts because of the lyrics and Thornton’s less easily marketable raunchy presentation. The song’s fame now owes more to Elvis Presley’s decontextualized version, recorded in 1956 for Sun Records.2 While Bessie Smith may have symbolized the inhumanity associated with the racial attitudes of the prewar era, as erroneously depicted in Edward Albee’s play The Death of Bessie Smith (1959),3 it is doubtful that, had she lived, she would have been embraced even in the 1960s by an ­A merica with an FBI investigating “Louie, Louie” (1963). As Buzzy Jackson wrote, “[Smith] flouted bourgeois norms and indulged in alcohol, drugs and recreational sex” (68). “Empty Bed Blues” (1928), “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (1931), “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll like Mine” (1923 or 1924), and other Smith recordings from the 1920s and 1930s were considered “vulgar” by many (Hamilton, “Voice” 127–30). It barely qualified as innuendo when Smith growled out, “What’s the matter hard papa / Come on and save your mama’s soul” or “It’s dark down there, looks like a snake! / C’mon here and drop somethin’ here in my bowl” (“I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”). These types of songs were not what cultural gatekeepers were looking for in their work of securing racial integration for performers representing “the other.” It is unlikely that Bessie Smith’s call to “Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer” would find acceptance in middle-class, postwar, white picket-fenced American suburbia or weekend barbecues with Ward and June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver. Rather, Smith’s version of “Gimme a Pigfoot” captures the fun, intensity, joy, and dangers of prewar Harlem on a Saturday night. In a 1955 critique in Variety, Abel Green railed against what he called “leer-ics” or “dirty postcards … translated into songs,” and warned of governmental censorship. Variety and other cultural gatekeepers of postwar middle-class morality seemed to care more about social conformity than the talents, expressiveness, and wit of the exponents of African-American music and culture. This is part of the historic reality that seems to have been swept into the corners. It incited a frustrated Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) to argue that Smith 25

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was not an American but a “Negro” (Blues People 94), and Angela Yvonne Davis to observe that in black America, Smith was an artist, not an oddity (142). Sadly, this musical icon was buried in an unmarked grave until Janis Joplin and Smith’s housekeeper Juanita Green provided a headstone in 1970 ( Jackson 81–83). Victoria Spivey retired from entertaining in the early 1950s and later became an entrepreneur, starting her own small record label in the 1960s (Spivey Records), but her own recording career faded with the demise of race records after over 40 years in music. She did record on her own label with a variety of well-known musicians such as Bob Dylan, Lonnie Johnson, and Sippie Wallace, but her business lasted only as long as the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, never matching her prewar success with Okeh, Victor, Vocalion, and Decca Records. Her early songs dealt with overt sexuality, but they also commented on social issues such as medical ­t reatment for black Americans in “Dirty TB Blues” (1936) from that rare perspective of an African-­A merican woman of the Depression era. Like Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Helen Humes, Dinah ­Washington, and so many other African-American performers across the first half of the century, Spivey built a multilayered repertoire with themes and focus not merely one-dimensional, and not simply hokum and salacious sex songs, but music that captured a range of responses and emotions from the perspective of the “other America.” Even the most bluesy and serious of singers had to have at least a few humorous lyrics in the repertoire. In “Organ Grinder Blues” (1928), Spivey sang in her assertive, insistent delivery, “Organ grinder you’ve found that sweet lost chord / Start grindin’, and grind your room and board.” Spivey’s career was mirrored by Alberta Hunter and Sippie Wallace, highly praised ­A frican-American singers who found it difficult to continue their careers into the halcyon days of racial integration. On desegregated charts, for example, white singers were performing covers of rhythm-and-blues songs, thus squeezing out the pioneers of African-American music. In O ­ ctober 1958, the newly conceived R&B charts featured 16 songs by white performers (Wald 180). Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole, who found greater success with white audiences, Elvis Presley, Johnny Ray, and even the Everly Brothers began competing for space on the R&B charts by the mid-1950s (Wald 193). It had become difficult for prewar African-American stars, performing primarily for black audiences to compete with white teen idols, without bleaching the lyrics and softening the music for desegregated charts. Hunter left music and turned to nursing as her recording career seemed to peter out. Following retirement from nursing, Hunter took up performing again in 1976 with a residency at the Cookery in New York’s Greenwich Village. She received critical acclaim and performed there until her death in 1984. Sippie Wallace, Texas born, migrated north to Detroit where she became a church choir leader, abandoning “the devil’s music,” at least for a time. Like Spivey, Hunter and Wallace both enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early 1960s, but remain best known to folk-blues experts with spotty success recording or touring after the war. Now Spivey, Hunter, Wallace, and so many more are best known, if at all, for their raunchy songs, signifyin’, dripping with innuendo and double entendre, rather than as gifted female vocalists who spoke for a unique black America. Their work appears today, decontextualized, often on compilations with tawdry titles such as Viper Mad Blues: 25 Songs of Dope and Depravity, Copulating Blues, The Ultimate Dirty Blues, or Vintage Sex Songs. This reality echoes Angela Yvonne Davis’s critique of blues being decontextualized in American films such as St Louis Blues (1929), a film in which the music’s lyrics become repurposed as linear narrative, rather than subtle critiques and life lessons for women in African-American communities (60–61). Instead, the music should be understood within the context of a dynamic black America with its own record companies, radio stations, recording stars, and culture. The work of these performers provides insight into history not often mined by academics (except perhaps Paul Oliver). Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” (1929) gives a unique insight into the Mississippi River floods of 1927, and Spivey’s version of “T.B. Blues” (1929) let us see the relationship of race and epidemics from another view. Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows 26

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You When You’re Down and Out” (1929) captures the pain and loneliness for young black women of the Depression Era. On the eve of the stock market crash, Smith’s “Poor Man Blues” (1928) chastised wealthy white elites on behalf of America’s Negro population. Certainly, the blues as sung by Ida Cox, Spivey, and so many others addresses the issues of spousal abuse, betrayal, and infidelity as personally as historians of women are likely to find. But this addressing of serious issues is balanced by lighthearted songs describing the wild, exoticized experience of going out and shaking off a week of oppression, depression, and suppression, with dancing, drinking, and perhaps some illegal substances. Can anyone really blame Victoria Spivey for wanting more than a “one minute poppa” after a hard day of work, or Rosetta Howard’s use of marijuana as a means of coping with the daily grind? “Dreamed about a reefer five feet long / Kinda thin and not too strong” (“If You’re a ­Viper” 1937). Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” (1924) offered rather playful advice to women, heartbroken by their cheating men, to perhaps try the same thing themselves: “I’ve heard those women raving about their monkey men / About their trifling husbands and their no-good friends / These poor women sit around all day and moan / Wondering why their wandering papas don’t come home / But wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t get the blues.” However, in the euphoria of postwar progress toward racial integration, there was not the same demand for African-American culture as there was for African Americans on the “New Frontier.” This was true especially for the woman who “gets full of corn,” or who advocated doing “the shim-sham shimmy till the wagon comes,” or as Koko Taylor suggested “wang-dang doodle all night long,” ecstatically and passionately to music often associated in white America with jukejoints and brothels. As we have seen, a number of black female performers left the entertainment business or remained in “isolated” black communities, which themselves seemed to be on the decline in the 1950s and 1960s. An example of a very talented black blues/jazz singer is Texan Mildred Jones, who could never escape the endless grind of Houston nightclubs and piano bars. Only in the year she died (2003, at the age of 70) did this social activist receive any acclaim for her work when her recording of “Mr. Thrill” (originally released in 1954), extolling the virtues of her “daddy’s long Cadillac,” was used in Charles Burnett’s film Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003), part of The Blues series of documentaries, produced by Martin Scorsese. “Mr. Thrill” was the flip side of a single that also included a more serious gender-related critique, “Misused Woman.” While perhaps not intentional, bawdy, implicit, humorous music in the documentary took precedent over music with more compelling social issues, like those found in Jones’s work. I have not intended here to enter into any raging debates about race in America. Instead, I argue that historians and liberal America concluded that the 1960s represented a significant advance in race relations in the US and that it was then time for government and society to move on to other issues, other sources of inequality; however, this was exactly the same attitude of complacency and smug self-satisfaction that Stampp and his contemporaries rejected when they discovered new sources and reworked them to produce a reinterpretation of the black American experience. Still, issues remain to be addressed, such as a more balanced understanding of the nature and structure of mid-century integration. Why, asks Ron Wynn, does jazz today seem to have no connection to young black audiences and yet thrive on National Public Radio? The answer may lie in part in a reassessment of postwar integration. Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) notes that while white critics love black music, they do not understand the realities of the context in which it was created (Black Music 11–14). Did the postwar move to desegregate sport and music have a role to play in the decline of once dynamic black communities, such as the Pennsylvania Avenue area of Baltimore, where, in the 1920s, as singer Bertha Idaho reminded listeners, one could find all manner of pleasures (“Down on Pennsylvania Avenue,” 1929)? A community that once bustled with flaneurs and punters had lost its dynamism by the end of the 1940s. By treating the lyrics of blues songs, even ribald, cheeky, and naughty songs by female singers, as serious historical evidence, rather than puerile titillation or shameful “leer-ics,” one can learn so much more 27

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about the history of the African-American female experience and the changing social reality of black America. It may be possible to appreciate the frustration of writers such as Amiri Baraka and Angela Yvonne Davis if we attempt to comprehend the complexity of African-American culture before and after postwar developments in integration in the US. No matter how well intentioned, what can be seen as progressive historical developments had unintended consequences. The absorption of some elements of African-American culture into the mainstream came at a cost—that is, the loss or decontextualization of the humor that was so meaningful in the music of the other America, especially as performed by black women blues artists.

Notes 1 The first racially segregated negro baseball league, The National Colored Base Ball League, a minor league organization, came into existence in 1887 and featured teams from Baltimore, Boston, Louisville Falls, New York City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Black-only teams became extremely popular in the growing African-American communities in the urban North. Most agree that the last professional Negro league folded in 1951. 2 In Detroit, African-American entrepreneur Berry Gordy III seized on the sanitizing of popular black music in the late 1950s to reach a wider, racially mixed audience. Gordy founded Tamla Records in 1959 and Motown Records in 1960. Motown hits were consciously devoid of ribald humor and adult themes and featured girl groups and solo female artists who sang of innocent themes, love, and dance crazes. As Gordy said, “I’m gonna start my own record label and we’re not just gonna make black music. We’re gonna make music that everybody can enjoy” (qtd. in Lynskey). 3 Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play, The Death of Bessie Smith, is based on the common misconception that after a car accident near Clarksville, Mississippi, Smith died as a result of being turned away from a whites-only hospital. The Empress of the Blues did die as a result of injuries from the crash but she was never denied treatment, and was taken from the scene of the accident to a hospital for African Americans where she died seven hours later on September 26, 1937. The denial-of-treatment version of her death remained a popular myth in postwar liberal America.

Works Cited Abbott, Lynn, and Doug Seroff. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. U of Mississippi P, 2007. Blassingame, John. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Oxford UP, 1976. Brackett, David. “The House That Ruth Built.” The Pop, Rock and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates, edited by David Brackett, Oxford UP, 2009, pp. 82–86. Cohodas, Nadine. Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington. Pantheon, 2004. Davis, Angela Yvonne. Black Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie ­Holiday. Pantheon Books, 1998. Duval Harrison, Daphne. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers UP, 1988. “Dinah Washington Top Songs.”, Accessed 16 Jan. 2018. Erenberg, Lewis A. Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. U of Chicago P, 1998. Friedwald, Will. Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond. Charles Scribner and Sons, 1990. Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth Leisure and the Politics of Rock ’n’ Roll. Pantheon, 1981. Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Vintage, 1976. Green, Abel. “R&B: A Danger to the Music Business?” Variety, 9 Mar. 1955, p. 49. Reprinted in The Rock History Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Theo Cateforis, Routledge, 2013, pp. 9–10. Gutman, Herbert. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925. Pantheon, 1976. Hamilton, Marybeth. “Sexuality, Authenticity and the Making of the Blues Tradition.” Past and Present, vol. 169, no. 1, 2000, pp. 132–60. ———. “The Voice of the Blues.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 54, 2002, pp. 123–43. Jackson, Buzzy. A Bad Woman Feeling Good: Blues and the Women Who Sing Them. W.W. Norton, 2005. Jones, Leroi. Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed from It. Morrow Quill, 1963. ———. Black Music. 1968. Akashic Press, 2010.


Popular African-American Female Singers Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford UP, 1977. Lynskey, Dorian. “How We Made Motown.” Interviews. The Guardian, 22 Mar. 2016, www.theguardian. com/music/2016/mar/22/how-we-made-motown-records-berry-gordy-smokey-robinson-stevie-­ wonder-interview. Accessed 14 Jan. 2018. Mahabir, Cynthia. “Wit and Popular Music: The Calypso and the Blues.” Popular Music, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 51–81. Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. Cassell, 1960. Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh. U of Illinois P, 1987. Sanjek, David. “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis? The Wild, Wild Women of Rockabilly.” Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, edited by Sheila Whitely, Routledge, 1997, pp. 137–68. Shankar, Shobana. “Parchment Women Write the Blues? What Became of Black Women’s Prison Music in Mississippi in the 1930s.” Women’s Prison Music, special issue of American Music, vol. 31, no. 2, 2013, pp. 183–202. St. Louis Blues. Directed by Dudley Murphy, performance by Bessie Smith, Amusement Enterprises, 1929. Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South. Vintage, 1956. Tyler, Don. Music of the Postwar Era. American History Through Music series. Greenwood, 2008. Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford UP, 2009. Wynn, Ron. “Where’s the Black Audience?” Jazz Times, 1 Jan. 2003, Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.


3 Jazz Humor from a Musical Perspective Garth Alper

Jazz Isn’t Dead. It Just Smells Funny. —Frank Zappa

To better understand spoken humor, one might begin by studying the word choice, narrative structure, vocal cadences, and mannerisms of a comedian. Similarly, to better understand jazz humor, one might examine the elements from which the jazz language is built. Previous studies about humor in jazz have looked at the subject from psychological, sociological, aesthetic, and other perspectives, but none of them have used actual musical considerations as the central j­umping-off point of their inquiries. Some articles have discussed the nonmusical antics of performers, and others have concentrated on the humorous lyrics and scat syllables heard in jazz performances. ­Typifying this approach is Charles Hiroshi Garrett’s article “Humor in Jazz,” which discusses “how jazz humor intersects with musical aesthetics, genre definition, and jazz criticism” (50). While this is worthwhile scholarship, I offer a more music-centric perspective through which to view the subject. To be clear, this study is not written from an exclusively musical viewpoint—for example, I will discuss some of the cultural and political implications of jazz humor—but, throughout the chapter, I mostly explain how the music itself is used to create humor. Another related goal of this chapter is to explore humor that arises from instrumental (nonvocal) jazz, a viewpoint that has been overlooked to a large degree in previous studies. For example, this discussion will show how a single saxophone note can create a humorous moment or how a suspenseful torrent of notes can build toward comic relief. And while one of the jazz recordings that I explore contains spoken and sung lyrics, and two others use spoken introductions, I have included them only because the instrumental elements heard in these pieces contribute in an important way to the humor found in the music. I use descriptive analyses of seven arguably1 humorous jazz recordings as a starting point for a discussion about how humor is both created by the artist and perceived by the listener. The ­recordings are as follows: 1. 2. 3. 4.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” by Joey Baron (1992) “Bye Bye Blues” by Oscar Peterson (1977) “Jackpot” by Plas Johnson (1956) “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)” by Sonny Rollins (1957) 30

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5. “Mandy” by the Bad Plus (2016) 6. “Battleship” by Carla Bley (1984) 7. “Original Faubus Fables” by Charles Mingus (1961)2

“The Shadow of Your Smile”: Joey Baron Joey Baron is a highly regarded jazz drummer, and the title of his album Tongue in Groove is a tipoff about his humorous intentions. He covers “The Shadow of Your Smile” to show how a standard can lose its cachet through overplaying and/or less than stellar performances. A song intentionally (or unintentionally) played poorly can sound funny. In the example of Baron’s version of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” the contrast between our knowledge of the trio’s true artistic abilities and their actual performance accentuates the humor of the recording. To paraphrase Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of musicianship to sound this bad.3 Even though the album was recorded in the studio, Baron talks to the listener directly through his spoken introduction: How y’all doin’ out there tonight. Yeah, I can just see you sittin’ on the couch with the holes in your undershirt, beer stains all over the place [laughs]. Well, sit back and relax because we’ve got some more music for ya’. We’re gonna pick up the pace right here with a wonderful tune. It actually is a great tune. It’s called “The Shadow of Your Smile.” [pause] Uh, this is a lady’s choice. Baron counts the band in with his drumsticks and inartfully whacks the snare drum on the ­downbeat, and the two melody instruments start the head.4 If listeners were still expecting a conventional reading of the song at this point, they would be quickly dissuaded from that notion by the following: •

• • • • • •

The instrumentation consists of only the drummer (Baron), a tenor saxophonist, Ellery ­ skelin, and a trombonist, Steve Swell. There’s no bass player or chordal instrument (piano or E guitar), and the unconventional instrumentation is augmented by the group’s musical antics. Both the tenor sax and trombone are often played out of tune. Eskelin sometimes overuses vibrato to the point of extreme silliness. The harmony (background) parts played by Steve Swell mostly consist of terrible note choices. The melody is phrased with a poor sense of rhythm. Baron plays a faux-rumba beat on the drums, and makes use of his various drums and cymbals in an overly simple manner. Baron often muffs the end of phrases.

All sorts of musicians have played any given standard countless times in a variety of venues. This ranges from jazz students and beginner professionals playing at restaurants, bars, or social functions to artists of the highest caliber performing at the world’s best jazz clubs and festivals. “The Shadow of Your Smile,” written in 1965, was recorded by a large number of jazz singers and instrumentalists in the 1960s and 1970s. Many jazz musicians consider it to be a finely crafted composition and continue to use the song as a vehicle through which to express their artistry. But Baron’s introductory statement that “this is a lady’s choice” is a reference to dance gigs in which musicians play standards in a number of dance styles including the foxtrot, lindy hop, west coast swing, etc. Performances at these sorts of dances usually allow for minimal improvisation and sometimes put additional creative constraints on the musicians playing them. While there is a craft to performing this sort of music well, when it’s played poorly, it can be a target for mockery by higher-level musicians. Thus, with his comment, Baron adds some context for the humorously painful rendition that follows. 31

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“Bye Bye Blues”: Oscar Peterson In the previous recording by Joey Baron, the humor derives, in part, from intentionally playing something poorly. In other cases, the humor comes from an artist exhibiting so much technique that mortal jazz musicians can’t do much more than sit back and laugh. On the live performance of the standard “Bye Bye Blues” by Oscar Peterson, the jazz pianist and the rest of the group take the tune at a very fast tempo (approximately 340 beats per minute). There’s nothing intrinsically humorous about fast tempos, and numerous jazz musicians have, and still do, taken songs at greater rates of speed than this. Peterson, however, uses the extremely brisk tempo as a springboard for a solo (from 5:26 to 6:48 on the track) that builds into virtuosic comedy. As he starts his improvisation, the rest of the band drops out, giving Peterson the opportunity to fully display his technical abilities. The tempo of the track combined with the relentless torrent of notes, the eventual entrance of a stride left hand that seems impossibly fast (6:09), and the use of the highest range of the keyboard (6:29 and 6:38) creates a comedic tension that breaks at the end of his solo when the rest of the band returns (6:50). The applause and joyous roar of approval by the audience would be a welcomed outcome for a virtuoso comedian building a very long joke to evoke one big laugh at its end. It’s difficult to know whether it was Peterson’s aim to be funny on this solo. He was occasionally criticized for his overt displays of technique (and often praised for his powerful sense of swing). But playing jazz—or taking part in any performing art—can create outcomes that might not have been envisioned by the artist. The display of great technique and speed during the creation of improvised art can evoke exhilaration and joy, something Peterson was probably aiming for. But whatever Peterson’s intent might have been, if these feelings evoked laughter for some listeners, the artist crossed a line and created humor through jazz performance.

“Jackpot”: Plas Johnson Heads to instrumental jazz tunes can vary from note-packed, serpentine bebop melodies to melodies with just one or two notes. In his composition “Jackpot,” which represents the latter end of this spectrum, tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson5 shows that a singular note, played with perfect timing and the right tone and attitude, can have a comedic impact. After a four-bar introduction by pianist Ray Johnson (brother of Plas), the group begins a galloping boogie-woogie vamp (0:06). The group comes to an abrupt halt on the fourth measure of the vamp, setting up Plas’s big moment. He executes the one-note head6 with sublime comedic timing (0:10). His sardonic, laid-back phrasing of the one note—which happens three times throughout the form—is in such contrast to the driving boogie-woogie figure that it creates a startling comic moment. Johnson also executes a fall on the note, which is a downward sliding drop of pitch after the note is first articulated. To further drive home the effect, the second time through the form, Johnson changes the pitch of the note for some added dry humor (0:26). After the solo section, the head returns with its tongue-in-cheek melody, and the entire track comes to an end just two minutes and twenty seconds after it began, indicating that Johnson understood that thing about brevity being the soul of wit.

“I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)”: Sonny Rollins A majority of jazz standards come from film and/or stage musicals, other popular music genres, and jazz musicians themselves. The choice of a song, in combination with its backstory and rendition, can create humorous juxtapositions and contrasts. The recordings of the two songs discussed below—one by Sonny Rollins and one by the Bad Plus—fall into this category. The tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins recorded the album Way Out West in 1957. This album features a piano-less trio of sax, bass, and drums, an instrumentation that Rollins helped to pioneer 32

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and perfect. The head to “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande),” one of the songs on the record, is performed as a lighthearted stylistic mix of jazz and country-and-western music.7 Shelly Manne, the drummer, plays on the side of his snare drum and perhaps a muted wood block or c­ owbell to mimic the sound of horse hooves during the head. Rollins’s whimsical phrasing and bassist Ray Brown’s conversational interaction add to the droll interpretation of the head. The choice of this ­particular song for a subtle comic reading was an inspired one. The song was a hit for Bing Crosby in the 1930s and was featured in the film Rhythm on the Range. The lyrics, which tell the story of a cowboy wannabe, could be thought of as being loosely descriptive of Rollins’s trio as countryand-­western wannabes. (The cover photo of the original LP shows Rollins looking out over the sagebrush, wearing a cowboy hat and a holster.) Even though the lyrics are not sung on the Rollins’s version, many listeners at the time of the record’s release would have known the words, which would have added a subtle layer of depth to the gently comedic rendering. While the lyrics are supposedly about “an old cowhand from the Rio Grande,” we learn that “he’s a cowboy who never saw a cow,” doesn’t know how to rope a steer, “rides the range in a Ford V-8,” and learned cowboy songs from the radio. Even though Rollins maintains a relatively light tone throughout, he only takes the playful gag only so far. Once his solo starts, he’s all business, exploring and developing ideas in his highly identifiable style. He’s not out to deconstruct jazz. He’s only out to leaven it with some stylistic juxtaposition.

“Mandy”: The Bad Plus The Bad Plus, consisting of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King, are out to deconstruct jazz, and they take down the Barry Manilow version of “Mandy” as collateral damage. The Bad Plus are known for bringing unexpected pop and rock songs into the jazz repertoire, including “Iron Man,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Games Without Frontiers.” At times, the group uses the decidedly non-jazzlike compositions as raw material for unexpected reharmonizations, rhythmic explorations, and all manner of creative improvised excursions. In the case of their version of “Mandy,”8 there is the added bonus of humorously mocking the original source material, written by Scott English and Richard Kerr, while at the same time finding unexpected beauty in it. The deconstruction begins slowly. While Iverson’s exaggerated rubato9 introduction of the verse (0:25) pokes fun at the schmaltziness of the Manilow version, the pianist starts to slowly bring in startling counter-melodies and reharmonizations (0:46, 1:16, and 2:09) to counteract the sweetness. Another layer of understated humor occurs at the chorus (1:31), where the group’s extremely slow tempo masks the underlying 5/4 time signature, a feature that is extremely rare in a pop ballad. At the 2:22 mark, Anderson and King start asserting themselves on the bass and drums, moving the listener’s attention away from the composition and toward the beginning of a more active group improvisation texture. From approximately the 3:40 point in the song to 5:10, the intensity, level of entropy, and mock-schmaltziness slowly increase while the tempo increases suddenly at several discrete moments. The increasing turmoil of King’s drumming helps to further loosen the seams of the composition. After the 5:10 point, modulations10 start occurring at a quickened pace and the group’s textures get more frenzied until the original intent of the composers’ piece is entirely dismantled in what could be described as a textbook example of instrumental postmodern jazz. I had the opportunity to see the Bad Plus perform “Mandy” live recently. As confirmation of the group’s intention to mock the composition, at the end of the song, Reid Anderson noted, “That’s such a sad song. No, that’s really sad.” The audience responded with laughter.

“Battleship”: Carla Bley Carla Bley’s “Battleship” is a programmatic11 work in which Bley weaves comedic ideas around a lighthearted depiction of an imaginary naval conflict. She tells her story through the use of 33

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repeated riffs, displaced rhythms, jazz/rock grooves, clean horn arrangements, quotes of musical military themes, and free group improvisation. These elements, set at a brisk tempo, bring to mind a score for an action-comedy movie but the title tells us the real subject of the piece. Gary Valente takes the first solo on the trombone with plunger (1:41), creating a sound that often has humorous connotations.12 At 2:14, Bley quotes a melody from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but despite the somber nature of the patriotic song, the cheerful musical romp continues. Sardonic brass fanfares are heard at 3:57, and one of the high points of the piece follows where all eight members of the band engage in an orgiastic free-jazz group improvisation (4:07). While there are important free jazz recordings that explore anger, the quest for freedom, and other serious matters, in the context of this piece, the technique depicts a comically chaotic battle scene. One of the song’s themes returns at 5:28 and continues until Bley overdevelops a small melodic fragment for humorous effect (5:57). A rendition of “Taps” ends the song. Someone finally sunk Carla Bley’s “Battleship.”

“Original Faubus Fables”: Charles Mingus In “Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus takes the life-and-death subject of racial hatred in the 1950s and 1960s and approaches it with searing, satirical wit. This is accomplished through the combination of powerful words that are partially sung, partially spoken, and partially shouted, and animated through Mingus’s brilliant musical vision. In a spoken introduction to the track, which was recorded in a studio and not in front of an audience, Mingus states, Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and remember no applause, and keep it down; your drinks; don’t rattle the ice in your glasses, and don’t ring the cash registers. You got it covered? ­A lright, I’d like to continue this set with a composition dedicated to the first, or second, or third All-American heel, Faubus. And it’s entitled “Fables of Faubus.” With these words, Mingus introduces the listener to the subject of his composition, Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas who deployed the Arkansas National Guard in an attempt to prevent the desegregation of the Little Rock public schools. Through his admonishment to the nonexistent crowd, ­Mingus introduces the track with a dose of sarcasm. He then uses jazz to lampoon Faubus and his beliefs. In the first verse, Mingus implores the Lord not to let his persecutors shoot, stab, and tar and feather African Americans, and begs for an end to swastikas and the Ku Klux Klan. An instrumental section, which follows, contains a humorous childlike melody that is clearly representing Faubus and mocking his racist beliefs. The lyrics of the second verse consist of Mingus asking his drummer Dannie Richmond a couple of questions, and Richmond responding in a sing-song manner. When Mingus asks him to name someone who’s ridiculous, Richmond responds, “Governor Faubus.” When he asks, “Why is he so sick and ridiculous?” Richmond answers, “He won’t permit integrated schools,” to which Mingus responds, “Then he’s a fool!” After another short instrumental interlude, the sax and trombone reprise the earlier childlike melody, but this time it’s played in an exaggeratedly out-of-tune and ragged manner, deepening the mocking tone. In the last verse, Mingus and ­R ichmond reprise the question-and-answer format to call out politicians such as Faubus, ­Robert Byrd, and President Eisenhower as being hateful and ridiculous. The improvised solo sections that follow combine serious, masterful improvisation with rapidly changing rhythmic backdrops, which were a mainstay of Mingus’s arrangements. As the solos move from trumpet to sax, there’s an increase in playfulness. At other times during the solos, there are background figures that are both played on instruments and, at the same time, sung. The result is both jarring and— despite the seriousness of the message—silly sounding. There are several ways to interpret these conflicting musical messages: 34

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Slyly hidden within the sporadically out-of-tune and humorously ragged playing is an instrumental metaphor for the “sick and ridiculous” political leaders of Mingus’s time, who “brainwash and teach you hate.” Through their virtuosity, Mingus and his sidemen made his music—which was difficult and complex—seem easier than it was. Through this extraordinary skill and artistry, Mingus offers an alternative to Faubus’s hateful actions and rhetoric, and turns the tide on the racists’ misplaced sense of superiority. While representing Faubus with out-of-tune and humorously performed melodies, Mingus, at the same time, created great art. By doing so, he forces a comparison between the value of his contributions to society and those of the racist politicians. The increase in musical anarchy and jarring background singing during the solo section could be thought of as a metaphor for the unraveling of the politicians’ world since Faubus’s attempt to keep the Arkansas schools segregated failed.

Conclusions and Connections Mockery has a role in the humor heard in three of seven recordings that make up this survey. In two of the recordings—Joey Baron’s dismantling of “The Shadow of Your Smile” and Charles Mingus’s performance of his own composition “Original Faubus Fables”—out-of-tune instruments and a variety of other intentionally sardonic performance techniques are used to ridicule someone or something. In Baron’s case, while the target of the derision seems to be some of the realities of the gigging world, there is also an element of self-deprecating humor in the mix. To make their point, Baron and his sidemen need to sound bad, and in doing so, the joke is— knowingly—also on them. Mingus used some of the same musical techniques to lampoon the politicians of his era who fought against the civil rights movement. Through the use of blunt yet bitingly funny lyrics combined with extremely out-of-tune instruments (1:47), Mingus is basically comparing bigotry to drunken idiocy. Though mockery is also one of the aims of the Bad Plus’s version of “Mandy,” it’s achieved through a different set of musical techniques, which lead to a merciless deconstruction of the pop ballad. However, along with the lampoonery comes the opportunity to hear the newer rendition of the song for its intrinsic beauty. This seeming contradiction is a key constituent of one brand of postmodernism. With a blend of reverence and irony, it incorporates older genres of art into a new stylistic synthesis. A connection also exists between Sonny Rollins’s rendition of “I’m an Old Cowhand” and Carla Bley’s “Battleship,” which both juxtapose styles rarely heard together. Rollins’s laid-back saxophone phrasing combined with the clip-clop sound of the drums evokes a cowboy on a slow-moving horse, an image far removed from his real-life experience as a born-and-bred New York City jazz master. In her composition/arrangement of “Battleship,” Carla Bley mixes two military themes into the jaunty jazz/rock work, and instead of bringing down the mood of the piece, the normally somber melodies add another dimension to the playfulness. Another connection can be found between Rollins’s version of “I’m an Old Cowhand” and the Bad Plus’s performance of “Mandy.” In both of these recordings, the artists chose source material whose (unsung) lyrics remain important to their humorous efforts. In the case of “Mandy,” the group’s instrumental techniques play off and exaggerate the sappy nature of the well-known pop-tune from the 1970s. Similarly, in the example of “I’m an Old Cowhand,” knowledge of the unheard lyrics about a poseur-cowboy adds another layer of humor to Rollins’s rendition. Oscar Peterson’s rendition of “Bye Bye Blues” and Plas Johnson’s composition “Jackpot” each derive their humor from techniques not seen elsewhere in this study. Even though all of the musicians discussed in this survey are known for their excellent artistry, Peterson is arguably the best equipped to build a comedic crescendo through the use of his extraordinary technique. In his one 35

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minute and twenty-two second solo, Peterson builds such a feeling of suspense during the technical tour de force that two questions emerge: Is this really possible? And is he going to be able to land the plane without crashing and burning? Upon the successful conclusion of the solo, the relief comes in the form of an audience outburst that is a combination of applause, yelling, and possibly laughter. Using a technique that’s diametrically opposed to Peterson’s, Plas Johnson’s humor derives from using a driving boogie-woogie texture for the purpose of setting up a punch line comprised of a single note. The note could be thought of as the response in a call-and-response structure. And since the response is so concise, perfectly executed, and in such contrast to the b­ oogie-woogie vamp (the call), Johnson finds another way to extract humor from the jazz art form. One other connection can be found between Mingus’s “Original Faubus Fables” and Joey ­Baron’s rendition of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” While both of these were studio recordings, Mingus and Baron offer spoken introductions. In Mingus’s case, he shows his displeasure with noisy audiences even though there is no audience present, and introduces his feelings about O ­ rville Faubus. While there is something odd about Mingus admonishing a nonexistent ­audience, he was an artist of the highest caliber and was obviously bothered by noisy and disrespectful audience members and club workers. He saw a chance to vent a little bit and seized upon it. Though Joey Baron’s complaint is less weighty, he also sets his sights on two targets in a sardonic spoken introduction: the (imagined) slovenly listener at home, and the many musicians that have performed “The Shadow of Your Smile” with less-than-stellar results. For those listeners who aren’t sitting on the couch with holes in their undershirt and beer stains all over the place, they get to laugh at the visual picture of those who might be. Similarly, by stating that the song “is a lady’s choice,” Baron brings the listener in on how some jazz musicians feel about playing certain gigs that don’t exemplify the highest artistic standards.

A Final Word Jazz educators and scholars often point (correctly) to the parallels between being able to speak a language and being able to improvise using the jazz language. Just as a stand-up comedian uses a spoken language to evoke a smile or a laugh, a jazz musician can achieve the same outcome through the mastery of his or her art form. However, an analysis of jazz humor that centers mostly on the language of the music will rarely make a joke funnier. In fact, it will likely do the opposite. Hence, the following two quotations periodically nagged at me while writing this chapter: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”13 “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.”14 The first one is particularly apt for instrumental music. In response to it, I encourage the reader to listen to the recordings that I have discussed. By listening to the music—and not just relying on my writing—the reader can directly experience the humor and artistry discussed here. In response to the second quotation, I can only hope that it’s wrong and that, somehow, the frog managed to survive with its sense of humor intact.

Notes 1 As in, I’ll argue with you if you don’t think they’re funny. 2 Since Columbia Records wouldn’t let Mingus release a version of “Fables of Faubus” in 1959 with the sung lyrics, in 1961 he rerecorded it on the Candid label as “Original Faubus Fables” with the words intact. 3 Parton said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” (“Proust Questionnaire”). 4 The “head” to a jazz tune is the statement of the original melody often heard at the beginning and end of the piece. 5 Plas Johnson is best known for playing the tenor saxophone on “The Pink Panther Theme” and being a member of the Wrecking Crew.


Jazz Humor from a Musical Perspective 6 The note he chooses is the tonic, which gives it even more of a sardonic feel. 7 This country-and-western sound and instrumentation can be heard on other tracks from the same album. 8 The song was first released by Scott English in 1971 in the United Kingdom as “Brandy,” and reached #12 on the charts. 9 Playing in a rubato manner involves intentionally speeding up and slowing down in an expressive manner. 10 Modulations are changes of key. 11 Programmatic music paints a scene or tells a story without the use of words. 12 The “voices” of the unseen adults in the animated Peanuts television specials were made using a trombone and a plunger. 13 This quotation is attributed to a number of sources, but none of the citations are definitive. 14 A similar quotation is attributed to E.B. White but I could not find a definitive citation.

Works Cited The Bad Plus. “Mandy.” Written by Scott English and Richard Kerr. It’s Hard, Okeh Records, 2016. Baron, Joey. “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Written by Johnny Mandel and Paul Webster. Tongue in Groove, JMT Productions, 1992. Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. U of Chicago P, 1994. Bley, Carla. “Battleship.” I Hate to Sing, Watt/ECM, 1984. Garret, Charles Hiroshi. “Humor in Jazz.” Jazz/Not Jazz: The Music and Its Boundaries, edited by David Ake, Charles Hiroshi Garrett, and Daniel Ira Goldmark, U of California P, 2012, pp. 12–30. Johnson, Plas. “Jackpot.” Bop Me Daddy, Tampa Records, 1956. Mingus, Charles. “Original Faubus Fables.” Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Candid, 1961. Peterson, Oscar. “Bye Bye Blues.” Written by Fred Hamm, Dave Bennett, Bert Lown, and Chauncey Gray. Oscar Peterson Jam-Montreux ’77, Pablo Records, 1977. “The Proust Questionnaire: Dolly Parton.” Vanity Fair, 24 Oct. 2012, dolly-parton-proust-questionnaire. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017. Rollins, Sonny. “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande).” Written by Johnny Mercer. Way Out West, Contemporary Records, 1957.


4 Rubes, Rednecks, and Novelty Songs The Comedic Tradition in Country Music Don Cusic

I’ve got tears in my ears from lying on my back in my bed crying ’cause Grandma got run over by a reindeer, so now I’m my own Grandpa, and you’re the reason our kids are ugly. The four song titles strung together in the first sentence of this chapter suggest that humor is a central feature of country music. “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears from Lying on My Back in My Bed While I Cry over You,” written by Harold Barlow, confronts a lover with the warning, “If I get water on the brain / you will know you are the one who is to blame” (qtd. in Horstman 101). The song was recorded by Homer and Jethro, two extremely talented musicians who were known for their country musical satires. Homer and Jethro also recorded “(How Much Is That) Hound Dog in the Window?”—a spoof on the Patti Page hit “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window?”—and “The Battle of Kookamonga,” a takeoff of Johnny Horton’s hit “The Battle of New Orleans.” At the 1959 Grammys, Horton’s song won the Grammy Award for Best Song and Best Country Song, while Homer and Jethro’s pastiche won a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was recorded by the husband and wife team of Elmo and Patsy Shropshire after they heard it performed by songwriter Randy Brooks. “I’m My Own Grandpa” came from a story by Mark Twain, in which he showed it was possible for someone to become his own grandpa through a succession of (albeit unlikely) events and marriages. The song was written by Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe, and recorded by Lonzo and Oscar, who had a hit with it in 1948. Finally, “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” was first recorded by Lola Jean Dillon and Lee White, who wrote the song, and then by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. It was a chart hit for the songwriters in 1977 and for Twitty and Lynn (as the flip side of “From Seven Till Ten”) in 1978. The roots of American country humor originate largely from two sources: folk tales and minstrel shows. Folk tales are sometimes “tall tales” and sometimes offer advice or lessons to be learned. Washington Irving captured some of these morals in his stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as the “American voice” emerged in the nineteenth century. Other folk tales include the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Folk songs, like folk tales, have no known writer; they are part of an oral tradition, handed down from person to person, generation to generation, with each retelling adding a little to the story, or taking something away, or altering it in some form. Both folk songs and folk tales were part of “folk culture,” or ways that people amused themselves before radio, TV, and other forms of mass entertainment. If the authorship of folk songs is usually unknown, the songs in minstrel shows were purposefully written to be performed on a stage before an audience. Early minstrel shows featured whites dressed as blacks, using burnt cork on their faces and much of the comedy was based on racial 38

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stereotypes. Two of the most important early minstrel shows were those created by Dan Emmett and E.P. Christy. Emmett is credited with writing “Dixie,” and his Virginia Minstrels, who made their first public appearance in 1843, were the first fully professional minstrel troupe, generally performing between circus acts or other gatherings. E.P. Christy’s Minstrels, who were formed in 1846, were the first to develop a full evening’s stage show in the minstrel format. One of Christy’s notable achievements was presenting the songs of Stephen Foster to the public. While minstrel shows may now, from a twenty-first century vantage point, be viewed as “politically incorrect,” they played an important role in the development of stage shows in the US. The shows were, for the most part, comedic and created a demand for comedy songs and new routines. Minstrel shows subsequently evolved into “vaudeville,” where a group of entertainers—­singers, dancers, ­comics, jugglers, sword swallowers, acrobats, and others—performed for an audience. ­Humor was always important in vaudeville, which gave rise to some of the great early film and ­television comedians, such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, and Mae West. Another outlet for comedy songs came with traveling medicine shows, which developed around the time of the Civil War when the idea came to entrepreneurs of selling medicine during the days when doctors were rare and the science of healing was still in the Middle Ages. The medicine show featured performers singing and doing comedic sketches before a pitchman came and offered amazing remedies for whatever ailed members of the audience—much of the “medicine” contained alcohol, which made the patient feel “better.” Country performers who got their start in medicine shows include Fiddlin’ John Carson, Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner, Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams ( Jones 9). During the 1920s, when country music was first recorded, the Georgia Skillet Lickers released “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia,” “The Medicine Show,” and “Kickapoo Joy Juice.” Bascom ­Lamar Lunsford recorded the comedic sermon, “Speaking the Truth” and “A Stump Speech in the Tenth District,” and Buell Kazee made “A Mountain Boy Makes His First Records” and “Election Day in Kentucky.” A number of comedic songs, such as “It’s a Shame to Whip Your Wife on Sunday” and “Ya Gotta Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around,” which were also popular and recorded during the 1920s, probably would not be welcomed in contemporary company. These songs and sketches (there was often talking to set up the song) frequently poked fun at country—especially hillbilly—life. Those humorous performances show early performers to be self-aware of the images and stereotypes that “city folks” held of them. The first “star” on the Grand Ole Opry was Uncle Dave Macon (born David Harrison Macon in 1870), who began appearing on that radio show in 1925. Macon came from a vaudeville heritage: His father had owned a hotel in Nashville and, as a young boy, Macon was “exposed to the vaudeville and circus traditions of the nineteenth century around his father’s hotel; the hotel catered to show people, and Nashville was a popular stop with touring companies” (Wolfe 45). It was not until Macon was in his fifties, and had already had successful stints as farmer and freight hauler, that he attempted to make a career in music. Beginning with local performances in 1921, Macon entered vaudeville, playing the Loew’s circuit in the south as a “banjoist and humorist” during the 1920s and 1930s (Wolfe 46). In 1924, “Uncle Dave” had his first recording session (accompanied by fiddler Sid Harkreader) at which he recorded his most popular comedy number, “Chewing Gum,” as well as “Hill Billie Blues,” the first record to air the term “hillbilly” (Wolfe 47). “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” a rather raunchy number full of feisty humor and double entendre, was also recorded at that first session. Uncle Dave Macon’s career lasted 31 years (1921–1952). His performance “was so much more than music and was so much built around personality, mugging, and visual gags,” which made humor a natural part of any Uncle Dave performance (Wolfe 53). He usually performed sitting down and would spin his banjo around on the floor, stomp his foot, and tip his hat during a performance. In Uncle Dave’s eyes, if you didn’t use humor, well, you just weren’t entertaining the folks and giving them their money’s worth. 39

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In addition to Macon, the early Grand Ole Opry had well-loved comedians Minnie Pearl, Rod Brasfield, Sarie and Sally, The Duke of Paducah (Whitey Ford), Cicero the Clown (Clell Sumney), and Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts). The National Barn Dance, on WLS-AM in ­Chicago, also featured numerous comedy acts, including Lulu Belle (of Lulu Belle and Scotty), Pie Plant Pete, and Smiley Burnett, sidekick to Gene Autry. When Autry went to Hollywood to star in the first Singing Westerns, he brought along Burnett and established the pattern of the cowboy singer and his comedy sidekick. Others who fame as movie sidekicks included Gabby Hayes, Pat Buttram, Pat Brady, and Dub “Cannonball” Taylor.

Forms of Country Humor A song is comedic because (1) it tells a story with a funny twist; (2) the lyric is witty and humorous; and/or (3) the delivery of the song by the performer is entertainingly funny. Humorous songs have been an important part of show business for a very simple reason: People like to laugh and have a good time. People especially like to laugh when the pompous, high, and mighty are brought down a notch or two, and/or when an everyday experience can be shown in a new, different, and humorous light. In “rube comedy,” the rube usually was elevated above those who assumed they were better than he was. Here’s an example: A stranger wearing a fancy suit and driving a big car pulls up to an old farmer working in the field: stranger:  Where does this road go? farmer:  I’ve lived here all my life and I ain’t seen it go nowhere. stranger:  Do you know the way to Little Rock? farmer:  No, but there’s a big rock just down the road a piece. stranger:  Well, do you know how to get to the Interstate? farmer:  Never heard of it. stranger:  You don’t know much, do you? farmer:  Well, I ain’t lost.

Most of the comedy in the early days of country music was broad; the rube and/or the blackface comedian was especially popular before giving way to the “country bumpkin” character, who is “simple,” naïve, and not worldly in any sense. As opposed to rube comedy where the butt of the joke is the “sophistical” city slicker, in “redneck comedy” the redneck is the butt of the joke. The difference is subtle; perhaps it can be boiled down to the rube being “louder” and more extroverted than the “country bumpkin.” In the postwar era in country music, comedy skits, in which the whole group were once involved, gradually gave way to a single comedian who was often a member of the band (usually the bass player), with the singer or bandleader generally serving as the straight man. Several bands had members who dressed like a woman for comic effect; for example, in W. Lee O’Daniels’s Light Crust Doughboys and, later, in Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys, steel guitar player Leon McAuliff dressed in a grass skirt. Other performers, like Speck Rhodes in Porter Wagoner’s group, dressed in loud suits to create a comic effect. Because the era of the blackface entertainer was coming to an end, it was no longer fashionable or tasteful to do blackface before audiences but, since their comedy often depended on broad comedy and stereotypes, country comedians adapted with other forms of visual humor, such as loud clothing or cross-dressing. Later, comedians traveled as an act all their own; part of the show but separate from any group, band, or singer. During the 1950s, the “package” show became an important part of the country music business. Here, a number of acts—usually at least half a dozen—would play a civic arena or municipal auditorium in major cities. In each of those shows, along with the musical turns, there would be a comedian; here is where the careers of Lonzo and Oscar, Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, 40

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and Rod Brasfield received major exposure and attention. The package shows changed comedy in country music in some ways. Each major act was usually allotted 20 minutes—hardly enough time to do their top hits. Since there was a comedian like Archie Campbell or Don Bowman on the package to do nothing but comedy, many acts no longer included a comedian in the band. This change allowed musicians to just be musicians, instead of having to double as comedians. It brought a new seriousness to the musical performances, and helped country music to be accepted by urban audiences outside the South, but it also brought an end to the comedy songs and skits from a number of traveling acts. Nonetheless, country comedy took center stage in 1969 when Hee Haw began on CBS. Hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark, the show was “originally developed as a summer replacement for the canceled Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” but without the political controversy that often surrounded its predecessor (Zimmerman 140). Many in the Nashville music community hated the show at first because it brought to light—and reinforced—all of the stereotypes that the country music business was trying to get away from, “specifically, that of country bumpkins running around in overalls, touting their ties to the farm” (Zimmerman 141). This was the period of the “Nashville Sound,” when fiddle and steel guitar were replaced by violins and piano, and performers wore sports coats, suits, even tuxedos. Country music was trying to avoid the redneck and rube ­images, to appeal to urban audiences, and to get away from stage sets of haybales and barns. However, viewers loved the show and realized the performers were just having fun, playing at being rednecks. Country musicians, meanwhile, appreciated the national exposure the TV show brought. The writers for Hee Haw used a lot of corny skits based on the old vaudeville routines. Here is an example of a routine between show regular Archie Campbell and co-host Roy Clark: clark:  Well, where’s Jody today? campbell:  Didn’t I tell you? We had a terrible accident while we were flying! clark:  You did? What happened? campbell:  Well, I was practicing my stunt flying and done a few rolls and flips and Jody fell out of the plane! clark:  That’s terrible! campbell:  Well, he had a parachute with him. clark:  What a relief. That’s good! campbell:  No, that’s bad. It didn’t open. clark:  That is bad! campbell:  No, it’s good. There was a haystack down on the ground below him. clark:  Oh, that’s good. campbell:  No, that’s bad. You see, there was a pitchfork in the haystack. clark:  Oh, that’s bad! campbell:  No, that was good ’cause he missed the pitchfork! clark:  Oh, that’s good! campbell:  Nope, that’s bad. You see, he missed the haystack, too.

Although it was dropped by CBS in 1971, along with other popular country comedies such as Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies, as the network pursued a more urban and younger audience, Hee Haw continued in production for another 20 years, offered in syndication to any network, until it was finally canceled in 1992.

Humor in Country Songs You can’t keep humor out of country music. It is a social music and people want to have fun when they see a show. Both musicians and audiences need humor but, as comedy became less a matter of doing a routine or skits in a live show, the humorous song began to play an important role. ­Performers who became known for humorous songs include “Little” Jimmy Dickens, Ben Colder (the alter ego of Sheb Wooley), Simon Crum (the alter ego of Ferlin Husky), Roger Miller, and 41

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Ray Stevens, while even “serious” artists like Ernest Tubb, Merle Travis, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash also recorded humorous tracks. Some country songs discussed below deal with comic situations. In others, the singer uses humor to look back on something more serious. Little Jimmy Dickens was particularly known for the latter. Dickens was a mainstream country artist who also sang humorous songs. In “Sleepin’ at the Foot of the Bed” (written by Happy Wilson and Luther Patrick and a hit in 1950), the singer laments that, when kinfolk visited, he had to give up his warm mattress to Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Fred while he slept at the foot of the bed. Dickens complains about “a big foot settin’ in your face” and “cold toenails a-scratchin’ your back. … I’ll tell the world you ain’t lost a thing / Never sleepin’ at the foot of the bed.” Dickens’s first chart record was “Take an Old Cold ’Tater (and Wait)” in 1949. This song, written by E.M. Bartlett, tells of a youngster who, when company or preachers came to dinner, had to be “right still until the whole crowd ate” while his mother admonished him “Jim, take a tater and wait” (qtd. in Horstman 114). Meanwhile, the youngster thought he’d “starve to death before my time would come” and, when the chicken finally arrived, “The feet and neck were all that’s left upon the china plate.” Dickens also sang “Out Behind the Barn” (written by Boudleaux Bryant and a hit in 1954), telling one and all “I got my education out behind the barn” as he chronicled spankings from his father, smoking his first cigarette, and learning how to kiss. And in 1965, he recorded “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose” (written by Neal Merritt) with the memorable chorus: “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose / May an elephant caress you with its toes / May your wife be plagued with runners in her hose / May the bird of paradise fly up your nose.” Two country artists, Sheb Wooley and Ferlin Huskey, had alter egos for their humorous songs. Ben Colder, the alter ego of Sheb Wooley, recorded a number of “answer songs,” including “Don’t Go Near the Eskimos” (an answer to Rex Allen’s “Don’t Go Near the Indians” in 1962), “Hello Wall No. 2” (1963), “Almost Persuaded No. 2” (1966), “Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later That Same Day)” (1968), and “Little Green Apples No. 2” (1969). However, Wooley’s biggest hit, “The P ­ urple People Eater” (US #1 in 1958), was recorded under his own name. Ferlin Huskey’s alter ego, Simon Crum, did comedy routines as well as songs, although his only comedy songs to chart were “Cuzz Yore So Sweet” (#5 in the US Country Chart in 1955) and “Country Music Is Here to Stay” (#2 in 1958). Even “serious” artists used humor and wit. Ernest Tubb sang about “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” in a 1946 release and “I’m Biting My Fingernails and Thinking of You” in 1949 (he re-recorded the latter with Loretta Lynn for their 1966 Singin’ Again collaboration). Merle Travis sang “Divorce Me C.O.D.” (1946), then recorded a song about a love who was “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed” (1947), which is indeed “packed” with takeoffs on advertising slogans, and wrote “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)” for Tex Williams (1947). In addition to the last-mentioned song, Tex Williams recorded “Don’t Telephone, Don’t Telegraph, Tell a Woman” (1948), “Life Gits Tee-Jus, Don’t It?” (1948), and “The Night Miss Nancy Ann’s Hotel for Single Girls Burned Down” (1971). Perhaps the most “serious” artist in the history of country music was Hank Williams. At least, he is well known for his songs of hurt and heartache while his tragic life story is considered the quintessential saga of a country singer-songwriter. Yet Williams had a healthy dose of humor in a number of his songs; in fact, his first recording to reach the Billboard charts was “Move It On Over,” a song detailing the woes of a husband who comes in late from a night on the town to find his wife has changed the locks and he must sleep in the dog house (#4 in the US Billboard Country chart in 1947). Among Williams’s other releases, “Mind Your Own Business” (1949), “My ­Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (1949), “Howlin’ at The Moon” (1951), “Hey, Good Lookin’” (1951), and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (1952) all display wit and humor. All of those songs charted while he was alive. Humor comes through in his songs whether in the savagely sardonic “Please Make Up Your Mind” (released under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter in 1952), or when he elicits a smile flirting about a good time (“Hey, Good Lookin’”). 42

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Much has been made of the fact that at the time of Hank Williams’s death, his song “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” was on the Country chart (and reached #1 three weeks later); what historians have often failed to point out is that this is a humorous song despite the ominous title because he uses a “poor, pitiful me” approach to his condition. It’s hard luck with a smile, a song full of irony: “If it was rainin’ gold I wouldn’t stand a chance / I wouldn’t have a pocket in my patched up pants / No matter how I struggle and strive / I’ll never get out of this world alive.”1 Another “serious” country artist was Johnny Cash, known for both gospel tunes and songs about love, or politics, yet some of his biggest hits were humorous numbers. In “A Boy Named Sue” (1969), Cash relates the trials and tribulations of a young man beset with the unusual—and, in his times, unfortunate—name of “Sue” and his quest to track down his father, the S.O.B. that called him so. “One Piece at a Time” (1976) is about a working man’s revenge, smuggling parts from an auto factory to construct a car that has bits and pieces from a number of different makes and models, and resembles no other vehicle on the road. Cash, nicknamed “the Man in Black,” once released a song called “The Chicken in Black” (1984), about the unfortunate consequences of brain and body transplants; and in 1966, he recorded an album of novelty songs, Everybody Loves a Nut, which included such tracks as “The One on the Right Is on the Left” (1966), spoofing the politics of 1960s folk musicians, and “Boa Constrictor,” a song about being swallowed by a giant snake; it was written by Shel Silverstein, the humorist and children’s author, who also wrote “A Boy Named Sue.” A number of “singing cowboy” acts have recorded comical or humorous songs that became hits. Gene Autry’s biggest chart success was with the novelty Christmas song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (#1 US single in 1949). Cowboy star Roy Rogers had a hit with “(There’ll Never Be Another) Pecos Bill” in 1948, while the Sons of Pioneers, the group Rogers founded when he was still known as Leonard Slye, reached #5 on the US Country chart in 1947 with the much-misspelled “Cigareets, Whusky, and Wild, Wild Women.” Cowboy singer Tex Ritter enjoyed hits with “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often” (#1 in 1945), “When You Leave Don’t Slam the Door” (1946), and “Rye Whiskey” and “Rock and Rye” (both 1948). Dale Evans, Roy Rogers’s third wife, cautioned young women, “Don’t Ever Fall in Love with a Cowboy” (1949) because he’ll always love his horse more. The humor in those songs usually came with a comedic twist in the storyline rather than a hit-you-over-the-head type of humor. The king of country music humor in the 1960s was Roger Miller. Always good-naturedly humorous on stage—“We always do a highly informal show … the higher we get the more informal we are” (“Roger Miller,” 1:08)—Miller also recorded numerous novelty and comedy songs. In “King of the Road” (1965), he poked gentle fun at the life of a hobo, traveling from town to town (“Third boxcar, midnight train / destination, Bangor, Maine”), willing to take advantage of others when the opportunity presents itself (“And every lock that ain’t locked, when no one’s around”), but willing to work (“… two hours of pushin’ broom / Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room”) and a friend to both the train engineers and their children—he’s a “man of means by no means, king of the road.” Miller’s other wacky songs included “Dang Me” (a #1 Country hit in 1964), with a verse that rhymes “purple” with “maple syrple” while admitting he “lacks fourteen dollars having twenty-seven cents.” His wit and clever lyrics were also apparent in “Chug-a-Lug” (1964); “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” (1966); “I’ve Been a Long Time Leaving (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone)” (1966); “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” (1966); and “Do-Wacka-Do” (1965), in which the singer tells the rich man, “I wish I had your good luck charm / And you had a do-wacka-do / Wacka-do, wacka-do, wacka-do.” The comedy record as a situation comedy was perfected by Ray Stevens. Born Harold Ray Ragsdale (Stevens was his mother’s maiden name) in Atlanta, Georgia, he had his first local hit with the self-penned sentimental ballad, “Silver Bracelet,” in 1957, the year he left high school. He studied music at Georgia State in Atlanta and signed with National Recording Company (NRC) in Atlanta as a songwriter and session musician. 43

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Figure 4.1  R ay Stevens. Photograph courtesy of the Ray Stevens Archives.

Stevens’s first chart record, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” (#108 in the US singles chart in 1960), was a comedy recording based on a popular television show about a Canadian Mountie and his dog who kept law and order and rescued those in trouble in that northern land. The syndicate that owned the Sergeant Preston TV series did not find the song funny, so it was withdrawn from the market. Stevens learned his lesson and, shortly after he moved to Mercury Records in Nashville in 1961, his next chart single, “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills,” satirized medical panaceas using a made-up name.2 At Mercury, he worked in A&R and in the studio as producer and session man while continuing to record novelty songs such as “Ahab the Arab,” his first Top Ten hit (#5 in the Hot 100 in 1962) and “Harry the Hairy Ape” (1963). In 1965, Stevens moved over to Monument Records and had chart success with more serious songs such as “Mr Businessman” (1968), but it was ­Gitarzan (1969), his first all novelty/comedy album, which made him a full-fledged star and ended his studio career as a first call session piano player. Stevens became a regular on The Andy Williams Show (NBC TV) and, in 1970, hosted the summer replacement show called Andy Williams Presents Ray Stevens. His search for a song to open and close the show led him to write and record his most popular song, “Everything Is Beautiful,” which reached #1 in the US singles chart and earned him a Grammy for “Best Pop Male Vocal.” “Everything is Beautiful” was not a comedy record—like another major hit, his cover of Errol Garner’s “Misty” (#3 in the Country chart in 1975)—but Stevens continued to mix more serious songs with novelty recordings such as “The Streak,” based on a college fad making the rounds on campuses at the time, whereby someone would run naked from point A to point B without getting caught but exciting those watching along the way. That song held the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three consecutive weeks in 1974 and also reached #3 in the Country chart— indeed, as the 1970s progressed, Stevens found himself increasingly considered a “country” act. He was named “Comedian of the Year” by Nashville’s Music City News for nine consecutive years and his recordings landed on country radio as country fans embraced his comedy; among them, “In the Mood” (recorded under the name “Henhouse Five Plus Too,” US Country #39 in 1977), “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow” (#11 on the Adult Contemporary chart, 1979), “Shriner’s Convention” (#7 on the Country chart, 1980), “Mississippi Squirrel Revival” (US Country #20 in 1985), and “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex” (Country #41 in 1987). Ray Stevens was a major attraction in Branson, Missouri, during the 1990s, performing at his own theatre and then resumed touring but was winding down his business and his concerts, 44

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looking at retirement, when he realized that he loved what he was doing and wanted to continue. An intensely patriotic man with strong views on politics, Stevens increasingly placed his comedy in the political arena, commenting on current events and trends. Shortly after 9/11, Stevens wrote and recorded “Osama-Yo’ Mama” about Osama Bin Laden (US Country #48 in 2002); since that time, he has continued to express his political views through his songs while also recording ­nonpolitical novelties such as “Taylor Swift Is Stalking Me” (2015).

Conclusion There have been a number of comedic songs in the history of country music, a genre that seems to lend itself to a humorous twist in the lyrics. And they continue to appear, although perhaps less often than in the past; for example, the 2006 song, “Backwards,” by Rascal Flats, satirizes familiar tropes in “hurtin’” country music by listing all the things in life a man has restored to him (“You get your house back, you get your dog back / You get your best friend Jackson back / You get your truck back / You get your hair back … You get your first and second wives back”) when “you play a country song backwards.” In general, however, country music has become rather serious about having fun, instead of having funny songs. The old rube and redneck comedy routines have been replaced by full-time comedians like Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy; their “Blue Collar Comedy Tours” are just stand-up comedy; there is no musical star carrying the show. Such comics assume the persona of a redneck while making fun of rednecks by exposing their supposed families and neighbors as stereotypes. Foxworthy has attracted a large fan base with his “You-might-be-a-redneck” schtick, where he advises the audience that they just might be rednecks too if they prefer car keys to Q-tips for cleaning their ears, if they own a home that’s mobile and five cars that aren’t, if their boat has not left the driveway in 15 years, if they burn their yards rather than mow them, or if they have relatives named “Bubba” and “Junior.” In her book, Sing Your Heart Out Country Boy, Dorothy Horstman observes that southern humor “is a private humor—a kinship humor—and much of it is aimed at pulling the group together and fending off snickers from the outside” (90). She continues that “much country humor is a foil to urban stereotypes. It only seems naive. It is deliberately corny, but not because its authors are unlettered and unknowledgeable and unsophisticated. It is corny precisely because they are sophisticated” (90). That corny sophistication is what keeps country music humor alive and well today. Country performers want to have laughs in their shows for the same, basic reason that Uncle Dave ­Macon did: They realize they are entertainers, and entertainment consists of providing variety in a ­performance, not just a series of sad songs. The humor itself may change with the times, but the essential need for humor does not. The old time comedian dressed in loud clothing and presenting broad comedy is an important part of country music’s past, but he is a dying breed, replaced by the witty aside or humorous lyric. Contemporary audiences are less willing to hear recycled vaudeville routines when they go to live shows, but audiences through the years have not changed in one important respect: To put it simply, country audiences want to escape, however briefly, the workaday world in which they live. And that’s why humor will always be an important part of country music: It makes going to a country music show fun. Ain’t it funny how that never changes?

Notes 1 These lines are in the published version of the song copyrighted by Acuff-Rose, but not in Williams’s recorded version. 2 “Jeremiah Peabody’s …” held the record for having the longest name of any song on the Billboard Top 100, until supplanted by “Medley: Intro ‘Venus’ / Sugar Sugar / No Reply / I’ll Be Back / Drive My Car / Do You Want to Know a Secret / We Can Work It Out / I Should Have Known Better / Nowhere Man / You’re Going to Lose That Girl / Stars on 45” in 1981.


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Works Cited Green, Douglas B. Country Roots: The Origins of Country Music. Hawthorn, 1976. Horstman, Dorothy. Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy. E.P. Dutton, 1975. Jones, Loyal. Country Music: Humorists and Comedians. U of Illinois P, 2008. “Roger Miller ‘Do-Wacka-Do.’” YouTube, uploaded by NevilleMatheson71, 13 July 2010, com/watch?v=UI-Y0CMGwxo. Wolfe, Charles. “Uncle Dave Macon.” The Stars of Country Music, edited by Bill Malone and Judith ­McCulloh, Avon, 1975, pp. 40–63. Zimmerman, Lee. “Cornpone Country.” No Depression, Spring 2017, pp. 138–43.


Part 2

Humor in Rock Music Genres

In Part 2, we focus on the use of humor in rock music, the most dominant popular music form from, say, the mid-1960s through to the early 1990s. For the purposes of this volume, we date the rock era with the advent of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan’s shift to the electric guitar. To create a new youth music, these and other rock artists expanded the parameters of the rock-and-roll rhythms of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly, and blues forms developed by Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf. The new rock artists often wrote more daring and often more politically charged lyrics, finding new sources of influence in literature and in other musics, like music hall, folk, and classical. In a short time, through experimentation, rock music morphed into multiple subgenres. We explore several of those subgenres here: psychedelia, metal, punk, hardcore punk, and hip hop. Some may quibble with our inclusion of hip hop under the rock category. We take our lead from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which includes hip hop under the rock, or rock-and-roll, umbrella. By the early 1990s, hip hop was challenging rock as the dominant pop music form (subsequently to supplant it), and we wanted to represent that transition. Hence, hip hop is included in the succession of musical forms represented, in roughly chronological order, in the chapters in Part 2. In the opening essay, “Grumbly Grimblies, Frozen Dogs, and Other Boojums: Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English Psychedelia,” Peter Grant studies the English psychedelic movement beginning in the late 1960s. In contrast to their American counterparts, English musicians, Grant argues, found psychedelic inspiration not in LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) but in their childhood reading lists, which, for just about every English child, included Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne. Songwriters like Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Peter Daltrey (Kaleidoscope), and others went on to create their own fantastical characters, nonsense verse, and imagery around themes of anthropomorphism, lost childhood, and the quest. In “The Clown Figure in 1970s Rock Music,” Andy Bennett considers the clown figure in rock music, a figure not often acknowledged. Focusing on performers Zal Cleminson (Sensational Alex Harvey Band), Ron Mael (Sparks), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), and Angus Young (AC/DC), Bennett studies the clown as both a comic and subversive element in pop-rock visual and performative texts. An atypical figure in a rock band, the clown questions rock’s notions of authenticity, negotiating between, on the one hand, rock conventions involving musicianship, songwriting, and appearance and, on the other hand, an infusion of comedy into the performance. For the bands just mentioned, the clown became a crucial part of their brand.

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With the following three chapters, we see a shift in the fantastical humor of the psychedelics and the absurdist humor of the clown to the darker and more political humor of metal, punk, and hardcore artists. However, in “Humor in Metal,” Deena Weinstein is quick to note that, in addition to “Bakhtinian black humor,” metal artists have employed a varied arsenal of humorous strategies, including spoofs, puns, and satire. Weinstein examines how the humor permeates all aspects of metal art, from music and lyrics to album art, videos, performance, and dress. Similarly, in “‘Anarchy in Woolworths’: Punk Comedy and Humor,” Russ Bestley argues that comedy and humor are central to an understanding of the language and practice of punk—although the casual listener often misses such features. Punk, he writes, may be provocative, political, and subversive, but it has always embraced comedy and humor, employing satire, hyperbole, parody, ­self-deprecation, and profanity for humorous effect. In “‘Mommy’s Dead’: The Gallows Humor of Hardcore Punk,” Dennis McDaniel studies the Swiftian humor in hardcore punk. Often shocking and grotesque, such humor expressed the hardcore artist’s reaction to President Ronald Reagan’s policies and pronouncements on such issues as family values, the sanctity of life, economics, and military might. For many punks and hardcore punks, dark humor inspired political action. With the penultimate chapter of Part 2, we turn to hip hop and David Caplan’s “Hip Hop’s Sophisticated Comedy.” Caplan focuses on Jay-Z, Eminem, and 2 Live Crew to demonstrate how hip-hop artists have used, among other skills and techniques, verbal dexterity, rhyming, and wordplay to respond to and bait critics who deny the music’s artistry and who warn of the social and personal dangers of hip hop. In astonishing ways, the hip-hop artist has turned what could be a liability into a source of inspiration and a surprising strength. In the final chapter, Victoria Willis examines geek rock, a subgenre derived from alternative rock. In “‘The Earth is doomed’: Geek Rock, Humor, and the End of the World,” Willis points out how geek rockers like Nerf Herder and Jonathan Coulton address the imminent apocalypse with dance and light humor. Relying on incongruity, these artists create absurdist situations drawing from sci-fi prototypes like the mad-scientist and supernatural figures like the zombie. In some ways, in their use of the fantastical, geek artists recall the psychedelic musicians of the late 1960s. As a whole, Part 2 attests to the ambition of the artist to create something new and to find new sources of inspiration not commonly associated with the progenitors of rock. For the artists under discussion in this section, humor is/was an important source of energy, one that enlivens their work and adds dimension to their artistry.


5 Grumbly Grimblies, Frozen Dogs, and Other Boojums Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English Psychedelia1 Peter Grant ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely. —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

There is little doubt that humor is national in character (Easthope; Davies). It is also frequently remarked how different English and American humor is. In his popular history English Humour for Beginners, George Mikes suggests that “Britain is the only country in the world which is inordinately proud of its sense of humour,” and he focuses specifically in his book on the English tradition of literary humor and nonsense, which reached its heyday in the late nineteenth-century work of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and others. In essence, nonsense is a subversive form of humor. It takes delight in establishing exaggerated situations in which order is undermined or ridiculously maintained, whether linguistically or logically. Much of this chapter is devoted to musical versions of this literary form. My suggestion is also that in the late 1960s, psychedelic rock music developed along significantly different lines in Britain and America, as Joe Boyd has recognized: “By the spring of ’67 there was a very strong feeling that Britain had its own identity. Music jumped way further from the American base to create something that was very European” (qtd. in Watts 68). Although also influenced strongly by the folk revival, American bands remained heavily blues based, whereas English bands admitted influences from both English folk and European art music (Morrison). Lyrically too there were differences. With the exceptions of Grace Slick’s reference to Lewis Carroll (“White Rabbit”) and, her later band, the Jefferson Airplane’s to Winnie-the-Pooh (“The House at Pooneil Corners” and “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”), nonsense and children’s literature was not a fertile source for Americans, whereas whimsical, often childlike, humor was a distinguishing feature of much English output. English musicians were less attracted to urban settings, instead gravitating to the countryside to compose; it was only the ersatz Flower Pot Men who wanted to go to San Francisco. This was part of an English pastoral tradition filtered through the classical and literary teaching in the public and grammar schools attended by many of the musicians. This encouraged an approach that mined the surreal visions of Lewis Carroll, the nonsense verse of Edward Lear, children’s classics by Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne, and the zany comedy of Peter Cook and Spike Milligan. These sources have continued to influence musicians, notably the progressive rock music of the 1970s and more recent symphonic and folk metal bands.


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Never concerned with appearing silly or childish these excursions, lysergic or otherwise, inspired some exquisite moments of original humor and this chapter will explore a few, including Caravan’s In the Land of Grey and Pink, Blossom Toes’ We Are Ever So Clean, Donovan’s HMS Donovan, and Kaleidoscope’s Tangerine Dream.2 This Dog Is No Puppy Dog —Robin Williamson “God Dog” English psychedelia was a world populated by anthropomorphic animals which had their origins as far back in English Literature as the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Nonnes Preestes Tale of the Cok and Hen, Chauntecleer and Pertelote,” better known in modern English as “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” is both Chaucer’s most lighthearted but also most artistically complex tale. Part of the epic Canterbury Tales, it was written in the 1390s and is a fable with a world of talking animals who reflect both human perception and fallacy. Its protagonist is Chauntecleer, a proud cock who dreams of his approaching doom in the form of a fox. However, by its conclusion, the tale metamorphoses into “a mock-epic” mingling “epic, burlesque, parody, tragedy, dream vision and debate, romance and allegory … a confusion of perspectives in its kaleidoscope of genres” (Finlayson 493). Although the literature of the late fifteenth century was supposed to illustrate religious morals, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” pokes fun at this convention. It has no moral purpose other than to subvert the rhetorical and poetic practice of the day (Manning 416). It is, in some ways, an example of fifteenth-century nonsense and its “kaleidoscope of genres” is reminiscent of the progress of many songs of the psychedelic era (Echard 93, 96, 101–02).3 Of course, anthropomorphism was not the only ingredient in late 1960s British psychedelic lyrics but it did sometimes feel somewhat ubiquitous. Kaleidoscope sang about strawberry monkeys and feathered tigers; there was Robin Williamson’s “God Dog” and Ray Davies’s “Phenomenal Cat”—the closest to psychedelia the Kinks ever came. Over 600 years, many things had changed but the essential anthropomorphic references remained. So too had references to Chaucer—most notably when Procol Harum referenced “The Miller’s Tale” in “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” “God Dog” was a deliberate “recreation” of a medieval folk tale and, as if to emphasize its timeless qualities, Williamson gave the song to folk purist Shirley Collins rather than release it as an Incredible String Band recording.4 Nevertheless, the ISB’s 1967 The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion was infused with literary references from Lewis Carroll (“The Mad Hatter’s Song”) to A.A. Milne (“Little Cloud”) and was called “a work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour” by Rowan Williams, the future Archbishop of Canterbury (qtd. in Jack 54). Syd Barrett’s work, both with Pink Floyd and after, contains an entire menagerie, including a mouse called Gerald (in “Bike”), “Lucifer Sam” the Siamese cat (originally “Percy the Rat Catcher”), and an “Effervescing Elephant.” Most of these songs had more than a touch of wry English humor, but it was probably Blossom Toes’ “Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog” which most clearly played for laughs as their errant canine escapes into the countryside to shout at cows and eat wooly “sheeps [sic].” The song begins with a spoken introduction imitating the “mock serious” tone of much British comedy of the period, copied from BBC news reports, before repetitive off-key guitars and military-style drums relate the dog’s tale of adventure to the frozen wastes. As in classic nonsense, we never actually discover where the dog has been.

Why Do All the Names Begin With B? There was a further element added to the earlier medieval anthropomorphism, which came through nineteenth-century nonsense verse and stories most notably by Lewis Carroll and ­Edward Lear. Carroll’s nonsense is logical and more complicated than Lear’s emotional approach 50

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and, thus, Carroll endows everything with the power of speech so that endless exchanges of words become possible. Flowers, insects, animals, legs of mutton, Christmas puddings, playing cards, and ­chessmen can speak. In English psychedelia, we therefore have a singing Hedgehog (on another 5000 Spirits song), talking flies, and fruit machines or the ability to hear smiles (“A Lesson Perhaps,” “(Further Reflections) In the Room of Percussion,” both 1967, and “A Dream for Julie,” 1969, all by Kaleidoscope). As we’ve already noted, nonsense is a very English phenomenon. Emile Cammaerts declares that nonsense is a uniquely English tradition (Cammaerts 11). Edward Strachey in his introduction to Lear’s Nonsense Songs and Stories claims that the practice of nonsense has a long tradition in English literature that shows how the incongruities of life paradoxically bring out a deeper expression of harmony through contradictions. Khasawneh concludes that nonsense is therefore the product of a sophisticated literary culture rather than an archaic style produced by dreams and madness. It is an approach for coping with the complexities of the modern world by constituting an aesthetic realm and making a new kind of art. Nonsense also enjoys a lyrical quality as in Lear’s “The Jumblies” and “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” which display hybrids between nonsense and poetry. Musicality directs nonsense not toward meaning but toward its power to produce hedonistic reactions in the reader. Examples here include alliterative, repetitive lines such as “They went to sea in sieve they did. In a sieve they went to sea,” or “Far and few” from “The Jumblies” and the onomatopoeic, fake Anglo-Saxon opening and closing verses of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” The link here with the 1960s and the production of new forms of expression in popular music is hard to avoid, and Les Fleurs De Lys (containing future members of both King Crimson and Jefferson Starship) transmogrified Lear into the “Gong with the ­Luminous Nose” (1968). John Lennon admitted the direct inspiration of Lewis Carroll and most of his songs of ­1966–1967 show at least an indirect influence (Roos). The two clearest examples are “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus,” which also display some elements of Edward Lear even though it was more “its author’s ultimate anti-institutional rant” (Chapman, Syd 147; ­Macdonald 267; Sheff 182). Nevertheless, the lines “I am the eggman / They are the eggmen / I am the ­walrus! / Goo goo g’joob!”—a double Carrollism—are regularly voted the most ­nonsensical lyrics in the history of music (“Top Ten”; Gibsone; McAloon). The influence of authors such as Lear and Carroll as well as Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth ­Grahame on the work of Syd Barrett has been well documented (Chapman, Syd 143; Palacios 19–20). However, Barrett’s literary references ranged far wider, encompassing everything from Chaucer and Shakespeare via the Romantic poets to nursery rhymes (Chapman, Syd 64, 217–20; Palacios 113; 122). The clearest example is his song “Octopus,” which is “a map of deftly interwoven sources extending in a wide arc to include Elizabethan sonnets, Shakespeare, the poems of Robert Graves, obscure nursery rhymes, traditional folk songs, eighteenth-century ballads, excerpts from early twentieth century sporting magazines, Victorian travelogues and Edwardian limericks” (Palacios 361). One important aspect of nonsense is what it is not. It is neither allegorical nor metaphorical—it means what it says, nothing more. Michael Holquist defines nonsense as A system in which words … mean only one thing, and they get that meaning through divergence from the system of the nonsense itself, as well as through divergence from an existing language system. … Nonsense is play with order only. It achieves its effects not from contrasting order and confusion, but rather by contrasting one system of order against another system of order. (105–06; see also Lecercle 3) A good example comes in Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark” in which all the names of the crew members begin with the letter B. Why? Because they all begin with B, of course. 51

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Elizabeth Sewell suggests that “the aim of nonsense is to inhibit one half of the mind and nothing more hinders the dream or imagination than to have its pictures provided” (111–12). Nonsense actually employs complex and ingenious strategies to avoid metaphor and uses sentences that can have no possible connection which allow a metaphorical interpretation (Lecercle 63–65). This tradition has a noble successor in some of the word games in the BBC Radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, itself an offshoot from I’m Sorry I’ll Read that Again, required cult listening in late 1960s Britain. Likewise, English psychedelic songs are usually anti-metaphorical and searching for hidden meaning is doomed to failure. “Newspaper taxis” (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) have no real connection with media manipulation; Happiness Stan’s quest for the missing half of the moon (from the Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake) is not a metaphor for seeking enlightenment among materialism and Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” just lets in water and nothing else. Over the Atlantic, this was perhaps one reason why Ogdens’ did so badly even though it reached #1 in Britain (Altrockchick). Some American bands did have names that suggested a surreal, childlike world, such as ­Strawberry Alarm Clock or the Chocolate Watchband, or even the direct influence of Lewis C ­ arroll or ­Kenneth Grahame including Frumious Bandersnatch and Wind in the Willows (for whom a young Deborah Harry was back-up vocalist). However, their lyrics tended to depict a realistic, or very slightly distorted world of incense and peppermints or mushroom pillows, and in Frumious Bandersnatch’s “Cheshire” the band simply want the cat to share their heavy load. Had they been English their lyrical universe would undoubtedly have depicted the edible timepieces themselves or debated linguistics with the vanishing feline. The only American band whose work is remotely comparable is probably Pearls Before Swine whose first two albums (One Nation Underground, 1967, and Balaklava, 1968) have something of the English whimsical spirit, the latter with actual recordings of Florence Nightingale and the trumpeter at the Charge of the Light Brigade. But their writer, Tom Rapp, inevitably includes more down-to-earth social and political elements derived from the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War protests that so dominated the late 1960s in the US yet, generally, did not impinge on English songwriting.5 Musically too, Pearls Before Swine shared more in common with their British counterparts. Frumious Bandersnatch are musically close to the San Francisco “standard” psychedelic sound of Quicksilver or early Jefferson Airplane and Wind in the Willows adopt elements of both baroque folk and jug-band comedy, whereas Rapp’s band share many similarities with the more dream-like folk of Donovan or the Incredible String Band. Visions of childhood rush past my eyes —Peter Daltrey, “Flight from Ashiya” Many of the English songwriters owed their encounters with children’s literature and nonsense to their schooling, whether in the public schools or state grammar schools and this was often reinforced by later art school training. Another source was more recent children’s literature. Probably the most influential books, read by virtually every British child in the 1940s and 1950s, were Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the ­Willows and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. The former, essentially a somewhat reactionary morality tale of class distinction, was the basis for, among others, Marc Bolan’s “Romany Soup” (1969) and its chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” provided the title for Pink Floyd’s first album. Milne’s stories, written as much to purge the writer of his World War I experiences and reinforce his later pacifist convictions so as to amuse his son, were utilized more for their whimsical nature and evocations of childhood though Syd Barrett, the Incredible String Band, and Trees all referenced Milne’s works directly (Chapman, Syd 163). The books of Lear, Carroll, Belloc, and others consumed by English children in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were not, as Rob Chapman has noted, children’s books per se but instead books that mourn the passing of childhood (Chapman, Psychedelia 501). William Empson in his 1935 52

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essay, “Alice in Wonderland: The Child as Swain,” locates the origins for this yearning for childhood certainties to the work of the nineteenth-century Romantic poets, particularly “Wordsworth and Coleridge … and it runs through all Victorian and Romantic literature” (Chapman, Psychedelia 502–03). Chapman concludes that the yearning for lost childhood was all-consuming among English psychedelic musicians to the extent where “there were times in the late 1960s when the English counter-culture seemed to resemble one huge kindergarten party” (Psychedelia 503). This even found reality in events such as the “14-Hour Technicolour Dream” at London’s Roundhouse in April 1967 and Pink Floyd’s “Games for May” at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the following month. Both the events and the songs often invoked a lost, rural arcadia, which recreated the settings depicted in the writings of Carroll, Grahame, and Milne. Some bands even went to the length of retreating to the countryside to write and rehearse: Traffic at Aston Tyrrold, Fairport Convention at Farley Chamberlayne, and the Incredible String Band at Velindre, the places themselves evocative of English medieval romance. The only American example that readily comes to mind was the Band and their sojourn in “Big Pink” during 1967. Though the resulting album also appeared to represent an attempt to recapture a lost culture, it did so in a very different musical format, that of rural Americana.6 So the main theme of much of English psychedelia wasn’t love or drugs but nostalgia for the innocent vision of the child, though sometimes through a lysergic filter. Palacios says of Syd ­Barrett’s songs that they “were filled with nostalgia for childhood; and awareness that it could not be regained” (236). A further influence on English lyricists was the radio and TV shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s such as The Goon Show, I’m Sorry I’ll Read that Again (ISIRTA), At Last the 1948 Show, and Do Not Adjust Your Set. The latter three featured members of the future Goodies and Monty P ­ ython teams though both of these shows came later. All had a devoted youth following and ­ISIRTA’s Wikipedia entry suggests that live recordings were closer to rock concerts than TV shows. There was also the highly influential television adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, produced and directed by Jonathan Miller, which was shown on the BBC in December 1966. Miller’s intended audience was not children but adults; it was screened after 9:00 p.m., well after most children’s bedtimes. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland became a cult text in the 1960s. … Preoccupations of ’60s art, music and culture – alternative states of mind, nostalgia for childhood and the loss of innocence – all seemed presciently captured in the surreal story of Alice” (Broakes). Perhaps the high point of late British psychedelia was Donovan’s double album HMS Donovan, which incorporated many children’s verses, including Carroll’s “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and “Jabberwocky.” Though originally conceived in 1968, it wasn’t released until 1971, when it was criticized as hopelessly passé. It sold poorly, and Epic Records refused to release the album in the US. Yet it is a perfect rendition of its literary sources, with Donovan utilizing deliberately exaggerated enunciation and vocal melodies that follow the meter of the rhymes. The album has risen in status over the years and had a considerable impact on Kate Bush, who has remarked, “It’s a wonderful album, really quite magical, one of his best, and the artwork on it was very imaginative and it did very much tie into the musical content” (qtd. in Dombal). The artwork (and an accompanying video) were by John Byrne, now far better known as a playwright, under his then pseudonym “Patrick.” Byrne’s faux-naïf paintings recreate the look and feel of much ­n ineteenth-century children’s illustration. Are you all sitting comftybold two square on your botty? Then I’ll begin … —Stanley Unwin and the Small Faces “Happiness Stan” Lear’s and Carroll’s works also often involved the quest, another theme revived from Chaucer and from Thomas Malory. In Carroll’s work, we find, most notably, “The Hunting of the Snark.” In Lear’s work, there is “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “The Story of the Four Little Children 53

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Who Went Round the World.” Even Milne created his own “quest” when Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends went on an “Expotition” to the North Pole. The quest became another key psychedelic theme. The Small Faces constructed their masterpiece Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968) around ­Happiness Stan’s quest and Kaleidoscope’s epic “The Sky Children,” from their 1967 album ­Tangerine Dream, is a modern version of Lear’s “Four Little Children.” The quest also appears in Caravan’s 1970 album In the Land of Grey and Pink, notably its title track, where we encounter the Grumbly Grimblies, who could easily be characters from a Lear story who have eaten too many mushrooms but whose immediate precursor was Syd Barrett’s “Gnome” on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. This is very much a transition album between English psychedelia and its more extended (and serious) successor prog rock. Rolling Stone suggested that it evoked “a Middle Earth sunset, with the music wavering between medieval folk melodies and jazz savvy musos” (“50 Greatest”). Contrary to what several writers have claimed, J.R.R. Tolkien was one author who was not a significant influence on English psychedelia (see, e.g., Simonelli 103). Tolkien’s work was not that well known to the psychedelic generation (the final part of the trilogy had been published in 1955) as Peter Daltrey of Kaleidoscope has said. “What I didn’t do was read our friend Mr. Tolkien. At the time some critics accused me of being too influenced by this Hobbity old bloke. In my ignorance, I’d never even heard of him” (Tambourine 158). Although Palacios claims a Tolkien influence in the work of Syd Barrett (21), it is very difficult to locate as Rob Chapman has demonstrated (Syd 144). It was the next generation of progressive rockers who started to reference his works before Tolkien-inspired rock became a virtual subgenre of metal. From an exhaustive analysis, for every psychedelic song inspired by Tolkien, there are 10 progressive rock songs and a massive 138 from the extreme and symphonic metal genres (see Tolkien Music List). If any of these themes carried forward into later genres, then the quest is a major contender, finding expression in a range of progressive rock (e.g., Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, ELP’s Tarkus, or even Camel’s The Snow Goose) and, more recently, in symphonic metal of which ­Italy’s Rhapsody of Fire are prime exponents. Dutch composer and instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen ­emphasized the links between English psychedelia and progressive metal when he asked Peter Daltrey to write and record the narration for his epic concept album Into the Electric Castle. … and go on till you come to the end: then stop. —Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland In the US, psychedelia was far less influenced by the kinds of literature discussed here, it was not part of American cultural heritage. Peter Daltrey has suggested that, “Psychedelia suited us nicely at the time. The English brand was more fairytale than the USA product which owed more to intoxicants than to J.M. Barrie or the Brothers Grimm” (Tambourine 156). Rob Young summarized the difference neatly: “English psychedelia emphasized not so much the turning on and tuning in, but turning back and tuning in to the echoes of the past” (454, emphasis in original). Although I think Clinton Heylin was a trifle harsh when he said about the West Coast psychedelic bands that all “they did [was] what folk and blues bands had always done, just for a whole lot longer,” he is certainly correct about the musical influences (224). Jefferson Airplane demonstrated the greatest synergy, even though their versions of Carroll and Milne were far more acid-soaked than their English counterparts. The two Milne songs were “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” written by Paul Kantner, and “The House at Pooneil Corners,” mainly written by Marty Balin. Their masterpiece “White Rabbit” was written and performed by Grace Slick while she was still with the Great Society whose version has a long, sinewy, Eastern flavored introduction on the soprano sax. Slick has related that, unlike many ­A merican children, Alice in Wonderland was often read to her as a child and remained a vivid memory well into her adulthood (“RS 500”). This is not to say that English lyricists were always directly influenced by Lear, Carroll, or Grahame. For every John Lennon, there was a Peter Daltrey 54

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or Richard Sinclair. Sinclair of Caravan says of In the Land of Grey and Pink, “as for the lyrics, it’s just a load of words that half mean something” (qtd. in Capewell). Daltrey and Kaleidoscope are a very interesting example. Their two albums in that guise (the latter was Faintly Blowing, 1969) are now lauded as leading examples of psychedelia and their work regularly features in “best of ” compilations. Q magazine ranked Tangerine Dream at #13, above Are You Experienced (#16) and 5000 Spirits (#19), in their listing of the greatest psychedelic albums, yet they were a band that took little part in countercultural activities and never took drugs, other than alcohol. Daltrey has described how hallucinogens were superfluous: As we got deeper into the Sixties it was obvious that LSD was playing a major part in the creativity of some bands. But we didn’t feel the need. … I found it reasonably easy to just imagine it and write about it. All those strawberry monkeys and chocolate children munching on pineapple-pears!” (Tambourine 144) In terms of literature, Daltrey was certainly not directly influenced by Carroll: “It would have been nice to say I was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland and she inhabited all my Kaleidoscope songs …! Sadly not” (Interview). His reading consisted mainly of the great American authors of the twentieth century—Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac—with musical influences from the Beatles (notably Revolver), Dylan, and Donovan. “When John hit us with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ it was as if he’d flung open the doors to a Technicolored musical paradise where everything was possible,” he recalled (Tambourine 141). The classic works of childhood literature and nonsense were, however, so much part of the English psyche that lyricists effortlessly drew on their influence when composing songs to fit a very specific era of history. The imagery was shared by other artists in painting, radio, and television comedy. There were also similarities between song lyrics and nonsense literature not because lyricists were copying Lear or Carroll but because they shared and accepted the same literary aims and linguistic goals such as their emphasis on lost childhood and eschewing of metaphor. In many ways, both the children’s writers and English lyricists of the late 1960s were ­essentially storytellers. Many of the songs are narratives with quirky or unusual characters and this too tends to distinguish English musicians from their American counterparts. Kaleidoscope’s songs are a case in point. As well as the “Sky Children,” their world is inhabited by “Mr Small the Watch ­Repairer Man,” “Dear Nellie Goodrich,” and “Jenny Artichoke” (the latter a homage to ­Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper”). And they weren’t trying to be “psychedelic” at all. “I’m just a frustrated storyteller,” says Daltrey; “we got a lot of praise [for Tangerine Dream] as a great psychedelic album … but within it are just little stories” (Interview). I would add that these English writers also tapped into an essential part of the British psyche: the ability to laugh at themselves—which the world saw firsthand in Danny Boyle’s sensational opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics (see Complete). Much of the ceremony could have been psychedelia inspired as it included many scenes from children’s literature, including The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland, comic turns by Rowan Atkinson and Monty Python’s Eric Idle, and copious pop music references, among others, to Pink Floyd and Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles. Ultimately, US psychedelia often took itself very seriously, whereas its English variant was actually quite silly and didn’t mind who knew it. At the Olympics, even Her Majesty the Queen took part in a comedy sketch where she was met by James Bond and both appeared to parachute into the stadium (see Complete). But can English psychedelia really be categorized as humor? I would certainly argue it can. There is humor in the antics of anthropomorphized animals; plenty of humorous wordplay; and, of course, a great deal of nonsense. In all of it, there is a knowing and self-deprecating insight into the English character that has a tradition stretching back to Chaucer. Syd Barrett once asked, “And what exactly is a dream? And what exactly is a joke?” (“Jugband Blues,” 1968). And perhaps the Cheshire Cat replied, “Everything is funny if you can laugh at it” (Martens 15).7 55

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Notes 1 Though some of the artists, such as Donovan and the Incredible String Band, were not English, my suggestion is that the literary roots of psychedelia were specifically English (with all the imperialist and class overtones) rather than Scottish, Welsh, or Irish. 2 This is the English version of Kaleidoscope who later became Fairfield Parlour. Not to be confused with the American Kaleidoscope of A Beacon from Mars and precursors of world music. 3 Echard is excellent in describing the complex musical structure of psychedelia. However, he fails to distinguish sufficiently between the US and UK versions, especially in the differing cultural meaning of many of the signifiers he identifies. 4 In medieval literature, dogs represented faith and loyalty (Walker-Meikle). A good visual example is in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434. 5 One exception was the very middle-class comedy song-writing duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann who, in their 1964 reworking of Georges Brassens’s “The War of 14–18,” included perhaps the first anti-Vietnam War comments in song. 6 I say “appeared” because Music from Big Pink only seems to recreate an old-fashioned musical style. In reality, it was every bit as revolutionary in sound as anything from the psychedelic bands and, perhaps, even more influential. 7 The Cheshire Cat quotation is from the 1943 stage production of Alice in Wonderland by Anne Coulter Martens, although it is often cited as being by Carroll himself.

Works Cited Altrockchick. “Classic Music Review: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake by Small Faces.” 50Thirdand3rd, 15 July 2015, ­w Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Barnard, Jason. “Peter Daltrey of Kaleidoscope and Fairfield Parlour.” Interview. The Strange Brew, 30 Mar. 2012,­f airfield-parlour/. Accessed 21 June 2017. Bennett, Andy. “Music, Media and Urban Mythscapes: A Study of the ‘Canterbury Sound.’” Media, Culture and Society, vol. 24, no. 1, 2002, pp. 87–100. Broakes, Victoria (curator). Captions for Pink Floyd Their Mortal Remains, Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, May 13-Oct. 1, 2017. Burke, Carolyn L., and Joby G. Copenhaver. “Animals in Children’s Literature.” Language Arts, vol. 81, no. 3, 2004, pp. 205–13. Cammaerts, Emile. The Poetry of Nonsense. E.P. Dutton, 1926. Capewell, Mick. “Black Buckets in the Sky – The Wilde Flowers and Caravan: An Interview with Richard Sinclair.” Marmalade Skies, n.d., Accessed 28 Sept. 2017. Chapman, Rob. Psychedelia and Other Colours. Faber and Faber, 2015. ———. Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head. Faber and Faber, 2011. Cixous, Helene. “Introduction to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and The Hunting of the Snark.” New Literary History, vol. 13, no. 2, 1982, pp. 231–51. The Complete London 2012 Opening Ceremony. YouTube, uploaded by Olympic Broadcasting Services, 27 July 2012, Daltrey, Peter. Life Sentence: The Complete and Definitive Lyrics. Chelsea Records Books, 2013. ———. Personal interview. 10 July 2017. ———. Tambourine Days: The Definitive History of Kaleidoscope and Fairfield Parlour. Chelsea Records Books, 2012. Davies, Christie. Ethnic Humor around the World: A Comparative Analysis. Indiana UP, 1990. Dombal, Ryan. “Interview with Kate Bush.” Pitchfork, 16 May 2011,­ interview/7968-kate-bush/. Accessed 3 Aug. 2017. Easthope, Antony. Englishness and National Culture. Routledge, 2004. Echard, William. Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory. Indiana UP, 2017. “50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 17 June 2015, lists/50-greatest-prog-rock-albums-of-all-time-20150617. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017. Finlayson, John. “Reading Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale: Mixed Genres and Multi-layered Worlds of ­illusion.” English Studies, vol. 86, no. 6, 2005, pp. 493–510. Friedman, John Block. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale: The Preacher and the Mermaid’s Song.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1973, pp. 250–66.


Eccentricity in English Psychedelia Gardner, Martin, editor. The Annotated Alice: Lewis Carroll. Penguin, 2001. Gibsone, Harriet. “What are the weirdest lyrics of all time?” The Guardian, 1 Aug. 2014. www.theguardian. com/music/musicblog/2014/aug/01/weirdest-lyrics-of-all-time-the-killers. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Heylin, Clinton. The Act You’ve Known for All These Years: The Life and Afterlife of Sgt. Pepper and Friends. Canongate, 2007. Higgs, John. “Sgt Pepper at 50: How the Beatles Masterpiece Could Unite Brexit Britain.” The Guardian, 31 May 2017, Accessed 16 Dec. 2017. Holquist, Michael. “What Is a Boojum? Nonsense and Modernism.” Yale French Studies, no. 96, 1999, pp. 100–17. Jack, Richard Morton. Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums. Palazzo, 2017. Johnson, Ann, and Mike Stax. “From Psychotic to Psychedelic: The Garage Contribution to Psychedelia.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 29, no. 4, 2006, pp. 411–25. Kennedy, X.J. “Strict and Loose Nonsense: Two Worlds of Children’s Verse.” School Library Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, Mar. 1991, pp. 108–12. Khasawneh, Hana F. “The Dynamics of Nonsense Literature: 1846–1940.” Dissertation, University of ­Sussex, 2009. Lear, Edward. Nonsense Songs and Stories with an Introduction by Edward Strachey. 1871. Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1928. Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature. Routledge, 1994. Macdonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. 1994. Vintage, 2008. Manning, Stephen. “The Nun’s Priest’s Morality and the Medieval Attitude toward Fables.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 59, no. 3, 1960, pp. 403–16. Markowsky, Juliet Kellogg. “Why Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature?” Elementary English, vol. 52, no. 4, 1975, pp. 460–62. Martens, Anne Coulter. Alice in Wonderland: A Play in Two Acts. Dramatic Publishing, 1943. McAloon, Jonathan. “10 Songs Nobody Understands.” Daily Telegraph, 7 Apr. 2015. culture/music/11519641/10-songs-nobody-understands.html. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Mikes, George. English Humour for Beginners. Penguin, 2016. Morrison, Craig. “Folk Revival Roots Still Evident in 1990s Recordings of San Francisco Psychedelic Veterans.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 114, no. 454, 2001, pp. 478–88. Nigbur, Dennis, and Marco Cinnirella. “National Identification, Type and Specificity of Comparison and Their Effects on Descriptions of National Character.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 37, no. 4, 2007, pp. 672–91. Palacios, Julian. Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe. Plexus, 2010. “Q Magazine’s ‘40 Greatest (Classic) Psychedelic Albums.’” Q, Mar. 2005.­classicpsych/ comments/2kur5v/q_magazines_40_greatest_classic_psychedelic_albums/. Accessed 16 Dec. 2017. Roos, Michael E. “The Walrus and the Deacon: John Lennon’s Debt to Lewis Carroll.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 18, no. 1, 1984, pp. 19–29. “The RS 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 9 Dec. 2004, the-500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-20110407. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017. Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense. Chatto and Windus, 1952. Schlesinger, Alfred C. “The Literary Necessity of Anthropomorphism.” The Classical Journal, vol. 32, no. 1, 1936, pp. 19–26. Sheff, David. All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000. Simonelli, David. Working Class Heroes: Rock Music and British Society in the 1960s and 1970s. Lexington Books, 2012. Smith, Adam. “The Influence of Literature in 1960s British Popular Music.” Master’s thesis, University of Huddersfield, 2012. Strachey, Edward. “Introduction to Lear’s Nonsense Songs and Stories.” 1894. Edward Lear Home Page, Accessed 26 Sept. 2017. Tolkien Music List. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. “Top 10 Nonsense Lyrics.” In Between the Speakers, 30 Sept. 2012, https://inbetweenthespeakers.wordpress. com/2012/09/30/top-10-nonsense-lyrics/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. Medieval Dogs. British Library, 2013. Watts, Peter. “Revolution Now! 50th Anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love.” Uncut, June 2017, pp. 66–72. Young, Rob. Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. Faber and Faber, 2010.


6 The Clown Figure in 1970s Rock Music Andy Bennett

Throughout the history of human society, the clown figure has been an important and central aspect of vernacular culture and popular entertainment (see Welsford). While often framed in terms of culturally specific circumstances, a universal attribute of the clown is to serve as an object of humor. The comic devices applied by the clown figure can range from pure slapstick to more subversive forms. Such was typical of the clown figures used in the works of Shakespeare (see Wiles) and in the more recent clown antics adopted by silent film comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (see Hoerr Charles). Although not commonly acknowledged, elements of the clown figure have also made their way into contemporary popular music, adding extra dimensions to the already theatrical content of pop’s and rock’s televisional and live performance legacies. While prevalent interpretations of contemporary popular music artists have tended to focus on issues such as iconicity and authenticity, including their connectedness with cultural milieu, fan cultures, and generational significance (see, e.g., Cavicchi; Kirkup), this chapter argues that the prevalence of the clown figure in popular music offers other ways of understanding the social and cultural value of popular music. The rock musicians examined here shed important new light on the nature of rock music in the 1970s, a decade which has either been overlooked in academic research on popular music (see Bennett) or where rock musicians of the time have been held up as purveyors of macho posturing and situated in a rockist discourse of hegemonic masculinity (see Frith and McRobbie). Equally, in an era before rock music was subjected to the iconic representation of films such as This Is Spinal Tap (1982) and Wayne’s World (1992), the rock clown figures discussed in this chapter each contribute to an understanding of how humor and irony have been prevalent in rock, and indeed other forms of popular music, for a significant period of time. Although early 1970s glam rock, an admittedly highly tongue-in-cheek scene, is often cited as a selfironic take on the notion of the “rock star” in the wake of the often hyped-up claims made about rock music and musicians in the late 1960s as agents of social and political change (see Stratton), it could be argued that other 1970s rock subgenres brought their own wit and cynicism to bear on the rock world, with the clown figure playing a significant role in this. The clown figures of 1970s rock were complex manifestations, deftly negotiating the conventions of the rock genre in a way that, on the one hand, allowed for an adherence to particular rock “standards,” notably those associated with songwriting and musicianship, while, on the other hand, infusing a comic element into their physical appearance and stage presence. Drawing on the already strongly theatrical visual and performative conventions ingrained in the live spectacle of rock, rock clown figures created a niche for themselves whereby audiences simultaneously 58

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acknowledged them as highly accomplished musicians, and usually key members of the bands of which they were a part, while at the same time identifying them as objects of amusement who took rock’s entertainment value to a different level by supplanting the earnest apparel of the rock image at this time with a comic spectacle. Rock clowns became special characters in the bands they were associated with, as crucial to the branding of those bands as the music they performed. Also important in this respect was their relationship to other members of the band, notably the lead vocalist, with whom they often acted as comic figures of counterpoint. Examples of rock clown figures to be discussed in this chapter include Zal Cleminson (Sensational Alex Harvey Band [SAHB]), Ron Mael (Sparks), Rick Nielson (Cheap Trick), and Angus Young (AC/DC).

A Guitar Icon in Clown’s Clothing Among the rock clown figures noted earlier, Zal Cleminson is the one who perhaps most ­literally inscribes the clown identity. As lead guitarist with legendary Glaswegian rock group the SAHB, Cleminson chose a stage image of white-face Pierrot makeup set off by a shock of red hair and dark green cat suit that made him a unique figure in the often less image-conscious field of ­a lbum-oriented rock (AOR) during the early 1970s. In an overall sense, SAHB is an unusual and often neglected band in the annals of 1970s British rock, an oversight that also extends to academic work where much of the hard and heavy rock (in the UK and elsewhere) that dominated popular music during the decade has taken a back seat to studies of heavy metal. SAHB was fronted by Alex Harvey, a veteran of the 1960s British rhythm and blues scene (see Logan and Woffinden). Although SAHB continued in the blues-rock vein of Harvey’s earlier work, particular songs on each of the band’s albums saw them harnessing a broader range of styles and influences. An example of this is the song “Next,” originally written by French singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. SAHB’s version of the song, from the album of the same name released in 1973, retains the original tango rhythm (itself an unusual choice of arrangement for a rock band during this era) overlain by Harvey’s reworking of Brel’s lyrics, delivered in a tortured voice, during which H ­ arvey interprets for an English-speaking audience a litany of social and sexual “taboos” including reference to prostitution and gonorrhea. In the context of such dramatic and theatrically toned music, ­Cleminson’s clown image works to produce a broad spectrum of emotions that elevate the already charged atmosphere produced by the song. Often contorting his face in ways that fed off the music and lyrics, Cleminson adds significantly to the drama generated by the music. Such aspects of Cleminson’s performance style are illustrated compellingly in SAHB’s performance of “Next” on AOR focused television show the Old Grey Whistle Test (OGWT ) (see Mills). As ­Harvey grips his guitar, staring manically into the camera and uttering the words “next, next” with varying degrees of anger and desperation, in the background and slightly out of focus is the face of ­Cleminson glowing with maniacal delight. At this point in rock’s history, the notion of a rock star taking on a comic stance was still something of a rarity. The fact that this sort of characterization might be adopted by a lead guitarist was all the more unusual given the way that lead guitarists at this time often sought to promote an image of high seriousness and virtuosity. In Cleminson’s case, however, the combination of clown figure and technical accomplishment assumed something of a symmetry, the sometimes dark tones added by Cleminson to the music of SAHB being both accentuated and offset by his clown apparel. A pertinent example occurs in the song “Faith Healer,” also from the Next album and featured in the same OGWT performance as that noted earlier (SAHB appeared several times on the show). As Cleminson begins the main riff of the song, the chords are given a slightly unsettling tone through the use of distortion and a phasing effect. Between chops, Cleminson raises his grimacing clown face toward the camera, creating an equally unsettling image. Cleminson’s happy-sad-happy clown face continued to have a significant impact as the band achieved more mainstream success in 1975 with a cover version of Tom Jones’s 1965 hit “Delilah.” 59

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As Harvey tears into the song’s original narrative as an ode to male pride and betrayal, bringing a more demented and slightly unnerving slant to the lyrics through an implied satisfaction in the murdering of the Delilah character, Cleminson sways back and forth to the waltz time of the rhythm in comic unison with bass player Chris Glenn. All the while, Cleminson feigns annoyance as the neck of Glenn’s bass sways in his direction and fights back with his own guitar neck in the playful manner associated with the more slapstick antics of the clown figure. During an instrumental section played by keyboardist Hugh McKenna without bass and guitar accompaniment, Glenn and Cleminson engage in synchronized exaggerated tip-toeing, Cleminison following Glenn to the left and pulling on Glenn’s mock G-string, worn over his cat suit, to indicate an about-face with Glenn following Cleminson to the right. The impish look on Cleminson’s face as he pulls on the G-string is made all the more comical by his clown makeup, this allowing for a seamless transfusion of clown slapstick into the band’s already theatrical, and slightly macabre, performance technique. By the mid-1970s, the five-piece format—vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards—adopted by SAHB was a staple of the hard rock world, as was a tradition of one-upmanship within rock bands, this usually manifested in a rivalry between the lead vocalist/front man and guitarist. In the case of SAHB, however, the relationship between singer and guitarist was not the more common spectacle in rock of bravado trading on displays of virtuosity. In live performance, Harvey would sometimes goad his clown-faced guitarist in front of the audience by comically threatening not to hand him an acoustic guitar required by Cleminson for a solo spot midway through the band’s set. Cleminson would respond by feigning upset and tears, until Harvey duly gave him the guitar. In SAHB’s early years of live performance, their theatrical approach would sometimes confuse audiences, leading to hostile reactions, but as the audience grew more accustomed to the band, the comical antics of Harvey and Cleminson become a more established and personified aspect of SAHB’s live show. It was clear, however, that in his often manic portrayal of a character at the edge of his senses, Harvey owed much to the comic counterpoint of Cleminson, frequently visible just behind him or peering around him at the audience, all the time providing highly skilled guitar work that in more recent years has seen a reappraisal of Cleminson as a key contributor to the British hard rock scene of the 1970s. Writing about SAHB in 1977, shortly before the band disbanded, Logan and Woffinden remarked of Cleminson and Harvey’s on-stage rapport, “The young guitarist and the veteran raconteur make the perfect foil” (450).

“This Band Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us!” Around the same time that SAHB came to public attention, another unusual rock pairing burst spectacularly onto the British popular music scene, similarly confusing audiences in hilarious fashion with their subversive play on the dominant rock sensibilities of the time. The band Sparks was the creation of brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Originally from California, where an earlier version of Sparks had released two unsuccessful albums, the Maels decided to relocate to the UK where other bands and artists in a similar art-rock vein, notably Roxy Music and David Bowie, had scored critical early success. On arrival, the Mael brothers recruited British musicians Adrian Fisher (guitar), Martin Gordon (bass), and Norman “Dinky” Diamond (drums) to form a new line up of Sparks that found rapid success with a new album entitled Kimono My House (1974). The first single from the album, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” was a musically adventurous song cutting across the glam, hard rock, and art-rock scenes current in the UK at the time and demonstrated a talent for infectious musical hooks and abstract, idiosyncratic lyrics. It was, however, the visual image of the band, or rather one band member in particular—Ron Mael—that created the biggest stir among music audiences. During the early 1970s, a critical medium through which popular music artists found an audience in Britain was the weekly BBC 1 television program Top of the Pops (TOTP) (see Simpson). Since the launch of TOTP in 1964, the show’s audience had become accustomed to being treated 60

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to a cast of weird and wonderful characters, particularly during the years 1972–1974 when glam rock was at its height in Britain (see Feldman-Barrett and Bennett). When Sparks first appeared on TOTP in 1974 with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough,” viewers were transfixed by Ron Mael, his look and mannerism being the absolute antithesis of the then contemporary rock star image. Mael’s short black hair was slicked back and he also sported a short moustache reminiscent of that worn by Charlie Chaplin, himself an iconic clown figure during the era silent film (see Sobel and Francis). Mael’s image was topped off with a white V-neck sweater and white flannel trousers, this adding to his outwardly conservative veneer within a band that otherwise looked broadly conventional as far as early 1970s rock went. A further point of comic departure from other members of the band, and indeed the rock world in general, was Mael’s seemingly fixed expression, an expression that rested somewhere between disinterest in everything going on around him and annoyance at both the other members of the band and the audience. Sitting motionless behind his electronic keyboard, Mael provided the comic counterpoint to his younger brother Russell (lead vocalist with the band) who assumed the more charismatic and highly flamboyant persona at that time conventionally equated with the rock singer. Yet it was clear that in Sparks the notion of the “front man” was being cleverly deconstructed, with Mael senior refusing to let his brother become the center of attention while paradoxically appearing entirely oblivious to the fact that this was even an issue. If Ron Mael incorporated to some degree the look of Charlie Chaplin into his visual appearance, then at some level the way he stole attention from the “straight” characters in Sparks was also similar to how Chaplin had achieved the same apparently unwitting effect in his films. The title of Sparks’ debut hit added to the ­comical air of this unusual rock pairing, further suggesting that they were in some way competing to be the focal point of the band. During live performances, Ron Mael further explored his clown ­persona, sometimes leaving his keyboards to perform comical routines involving mime. These were often done against a projected backdrop to increase their effect. Once again, taking advantage of rock’s preestablished characteristics of theater and drama, Mael’s Sparks persona pushed this into new territory through embracing elements of the clown’s repertoire of comic devices. As the 1970s progressed, Sparks became early experimenters with electro-pop, dismantling their original five-piece line up and reducing down to a duo consisting of the Mael brothers. Hits from the band at this time included “Beat the Clock” and “The Number One Song in Heaven,” both songs taken from the album No. 1 in Heaven released in 1979. By this point, disco was at its height and Sparks’ new material reflected this trend, being dominated by synthesizers and percussion. Similarly, the band’s image had also changed somewhat from their early 1970s five-piece rock approach. The constant feature remaining, however, was Ron Mael’s idiosyncratic clown character. In the video produced to promote “Beat the Clock” while Russell Mael dances energetically to the electronic disco beat of Sparks’ new sound, Ron Mael remains static at this keyboard, his face holding the same deadpan expression as in the band’s earlier days. This stance remains even in later sections of the video where he is pictured away from his keyboard standing with his hands on his hips, apparently oblivious to the music and the other action taking place. A broadly similar situation pertains in the video for the follow-up hit “The Number One Song in Heaven” except for a brief instance midway through the track where Ron Mael turns his face to the camera and breaks a wry smile before returning to his more usual deadpan expression. A further comic aspect of each video is the fact that his hair, original slicked back in Sparks’ early appearances, now hangs more loosely and with a slight wave, an appearance which makes the comparison with Charlie Chaplin all the more obvious.

A Five-Neck Guitar and a Bow Tie Among the rock clown figures considered in this chapter, Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist with American rock band Cheap Trick, is the one whose penchant for on-stage tomfoolery was most self-consciously modeled on a comic idol. Cheap Trick was founded in 1974 in Rockford, Illinois. 61

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By that point, Nielsen, whose parents were both opera singers (his father was also a composer), had played with a number of bands and begun to gather a collection of vintage guitars. Like Ron Mael’s, Nielsen’s image, particularly during the 1970s, strongly subverted the dominant rock image of long hair and flamboyant clothing. Instead, Nielsen wore a flipped old-style baseball cap, a bow tie, and brightly colored jumpers, often carrying some form of motif, such as musical notes. In part, this image, notably the baseball cap and bow tie, was modeled on Huntz Hall (born Henry Richard Hall), an American radio, theater, and cinema actor who found critical success during the 1940s and 1950s as member of the Bowery Boys, a group of fictional New York characters who starred in a series of highly successful comedy films, including Spook Busters (1946), Angels in Disguise (1949), The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (1954), and Up in Smoke (1957). Nielsen’s play on Hall’s Bowery Boy image was accentuated by his physical resemblance to Hall while his on-stage antics also drew comparisons with the celebrated comedian. Sometimes appearing to lose his balance, quickly correcting himself or angling his upper body to one side with a look of surprise on his face, Nielsen cut a comical figure in comparison to his band mates Robin Zander (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) and Tom Petersson (bass and backing vocals), both of whom sported a more typical 1970s American rock star “pin-up” image. While the camera often focused on Zander and Petersson in Cheap Trick’s television appearances, Nielsen would often make his presence known by popping into the corner of the camera frame and pointing. Similarly, he would also mimic aspects of song lyrics, for example, using his guitar plectrum to symbolize a tear, corresponding with a reference to crying in the band’s 1977 song “I Want You to Want Me.” Nielsen also became adept at flicking his guitar plectrum into the air with his thumb and catching it in his mouth. Another of Nielsen’s stage gimmicks was his use of a five-neck electric guitar. During the 1970s, the double-neck guitar made a comeback largely due to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s use of a Gibson SG six- and twelve-string double-neck model on the live version of the song “Stairway to Heaven.” Later in the decade, some musicians experimented with triple-neck instruments. Nielsen’s five-neck guitar, specially built for him by the Hamer guitar company, comically parodied the apparent penchant in 1970s rock for multi-necked guitars. Before Spinal Tap’s parody of rock excess, Neilsen was entertaining audiences with his five-neck guitar solos. Neilson apparently put the idea to Hamer that they build him a five-neck instrument after several years of stacking guitars over each other and gradually discarding one and moving to another as he worked through the solo. According to Neilsen, he had originally envisaged a six-neck guitar “that spun like a roulette wheel … but then … decided to go with something more conservative” (qtd. in Bienstock). Such idiosyncratic comments, which were often a feature of music press and television interviews with Nielsen, further accentuated the guitarist’s penchant for the types of clownish behavior constructed around his stage persona.

High Voltage Class Clown By the time they began to generate attention on the international stage, Australian rock band AC/ DC had already garnered a reputation as a hard-working act, both as part of Sydney’s 1970s pub rock scene (see Homan) and in other cities around Australia. They had also released four albums, of which the first, High Voltage, was notable not merely because of the gritty interlocking guitars and distinctive 4/4 drum riffs (which were to become signature musical trademarks of AC/DC) but also the cover of the album which featured what looked like, at least to those unacquainted with the band, a schoolboy brandishing an electric guitar. In point of fact the figure depicted on the cover was Angus Young, lead guitarist with AC/DC (and now the only original member remaining with the band). Young had formed AC/DC with his brother Malcolm in 1973. Their older brother, George Young, had been a member of Australian band the Easybeats (whose songs included the international hit “Friday on My Mind,” 1966) and together with Harry Vanda 62

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(also a former member of the Easybeats) produced AC/DC’s early albums. At the time of starting the band, Angus Young was 18 years old but looked significantly younger, which led the band’s management to tell the press and public that he was only 15. This was also done to tie in with the guitarist’s chosen stage image. During AC/DC’s early performances, Young had experimented with a range of different costumes; these included a Superman parody (that become referred to as Super-Ang), a Spiderman outfit, fellow comic-book hero Zorro, and a gorilla costume (Kerrang!). During this period of experimentation with his image, Young’s sister suggested he try a ­schoolboy look and made the original school uniform worn by Young when performing with AC/DC. Later, Young would claim that he was actually still at school when the band started and that the schoolboy look consequently served as a “ready-made” image for him (Hart). Adorned in his school uniform, Young began to take on the full persona of a classroom clown, this quickly becoming a signature feature of AC/DC and a key part of their brand. Like SAHB, part of AC/DC’s appeal rested on the fact that they had in their ranks a highly gifted lead guitarist who shunned the more conventional rock guitarist look for an image that appeared comically out of place among the other members of the band. While those attending AC/DC’s regular pub performances became quickly accustomed to Young’s on-stage persona, the wider public ­(initially in Australia but later further afield) were treated to an intriguing glimpse of the “larrikin”1 class-clown guitarist on an early promotional film for the song “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll),” the opening track from AC/DC’s second album TNT released in December 1975. Filmed on the back of a flatbed truck slowly making its way down Swanston Street, a main thoroughfare in the city of Melbourne, where the band were then based (see E ­ vans), the scene is such that AC/DC look like a band that has been momentarily augmented by a mischievous young schoolboy bopping along to the rhythm, his satchel appearing to be as much an important accessory as his guitar. In later years, as AC/DC consolidated their international reputation, Young grew out his hair into a longer style more conventional among rock guitarists then. Throughout AC/DC’s early years, however, his short, slightly lank hair nestled under a school cap cemented the cheeky schoolboy image that Young had worked to perfection. Young’s diminutive figure added to his on-stage class-clown persona, something also lifted by the guitarist’s frenetic energy. Throughout AC/DC’s live shows, then and now, Young is notable for remaining constantly in motion. As former AC/DC bassist Mark Evans notes in an autobiographical account of his time with the band, during the band’s formative years of playing pubs and clubs around Australia, Young’s on-stage antics often created quite a stir. Playing on his class-clown image, he would often throw himself to the floor in a mock tantrum, violently shaking his body, kicking his feet and turning around in circles, all the while continuing to play his guitar. Again, this aspect of Young’s stage act continued on in later years even as AC/DC moved into stadium rock territory. Young’s class-clown image also provided a platform for other concert gimmicks with a comical edge. The guitarist’s slight physical frame allowed for him to be lifted atop the singer’s shoulders and taken around the audience. This practice became a standard event at AC/DC gigs: Young playing an extended guitar solo as he was carried around the venue. Despite AC/DC’s justified reputation as a straight-ahead rock band, Young’s early adoption of wireless guitar technology (specifically a Schaeffer-Vega unit, first marketed in 1976) became core to his extended capacity to engage in this and other comical concert antics that became a central aspect of AC/DC’s success and appeal, freeing him from the need to remain in close proximity to his amplifiers or even on the stage. The clowning engaged in by Young also encompassed other mischievous activities that made for easy association with his class-clown image. These included his on-stage striptease whereby at a point in the show he would remove his guitar and strip down to his underwear, sometimes also revealing his bare buttocks to the audience. Young would then retrieve his guitar and finish the show wearing only his underpants, often adorned with the image of the Australian flag. In his autobiography, Evans again relates how, in AC/DC’s early days as a bar band, this aspect of Young’s 63

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performance style added elements of comic mayhem of the proceedings. According to Evans, as AC/DC’s popularity grew, original singer Bon Scott made a half-joking comment that Young’s backside was starting to be seen in newspaper photos more often than his face. In 1976, when AC/DC began to achieve overseas success, punk was beginning to emerge; indeed, in London, where the band temporarily based themselves in 1976 and again in 1977 (­Evans), they were sometimes misrepresented as punks (see, e.g., Hart). Punk was starting to attract attention in the British media and was also gaining traction among British youth as a style of music and fashion that took itself less seriously than the progressive and stadium rock genres that were then very much in vogue. This came to a head on December 1, 1976 when the Sex Pistols became instant “folk devils” (Cohen) after jokingly uttering expletives on live suppertime television (Laing 36). While AC/DC would not be caught up in the moral panicking around punk, at the same time punk’s carnivalesque take on the rock music scene of the time gave British audiences another frame of reference through which to read the band and particularly Angus Young, whose mischievous schoolboy image and riotous on-stage antics chimed well with the sensibilities of a younger generation of fans beginning to catch the verve of punk and punk rock.

Conclusion Drawing on four case study examples, this chapter has examined the significance of the clown figure in the rock music of the 1970s. As a historical era of rock that has been seldom referenced in academic work, it is generally assumed that rock at this time adhered to a series of stereotypes linked to expressions of instrumental prowess and male-centric bravado. While one cannot discount these qualities in the rock music of the era, this chapter has focused on the rock clown as a comic element in the rock visual and performative text of the 1970s that offers a new level of understanding to rock as a socially and culturally subversive musical form. Although each of the rock musicians examined in the chapter brought different qualities to the rock clown persona, what each of them has in common is a comic displacement of aspects of the taken-for-granted rock aesthetic through their understanding and stretching of the theatrical dimensions of live rock performance.

Note 1 Larrikin is an Australian-English term that refers to a mischievous young male (see Bellanta).

Works Cited Bellanta, Melissa. Larrikins: A History. U of Queensland P, 2012. Bennett, Andy. “The Forgotten Decade: Rethinking the Popular Music of the 1970s.” Popular Music History, vol. 2, no. 1, 2007, pp. 5–24. Bienstock, R. “Rick’s Picks: 1981 Hamer Five-Neck.” Guitar Aficionado, 6 Oct. 2012, www.guitarplayer. com/guitaraficionado/ricks-picks-1981-hamer-five-neck. Accessed 19 Mar. 2018. Cavicchi, Daniel. Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans. Oxford UP, 1998. Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. 2nd ed., Basil Blackwell, 1987. Evans, Mark. Dirty Deeds: My Life Inside and Outside of AC/DC. Allen and Unwin, 2012. Feldman-Barrett, Christine, and Andy Bennett. ‘“All that Glitters’: Glam, Bricolage and the History of ­Post-war Youth Culture.” Global Glam and Popular Music: Style and Spectacle from the 1970s to the 2000s, edited by Ian Chapman and Henry Johnson, Routledge, 2016, pp. 11–24. Frith, Simon, and Angela McRobbie. “Rock and Sexuality.” On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, Routledge, 1990, 317–32. Hart, Bob. “Punks from Down Under.” The Sun Book of Rock, edited by Bob Hart, Sun Books, 1977, pp. 48–49. Hoerr Charles, Lucille. “The Clown’s Function.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 58, no. 227, 1945, pp. 25–34.


The Clown Figure in 1970s Rock Music Homan, Shane. “Losing the Local: Sydney and the Oz Rock Tradition.” Popular Music, vol. 19, no. 1, 2000, pp. 31–49. Kerrang! Files. AC/DC: The Definitive Story. 2nd ed., Virgin, 2001. Kirkup, Mike. “‘Some Kind of Innocence’: The Beatles Monthly and the Fan Community.” Popular Music History, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, pp. 64–78. Laing, Dave. One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock. Open UP, 1985. Logan, Nick, and Bob Woffinden, editors. The NME Book of Rock 2. Wyndham, 1977. Mills, Peter. “Stone Fox Chase: The Old Grey Whistle Test and the Rise of High Pop Television.” Popular Music and Television in Britain, edited by Ian Inglis, Ashgate, 2010, pp. 55–67. Simpson, Jeff. Top of the Pops: 1964–2002. BBC Worldwide Ltd., 2002. Sobel, Raoul, and David Francis. Chaplin: Genesis of a Clown. Quartet, 1977. Stratton, Jon. “Why Doesn’t Anybody Write Anything about Glam Rock?” Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 1986, pp. 15–38. Welsford, Enid. The Fool: His Social and Literary History. 1935. Faber & Faber, 1968. Wiles, David. Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse. Cambridge UP, 1987.


7 Humor in Metal Music Deena Weinstein

One would have thought that a genre of music given to lyrics focusing on life’s two main inexplicable horrors, evil and death, played loudly and rather expertly by musicians often dressed in black, accessorized with spiked leather, would be deadly serious. Yet heavy metal, or its more modern term, metal, is shot through with humor, most of which is hidden in plain sight and sound. Of course, humor is not really in metal but in our reaction to it. It is the result of an interaction between a created object and an audience that grasps its humor. Most of metal’s humor requires a knowledgeable audience. Fortunately, metal tends to supply such sophisticated appreciators since its most committed fans have been members of metal subcultures. Generally, nonfans do not get the joke and may laugh at metal. Religious right-wing organizations like the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) are not amused by metal. They understand lyrics in a literal rather than metaphorical way and so perceive references to hell and the devil to be blasphemous (Weinstein 245–63). Most humor, including metal’s, is based on some incongruity between two opposing elements that are fused together. The ancient Roman orator Cicero, for example, argues that “the most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh” (qtd. in Bevis 49). What we expect and the punch line are incongruous to one another. Kant, Freud, Bergson, among others, also understand humor as binary incongruities, a process that Arthur Koestler calls “bi-sociation” (362). In his summary of a wide variety of such theories of humor, Iddo Tavory writes, “Humor is a play on form [which] works by locating actors simultaneously in two worlds of meaning” (275). What one sees as humorous in a given incongruity, another might see as tragic, annoying, or puzzling. Those who “get” metal humor, who find the incongruous binaries to be amusing or even hilarious, are largely restricted to those who share its culture—its norms, its values, and history. In Tavory’s words, “humor can be located on a spectrum of its reach” (276). This reach explains why metal’s humor can be hidden in plain sight and sound. A number of theorists in various fields have attempted to account for these different reactions. In literary studies, “reader-response theory” is especially useful to the current discussion. To grasp this perspective, we can start with Umberto Eco’s statement that the “same message can be decoded from different points of view and by reference to diverse systems of conventions” (139). Stanley Fish groups these different “decoders” or “readers” into “interpretive communities” (14). Janice Radway reworks Fish’s concept into “category readers” (56), those who tend to consume a certain form of popular culture. It is these category readers, metal’s interpretive community, that 66

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inform the perspective of this chapter. That is, the humor described here is the humor appreciated by metalheads, the ideal readers of the genre. Various groups in societies, especially those with conservative religious views, have been anything but ideal readers of metal. In the US, in the 1980s, members of the religious right-wing read metal song titles and lyrics, which reference hell and the devil, in a literal rather than metaphorical way, seeing them as blasphemous and as proselytizations for Satanism. Fans of metal found this “misreading” laughable. This chapter’s analysis only hints at the pervasiveness and variety of humor in metal. That said, most of metal is serious. One way of getting a handle on metal’s humor is to focus on the types of communication formats in which it appears. These include lyrics and/or music of recordings and videos, visuals and words on T-shirts and album covers, and in unscripted remarks made on stage and to journalists. ( Joking around on tour and in recording studios by musicians and their crew tends to remain private.) That is, metal’s humor is hidden in plain sight in all the usual places, and then some. Some comedic moves are solely visual. Consider song videos. There never was a rule that the visuals had to adhere to follow the song’s lyrics and/or its musical mood. Judas Priest’s hit, “Breaking the Law,” a song played at just about every Priest concert since its release in 1980, describes the frustration of a working-class guy trying to find a decent job, and his hopeless desperation when he is unable to do so. “You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a clue. / If you did you’d find yourselves doing the same thing too.” The chorus repeats the song’s title eight times. There is no wittiness in the lyrics at all. The video for the song was in heavy rotation on MTV and provides a comical alternative story. The visual narrative is of a bank robbery as it might have been done by the Beatles (think Help). Entering a bank, singer Rob Halford is accompanied by two be-robed priests. (Their outfits play on the pun of shortened version of the band’s name and metal’s nemesis, the church.) The two faux clergymen open their guitar cases (another throw-back to an early movie trope—gangsters hiding guns in instrument cases) and pull out their weapons— guitars. When they begin to play, all except the invading trio are immobilized. Demonstrating superhuman strength, Halford breaks into the safe and grabs the gold—a gold record (the album on which the song appeared, British Steel). The group then gleefully leaps into their getaway convertible. Frustration against an unjust society was fully absent. All of the video’s humor is in the juxtapositions of the old-fashioned Hollywood bank robbery done by a gang wielding metal’s weapon of choice. Much of metal’s humor is found solely within its verbal elements: lyrics, band names, and unscripted comments. Ozzy Osbourne, for example, was asked by a journalist, “I recall Lemmy telling me that you and he were the same, except that he could hold his alcohol better. But how come Lemmy doesn’t collapse?” Ozzy replied, “God only knows! I’m sure if they sell his body to medical science, they’ll hold his arse up to the sky and look down his mouth and see light through it” (qtd. in Dasein 9). Well, drinking alcohol is a part of metal culture and its humor, but there is also absurd levity in the last sentence. There are other ways to categorize metallic mirth. One is to note which social actors create what is seen to be amusing: musicians; various mediators like record producers, album cover artists, and video directors; or metal fans. Another is to observe the variety of forms of humor: for example, puns, satire, and visual burlesque. Examples of humor vary too in the degree of metal competency required to get it—the “reach” in Tovory’s sense of the word. Messing up any of these neat categorizations is that any particular example may have several different humorous elements within it. Take a song by grindcore band, SOD (Stormtroopers of Death), “The Ballad of Jimi Hendrix” (1985). The song begins with the riff from the start of ­Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and then singer Billy Milano yells the full lyrics: “You’re dead!” all within six seconds. It violates the widespread societal norm to respect the dead, and also goes against the acceptable length of a song in metal. 67

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Motörhead’s song “Eat the Rich” (1987) does more than double-duty in the humor department. The title itself, repeated many times in the lyrics, is amusing: consider laying waste to the enemy class—the wealthy (metal tends to side with the working class)—not by guns but by ingesting them as food. (Cannibalism is, of course, frowned upon, and as such, is a transgression that is also found in a number of other metal songs.) The phrase was probably coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau shortly before the French Revolution. He wrote, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat they will eat the rich” (qtd. in Thiers 359). (Was that why Queen Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake”?) If one knows the phrase that originated with the French philosopher, that juxtaposition of high culture (philosophy) with low culture (rock music) is risible too. The song was featured in a movie comedy released in the same year named Eat the Rich. Its story was about an upscale restaurant named Bastards (Lemmy’s original idea for the name of his band). A group of anarchists kill the eatery’s staff and its wealthy clientele, and serve them up as food in their new restaurant called Eat the Rich. Had one seen the film, its ludicrously funny scenes would add further to the song’s humorous aura. Even more drollery would be experienced if one recognizes the resemblance of the song to Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satire, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Potluck.” At the time the pamphlet was published, many were horrified; taking it literally, they failed to grasp that Swift was decrying Irish poverty and lampooning the rich. Those familiar with Swift’s “Modest Proposal” would also appreciate the song as a parody of a great satire.

Categories of Incongruity The most significant way of comprehending metal’s array of humor, one which tells us as much about the genre itself as about its humor, is assessing the types of transgressional incongruities with which metal plays. The following discussion groups the innumerable instances of ­humor in metal into two main categories based on their type of transgression. The first involves ­flouting the general society’s cultural norms, whereas the second addresses violations of metal’s cultural code itself.

I. Slaying Society’s Sacred Cows, Less or More “Drink Drank Drunk”—Hellyear (2012) Drunkenness is a type of societal transgression that is widely addressed in most forms of popular music, in other forms of mass entertainment, and in personal conversations. Public drunkenness is a violation of a social (and, in places, a legal) norm, yet we tend to be amused by “he-was-­so-drunk…” stories. Various theories of humor can be used to account for why we find drunken behavior to be funny. Henri Bergson (1935), for example, whose vitalist philosophy sees vital life (flexibly acting and reacting to its environment) as incongruously opposite to the mechanical (rigid and conventional actions), would grasp drunken behavior as indicating that our body is no longer under our own ­control—that we are like some unfree, rigid automaton. Stories about drunken escapades told among gatherings of those into metal are not unusual. Sébastien Tutengesa and Morten Hulvej Rod, researching Danish youth, found that their subjects “almost invariably laughed or smiled when telling or hearing narratives about drinking” (360). Their stories “about drunken persons who act wildly and make fools of themselves” (368) often contain “explicit descriptions of vomit, blood, [and] urine” (368) and they laugh about when “intimate body fluids are transmitted into public space” (366). The authors argue that their laughter is of the same type as Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnival laughter”—“deeply social laughter, shared and enjoyed in communion,” allowing “people to relax from dominating norms and rules” (356). 68

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Metalheads drink! And they love to hear and tell stories about excessive drinking, their own or by metal performers. Such overindulgence is a primary element in the celebrity text of some beloved metal performers, most notably Ozzy. The story about his arrest in Texas, which has been repeated by word of mouth by fans and in countless feature stories and biographies, references violations of several norms. He was arrested for peeing on the Alamo (violating both a legalized social norm against public drunkenness and desecrating a beloved monument) while wearing his wife’s dress (defiantly transgressing metal’s dress code). Just about every online metal site seems to have a thread about drinking songs. Finnish folkmetal group Korpiklaani’s discography is replete with alcohol-related tunes like “Juødaan Vinaa” (Let’s Drink Booze) (2009), “Tuoppi Olutta” (A Pint of Beer) (2011), and “Vodka” (2009). Various aptly named bands such as Tankard, Alestorm, and Black Label Society work on that theme too. Ozzy sings semi-laments and semi-brags about his alcoholism in “Suicide Solution” (1980) and “Demon Alcohol” (1988). WASP’s “Blind in Texas” (1985) not only describes being blasted but also sounds like a roaring drunk trip.

“Am I Evil?”—Diamond Head (1980) Metal positions itself as symbolically transgressive to the dominant culture and this stance is reflected in a major source of its humor—slaying society’s sacred cows. These transgressions tread on mores or taboos, rules so fundamental to society that their violation is seen as evil. Not coincidentally, this is the type of metal humor most hidden in plain sight. Mirth here, let’s call it black or Bakhtinian (carnivalesque) humor, stems from the simultaneous recognition that “society” would be shocked and repulsed by these transgressive words and images while also experiencing them as normal and innocuous aspects of metal culture. Bakhtin’s analysis of the medieval European carnival, particularly the Feast of Fools, is the source from which the type of humor referenced with his name originates. (That feast was tamed in the modern world as a spectacle called Mardi Gras.) The carnival is where everyday life’s pieties are temporarily overturned. Behaviors, ordinarily unacceptable, are allowed without punishment, and basic separations, such as those between the poor and the wealthy, the saint and the sinner, or heaven and hell, are joined together. Bakhtin argues “that carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order; it marks the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions” (7). The forces that carnivalesque culture rebels against are what he termed “the agelasts,” those humorless social and ideological forces of official culture which lack vitality. (The word agelasts, derived from the Greek agelastos, is a person who never laughs.) Bakhtin asserts that carnival laughter “overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations” and “liberates not only from external censorship, but first of all from the great interior censor” (90). Modern society has buried death—those already no longer alive and those soon to join them are kept out of view. Death is one of those taboo areas embraced by innumerable metal bands, especially in the subgenre called death metal. Most death metal bands advertise their ­t ransgressional subgenre in their band names, like Death, Autopsy, Obituary, Carcass, Cyanide, Entombed, Gorguts, Funeral Nation, Suffocation, Massacre, Necrophilia, Pestilence, and Six Feet Under. Album covers tend to be explicit. The one for Cannibal Corpse’s Butchered at Birth (1991) depicts zombie-skeletons removing a bloody fetus from a dead, mainly skeletonized woman, backed with a wall full of hanging fetal corpses. In death metal, grim, black humor also combines with another source of mirth, excessiveness. Carcass’s comedic approach to death metal’s gruesomeness is also a good example of Bakhtinian humor. In carnivalesque fashion, the band joins together which is usually kept separate. Fully focused on the grotesque dead body, Carcass sees it not merely as a once living human being but also as a source of food, a feast of decomposing human flesh. Song titles on their well-named album Symphonies of Sickness (1989) illustrate their singular theme: “Exhume to Consume,” “Embryonic Necropsy and Devourment,” and “Feast on Dismembered Carnage.” Michelle Phillipov contends that 69

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Figure 7.1 

the “absurdity and light-heartedness of ” their lyrics add to the levity (111). Death metal envelopes their accounts of horror in powerful and lively sonics, the least funereal style of music imaginable. Evil is a term with religious roots, signifying the opposite of righteousness, goodness, what religion upholds. As such, one of metal’s most widespread transgressive moves is embracing evil, and its poster-boy, Satan. (In metal, the depiction is usually a horned goat.) Visually, verbally, and musically,1 metal is a friend of the devil. A multitude of metal bands, especially those in the extreme metal subgenres of death and black metal, are what Western society would damn as blasphemous. Their wit is basically grim, black, Bakhtinian humor. Deicide’s lyrics, for example, live up to the band’s name with straight-on attacks on Christianity’s core beliefs. Innumerable other bands have a similar message. Venom’s humor is more complex but also of the Bakhtinian variety. Their At War With Satan (1983) is a parody of Milton’s great epic poem, Paradise Lost. To recognize the incongruity between that high cultural object as reworked in Venom’s rather crude metal sound and typical lyrics about drugs, venereal disease, and murder, is risible. Even more comic is that their rock opera inverts ­Milton’s story of Satan’s rebellion and ensuing conflict between the fallen angels and the angelic armies of God. In Venom’s take, Satan is triumphant as his demons invade heaven itself and toss out the angels. GWAR’s theatricality of evil is over-the-top. On stage, they enact a Bakhtinian carnival, taking sharp aim at an array of societal powers and overturning the pieties and solemnities of everyday life. Their visual mockery borrows from a style of French theater, the Grand Guignol, which advertised itself with the sign “Live Atrocities on Stage.” GWAR’s cartoonish costumes and outlandish props attract a more diverse audience than just metalheads. The Pope was burlesqued by the band in their 2002 tour, displaying him in full regalia, sporting a Nazi swastika intertwined in the cross on his robe. Another power, the male warrior, was ridiculed, shown with a grotesque head and an enormous penis. The band sprays “intimate body fluids,” gallons of faux-blood, onto the delighted crowd—­ allowing them almost to become actors rather than mere spectators. GWAR’s show reflects the key features of Bakhtinian carnival: the monstrous body; the joining of that which society sees as opposite, such as religion and Nazism; and allowing behaviors normally seen as sacrilegious. 70

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Figure 7.2  Pope GWAR, photograph by Michael A. Weinstein, used with permission.

Figure 7.3  M ale Warrior GWAR, photograph by Michael A. Weinstein, used with permission.


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II. “Metal on Metal”—Anvil (1982) While the first category shows humor anchored in transgressions against significant expectations of the general society, this second one is based on violations of the cultural norms and values of metal itself. Making fun of metal is enjoyed by all those involved in metal’s subculture, in part, because it also serves as a celebration of the subculture itself. Although humor itself is famously known for not traveling well, even though metal itself is now fully globalized, its subcultural audience shares a common set of norms and values that allow metal’s humor to be a first-class world-traveler. Fans are helpful in creating, and especially in circulating, metal humor on peer-to-peer media such as ’zines and online metal sites, and in face-to-face interactions. Much of this involves recycling funny tales and comments made elsewhere by musicians, reposing comic images, and creating lists and links to amusing metal songs. The initiator of a metal humor thread on Metal Archives, for example, writes, “Do you like metal humor? I do, partly because only metalheads get it. … Post funny pictures, memes and captioned images. Remember—keep it only metal” (“bladeOFawesomeness”). Two visuals widely found on such metal humor sites are typical of those making fun of metal. One is a picture of a dejected-looking young man wearing an SOD T-shirt. The caption reads, “Ten minutes late to grindcore show; missed first two bands.” Its subcultural humor is only funny to knowledgeable fans—those who know that a number of grindcore bands, like SOD, play exceedingly short songs. Another is a three-frame cartoon where a long-haired guy in studded leather steps up to the counter and says, “Coffee please.” The dorky-looking barista asks the grim corpse-painted guy, seen sporting an upside-down cross on his T-shirt, “How would you like that?” The third frame is a close-up of the customer’s furious frowning face, with the word “black” written in a thick and dripping font that visually screams. Finding this comedic requires recognizing what a typical black metal musician looks and acts like, and seeing the double meaning in the word black. T-shirts worn by fans offer another medium for metal’s humor, like one looking as if it were for AC/DC. On closer inspection, the logo reads AD/HD, and the small writing below it amusingly adds, “Highway to—Hey Look a Squirrel!” Others play against metal’s code, like having white shirts (metal’s should be black) with the word “Death Metal” embellished with colorful little dots. One had a rainbow; another one featured a unicorn. Visually, the shirts are appropriate for ­five-year-old girls. Another set makes fun of metal as a visual pun, intermingling two different meanings of the word “metal.” The shirts had caricatures of metal musicians with different chemical symbols for metallic elements such as iron and lead written on their chests. Fusing metal with societally approved and utterly different cultural elements can create absurdly funny works. For instance, black metal musicians are expected to have a very severe public demeanor and to dress in black from their boots to their hair, offset with some white on their corpse-painted faces. The band Abbath is named after its vocalist-bassist who had been in one of the celebrated originators of the subgenre, Immortal. Its members recently did a photo shoot in London that captures them cavorting about in full costume at the city’s well-known tourist spots. In one, Abbath is crammed into a red public telephone booth while his two band mates, one sporting a black devil’s mask, stand guard. Another has the trio traversing a white-striped crosswalk in imitation of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover. The Osbournes (2002–2005) comedic reality TV show also conjoins opposites by juxtaposing references to Ozzy’s metal persona, his “Prince of Darkness” moniker, and his widely known alcohol- and drug-abetted transgressions, to the bumbling, mumbling, loving husband and father roles he portrays on the show. Other juxtapositions of metal and decidedly nonmetal features are found in song lyrics with amusing wordplay, such as puns. Black Sabbath’s “Snowblind” (1972) mingles the two meanings


Humor in Metal Music

Figure 7.4  Abbath on Abbey Road, photograph by Ester Segarra, used with permission.

of the title’s word, one the socially acceptable temporary blindness due to glare from snow, and the metal-acceptable slang term referring to mental impairment from excessive cocaine use. Bloodgood, a Christian metal band, uses a pun in the song “Shakin’ It” as a way of making fun of their subgenre’s expected seriousness: “He’s a sinner thought he’d never be found. / He got caught with his own pants down. / Can’t imagine how he must’ve felt. / He should’ve tightened-up his Bible belt” (1988). Black metal is well known for its defiantly anti-Christian views, yet there are several Christian Black metal bands. Horde, from Sweden, use humor to deal with this tension. They named an album Hellig Usvart (Holy Un-black), and have songs with titles such as “Crush the Bloodied Horns of the Goat” and “Invert the Inverted Cross.” A student of black metal found that “Horde emulated the black metal sound and imagery so well that some fans simply accept Hellig Usvart as a black metal album, even if they get the ‘joke’” (Hagen 27). Satire is another form of wordplay based on grasping the bi-sociation of literal and playfully exaggerated and simplified messages. Consider SOD’s “Speak English or Die” (1985). To comprehend its title, and main lyrics, as satire, one needs to understand the statement in both ways at once. It is not clear that all of the members of the band intended the song as satire and some metalheads only embrace its literal meaning too. As Gary Fine suggests, “The world of humor not only permits much to be said that might otherwise be kept hidden, but also permits the sayers to escape blame for their social naughtiness” (193). Brandon Konecny observes that metal’s subculture has always been “able to show reverence to the excesses and absurdities of their subculture while recognizing their comical value” (14). One of the best illustrations of this is the Italian group Nanowar, which performs satiric cover versions of songs by the proud-to-be-metal American band Manowar. Nanowar plays the music as close to the original as possible, showing their reverence. The lyrics, however, are fully their own, unmerciful satirizations of the hyperbolic originals while closely following Manowar’s rhyming patterns. There is a variety of appropriate topics for metal songs, but when lyrics embrace themes defiantly improper to the genre, the result can be ludicrously funny. “Die Eier von Satan” (1996) by the American prog-metal band Tool is a delicious violation of metal’s expected themes. That the words are in German and its sound resembles a Nazi rally do not fall foul. But the meaning of the lyrics contravene metal’s code, as they drolly describe a recipe for making cookies: “Half a cup of powdered sugar, / One quarter teaspoon salt, / One knife tip Turkish hash, / Half a pound


Deena Weinstein

butter.” The name of the cookies and the song’s title translate as “Satan’s Eggs.” A similarly farcical example is the plaintive love song (also not a theme in metal) sung to a plant—Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf ” (1971). Here too, the transgression is mitigated by the fact that the plant is marijuana, always popular among metalheads. There is nothing funny in the innumerable tribute albums to metal bands, full of cover versions of their songs by other metal bands. The songs, done in the same genre and often in full imitation of the original, lack obvious incongruity. In contrast are the comical covers of well-known cheesy pop songs done in a band’s usual metal style. Examples include Children of Bodem’s thrash metal rendering of Britney Spears’s “Oops! … I Did It Again” (2000) and Therion’s symphonic metal version of Abba’s “Summer Night City” (2001). The reverse, like crooner Pat Boone’s very pop album of metal songs, No More Mr. Nice Guy: In a Metal Mood (1997) garners derisive laughter from metal fans. A thrash (“murder”) metal band from Chicago, Macabre, specializes in songs about serial killers. Yet it is one of the funniest bands ever, stuffing humor into its visuals, lyrics, and music. The cover of their Sinister Slaughter album (1993) is a visual parody of the artwork for the ­Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and is an excellent example of juxtaposing metal with pop music. It substitutes a crowd of infamous serial killers like Jack the Ripper and John Wayne Gacy for the merely famous such as Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan. The band’s name is composed of human bones rather than plants, and murderous tools, not dolls, are scattered about. The despicable deeds of a song’s subject are presented in droll, often sing-song, rhyming lyrics. ­Macabre’s sonic humor involves infusing their thrash with jarringly incongruous innocent folk melodies, incongruous to both the lyrics and to metal itself, such as “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain When She Comes” and “Over the River and Through the Woods to ­Grandmother’s House We Go.” Making fun of metal goes beyond the works made by metal musicians and their professional visual and sonic collaborators. Musicians crack jokes privately as do their crew—living and working together day in and day out creates tensions that humor helps to mitigate. Metal journalists, photographers, and graphic artists insert humor into their work, in part, because fans are especially fond of it.

Conclusion It is not an overstatement to conclude that humor is a serious part of metal’s culture. Because it is mainly committed fans that grasp metal’s humor, it functions to set distinctive symbolic boundaries around the genre. Similar to the effect of the slang once used in the jazz world or the patois of mobsters, this humor creates a metaphorical fence. “To joke is to embrace the illusion—and the reality—of community” (Fine and Wood 299). Within the community’s borders, humor, like alcohol, serves as a social lubricator. “The discovery of shared humour is a sign of similarity, and similarity breeds emotional closeness and trust” (Friedman 187). Finally, given that the abundance of humor in metal is at one with the genre itself, it too enables fans to deal with reality. Nietzsche’s insight that “we have art lest we perish of the truth” well applies to metal’s art as well as the humor in metal (qtd. in Heidegger 75).

Acknowledgments The author would like to thank fellow eggheadbangers Jedediah Sklower, Marcus Moberg, ­Jeremy Wallach, Esther Clinton, Brad Klypchak, Paolo Ribaldino, Niall Scott, Florian Heesch, and Bryan Bardine for their helpful suggestions.


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Note 1 Sonic evil can be heard in the use of the tritone, called the “devil’s chord,” a 6 semitone interval between two tones, used by metal bands such as Black Sabbath (as in their opening riff to their self-named song on their 1970 eponymous debut album), Metallica, and Slayer, among others.

Works Cited Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana UP, 1984. Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. 1899. Macmillan, 1935. Bevis, Matthew. Comedy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2013. bladeOFawesomeness. “Message Board.” Encyclopadeia Metallum: The Metal Archives, 9 May 2012. www. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. Dasein, Deena. “Ozzy.” Rock Brigade, vol. 12, no. 84, July 1993, pp. 7–11. Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Indiana UP, 1976. Fine, Gary Alan. “Dying for a Laugh: Negotiating Risk and Creating Personas in the Humor of Mushroom Collectors.” Western Folklore, vol. 47, no. 3, 1988, pp. 177–94. Fine, Gary Alan, and Christine Wood. “Accounting for Jokes: Jocular Performance in a Critical Age.” Western Folklore, vol. 69, no. 3–4, 2010, pp. 299–321. Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Harvard UP, 1980. Friedman, Sam, and Giselinde Kuipers. “The Divisive Power of Humour: Comedy, Taste and Symbolic Boundaries.” Cultural Sociology, vol. 7, no. 2, 2013, pp. 179–95. Hagen, William Ross. “Norwegian Black Metal: Analysis of Musical Style and Its Expression in an Underground Music Scene.” M.A. thesis, Department of Music, U of Colorado, 2005. Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche, Volume One: The Will to Power as Art. Translated by David Farrell Krell, Harper and Row, 1979. Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation: A Study of the Conscious and the Unconscious in Science and Art. Macmillan, 1964. Konecny, Brandon. “Heavy Metal Monsters! Ruductio ad Ridiculum and the 1980s Heavy Metal Horror Cycle.” Film Matters, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp. 13–18. Phillipov, Michelle. Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. Lexington Books, 2012. Radway, Janice. “Interpretive Communities and Variable Literacies: The Functions of Romance Reading.” Daedalus, vol. 113, no. 3, 1984, pp. 49–73. Tavory, Iddo. “The Situations of Culture: Humor and the Limits of Measurability.” Theory and Society, vol. 43, no. 3–4, 2014, pp. 275–89. Thiers, M.A. A History of the French Revolution. Translated by Frederick Shoberl, Philadelphia, A. Hart, 1850. Tutengesa, Sébastien, and Morten Hulvej Rod. “‘We Got Incredibly Drunk … It Was Damned Fun’: Drinking Stories among Danish Youth.” Journal of Youth Studies, vol. 12, no. 4, 2009, pp. 355–70. Weinstein, Deena. Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology. Lexington/Macmillan, 1991.


8 “Anarchy in Woolworths” Punk Comedy and Humor Russ Bestley

The punk movement has been critiqued, deconstructed, and stereotyped since it first burst into public consciousness in the US, UK, and Europe in the summer of 1976. To an extent, the hyperbole afforded punk has vastly outweighed the significance of its original moment, at least in terms of mass participation, and what might have been a relatively minor sidestep in popular culture (in commercial terms, at least) has assumed a far higher critical profile than could, or perhaps should, have been the case. Punk’s (sub)cultural capital has ebbed and flowed over the past 40 years, though it has never disappeared altogether. Intermittent “significant” anniversaries, usually initiated by the invisible hand of marketing corporations trying desperately to wring one last drop out of its aging fans, have paralleled an underlying sense of empathy (or envy) among media commentators toward punk’s patina of “authentic” rebellion. Meanwhile, what it means to “be” punk has evolved and mutated from an initially fashion and pop music-led phenomenon to a lifestyle choice. The original eclecticism and diversity of a subculture in formation has been honed into a range of stylistic, moral, and ethical conventions that are at once widely acknowledged and at the same time contested. Punk now spans generations and geographies, with wide variation in participants’ interpretations of its history, cultural reference points, and ideology. Internecine squabbling over the doctrine (or otherwise) of punk is the order of the day, and this is reflected within the academic environment, where punk’s supposed ideological and political values are often foregrounded over its musical, aesthetic, or pop-cultural history (Bestley, “[I Want]”). The punk subculture spread worldwide over the past 40 years, extending its reach from North America, Europe, and Australia to Southeast Asia, China, South America, India, A ­ frica, Russia, and the Middle East. Ironically, this proliferation has often led to a narrowing of musical styles and ideological positions. Some of these may be necessary to the survival of punk as a distinct genre—simple, loud, fast, brash music has always been central to what is commonly viewed as punk rock, separating it from other forms of popular music. However, the adoption of other punk stereotypes—anger, a rejection of authority, politicized messages—has led to some clichés gaining deeper traction purely through repetition, almost to the point of forming ­u niversal truths. An archetype taken from the subsequently dominant subgenre of mid1980s, politically driven, hardcore punk has become the basis upon which other models are ­constructed, and the diversity of earlier punk styles has been at least partially obscured from view. One aspect of this narrowing definition has been the erasure of the subculture’s links to humor, comedy, and satire. 76

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Incongruity, Parody, and Satire Humor has been broadly categorized within three theoretical models: superiority, where the protagonist exercises or asserts a superior position to the target of the humor; incongruity, the disruption of expectations, often involving wordplay or similar strategies; and relief, the venting of nervous energy through breaking taboos and moral or ethical codes. A common factor is the meeting of incongruous or discordant ideas, the result of which is to elicit either amusement or a deeper understanding of the origins and meanings of those ideas themselves. This also often leads to a reward, the satisfaction of solving the riddle, getting the joke, and sharing cultural understanding. Humor is therefore dependent on the historical and cultural context, worldview, and shared communal understanding of the participants in the exchange. The main point is not the incongruity per se, but its realization and resolution, and humor can be critical or rhetorical, as well as a source of amusement. British humor has often been closely associated with parody and satire. Parody requires a degree of prior knowledge or familiarity with context, as Jerry Palmer suggests: “Parody always consists of the imitation (allusion, if not direct quotation or misquotation) of some other text or texts, even if only by using stylistic devices which are typical of the text(s) in question. … The role of imitation means that, from the first, intertextuality is integral to parody” (84). Satire, meanwhile, is a mode of social criticism that adopts a scornful, mocking, or sarcastic tone in order to improve, destroy, or increase awareness of the object of its ridicule—themes not only important to British cultural identity but also clearly central to British punk’s ideological critique. In both instances, decorum, “a decision about the form of expression which is publicly judged appropriate for a given setting and theme” (Palmer 82), is a key element. This is important in the context of punk humor, particularly in its ability to shock, and an expression that might be “publicly judged appropriate” may vary between protagonists within the punk community and the wider recipients of the message (who may, equally, be part of the butt of the humor). Ken Willis outlines the ways in which humor is based on group cohesion and acceptance, in both “reference groups” (social groups in which other people place individuals) and “identification groups” (social groups in which individuals place themselves). Willis draws on Hay’s model of recognition, understanding, and appreciation of humor, noting the gap between understanding and appreciation: While a “joke” may be recognized and understood, its appreciation is determined by social factors related to the receiver’s “humor competence” (Willis 126–45). However, care needs to be taken to evaluate both the protagonist and the butt of the humor, and to identify the sometimes indistinct or fluid interrelationship between the two. When Hay’s model is applied to the use of humor within early punk, it can be seen that such strategies may have drawn together fans who did, at least to an extent, recognize, understand, and appreciate the “joke” while alienating others—as Pauline Murray, vocalist with the punk group Penetration, recalls, The first time I saw the Sex Pistols was in a very small nightclub in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, in the spring of 1976. The regular Friday night customers were in attendance, and when the band took to the stage, the expression on their faces was incredulous. That in itself made me laugh. … Their [the Sex Pistols’] attitude was funny—like snotty kids who didn’t give a shit. The whole thing had a sense of humor rather than violence. The violence came from people’s reaction to them.

Gimme That Punk Junk As soon as punk began to gain critical attention in the UK—as a growing market sector ripe for exploitation and commentary—it appeared on the radar of comedians, satirists, and cultural commentators. Punk’s notoriety drew media attention wherever it appeared: It was almost inevitable 77

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that those outside the subculture would comment on it, either to jump on the bandwagon or for comic effect. Negative publicity, with stereotypical references in the British press to punks vomiting, spitting, swearing, and generally being outrageous, led to a nationwide boom in punk comedy spoofs, from Larry Grayson, the Barron Knights, and the Two Ronnies on television to records by Charlie Drake and Andy Cameron. In November 1977, comedy trio the Goodies (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie) dedicated an entire episode of their eponymous hit television series to a punk parody entitled “Punky Business.” The satirical effect of these attacks on the burgeoning punk movement was further complicated by the growth in punk novelty records by mystery groups, including the Water Pistols (“Gimme That Punk Junk”), Norman and the Hooligans (“I’m a Punk”), the Punkettes (“Going Out wiv a Punk”), and the Duggie Briggs Band (“Punk-Rockin’ Granny!”). Many of these existed in a sort of hinterland between external establishment assault and active subcultural participation; they were comic commentaries on punk by artists who demonstrated at least some tacit knowledge and understanding of the subculture. As well as the concept of songs offering a humorous reflection on the punk movement, it is worth considering the form and content of many of these parodies. Charlie Drake had charted with the novelty songs “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” and “Mr. Custer” in the late 1950s, and starred in successful television comedies, The Charlie Drake Show and The Worker, over the following decade. Drake’s attempt at punk parody adopted a stereotypical view of widely perceived punk conventions, such as safety pins and swearing, all recited in a Cockney accent over a plodding, rock-and-roll backing. The addition of a slide guitar solo is somewhat incongruous to the overall effect, but the theme of basic rock music, “working-class” accents, and lyrical clichés was paralleled in many other punk parody records. The Water Pistols followed suit, offering a series of punk stereotypes including chains, booze, swearing, and being “rotten,” over a generic pop backing track, though it was redeemed to a large extent by the inspired, and genuinely witty, chorus line “…anarchist, anarchist / an’ I kissed a couple of local girls.” Norman and the ­Hooligans at least managed to emulate something of a punk musical vibe with “I’m A Punk,” claiming “I’m

Figure 8.1 


Punk Comedy and Humor

a punk, and I don’t give a damn” over a basic riff reminiscent of the Who. Meanwhile, with a vocal style and deliberately dropped vowels reminiscent of British television comedienne Wendy Richards (Are You Being Served? and EastEnders), the Punkettes managed to evoke a 1960s girl group vibe, though with contemporary “punk” lyrical references to “mugging old ladies” and being sick, topped off with a wonderfully off-key final line “…it isn’t always ‘eaven, going out wiv a punk.” Many of these “punxploitation”1 records found their way into the hearts and collections of punk fans alongside supposedly “more genuine” punk recordings. Other punk novelty records achieved greater popular and commercial success. “Jilted John,” the eponymous debut single of an artist called Jilted John (the alter-ego of Manchester Polytechnic drama student Graham Fellows), was released by local independent Rabid Records in July 1978, before being picked up by EMI International and reaching #4 in the UK charts. The record tells the fictional story of its protagonist’s failed relationship with his girlfriend Julie, who left him for Gordon; built around a catchy one-chord guitar riff, the coda “Gordon is a moron” became a popular catchphrase across the UK. The record was something of a conundrum: It was clearly a parody, but like many of the best parodies it managed to strike an affectionate chord within the subculture it mocked. A distinction can perhaps be made here between novelty punk, punk parody, and comedy recordings that commented on punk—many were produced by people on the fringes of, or outside the subculture, but the level of criticism aimed at the punk scene differed, as did their acceptance within it. Artists such as Jilted John, Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, even the Punkettes and the Duggie Briggs Band, could sit alongside other comic performers such as John Cooper Clarke and Patrik Fitzgerald within the punk canon while a (typically older) range of established comedians who were attempting simply to use punk as a vehicle for their humor were dismissed as an awkward embarrassment. Since punk itself made widespread use of heavily ironic, satirical, and humorous forms of communication, it was a difficult target to satirize from the outside.

Cretin Hop: Comedy in Punk In the US, proto-punks the Dictators took the raw power of MC5 and the Stooges and added a healthy dose of humor to the equation, in turn, providing the template for the Ramones, with front man (and former band roadie) Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba providing something of a comic parody of a “rock star” persona in songs such as “Master Race Rock” and “(I Live For) Cars and Girls.” In turn, the Ramones were never far from comedy and self-parody, particularly in songs such as “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” “Beat on the Brat,” “Cretin Hop,” and “Teenage Lobotomy.” The last of these featured the lyric, “Slugs and snails are after me / DDT keeps me happy / Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em / That I got no cerebellum.” In the UK, the Damned were often criticized in the “serious” music press for their openly playful approach, particularly as it ran contradictory to the radically politicized rhetoric that became attached to the new movement through journalists such as Caroline Coon, Tony Parsons, and Julie Burchill.2 The Sex Pistols may have used barbed humor as a weapon, but the Damned’s more immediately apparent comical approach saw them tagged by some critics as cartoon characters, not part of the same revolution as their contemporaries—an interpretation exacerbated not only by the group’s reputation as hell-raisers but also by the marketing strategies of their record label, Stiff, itself a keen proponent of the art of the humorous one-liner.3 Equally, the Damned were no strangers to comic performance, with bassist Captain Sensible often appearing on stage in fancy dress outfits, and the band’s reputation for chaotic live shows embraced a form of slapstick vandalism. The group’s motto celebrating each year of “anarchy, chaos and destruction” on badges and posters was only partly tongue-in-cheek. A significant element of the punk subculture has, then, always employed humor in the pursuit of entertainment, in the tradition of popular music that goes back decades, if not centuries 79

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(Bestley, “I Tried”). Other comedy traces could be observed in the hugely popular Carry On films (1958–1978), working-class, end-of-pier comic entertainment, and the music hall tradition of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—most notably performers such as Frank Randle and Max Miller. Indeed, journalist Garry Bushell, who championed the Oi! movement during the early 1980s, made repeated references to its links with traditions of working-class comedy and music hall. His own “punk pathetique” band, the Gonads, recorded several music hall numbers including Gus Elen’s “Half a Pint of Ale” and Charles Coburn’s “Two Lovely Black Eyes” while other groups and performers associated with the nascent Oi! scene, including the Adicts, Splodgenessabounds, and Peter and the Test Tube Babies, adopted a conspicuously comic approach from the outset. British punk’s self-styled, working-class stereotype resonated within this historical context—whether through working-class performers or through affectation by participants who sought to project the “right” kind of authentic image (Barker and Taylor). This approach to punk as a form of popular entertainment can be traced from the Ramones and the Damned through the Lurkers, the Rezillos, the Undertones, the Yobs, the Notsensibles, and the Toy Dolls.4 Other punk artists utilized shock tactics, particularly through swearing and taboo topics: Comparisons might be drawn with the spoken-word recordings made by British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore under the pseudonyms Derek & Clive—the albums Come Again (1977) and Ad Nauseam (1978) featured dialogues that sought to be as deeply offensive and puerile as possible. A similar approach can be seen in the output of a number of early UK punk groups, including the Snivelling Shits and the Pork Dukes. Dozens more followed—some employing offensive titles purely for shock value (including Raped, whose debut Pretty Paedophiles EP at the end of 1977 on the Parole Records label was widely banned). Others utilized taboo subjects and unsavory language as vehicles for provocation and insurrection, including the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers. In the US, similar distinctions could be made between punks employing shock tactics and vulgarity as a kind of comic catharsis and those who used similar strategies for more political or critical ends. Examples of these different purposes include, respectively, Los Angeles punks the Rotters, who released their debut single “Sit on My Face Stevie Nicks” on their own Rotten Records label in 1978, and San Francisco hardcore pioneers Dead Kennedys, whose songs such as “California Über Alles,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Kill the Poor,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” and “I Kill Children” were darkly humorous commentaries on modern life, consumerism, and politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s (see Ogg). Other US hardcore punk groups employing overt forms of comedy included Fear—whose 1981 appearance on Saturday Night Live as special guests of comedian John Belushi resulted in $20,000 damage to the set—the Meatmen (who released the notorious Crippled Children Suck EP in 1982) and the Angry Samoans (who masqueraded as the Queer Pills for their The Depraved EP in 1981, which included the controversial track “They Saved Hitler’s Cock”). The US West Coast has become something of a center for the evolution of comic punk performers, from the sped-up cartoon parodies of well-known pop songs by the Dickies in the 1970s through to NOFX, Me First, and the Gimme Gimmes in the 1990s and beyond. A strain of comedy-based punk became further embedded through the late 1970s, and new groups formed to fit within the evolving genre—in the US, NOFX and the Queers, and in the UK the Toy Dolls, Splodgenessabounds, and the Macc Lads, among many others. The Toy Dolls and Splodgenessabounds both achieved UK chart hits in the early 1980s—the former with a punked-up cover of nursery rhyme “Nellie the Elephant” and the latter with their own composition, “Two Pints of Lager & a Packet of Crisps Please.” As a more overtly political strain of hardcore punk began to emerge in the early 1980s, a divide began to develop between punk generations, and many punk performers began to position themselves as carriers of political truth


Punk Comedy and Humor

and justice. This was not well received by some longer-standing participants, as Gareth Holder, formerly of UK-independent punk band the Shapes, reflects, When did punk really start to come off the rails? In my opinion, it was the day it lost the capacity for humor, and the ability to laugh at itself. … Subtlety left, and nobody was really listening to anything anyone else had to say, which in its way is the ultimate irony of an art form that existed initially to do the very opposite. However, while a shift away from a model of punk as entertainment toward more ideological objectives was regretted by some participants, others saw its newly austere, serious, and sober self-image as an opportunity for parody. Chaotic Dischord formed as an incognito offshoot of high-profile local group Vice Squad in a rather unsubtle but commercially successful parody of the developing thrash movement. The group’s record releases were deliberately juvenile and shocking, including the debut album Fuck Religion, Fuck Politics, Fuck the Lot of You! (1983), and despite (or possibly because of ) their obviously over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek offensiveness, they went on to be successful in the independent record charts. At times, however, Chaotic Dischord could be sharply satirical without resorting to blunt offense. Their 1984 track “Anarchy in Woolworths” brilliantly pillories the absurdity of punk’s political posturing, simply by relocating its po-faced rebellion within a mundane high street chain store. The Anti-Nowhere League gained a degree of notoriety when their debut single, “Streets of London” (1981) was seized by police under the Obscene Publications Act due to the offensive lyrics on the flipside, “So What.” The band’s debut album, We Are the League (1982), also saw their record label facing obscenity charges and was quickly withdrawn. However, with their reputation and subsequent bad-boy notoriety, the self-effacing wit of the band’s lyrics was sometimes overlooked, as on the album title track, “We Are the League”: “We are the League and we are shit / But we’re up here and we’re doing it / So don’t you criticize the things we do / ‘Cos no fucker pays to go and see you.”

Figure 8.2 


Russ Bestley

Punk Humor as Strategy and Practice Like most music-based subcultures, punk was, and is, centered on notions of community, identity, and authenticity. In fact, those themes are even more prevalent, given the highly critical and reflective nature of punk: From the outset, commentators engaged in a high degree of introspection and reflection on the nature and outlook of the subculture, with protracted public debates encompassing everything from correct nomenclature to its “natural” political direction (Coon; Sabin; Worley “Shot”; Worley No Future). The use of humor as a bonding strategy, to delineate inclusion and exclusion from a cultural group, is also an important factor. According to Mahadev L. Apte, “joking relationships [can] mark group identity and signal the inclusion or exclusion of a new individual” (56), and, consequently, they “manifest a consciousness of group identity or solidarity” (66). Iain Ellis, meanwhile, compares rituals of humor implicit in popular culture in US southern states prior to the twentieth century to English pub rock of the mid-1970s (an important precursor to UK punk), noting that “both employ a vernacular and accented humor that serves to bind their respective working-class communities; both use that humor as a defense-offense device that protects their community’s dignity while chastening the phoniness of the ‘outside’ world” (70). Cliff Goddard’s linguistic analysis of Australian humor, specifically the nature of what he terms “deadpan jocular irony,” is another potentially useful model here, as the rationale appears to reflect certain humor codes prevalent within the punk subculture—a “humour practice” that is based on “challenging the addressee’s mental alertness and predicated on assumed ‘solidarity’, i.e. the assumption that the addressee is ‘someone like me’” (64). In other words, punk employs an internal discourse that relies, in part, on the exchange of friendly insults between individuals as a form of inclusion and acknowledgment. Nick Holm outlines the key theories of humor developed by Freud in relation to ­t ransgression, relief, and tendentious methods of joke-telling: “Tendentious jokes allow humourists to communicate otherwise unacceptable opinions or ideas, which must normally be repressed, thereby ­a llowing the humourist and their audience to temporarily escape their socially determined bounds” (112). Holm takes these principles further, extending Freud’s distinction between the formal “joke-work” of humor and its potential to give voice to repressed statements of socially forbidden aggression and obscenity within what the author terms “edge-work”: “I present the notion of ‘edge-work’ to name a formally distinct mode of humour premised on an intentionally failed engagement with social standards of taste and decency and suggest the political potential of such forms of humour” (108). As the punk subculture matured and evolved, an internal dialogue developed that embraced humor as one weapon within a sophisticated armory that could be drawn upon to tease, mock, question, or insult rival groups and individuals within the same subculture, as well as external targets set up for ridicule. Internecine rivalries have prevailed throughout punk’s history; notable examples include John Lydon’s lyrical put-down of the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers in the Sex Pistols’ “New York” (“an imitation from New York / You’re made in Japan from cheese and chalk”) and Joe Strummer’s caustic side-swipe toward rival group the Jam (“they’ve got Burton suits, huh, you think it’s funny / Turning rebellion into money”) on the Clash’s “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais.” Similarly, ironic and parodic approaches to peers, audiences, and the establishment can be observed throughout the history of punk, both in the UK and worldwide. The Stranglers were well known for baiting critics within the music press, and for playing up to negative stereotypes where they felt unfairly slighted. When accused of misogyny on their debut album, they responded with the overtly sexist “Bring on the Nubiles” on the follow-up, and employed strippers to accompany them on stage at a gig in Battersea Park in September 1978. The group’s notorious album track “I Feel Like a Wog” also evoked a great deal of consternation while the lyrics alluded to a level of critical self-awareness perhaps missing in some of the negative commentary: “I tried to make him laugh, he didn’t get the joke / And then he said I wasn’t right in the head.”


Punk Comedy and Humor

The Sex Pistols were renowned for shocking and provocative behavior, but their use of satire and a particularly cutting and sarcastic form of English wit is often overlooked—from vocalist Johnny Rotten’s sneering interviews to his enunciation of the lyrics to “Pretty Vacant” (articulated as “pretty va-cunt”), guitarist Steve Jones’s blunt but witty asides and Jamie Reid’s satirical graphic interventions (Bestley, “Art Attacks”), to Sid Vicious’s infamous comment about the “man in the street.”5 Following the Pistols’ rancorous split in February 1978, the comedy element became even more prominent, particularly in the film The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (directed by Julian ­Temple), eventually released in 1980. Ostensibly, a fictionalized retelling of the band’s story, largely from the perspective of manager Malcolm McLaren, the mockumentary was basically a series of short sketches and musical interludes featuring a number of mainstream British comedy actors. To compound the comedy, the accompanying soundtrack climaxed in a reworking of a bawdy rugby song, “Friggin’ in the Riggin’,” and included comic performances by Edward ­Tudor-Pole (“Who Killed Bambi?” along with an inspired, and deeply offensive, ad-libbed coda on “The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle”),6 and a guest appearance by fugitive train robber ­Ronnie Biggs on “No One is Innocent”: “God save the Sex Pistols / They’re a bunch of wholesome blokes / They just like wearing filthy clothes / And swapping filthy jokes.” A significant element of punk performance and participation has always centered on comedy and humor. Equally, much punk language and discourse employs barbed and acidic humor, in the form of sarcasm, irony, parody, and unconcealed cynicism, alongside working-class comic traditions, employing crudeness, bawdiness, and profanity. These strategies are sometimes adopted purely for comedic effect but also at times as a form of critical commentary or political activism. Humor has long been utilized as a strategic tool within punk communities, for entertainment and amusement, to facilitate inclusion and exclusion, as well as a rhetorical practice. However, like many other social processes that employ humor as a bonding ritual, the subtlety of such strategies and the often very dry nature of the “joke” can be easily overlooked by those unfamiliar with its specific subcultural context.

Notes 1 Punk fans and collectors have retrospectively applied the term “punxploitation” as a colloquial idiom for punk-themed records and other ephemera designed deliberately to exploit the popularity of the subculture for financial gain. The etymology of the word reflects similar definitions within film, notably the term Blaxploitation to denote films that employ stereotypical roles for black characters. The fact that it is used both to critique and celebrate is of particular importance to a discussion of the genre. 2 Though the Damned were fêted by the same journalists early in their career, their position came under fire during 1977 as debates about the politics of punk took hold. Notably, Kris Needs at Zigzag magazine was one of the first journalists to pick up on punk’s humorous undercurrent. 3 The term “stiff” is, in music industry, shorthand for a record that fails to sell. Early Stiff sleeves incorporated self-mocking catchphrases, including “Artistic breakthrough! Double B side” and “Today’s Sound Today” while perhaps the label’s most notorious marketing phrase exclaimed “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck.” 4 Recordings by the Notsensibles included “(I’m in Love with) Margaret Thatcher” and “I Thought You Were Dead” while Toy Dolls titles include “Spiders in the Dressing Room,” “Glenda and the Test Tube Baby,” “Nellie the Elephant,” and “I’ve Got Asthma.” 5 Asked by a journalist what he thought about the anger felt toward the Sex Pistols by the “man in the street,” Vicious replied, “I’ve met the man in the street, and he’s a cunt.” 6 Tudor-Pole’s ad-libbed tirade includes references to “Elvis Presley—white nigger” and “Elton John— hair transplant,” among others.

Works Cited Apte, Mahadev L. Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach. Cornell UP, 1985. Barker, Hugh, and Yuval Taylor. Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. Faber & Faber, 2007.


Russ Bestley Bestley, Russ. “Art Attacks and Killing Jokes: The Graphic Language of Punk Humor.” Punk & Post-Punk, vol. 2, no. 3, 2013, pp. 231–67. ———. “‘I Tried to Make Him Laugh, He Didn’t Get the Joke’—Taking Punk Humor Seriously.” Punk & Post-Punk, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 119–45. ———. “(I Want Some) Demystification: Deconstructing Punk.” Punk & Post Punk, vol.4, no. 2–3, 2016, pp. 117–27. Bonello Rutter Giappone, K. “Laughing Otherwise: Comic-critical Approaches in Alternative Comedy.” Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 21, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1–20. Coon, Caroline. “Punk Rock: Rebels against the System.” Melody Maker, 7 Aug. 1976, pp. 24–25. Ellis, Iain. Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor. Intellect, 2012. Goddard, Cliff. “Ethnopragmatic Perspectives on Conversational Humour, with Special Reference to ­Australian English.” Language & Communication, vol. 55, 2017, pp. 55–68. Hay, Jennifer. “The Pragmatics of Humor Support.” International Journal of Humor Research, vol. 14, no. 1, 2001, pp. 55–82. Holder, Gareth. Personal interview. 18 Apr. 2013. Holm, Nicholas. “Humour as Edge-work: Aesthetics, Joke-work and Tendentiousness in Tosh.0 (or Daniel Tosh and the Mystery of the Missing Joke-work).” Comedy Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 108–21. ———. Humour as Politics: The Political Aesthetics of Contemporary Comedy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Jones, Steve. Lonely Boy: Tales from A Sex Pistol. William Heinemann, 2016. Lockyer, Sharon, and Michael Pickering, editors. Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Murray, Pauline. Personal interview. 22 Apr. 2013. Ogg, Alex. Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables—The Early Years. PM Press, 2014. Palmer, Jerry. “Parody and Decorum: Permission to Mock.” Lockyer and Pickering, pp. 79–97. “The Record Machine.” Omnibus, BBC Television, 12 Oct. 1978. Sabin, Roger, editor. Punk Rock: So What? Routledge, 1999. Willis, Ken. “Merry Hell: Humour Competence and Social Incompetence.” Lockyer and Pickering, pp. 126–45. Worley, Matthew. No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–84. Cambridge UP, 2017. ———. “Shot by Both Sides: Punk, Politics and the End of ‘Consensus.’” Contemporary British History, vol. 26, no. 3, 2012, pp. 333–54.


9 “Mommy’s Dead” The Gallows Humor of Hardcore Punk Dennis D. McDaniel

Four months after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, comedian Kathy Griffin shocked and offended both Republicans and Democrats by publishing a picture of herself holding a bloodied head of Trump by his hair, in the style of Cellini’s Perseus brandishing the beheaded Medusa. Griffin’s attorney, Lisa Bloom, characterized the stark image as “a parody of Trump’s own sexist remarks taken to an extreme absurdist visual”; Griffin wanted to “mock Trump, our mocker-in-chief, [to show] what would it look like if his own insults were turned on him” (qtd. in Chan). Trump’s “mocks” included his boasting about making uninvited sexual advances on women and his controversial description of presidential debate moderator Megyn Kelly: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” (qtd. in Rucker). Still, few appreciated the political message of Griffin’s photo, so outraged were they by its depiction of a decapitated president. Some likened the photo to making a joke of films of bodies falling from the burning World Trade Center or the video of Nicholas Berg’s beheading by Iraqi militants (Cupp). Nor was Griffin’s employer pleased: CNN fired Griffin from its New Year’s Eve show, calling the Trump photo “disgusting and offensive” (qtd. in Gonzalez). Even Chelsea Clinton, whose mother Trump mocked as “Crooked,” tweeted that “It is never funny to joke about killing a president” (qtd. in Gonzalez). Thus, the Griffin photo raised the questions one hears when gallows humor satirizes a president: Was she merely protesting, or was she advocating assassination? Shouldn’t Griffin have considered the photo’s effect on the President’s ­children? Couldn’t she find a more acceptable means to promote awareness of the dire consequences of the election or to get the upper hand on a president who continually gloats about winning? Sophia McClennen provided a rationale for Griffin’s photo: Dead Trump jokes “offer catharsis in a time of crisis”; they reflect not so much a desire to murder Trump as “the idea that many in our nation and around the world feel like we are doomed.” Here, as in the past, when people face threatening, overpowering forces, they resort to desperate and disturbing forms of resistance. During the 1980s, many felt that Reagan-era conservatism mocked civility and decency. ­Reagan called for “a great spiritual awakening in America … a renewal of the traditional values that have been the bedrock of America’s goodness and greatness,” and portrayed the Soviet Union as “the evil empire” that must be stopped (Reagan, “Evil Empire”). However, he simultaneously created what the Washington Post called a “war-machine economy” that dramatically increased military spending, devoting most of the money to building controversial armaments like the B-1 Bomber, the MX Missile (nicknamed, to many ironically, “The Peacekeeper”), and the Strategic Defense Initiative (Schneider and Merle). Critics questioned whether Reagan could justify his 85

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support for the “sacred value of human life” (Reagan, Abortion) while pursuing the development of the neutron bomb, which, theoretically, killed personnel but kept property intact and weapons functional. Of what did Reagan’s support for “family values” consist, beyond alliance with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority? Reagan’s economic policy, called “Reaganomics,” did not appear to reward families. “Reaganomics” theorized that through deregulation and tax cuts, benefits would “trickle down” to the middle and working classes. However, instead of reinvesting savings in a way that would boost employment and raise wages, the wealthy bought bigger toys and made campaign contributions to politicians who would protect their interest (Komlos). Working-class wages and living standards decreased while poverty and homelessness rose (Dreier). Was this the “morning in America,” as Reagan’s 1984 TV campaign ad proclaimed? The Reagan presidency awakened and politicized alienated, unemployed young males, who expressed their discontent through the most provocative sound that they could generate. Winston Smith, the cover artist for the Dead Kennedys’ first album, says that teenagers who “were asleep until [Reagan was elected] suddenly had their eyes opened” (qtd. in Blush 20). Steven Blush, a key chronicler of American hardcore punk, argues that the Reagan’s opposition to the arts, minorities, and the poor, was a “galvanizing force” for his cohort (20). From Washington, DC, to Seattle, bands formed and released their frustration through fierce sonic attacks reminiscent of the Sex Pistols, but sped up to 78 rpm. Speed, machine-gunning guitars, and quick, unexpected chord changes drove the hardcore sound and fed the energy of the singer, who, more than Dylan ever cared to, and more authentically than Dylan’s imitators, embraced the role of the embattled voice of his generation. Sickened by fast food, betrayed by Sunday school and civics class, stimulated by Ritalin, yet bored by all that vies for his attention, the hardcore singer plays the protagonist in a tragedy that he refuses to take seriously. His voice is a mockery of both balladeer and bluesman: guttural, goofy, off-key, half-spoken; his words are garbled, rushed, and nearly unintelligible. His fury can be heartfelt but is more often seasoned with sufficient irony to direct ridicule to the target of the song rather than the emotions of its singer. ­ eagan Using irony to mock the faux solemnity and Madison Avenue-style optimism of the R era, hardcore punk was more than just a style of music; it was part of a “political and social movement” that used music as a “revolutionary art” through which young people could seek reform or subvert the status quo (Blush 9, 20). Rejecting the milder critique and utopian visions of 1960s-era protest songs, these newly politicized punks communicated their frustration with official hypocrisy through gallows humor, naming themselves after the most violent impulses of contemporary politicians and screaming out nightmare visions of death and murder with an antic glee. This radical form of political satire, which tested America’s tolerance for vicious attacks on its idealized self-image, merits greater attention. Startling, grotesque, and seemingly nihilistic, the gallows humor of hardcore punk revealed the power of comedy to unify an opposition and jerk a complacent audience into awareness. Following the obscenity trial for an artwork included in the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist in 1987, Jello Biafra, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, defended gallows humor as an inspiration to political action: “[I]t’s very clear that it’s not just some ‘tee hee, there’s some body parts’ or anything like that. … The image had to be horrific in order to portray it as being the ugly thing that it is, so that maybe people would want to do something about it” (“Jello Biafra”). Harnessing the power of dark satire to create a united, spirited resistance to what they perceived as an oppressive regime while straddling the line between horror and humor, hardcore punks employed the most horrifying words and images to attack Ronald Reagan’s image, as well as the militarism, economics, and embrace of “family values” that characterized “the Reagan revolution.” Hardcore punk’s use of gallows humor to awaken an uninterested, complacent public to their own unrecognized inhumanity has deep roots. Jonathan Swift is often considered the originator of gallows humor for his skill at provoking both laughter and repulsion through his lighthearted treatment of disaster and inhumanity. In 1729, to shock uncaring British readers to an awareness 86

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of the severity of Irish poverty, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” in the voice of a seemingly benevolent pamphleteer who is frustrated by failed attempts to cure the widespread, unsightly, and burdensome poverty in Ireland. As his remedy, Swift’s persona recommends that poor Irish mothers sell their infants as food for their British landlords. Drawing on concocted yet convincingly conveyed data and testimony, Swift’s persona reveals that “a young healthy Child, well nursed is at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled” (297) and its skin “will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen” (298). Considering the high cost of this new infantile delicacy, Swift’s persona suggests that such would be “very proper for Landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children” (297). Swift treats infanticide and cannibalism dispassionately to take his readers’ callous attitudes to their ridiculous extreme, but risks alienating his audience with the images he uses to make his point. Dancing on the border of hilarity and horror, Swift hoped to force his readers to recognize their own beastliness. In the modern world, in which “the bloated materialistic dreams of an affluent society [are] ready to be puffed out in a nuclear burst” (Numasawa 44), writers, artists, and victims of violent oppression have used gallows humor to empower, satirize, and reform. Obrdlik finds that gallows humor strengthened the resolve of Nazi concentration camp survivors to resist the brutality of their captors. Gallows humor, he concludes, became an expression, not of cynicism, but of “hope and wishful thinking” that oppression would end (710). For the survivors as for others, gallows humor functions as a “psychological compensation” that boosts the morale of the oppressed as it demoralizes the oppressor (713). Along with this psychosocial function, gallows humor was the appropriate mode of satire for a modern world that had gone mad. Bruce Jay Friedman explains that when the absurdity of the satirist’s time is such that her “ground [has been] usurped by the newspaper reporter,” she must “discover new land . . . [and] sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire” (22). Still, gallows humor was found to be more shocking than the sanctioned mass murder that it ridiculed. William S. Burroughs’s satiric Naked Lunch was tried for obscenity due to, among other charges, its graphic depictions of the death penalty, which Burroughs felt, demanded a Swiftian treatment to display it as “the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is” (xli). Fellow writers supported Burroughs’s approach. Terry Southern argued that the only way to bring a violent injustice to ridicule is “by exaggerating its circumstances, increasing its horror, accentuating the animal irresponsibility of those involved, insisting that the monstrous deed be witnessed (and in Technicolor, so to speak) by all concerned” (qtd. in Burroughs vi). ­Norman Mailer echoed this defense in his obscenity trial testimony: Burroughs’s “wild and deadly” language “is neither amoral nor nihilistic.” Rather, Burroughs is a “religious” writer who provides a vision of hell as “the final product, of the scientific revolution … the Hell which arrives from the vanities of the mind … of the excesses of evil which occur when the idea of personal or intellectual power reigns superior to the compassions of the flesh.” Though gallows humor can be shocking, a nation that tolerates this kind of humor shows “bravery and moral honesty” in that it can “look into the chasm of its own potential Hell and recognize that it is stronger as a nation for possessing an artist who can come back from Hell with a portrait of its dimensions” (qtd. in ­Burroughs xviii–xix). Working within this tradition established by Swift and Burroughs, hardcore punks wrote songs that forced America to stare at an image of hell beneath the fraudulent veneer of the Reagan era. Desecrating Reagan’s polished hyper-masculine media image was a persistent aim of hardcore punk imagery and lyrics. Actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan understood that an image of strength could be used to win support of unpopular policy decisions. The New York Times chief White House correspondent commented that “from the beginning of his Presidency, Mr. Reagan and his aides have understood and exploited what they acknowledge to be the built-in tendency of television to emphasize appearances and impressions more than information” (Weisman). Seeing fascistic tendencies in Reagan’s mediated pretensions, hardcore punk parodied Reagan’s image in 87

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album cover and sleeve art. A Hitler mustache conveniently associated Reagan with genocide and slaughter. The sleeve of the Fartz EP, Because this Fucking World Stinks (1981), pastes a mustachioed Reagan, with Nazi insignias crudely drawn on his trench coat, into a Sgt. Pepper-like collage of white-male establishment types. More ominous is an EP sleeve drawing from Reagan Youth, a band whose name satirically recalls Hitler’s adolescent acolytes. Here, above the iconic mustache, swastikas replace Reagan’s eyeballs; anarchy symbols emblazon his lapel pins; and his left index finger threatens to depress a red button, boding annihilation. In the song “Reagan Youth” (1984), the band, in breakneck goosestep, croaks mock allegiance to Reagan and his assertions of power: “We are the sons of Reagan—heil! / We’re gonna kill all pagans—heil!” Launching a new holocaust on non-believers, the youth will “purge the heathen kind / Cause we’re the Reagan youth—sieg heil!” On the aforementioned Reagan Youth EP cover, a horse rears on Reagan’s tie as a parody of Reagan’s cowboy persona. Another movie cowboy and close Reagan associate, John Wayne, is eulogized by MDC, also known as Millions of Dead Cops, who link Wayne’s machismo with authoritarianism and genocide. In “John Wayne Was a Nazi” (1981), vocalist Dave Dictor chants that the beloved Duke “liked to play SS / Kept a picture of Adolph in his cowboy vest.” As the three-chord barrage crescendos, Dictor calls Wayne a “hypocrite coward” movie hero, who “slaughtered our Indian brothers / Burned their villages and raped their mothers,” “killed a lot of gooks,” and “didn’t like us reds and fags that didn’t conform.” However, “life evens the score,” and “if God’s alive, [Wayne] is roastin’ now.” Exposing the dark possibilities of Reagan’s and Wayne’s false bravado, hardcore songs ridiculed the machismo that often impels nations into war. Reagan’s macho image and the calamitous potential of his military buildup inspired sharp satire from hardcore punk, which questioned the offered motives for building armaments and decried what it saw as dishonest arguments that supported defense spending. The thrash-oriented Day Glo Abortions, in 1986, undermine Reagan’s militaristic chest-thumping by conflating him with Ronald McDonald, the spokes-clown for the then-unchallenged fast-food colossus. Lead vocalist Cretin plays “Ronald McRaygun,” who wants you in his “McArmy.” “Special orders don’t McUpset” him so long as he defeats his “McEnemy.” Parodying McDonald’s ad tactics (placing “Mc” before its products and greeting exceptional requests with serenity), Day Glo Abortions associate militarism with corporate hegemony. The connection between warfare and big business is satirized in Fear’s ominous “Let’s Have a War” (1982). Conveying George-Carlinesque irony through proto-death metal, the song sardonically treats the declaration of war as a matter of simple efficiency. Bellowing vocalist Lee Ving exhorts us to embrace war as a welcome solution to overpopulation (“There’s too many of us”), the economy (“Jack up the Dow Jones”), urban blight (“we need the space”), diversity (“give guns to the queers”), and boredom (“sell the rights to the networks”). Such a solution would be easy to implement as war “has already started in the city; suburbia would be just as easy.” Reagan’s “evil empire” claim is satirized in the Circle Jerk’s “Killing for Jesus” (1985), in which vocalist Keith Morris plays a crusader who pledges to go “on a rampage / To rape, plunder, and pillage” with “God on [his] side.” Zealously marching off to his task, he’s “never bored/ when [he’s] killing for the lord.” The irony of labeling bombs as “Peacekeepers” and of sloganeering like “Peace through Strength” is lambasted in Dirty Rotten Imbeciles’ incendiary “Violent Pacification” (1984), in which vocalist Kurt Brecht takes on the Reagan persona and threatens to “force you to be nice to each other/ kill you before you kill each other.” The height of this deadly irony is the Neutron Bomb, which the Weirdos had earlier satirized in their classic, “We Got the Neutron Bomb” (1977). The Circle Jerks’ “Making the Bombs” (1985) builds on that satire; in this heavy metal stomp, Keith Morris plays the role of a ballistics engineer who takes pride in plying his trade “for the good of the nation,” “making the world a nicer place” through “massive plutonium radiation.” He favors the “kind that save the buildings / Why take it out on pillars of stone? / You gotta kill; you gotta maim/ The real estate is not to blame.” The gallows humor of these songs suggests that Reagan’s ideal of “peace through strength” was merely code for “destroying the enemy.” 88

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Determining that valuing property over people, or at least poor people, was the actual goal of Reagan’s supply-side policies, hardcore punk stressed the danger of the trickle-down theory. “Reaganomics killing me / Reaganomics killing you” repeat the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles in the 42 second, breakneck “Reaganomics” (1985). The Dead Kennedys, who railed against a more liberal Jerry Brown in Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980), reprise the melody of “California Uber Alles” but turn the attack onto Reagan in “We Have a Bigger Problem Now” (1981). In the song’s slow, jazzy, vamp, Jello Biafra, in his trademark cartoonish warble, heralds the rise of ­“Emperor Ronald Reagan,” who has been “born again with fascist cravings.” Those unable to find jobs in Reagan’s America will be sent to fight in “El Salvador or Afghanistan” to enrich ­Reagan and his friends. In “Forest Fire” (1982), Biafra’s persona, like his gleeful counterpart in Fresh Fruit’s “Chemical Warfare,” starts a blaze that engulfs “wealthy California homes” which, with their “windows covered with bars” and “locked gates and doors,” become the flaming prisons of their owners, who remain trapped inside because they tried to save their cocaine stash (which they choose over their wives). The singer laughs as he watches the homeowner “run run run run like a gerbil” from the fire while his “electric bull” and “pink sports car” melt. Perhaps the most scathing use of gallows humor responded to Reagan’s morality agenda. The morality wing of the Reagan revolution was perceived as a hypocrisy and sham concocted to win political support; hence, it demanded the most disturbing response. Frustration with the empty claims of Christian fundamentalism is the focus of the Crucifucks’ “Hinckley Had a Vision” (1985). In 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan to win the long-sought attention of the actress Jodie Foster. Ultra-bratty vocalist Doc Corbin Dart contends that if Hinckley was in some way divinely inspired, then the very forces that Reagan hoped to harness through his appeal to fundamentalist Christians are the same that nearly killed him. Dart screams with exasperation at moralistic Christians who “live for everlasting life / And ruin my life here on earth.” Salvation, the Dart concludes, can be attained only through immolating Christians, decapitating the president, and mailing his head to the surviving members of the moral majority “in a garbage bag.” A similar drive to kill by purgative fire is found in the Day Glo Abortions’ gruesome ­call-and-response, “Die Sinner Die” (1986). The sin in this instance is the moral majority’s hypocrisy: “Jerry Falwell’s god sez that war is good / At least that’s what they tell us and Christians never lie.” Falwell’s funeral pyre will become the fuel for “the fire of communism” on which the singer will “roast jelly beans,” alluding to Reagan’s favorite snack. As they trashed Reagan’s religious agenda as a cynical appeal to his conservative base, hardcore punk bands eviscerated Reagan’s veneration of the “sacred value of human life” with songs that glorified suicide and murder. The name of the band, Suicidal Tendencies, parodied Reagan’s “life” agenda. The songs on their first, eponymous album, released in 1983, provide a thunderous yet comical analysis of the fears and frustrations that drive the singer to consider suicide: clueless parents (“Institutionalized”), possible demonic possession (“Possessed”), subconscious mind control (“Subliminal”), fear of brain eating rioters (“Fascist Pigs”), and dissatisfaction with dead-end jobs (“I Want More”). The vocalist, Mike Muir, would prefer suicide to living in post-nuclear holocaust dystopia, in which “Radioactive people … kill for food” (“Memories of Tomorrow”). Though Muir doesn’t oppose Reagan, Reagan’s “fascist state” is “anti-me” (“Two-Sided Politics”). That said, he claims responsibility not only for shooting Reagan but also Anwar Sadat, John Lennon, the devil, and the Pope (“I Shot Reagan”); Suicide seems the only cure for everything that sickens Muir (“Suicide’s an Alternative”); but in line with the theme of impotence, he doesn’t have the will to carry out his plan (“Suicidal Failure”). Yet the songs on Suicidal Tendencies, though bleak and moribund, bristle with anger and energy. The guitar sound is huge and menacing, slowly building in tempo and intensity as Muir’s rage escalates, and then exploding into a moshpit-­igniting frenzy of speed. Muir’s suicidal ideation is an antidote to the failed wisdom of parents and the culture they represent. In “Institutionalized,” as his parents inform Mike that they’re committing him, he throws the irony in their faces: “What are you trying to say, I’M crazy? / When 89

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I went to YOUR schools, / I went to YOUR churches? / I went to YOUR institutional learning facilities?!” Recognizing that Muir can’t kill himself, he consoles himself by predicting that he’ll probably die in a car accident. Suicidal Tendencies’ cynicism and comic treatment of death and dying feels liberating as a spirited resistance to Reagan’s conformist vision of America. If suicide is too daunting, there are alternatives. Hardcore punk countered Reagan’s “family values” campaign with a variety of songs that cynically promoted the murder of children and family members. Shocking as such carnage seems, hardcore songs weren’t necessarily calling for homicide, but for a debunking of a deceptive appeal of the idealized family. In “Parents” (1982) by the Descendents, lead singer Milo, like Mike in “Institutionalized,” is frustrated by his parents’ nagging—“why don’t they shut up”—and their stupidity—“they look into the past / For future reference.” They don’t even recognize their own son and fail to respect his potential “to explode.” Little do the parents know that Milo “will kill … and destroy / Parents!” In Fear’s “We Destroy the Family” (1982), Lee Ving’s crazed, incantatory refrain of the title poses him as the ­spokesperson/ shaman for the moral majority resistance forces. “Steal the money from your mother, / Buy a gun!” Ving demands, and “Kill your mother and father.” In other matricidal songs, Mommy is a source of frustration and shame for whom death is the only remedy. In the Day Glo Abortions’ “I Killed Mommy” (1986), Cretin objects to his parents’ efforts to “synchronize” him, and to his mother’s effort to keep him from killing his five-year-old sister and mutilating her corpse. Suicidal Tendencies’ grating “I Saw Your Mommy and Your Mommy’s Dead” (1983) may be one of the ghastliest attacks on Reagan’s embrace of the family values agenda. Here, Mike Muir, in his characteristic high-pitched whine, compliments his friend’s thoroughly accomplished murder and mutilation of his mother, who has been slashed, run over by a car, had her toes and feet chopped off, and then has been thrown in the sewer to have her carcass gutted by vermin. Thus dispatched, mommy “can’t do no harm.” Muir is clearly impressed: “I wonder how much you had to pay / To get your mom killed in such a bloody way,” he says. But he warns his now motherless friend to kiss mommy at the funeral home to kill suspicion, even though he knows all his friend will miss is his allowance. “I Saw Your Mommy” could be read as the dramatic monologue of a psychopath; more likely, it is another effort to use deadly humor to mock an implacable power structure. And it is well known that Reagan’s nickname for his wife Nancy was “mommy.” Ultimately, Reagan’s pursuit of his economic, military, and social policies remained unaffected, if not unchallenged, by hardcore punk’s satire, despite the enthusiastic efforts of the “Rock Against Reagan” tours, in which several of the bands cited in this chapter participated. Even though they lacked many straightforward policy prescriptions, hardcore punk bands had a significant impact, raising their audience’s awareness of social issues, providing their audience with a way to release frustration, and recuperating their audience’s dignity, even as they saw themselves teetering at the edge of doom. As Mailer states, gallows humor is “a defeated man’s last pride, the pride that he has, at least, not lost his bitterness” (qtd. in Burroughs xviii). Dangling Reagan’s bloodied head from their guitar necks, hardcore punks proudly reaffirmed the iconoclastic and liberating power of comedy.

Works Cited Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Feral, 2001. Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. 1959. Grove Press, 1991. Chan, Melissa. “‘He Broke Me.’ Kathy Griffin Says Trump Family Ruined Her Life Over Controversial Photo.” Time, 2 June 2017, Accessed 20 Sept. 2017. Cupp, SE. “Kathy Griffin’s unforgivable message to America and the world.” CNN, 1 June 2017, www.cnn. com/2017/05/31/opinions/kathy-griffin-immoral-photo-cupp-opinion/index.html. Accessed 20 Sept. 2017. Dreier, Peter. “Reagan’s Real Legacy.” The Nation, 4 Feb. 2011,­reallegacy. Accessed 18 Sept. 2017.


The Gallows Humor of Hardcore Punk Friedman, Bruce Jay. “Foreword: Black Humor.” Black Humor: Critical Essays, edited by Alan Pratt, Garland, 1993, pp. 19–24. Gonzalez, Sandra. “CNN Fires Griffin.” CNNMoney, 31 May 2017, cnn-kathy-griffin/index.html. Accessed 20 Sept. 2017. “Jello Biafra Obscenity Trial 1987.” YouTube, uploaded by Partsatan, 4 Aug. 2012, watch?v=bAkY4oS9-Y0. Komlos, John. “How Reaganomics, Deregulation and Bailouts Led to the Rise of Trump.” PBS News Hour, 25 Apr. 2016, Accessed 18 Sept. 2017. McClennen, Sophia. “Is Dead Donald Trump Funny? Understanding Gallows Humor in the Trump Era.” Salon, 29 July 2017. Accessed 17 Sept. 2017. Numasawa, Koji. “Black Humor: An American Aspect.” Black Humor: Critical Essays, edited by Alan Pratt, Garland, 1993, pp. 41–60. Obrdlik, Antonin J. “Gallows Humor—A Sociological Phenomenon.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 47, no. 5, 1942, pp. 709–16. Reagan, Ronald. Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. 1983. Quoted in Ryan T. Anderson, “Reagan’s Legacy: ‘The Sanctity of Human Life’.” The Daily Signal, 7 Feb. 2013, reagans-legacy-the-sacred-value-of-human-life. Accessed 15 Sept. 2017. ———. “‘Evil Empire’ Speech.” 1983. Voices of Democracy,­ empire-speech-text. Accessed 18 Sept. 2017. Rucker, Philip. “Trump says Fox’s Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever.’” Washington Post, 8 Aug. 2015, beb3c4fc71. Accessed 20 Sept. 2017. Schneider, Greg, and Renae Merle. “Reagan’s Defense Buildup Bridged Military Eras.” Washington Post, 9 June 2004, Accessed 18 Sept. 2017. Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift, edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins, Norton, 2010, pp. 295–301. Weisman, Steven. “The President and the Press.” The New York Times, 14 Oct. 1984, www.nytimes. com/1984/10/14/magazine/the-president-and-the-press.html?pagewanted=all&mcubz=0. Accessed 21 Sept. 2017.


10 Hip Hop’s Sophisticated Comedy David Caplan

“A lot of my rhymes are just to get chuckles out of people,” protests Eminem. “Anybody with half a brain is going to be able to tell when I’m joking and when I’m serious” (qtd. in Huxley 52). Eminem’s bitter complaint about the objections leveled against his lyrics, however, underscores the fact that many listeners find it difficult to discern which hip-hop songs should be understood as comedy and which should not. Even some attentive listeners occasionally struggle to distinguish the comic from the serious. Hip hop’s generic restlessness contributes to the challenge. Hip-hop songs speed between genres. Mid-phrase, a line may pivot from comedy to social critique and then pivot to seduction. Comedy rarely exists as a discrete category in hip hop. Instead, its presence underpins the other genres, adding levity to even the fiercest lyrics and undermining sober claims for hip hop’s political meaning. In Eminem’s terms, “to be able to tell” when a hip-hop artist is “joking” and when he is “serious,” a listener needs a corresponding nimbleness, an ability to recognize when the music shifts genres. Hip hop’s self-referential, allusive style also adds to the difficulty. In his lighthearted diss track, “Whack Rappers,” Afroman jauntily criticizes a series of hip-hop artists. To appreciate apparently simple lines like “I think you crazy / If you like Jay-Z / Don’t Change Clothes / Change the CD!” a listener must catch the allusion to Jay-Z’s song of that title (i.e., “Change Clothes”) and hear how Afroman uses Jay-Z’s words against him. By doing so, Afroman employs a w ­ ell-established tactic. Hip-hop humor often shows a too-rarely acknowledged expertise, an awareness of the music, leading figures, and history, in order to honor, extend, or revise precedent. Without the recognition of this technique, the music’s humor may pass unrecognized, let alone appreciated. In this essay, I will explore how hip-hop artists use comedy to recast a vulnerability into a strength. In particular, I will examine how hip-hop artists employ comedy as a mean to respond to their critics, those who deny the music’s artistry. The humor accomplishes multiple effects. Once it attracted the notice of white audiences and critics, hip hop faced several legal and critical challenges, condemnations of the music as violent, misogynistic, and sexist. I am less interested in weighing the veracity of these charges than in exploring how the shrewdest artists self-consciously use comedy to rebut, mitigate, or simply set aside otherwise damaging charges. While they assert that their music is manifestly comic, they also opportunistically exploit the confusions it inspires, turning them to their artistic advantage. They settle scores and forge alliances between performer and discriminating listeners. They make a sophisticated comedy out of others’ dismissals and attacks. 92

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In 1990, the hip-hop performers 2 Live Crew faced trial on charges of obscenity, based on their performance in Broward Country, Florida. Watching jury selection, Luther Campbell, the group’s leader, recalled the basis of his defense: “I feel strongly that any normal person will decide with me that my music is comedy, regardless of the graphic language, and as such is protected by the First Amendment” (Campbell and Miller 147).1 To define the music as comedy, then, was to defend it from the charge of obscenity. According to Campbell, both points remained obvious; “any normal person” would agree. In order to establish this point, the defense called on Henry Louis Gates as one of its three expert witnesses. “The Gates testimony,” Campbell observed, served as “a highlight of the trial” (Campbell and Miller 151). Gates drew from his monograph, Signifying Monkey, in order to argue that 2 Live Crew exaggerates sexual stereotypes of African-American males as “oversexed and hypersexed.” Asked by a defense attorney to elaborate, Gates asserted, Well, they represent the stereotype over and over again, in such a graphic way, namely to exploit it. You have to realize how ridiculous this all is. That’s why we all laugh when we hear the performance. … There is no cult or violence there. You can’t hear any danger at all in the background. What you hear is great humor, great joy, the boisterousness. Why? By showing the black man as nothing but the refrain in “Me So Horny, all I want to do is make love,” that was the litany of these four songs. They are being written and sung by young virile black men. Everybody understands what is going on. Even if they don’t understand it as a literary critic, they understand it on a subliminal level. Their response is to burst out laughing, to view it as a joke, a parody. (qtd. in Campbell and Miller 154) Under cross-examination by the prosecuting attorneys, Gates defended these claims, asserting 2 Live Crew’s songs are “absolutely” “part of fighting for black rights,” “part of fighting for equality” (qtd. in Campbell and Miller 158). The attorney pressed Gates by quoting specific lyrics: Question: And in your opinion, this is how you break the stereotype, by basically singing a whole lot of fucking and sucking—I mean, rather let me repeat that, “A whole lot of fucking and sucking at the fuck shop,” and, “Please come inside, make yourself at home. I want to fuck because my dick is one bone,” this is breaking the stereotype? Answer: You have no choice but to laugh at it when you hear it. (qtd. in Campbell and Miller 160) The confidence of Gates’s testimony remains striking. Repeatedly, he asserted that 2 Live Crew’s lyrics demand one response, laughter: “You have no choice but to laugh at it when you hear it,” Gates observed, “Everybody understands what is going on.” Gates defined any other response as not only illegitimate but also inconceivable. Gates’s expert testimony did not draw from a wide exposure to hip-hop music or, more specifically, 2 Live Crew. As he testified, his knowledge of the album was extremely limited; he listened to a recording of 2 Live Crew’s contested performance “two and a half times” (qtd. in Campbell and Miller 151). He also acknowledged that he lacked a broader familiarity with hip-hop music. In short, Gates defended Live Crew’s verbal sophistication by presenting it as self-evident. He ascribed a noble sociopolitical purpose to the lyrics; they are “absolutely” “fighting for black rights” (qtd. in Campbell and Miller 158). Contesting this claim, Assistant State Attorney Pedro Dijols quoted “Doo Wah Diddy”: “I saw this fag sitting at the bus stop singing do-wah-diddy dum diddy I do, and I said you sissy motherfucker you know you ought to stop singing … [a]nd 93

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spreading AIDS.” Dijols asked Gates, “Sir, what is the humor of making fun, obviously, of homosexuals with AIDS?” “I don’t think that is what it does,” Gates responded, maintaining, “I think that what the lyric does is dramatize some of the worst aspects of black culture as you would do in the same Archie Bunker motive [sic]. It is called to be not homophobic.”2 Gates defended 2 Live Crew’s lyrics as both simple and complex. He claimed that the music demands a single response, appreciative and exculpating laugher that advances a progressive politics. The music does not require an informed knowledge of hip hop nor even the songs themselves. Instead, they can be appreciated nearly immediately. Many listeners, however, heard 2 Live Crew differently. The hip-hop scholar, William Eric ­Perkins, for instance, dismissed “Gates’s testimony” as “mired in a world of academic ­m ake-believe” (27). In her groundbreaking work on intersectionality, Kimberle Crenshaw calls Gates “uncritical support for, and indeed celebration of, 2 Live Crew… extremely troubling. … Rather than ­exploding stereotypes, as Gates suggests, 2 Live Crew, it seems reasonable to argue, was simply (and unsuccessfully) trying to be funny” (1292). The range of responses to 2 Live Crew’s lyrics underscores humor’s unpredictability: The same lyrics might be interpreted as misogynistic or “part of fighting for equality.” It can be judged as funny or not, and its humor might express a politically laudable position or a deeply troubling prejudice. The court case gave 2 Live Crew a new prominence: Their arrest and prosecution raised a number of legal and political issues about their selectivity of law enforcement and racially inflected definitions of “obscenity.” Gates’s testimony struck many observers as mistaken if not risible because he made grand claims for an otherwise undistinguished performers. 2 Live Crew could not accurately be called innovative either aesthetically or politically; their court case made them more interesting than their music. The next generation of hip-hop artists closely followed the controversy. When they faced similar charges, they recognized the history behind the charges. They brought an increased sophistication to the question of how comedy functions in hip hop, as well as a complex awareness of the criticism that their music faced. Raised amidst these controversies, they realized their potential as subject matter and inspiration for their music. Often, they invoke the charges to rebut them. Jay-Z opens “Renegade”: “Motherfuckers say that I'm foolish, I only talk about jewels. / Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” The song starts with deliberately scatological language, “Motherfuckers,” an example of the street language some hip-hop critics decry as objectionably coarse. Jay-Z’s rhymes, though, establish a subtler point. Rapping the passage, he rhymes “foolish,” “jewels,” and “fools,” and “do” and “through” (which also more faintly rhyme with the members of the opening rhyme pairs). To appreciate the rhymes, a listener must pay attention; he or she cannot “skim” them. The intricate rhyming hardly shows a fixation on a single subject, the ostentatious display of wealth, “jewels.” Instead, they demonstrate the dexterous handling of verbal technique; they stylize language. To turn his critics’ charge against them, Jay-Z presents them as “foolish,” overwhelmed, perhaps by the presence of curse words, to appreciate the artistry that the lyrics display. To put this idea in slightly different terms, the guardians of musical intelligence cannot recognize the very quality they seek to defend. In “99 Problems,” Jay-Z expands this imbedded irony, centering the song on it. The opening verse returns to the criticism that Jay-Z’s music faces, “Rap critics that say he’s Money, Cash, Hoes.” As represented in the song, Jay-Z’s critics charge that the title of his earlier song, “Money, Cash, Hoes,” names the full range of his musical interests and themes. The second stanza of “99 Problems,” though, introduces a very different kind of narrative. It describes a black man pulled over by a policeman, suspected of transporting drugs. A battle of wits and nerve ensues. The policeman wants to search the car; the speaker refuses, citing his legal rights. Jay-Z repeatedly plays variations on “bitch,” a word often associated with hip-hop expressions of misogyny. Instead of referring to a woman, though, “bitch” describes the drug-detection dog 94

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that the policeman threatens to have search the driver’s car. The policeman challenges the driver, “Well, we will see how smart you are when the K-9 come!” The song’s hook, “If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you, son. / I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one,” and the verses play off each other. The verses tell a narrative of the driver’s streetwise strategies to avoid arrest; it does not explore “girl problems.” The wordplay enacts a comic revenge on the critics mentioned in the opening stanza. Explaining the song, Jay-Z notes that “99 Problems” dramatizes “the difference between the art of rap and the artfulness of some of its critics”: “The hook itself—99 problems but a bitch ain’t one—is a joke, bait for lazy critics. At no point in the song am I talking about a girl. The chorus makes that clear if you bother listening: the obvious point of the chorus is that I wasn’t talking about women” (Decoded 71). “Renegade” and “99 Problems” both feature verbal indirection—whether through rhyme and the refusal of a word’s most common meaning. They test the listeners’ powers of discernment. To borrow Jay-Z’s term, they “bait … lazy critics,” those unable or unwilling to listen with the appropriate level of care. The comedy redirects the condescension, turning the mishearing of the lyrics into a kind of triumph. The critics’ accusation discredits them; both “Renegade” and “99 Problems” present themselves as too crafty for “fools.” By doing so, Jay-Z redirects a common criticism leveled against hip hop: that it exerts a pernicious influence on children. The charge has dogged hip hop throughout its history and development. For instance, in 1990, Tipper Gore, one of his music’s most prominent critics, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, part of a panel that also included Ice-T, a member of NWA, who defended the group’s lyrics after a short excerpt was played. The discussion grew quite heated as panelists attacked Gore for her work with the Parents Music Resource Center, which she cofounded to address what she called the challenge of “raising PG kids in an X-rated society” (see Gore, Raising). Disturbed by the discussion, Gore subsequently published an editorial, “Hate, Rape, and Rap,” to attack the justifications for the music offered during the program. “Some in the audience questioned why we couldn’t see the humor in such a song,” Gore reported, plaintively asking, “Will our kids get the joke?” Continuing, she noted, “The women in the audience may understand the slang; Ice-T can try to justify it. But can our children?” (“Hate”). Jay-Z’s wordplay trusts his audience to “get the joke.” He crafts rhymes meant for discerning listeners who appreciate verbal artistry. To understand the humor of “99 Problems,” a listener needs to recognize the song’s calculated dare. Again and again, the chorus of “99 Problems” repeats one of hip hop’s most criticized words, “bitch,” but each verse fastidiously avoids applying it to women. Jay-Z borrows a cliché of hip-hop misogyny, part of the vocabulary he helped to develop, but meticulously avoids its most common meaning. He uses “bitch” as a challenge, both to himself and his listeners, making the usual word describe the unexpected—a police dog, for instance, not a woman. Jay-Z plays off the habitual meaning, refusing it and testing his listeners to hear what he is saying, not the anticipated and avoided cliché. The song delights in the misplaced outrage it arouses, staging a comedy of scandalized mishearing. As Jay-Z observed, “It’s hard to beat the entertainment value of people who deliberately misunderstand the world” (Decoded 73). While “99 Problems” responds to a climate of opinion and censure, other hip-hop artists directly address specific criticism of their work. In the March 6, 1999 issue of Billboard, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Timothy White charged that Eminem was “making money by exploiting the world’s misery.” In particular, White criticized Eminem’s debut album, Slim Shady LP, for advocating violence against women. As evidence, White noted that the album’s “main themes include drugging, raping, and murdering young women” and quoted individual lines, as when “Hi kids! Do you like violence? … Want to copy me and do exactly like I did?” The review ends with White advising his readers to buy Respond, described as a “lovely, life-affirming 27-track charity anthology of folk music by New England’s top female artists,” whose profits support efforts to combat “the violence against and abuse of our nation’s women.” 95

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Eminem rebutted White’s charges with a number of arguments offered in a number of forums. “I grew up listening to 2 Live Crew and NWA,” Eminem observed, “and I never went out and shot anybody.” Adding a pointed counterexample, Eminem noted, “Saving Private Ryan was probably the illest, sickest movie I’ve ever watched, and I didn’t see anybody criticized for that violence” (qtd. in Huxley 52).3 Here, Eminem offers two main arguments. Generalizing from his own listening habits, he first denies a link between repeated exposure to representation of violence and propensity for violence. Second, he notes that only certain representations trouble critics. Saving Private Ryan, for instance, was more celebrated than criticized for its graphic violence. Eminem does not state the reason for the different receptions of his music and Saving Private Ryan, but implies that cultural and generic conventions, not the level of violence, prompted the reaction. As a patriotic historical movie, Saving Private Ryan faced a far more forgiving standard than hip-hop songs. Eminem’s main point is that audiences are sufficiently sophisticated to recognize the humor of songs and hear them appropriately. Humor poses a test of basic intelligence. White, Eminem charged, “took everything I said so fucking literal it disgusts me. He should be able to tell when I’m serious and when I’m not—it’s not fucking rocket science” (qtd. in Bozza 92). To clarify this point, Eminem uses several techniques to signal that certain phrases should not be understood literally. In “My Name Is,” Eminem raps the lines that White quotes in his attack, “Hi kids! Do you like violence? … Want to copy me and do exactly like I did?” Eminem’s awkwardly ironic, exaggerated, and mocking articulation both clearly enunciates the words and plays with them. The persona of Slim Shady also distances Eminem from the words he raps, thwarting any effort to hear the lyrics as directly autobiographical. Eminem mocks what he sees as the patronizing moral seriousness of formal authority. In the previous lines, “Excuse me! / Can I have the attention of the class for one second?” Eminem introduces Slim Shady as a teacher barely able to control his classroom even “for one second.” Before asking for their attention, he clears his throat, imitating an unappealing teacher. (The song’s video reinforces this image: Eminem appears a geeky science teacher, wearing large glasses and an ill-fitting short-sleeve white shirt. His hair remains grossly unkempt, and beakers spew various gasses in front of him.) Instead of inciting violence, Eminem protests conformity, the demands placed upon himself and audience members to align their behavior to some enforced ideal. The comedy arises from the conflict between conventions, between the conventions of the harried teacher trying to maintain order in the classroom and the hip-hop artist about to detail his drug use, and recount other aspects of his dissolute life. The lines show a knowing awareness of the performer’s situation. They not only present Eminem as a poor role model but also reject the very notion that he should model proper behavior at all—see also Eminem’s “Role Model,” which focuses more extensively on this idea. The refrain emphasizes this point. When Eminem asks, “Do you like violence?” a high-pitched childish voice answers, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” One “yeah” might signal simple agreement: three quick, squeaky iterations change the answer’s meaning. Lecturing at Columbia University, the Oxford logician J.L. Austin observed, “In some languages a double negative yields an affirmative. In others, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative. It is curious, though, that in no language known to me, whether natural or artificial, does a double affirmative yield a negative.” From the back of the lecture hall, Columbia philosophy professor and legendary quick wit Sidney Morgenbesser shot back in his New York accent, “Yeah, yeah.”4 In Eminem’s lines, the three, overeager repetitions of “Yeah” add to the comedy. They do more than help “a double affirmative yield a negative.” They deny the affirmation they seem to express. To put this idea into slightly different terms, the question taunts anyone foolish enough to agree with it. Finally, White’s selective quotation of the lines simplifies their effect; as Eminem suggests, White literalizes them. The passage shows a more complicated progression: “Hi, kids! Do you like violence? (Yeah, yeah, yeah!) / Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids? (Uh huh!) / Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did? (Yeah, yeah!) /Try ’cid and get 96

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fucked up worse than my life is? (Huh?)” (“My Name”). Cut in the quotation that White presents, the second line adds a punning, cartoonish image of self-mutilation. The reference to “nine inch nails” names the industrial rock band, “Nine Inch Nails,” and an exaggerated means of self-injury. In their song, “Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails broodingly recounts, “I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel. / I focus on the pain. / The only thing that’s real.” In essence, Eminem extends this image into more violent self-mutilation, but the extremity of image revises suicidal brooding into dark humor. The extreme literalness of the image pushes the line from the realm of literal meaning. Adding to this effect, the outrageous rhyme, “violence” and “eyeballs,” adds another comic signal. Again, the answer of “Uh huh” that follows punctuates the point: The line mocks the desire it putatively inquires about. The passage’s final line, though, demonstrates some of the difficulties that arise when trying to understand hip-hop comedy. As in the previous lines, the final two work by exaggeration; they accelerate the self-destruction, as the listener wants to do “exactly like I did,” then outdo the speaker’s misery, making him more drugged, “worse than my life is”: “Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did? (Yeah, yeah!) / Try ’cid and get fucked up worse than my life is? (Huh?).” The notably darker last line introduces sobering details, naming the particular drug, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), abbreviated to “’cid.” Instead of flamboyant multisyllabic rhyme, “violence” and “eyelids,” the entire line strikes a plainer and more plaintive tone; the song has quickly turned from mock-didactic humor to a more painful admission, a deeper anguish. This swift movement in and out of comedy represents a distinctive aspect of hip hop. As the response, “Huh,” acknowledges, an unexpected turn occurs, but hip hop encourages heterogeneous tones, genres, and kinds of rhyme. Farce and confession commingle, forging surprising combinations and juxtapositions. As it developed, hip hop increasingly promoted this inventiveness. 2 Live Crew’s songs generally remain far tamer than Eminem’s; they remain more consistent, whether scatological or not. Set in a musical form that rewards restlessness, 2 Live Crew sounds slow moving and repetitious. Finally, Eminem shows how little separates hip-hop humor from other genres. In 8 Mile, ­Eminem portrays a fictionalized version of himself, an aspiring rapper from Detroit. In a rap battle, he anticipates the criticisms that his opponent will level against him: “I know everything he’s got to say against me. / I am white, I am a fucking bum. I do live in a trailer with my mom.” Formally, the passage is rather ordinary. It features almost pedestrian end-stopped rhymes (such as “bum” and “mom”), rapped in a deliberate cadence. In this respect, it avoids Eminem’s characteristic displays of technical virtuosity. For instance, in “Rap God,” Eminem presents himself as addicted to hip-hop technique, “skill-a-holic,” rapping 1560 words in six minutes and four seconds, naming dropping 22 people, and offering a dazzling array of elaborate, punning, multisyllabic rhymes (such as “blueprint’s,” “exuberance,” and “nuisance,” and “back pocket,” “half cock it,” and “rap profit”).5 The quieter technique that the battle rhyme in 8 Mile utilizes turns anticipated insults into a less boisterous brag, one characterized more by superior self-knowledge; “I know everything he’s got to say against me,” than pyrotechnic verbal displays. It resembles an almost cursory summary of facts, presented plainly. The comedy draws its force from the self-awareness that the lines display and their willingness to admit otherwise discrediting facts. This passage borrows the form of insult; in fact, it quotes the most common insults that hip-hop rivals level both against the character Eminem plays in 8 Mile, Rabbit, and Eminem himself. The lines do more than admit vulnerabilities of a rap battle participant and, by dexterously anticipating perceived racial, economic, and familial weaknesses, defuse their power. Voiced by its intended target, the insults offer a shrugging humor, admitting all in order to show their inconsequence. The rap battle foregrounds hip hop’s emphasis on the competitive nature of art, which informs the music’s other genres as well. Hip-hop comedy feasts on criticism because artists recognize the material’s artistic usefulness. Paradoxically, attacks confirm their status. To borrow a phrase from 97

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Jay-Z, the artists who “live on Billboard” generally face the most attacks (“Empire State of Mind”). To convert criticism into comedy is to show how adroitly the artists move between genres, how they, unfazed, repurpose attacks into praise. Again and again, they show their art’s sophistication, enlivened with opposing energies and seizing opportunities from seeming impediments.

Notes 1 Campbell and Miller include transcripts of court testimony, which I rely upon for my discussion of Gates’s testimony. 2 As I take this quotation from the trial transcript, I follow its representation of the lyrics without the lyrics (see Campbell and Miller 158.) 3 On “Bitch Please II,” Eminem directly confronts White’s criticism, quoting it in order to rebut the charge: “Give me the mic, let me recite ’til Timothy White / Pickets outside the Interscope offices every night / What if he’s right? I’m just a criminal / Makin’ a livin’ off of the world’s misery? / What in the world gives me the right to say what I like?” 4 This exchange is legendary, with different versions. I take this account of it from Jim Holt. 5 I follow the statistics for the song from the annotations for “Rap God” on Genius Lyrics.

Works Cited Afroman. “Whack Rapper.” Afroholic: The Even Better Times, Hungry Hustler, 2004. Bozza, Anthony. Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem. Three Rivers Press, 2003. Campbell, Luther, and John R. Miller. As Nasty As They Wanna Be: The Uncensored Story of Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. Barricade Books, 1992. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, July 1991, pp. 1241–99. 8 Mile. Directed by Curtis Hanson, performances by Eminem and Kim Basinger, Universal Pictures, 2002. Eminem. “Bitch Please II.” The Marshall Mathers LP, Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records, 2000. ———. “My Name Is.” The Slim Shady LP, Aftermath / Interscope, 1999. ———. “Rap God.” The Marshall Mathers LP, Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records, 2000. ———. “Role Model.” The Slim Shady LP, Aftermath / Interscope, 1999. Gore, Tipper. “Hate, Rape, and Rap.” The Washington Post, 8 Jan. 1990,­ archive/opinions/1990/01/08/hate-rape-and-rap/b4c16c35-4e96-4dec-8866-68ff6c1350f4/?no redirect=on&utm_term=.2eab8e016ec5. ———. Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society. Random House, 1988. Holt, Jim. “Morgenbesserisms.” London Review of Books Blog, 22 Sept. 2009. 22/holt1789/morgenbesserisms/. Accessed 30 June 2018. Huxley, Martin. Eminem: Crossing the Line. St. Martins, 2000. Jay-Z. Decoded. Expanded edition. Random House, 2011. ———. “Empire State of Mind.” The Blueprint 3, Atlantic Records, Roc-A-Fella Records and Roc Nation, 2009. ———. “99 Problems.” The Black Album, Def Jam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records, 2003. ———. “Renegade.” The Blueprint 3, Def Jam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records, 2001. Nine Inch Nails. “Hurt.” The Downward Spiral, A&M Studios, 1999. Perkins, William Eric. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Temple UP, 1996. “Rap God.” Genius Lyrics, Accessed 30 June 2018. White, Timothy. “Eminem: The Best Way to Respond.” Billboard, 6 Mar. 1999, p. 3.


11 “The Earth is doomed” Geek Rock, Humor, and the End of the World Victoria Willis

In “Empty Places” (2003), one of the last episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the potential slayers are all out at the Bronze, the local music club in Sunnydale, blowing off steam as they take a break in their struggle to fight the First Evil. A band plays on stage; the potential slayers dance, and in the audience, Kennedy, one of the potentials, asks Dawn, Buffy’s sister (and former Key), “What kind of band plays during an apocalypse?” Dawn laughingly shouts back over the music, “I think this band might actually be one of the signs!” Dawn’s comment is funny, not just because it is witty and rather snarky but because the band on stage is Nerf Herder, who wrote the theme song to the show. Nerf Herder, in the Buffyverse, literally is one of the signs of the apocalypse each week, heralding the beginning of every Buffy episode. But not only do they open each show—they are also the last band we see play at the Bronze. Three episodes later, in “Chosen” (2003), the season and series finale, the Hellmouth opens, and the apocalypse begins, again, for the last time. Geek humor, like much other humor, relies on this “in the know.” Geek culture is particularly based on humor, in part because humor serves as a way to display insider knowledge. Geekiness, particularly in the context of geek rock, is characterized by what Nadav Appel calls an “excess of knowledge,” building on the definitions of nerdiness proposed by Will Straw (Appel 136–38; see also Straw 8). In many cases, that knowledge is specialized. Geekiness is smart, and enthusiastic, and prone to forming fandoms, and humor is not only based on emotions (think of the word “humor” itself, as in the four humors of the body, once thought to originate emotions) but also on intelligence. The word “wit” means both “clever and amusing” and “reasoning power.” The word “clever” operates in much the same way. A “clever girl” could refer to a female who is smart and/or funny, or, it could refer to a velociraptor. And that example, too, is probably only funny for someone who has seen Jurassic Park. Geek humor is grounded in references, tropes, and in-jokes. Shaun of the Dead, for example, is funny because the film turns the typical zombie trope on its head (or rather, it chains it in the shed and plays video games with it). The zombie apocalypse has typically been a thing of terror. George A. Romero’s classic horror films The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are representative examples of the zombie trope, and the current TV series The Walking Dead, based on the widely acclaimed and Eisner Award winning comic book series created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, follows in their footsteps. The world as we know it ends because a virus, transmitted through bites and scratches, turns people into mindless, shuffling dead-but-not-dead beings that feed on the flesh of the living. A group of survivors attempts to fend off the zombie hordes, and their efforts tend to be largely futile. Zombie fans know the social commentary that zombie-ism creates—that we are all already 99

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zombies; we are, as Rick Grimes screams in the comic, “the walking dead” (Kirkman). We are the ones mindlessly shuffling through the mall, infected by capitalism, spreading the disease throughout the globe. We have hunger that can never be satiated, and we want more, more, more, even as we destroy our fellow humans to carry on. The apocalypse is already here. Not terribly funny, is it? Enter Jonathan Coulton. On Thing a Week Two (2006), Coulton sings about the zombie apocalypse in “Re: Your Brains,” which is sung from the point of view of a zombie named Bob, who was once an office worker. In the song, Bob tries to convince Tom, his uninfected former coworker, to open the doors of their office building so that Bob and his fellow zombies can come inside and eat their former coworkers’ brains. While the zombie trope remains essentially the same, Coulton’s version is not the dark social commentary of George Romero. For starters, the epistolary narrative, framed as an office memo, is tongue in cheek. Even the title, “Re: Your Brains” pokes fun at office memo culture, even as it gently mocks the much loved, and now much overdone, zombie trope. Bob, our zombie antihero, begins by singing perfunctory pleasantries, calling his former coworker “buddy,” and updating Tom on his new life status as a zombie. The greeting is like a typical office conversation, between office acquaintances, with the exception, of course, of one recently becoming a member of an undead horde. The zombie apocalypse here is understated, terrorless, and somewhat self-deprecating. In his attempts to persuade Tom that he’s completely reasonable, Bob claims that he’s not a monster, which he then retracts with, “Well, technically I am.” The undead are revitalized and r­ e-humanized, making the drones less homogenous while mocking the homogeneity of office culture with a zombie named “Bob,” a seemingly ubiquitous office name. In his attempts to persuade Tom to open the doors, Bob uses office-speak, referring to compromise, meetings, common ground, constructive criticism, and planning. He tells Tom that he appreciates the time he’s taking out of his schedule to listen to him since he knows how busy everyone is at the office—a statement that usually means busy at work, not busy fending off zombie hordes. The chorus of the song, “All we want to do is eat your brains/ we’re not unreasonable/ I mean, no one’s going to eat your eyes,” emphasizes yet another persuasive appeal, logos, the appeal to reason, that is an ostensible staple of corporate culture. And much like the logos in corporate culture, Bob’s reasonableness falls flat when he continues to sing that, once inside, he and the rest of the zombies will “eat your brains,” a prospect where the winners are clearly not the surviving office workers. Coulton’s use of power chords in the chorus contributes to the dry humor of his delivery. In “Re: Your Brains,” Coulton glues together two geek-y tropes, the zombie apocalypse and the office drone, by using the popular interpretation of the zombie trope to comment on office work. His sincere acoustic guitar and matter-of-fact delivery add another layer of humorous social commentary to the idea that we, drones in our office jobs, are already zombies. Zombies and office workers share geekiness in common. Both are tropes that have fandoms (as anyone with a red stapler or a Dunder Mifflin mug knows).1 In this song, Coulton uses humor to create insider status for fans of both zombies and office work. The listener has to be “in the know,” and has to know what office culture looks like and what zombie movies look like, in order to “get” the song. Obsessions with zombie films or participation (however involuntary) in office culture are typically not seen as “cool” and have historically been marginalized by those who are “cool.” Fandoms, particularly of comics, fantasy, and science fiction genres, have been seen as childish (a perception that The Big Bang Theory has exploited successfully for 11 television seasons, so far), and mid-level office employees have been perceived as unsuccessful and inconsequential. Humor, in Coulton’s song, operates to create an insider’s space, and the upshot is that the geek, as geek, becomes “cooler,” whether in the office or in fandoms, than someone more mainstream. Although geekiness continues to be marginalized, humor turns geekiness into an “in” rather than an “out.” The laugh is the laugh of the Medusa, Helene Cixous’s empowering laughter that breaks apart hegemonic ideals and creates space for the Othered, the laughter that is used “to smash 100

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everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’” (888). For Cixous, that Other tends to be a woman, but here, the Other, the marginalized subject on the fringes, is the geek. Much like the trope of office work, the tropes of unrequited love and daydreaming are not exclusively geeky themes, but ones which, when applied to geekdom, operate so that geekiness becomes a central feature of the trope itself. When geeks are lovers, their loves are unrequited because of their geekiness, their social awkwardness, their braininess that overwhelms their social skills; their geekhood becomes their central feature. In “Skullcrusher Mountain” (2004, from Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow), Coulton mocks this trope from the point of view of an evil scientist who sings in the chorus, “Oh, I’m so into you / But I’m way too smart for you.” The remedy, and the way to “get the girl,” of course, is to become less geeky and more “cool.” But Coulton turns that upside down. In “Skullcrusher,” the narrator gets the girl by kidnapping and imprisoning her, rather than by achieving any “cool” points. As in most of Coulton’s songs, the catchy, upbeat pop melody is incongruous with the sinister singer’s plans. The singer’s soulful, power-pop delivery humorously mocks the stereotypical mad scientist villain. Another example, also from Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow, is “The Future Soon.”2 Here, Coulton’s narrator, a preteen boy, daydreams about the robot apocalypse, brought forth by a robot army that the narrator eventually constructs. Much as in “Re: Your Brains,” the narrator is unconventional: a young boy dreaming about his future, not as a scientist but as a mad scientist who takes over the world with his robot army. The song begins with the boy’s plight: He left his classmate, Laura, an unsigned note on her desk, proclaiming his love. Laura figures out that he wrote the note and tells the class. The narrator declares that he is “all alone during couples’ skate,” but he knows that he will forget these sorts of moments “When I’m living in my solar dome / on a platform in space.” The trope of the mad scientist is familiar to fans of science fiction, an unabashedly “geeky” genre. And the geek, of course, is frequently presented as an unrequited lover, too cerebral or too socially inept to attract the affections of the adored. Coulton’s narrator daydreams about the day when “the things that make me weak and strange / get engineered away.” Instead of replacing geekiness with coolness, Coulton’s narrator replaces geekiness with machinery, fantasizing that he will become whole once he has replaced himself with machine parts, implying that currently, he is weak and less than human. The narrator rebuilds himself but not necessarily into someone who is “cooler” and less geeky. Inverting the trope of the unrequited lovelorn geek with humor, the narrator stops being a geek by becoming a cyborg, which is actually pretty geeky. And he does, indeed, get the girl when one day, he sees Laura, exactly as he first knew her “except for bionic eyes / she lost the real ones in the robot wars,” which, of course, our narrator caused with his robot army, bringing about another apocalypse for humanity. When Laura realizes that not only did the narrator cause the robot wars but that he also is not fully human, she tries to flee. However, as our narrator proclaims, “… there’s nowhere she can hide / when a crazy cyborg wants to make you his robot bride.” The humor in the song relies upon the unexpectedness of the inverted trope: The geeky guy gets the girl by embracing his intellect, rejecting social mores, and becoming a robot. The unexpectedness is emphasized by the music, a sweet, upbeat pop song, with a narrator full of yearning to become someone his adored will love in return. His heartfelt delivery and longing for love is at odds with his intentions to take over the world with his robot army. As a cyborg, he terrifies Laura, and probably humanity, but that no longer matters. He can now get the girl, even if the getting requires robotic upgrading in the (metallic) vein of the Cybermen. The trope of geekiness in unrequited love is mocked and made absurd. Listeners need to be familiar with science fiction’s obsession with robots and robotic conquest to be in on the joke: Hegemonic masculinity is mocked because it doesn’t help get the girl, it frightens her away. Geekiness is pulled out of the margins again, and geekiness, via Cixous’s laughter, is made “cool” through insider status. 101

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The apocalypse in both “Re: Your Brains” and “The Future Soon” ends not only the world but also the mainstream and marginalization. The apocalypse is only frightening if it is your world that is ending. But for the zombie, the cyborg, and the geek, the apocalypse is the end of hegemonic power, leaving room for the outcasts. And laughter, not zombies or robots, is what makes this apocalypse a reality. It can be difficult to analyze humor; as E.B. White said, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind” (243). But in geek rock, humor is used to display and acknowledge the excess of knowledge that is a trademark of the genre itself. Geek rock is funny, if you’re at all geeky because you’re in on the joke. For geeks, who are frequently the butt of the joke, this change to insider status is important because it adds to the geek community and geek subculture, creating a space that is not only legitimized and accepting but also “cool.” Which brings me back to Nerf Herder and the apocalypse in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nerf Herder is particularly appropriate to play the theme song to a show so geeky, so transgressive, and so feminist, that it is the most widely written about television show in academia (see Lametti), forming its own academic subgenre known as “Buffy Studies” (see Ulaby). It’s important that Nerf Herder heralds the apocalypse each week, and that Nerf Herder is the last band we see in Buffy because they are a geek rock band that subverts the mainstream through humor, whose entire oeuvre is an outsider’s in-joke. And it helps that this is a band that plays in Star Trek uniform t-shirts or Ghostbusters cosplay. Even their name, Nerf Herder, is reference to a line of dialogue in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, when Princess Leia calls Han Solo a “scruffy looking nerf herder.” This is not your mainstream rock and roll, just like Buffy is not your mainstream television show. At the end of Season 7, Buffy doesn’t save the world. Unlike the narrative arcs of other fantasy/horror shows, Buffy remains unique in that the world doesn’t return to its former status after the final battle. Instead, she changes the world. She changes the rules and she changes the power distribution by giving women all across the globe the strength of superheroes and the power to fight (“Chosen”). Before the final battle, when Buffy and her best friends are discussing their plans to shop at the mall the next day, Giles turns his head and says, “The Earth is definitely doomed,” echoing the same line he stated in Season 1, when Buffy first resumed slaying vampires (“Chosen”). And he’s right, the earth, and its status quo, is most definitely doomed. The apocalypse is how the mainstream is dismantled, how the power is redistributed, how out is made in. And in geek rock, laughter is the catalyst for that change, for a subculture, and for destruction and recreation. In geek rock, the apocalypse is funny because it inverts the status quo, dooming the earth that was and making space for change, and letting the geek inherit the earth.

Notes 1 The red stapler is featured in the film Office Space, a 1999 American comedy. Dunder Mifflin Paper Company is a fictional paper sales company featured in The Office, a mockumentary sitcom, which originally ran on American television from 2005 until 2013. 2 The three Coulton songs discussed here (“Re: Your Brains,” “Skullcrusher Mountain,” and “The Future Soon”) also appear on his compilation JoCo Looks Back (2008).

Works Cited Appel, Nadav. “The Geek’s Guide to Love: Knowledge and Failure in the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.” Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, edited by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, pp. 135–46. “Chosen.” 2003. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seventh Season. Episode 22, written and directed by Joss Whedon, WB Television Network, 2004, DVD.


Geek Rock, Humor, and the End of the World Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875–93. “Empty Places.” 2003. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seventh Season. Episode 19, written by Drew Z. Greenberg, directed by James A. Contner, WB Television Network, 2004, DVD. Kirkman, Robert (writer), Charlie Adlard (penciller, inker). “The Heart’s Desire.” The Walking Dead, vol. 4, no. 24, 30 Nov. 2005. Lametti, Daniel, Aisha Harris, Natasha Geiling, and Natalie Matthews-Ramo. “Which Pop Culture Property Do Academics Study the Most?” Slate: Slate’s Culture Blog, 11 June 2012, browbeat/2012/06/11/pop_culture_studies_why_do_academics_study_buffy_the_vampire_slayer_ more_than_the_wire_the_matrix_alien_and_the_simpsons_.html. Accessed 13 Apr. 2018. The Office. Performances by Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Deedle-Dee Productions, 2005–2013. Office Space. Written and directed by Mike Judge, performances by Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, ­Stephen Root, Judgmental Films, 1999. Straw, Will. “Sizing up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture.” Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, edited by Sheila Whiteley, Routledge, 1997, pp. 3–15. Ulaby, Neda. “‘Buffy Studies’: End of TV Series Clouds Future of Odd Academic Discipline.” NPR: All Things Considered, 13 May 2003, Accessed 13 Apr. 2018. White, E.B. “Some Remarks on Humor.” 1941. Essays of E.B. White. Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 303–11.


Part 3

Humor in Global Music

In Part 3, we take our first look at music from around the globe. We consider musics from four continents and six countries: Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, South Africa, Uganda, Korea, and France. Each chapter provides cultural and historical contexts for the music under consideration and examines how that context informs the music: its humorous conventions, its changes and evolution, and the various musical and sociopolitical influences operating on and within that music. While some of these musics have an international following—K-pop, reggae/dancehall, and perhaps calypso (thanks to Harry Belafonte, at least in North America)—other musics discussed in Part 3 have largely slipped under the global radar. In the opening chapter, “From Kaiso to Get on Bad: Humor in Trinidad’s Calypso and Soca Music,” Amelia Ingram first explores the European roots and the “creolizing” of Trinidad’s carnival. Ingram then argues that the songs of carnival have endured in Trinidad and Tobago and throughout the West Indies because of their use of humor, which includes satire, parody, and double entendre, and also because the songs serve as a social equalizer among classes, an outlet for social frustrations, and an oratorical platform to enlighten public opinion. In “‘Call de Contracta!’ Humor, Innovation, and Competition in Jamaican Music,” Sonjah Stanley Niaah discusses humor as a key element of the performance of successive Jamaican musical forms—mento, ska, reggae, and dancehall. Using a cultural studies approach, Stanley Niaah explores ways in which J­amaicans, in life and in music, respond to and comment on crises and natural disasters with humor, as a kind of coping strategy. In addition, her chapter examines the relationship between humor and popular music in discourses of the body, the rude boy, sound clashes, disses, and social media. In the early 1990s in South Africa, kwaito, a popular new form of youth music, emerged. In “Play and Irony in the Kwaito Music of Postapartheid South Africa,” Tuulikki Pietilä examines the critically unfavorable response to this new music, which, at least in part, attracted listeners with its humor and sociopolitical implications. As it grew in popularity and became commodified, kwaito lost its subversive potential as well as its irony and clever sense of humor. Pioneer kwaito artists responded with parodies attacking the new trends in the music they originated. In “Humor in Ugandan Popular Music,” David Pier notes that Africanist scholars have neglected the study of humor in African cultures, instead, focusing on more “serious” cultural topics in order to combat primitivist prejudices about the continent. Pier then analyzes the three modes of musical humor that have risen to prominence in Uganda: verbal humor rooted in bardic traditions, “situation comedy” performed by ensemble casts, and musical jokes crafted for potentially global circulation. Each mode illustrates a response to either the repressive colonial language policy, the

Humor in Global Music

collapse of civil society under Idi Amin’s tyrannical regime, and/or the rise of a digitally mediated, ­corporate-sponsored global circuit of celebrity. Unlike some other musics discussed in this section, K-pop has become a global phenomenon, not least as a consequence of the “viral” status accorded to PSY’s video, Gangnam Style (2012). Through its catchy melodies, slick production, and well-trained, impeccably styled, and physically attractive idols, K-pop has developed a large international fan base. In “Absurdity and Nostalgia: Humor in K-pop,” Sarah Keith argues that humor, “serious business” in K-pop, is a central reason for K-pop’s success as it informs all aspects of presentation, especially visuals and videos. Keith explores the wide range of humor in K-pop, which draws on absurdity, sexual innuendo, self-­ deprecation, comic narratives, cross-dressing, and more. In the final chapter of Part 2, “Negotiating Blackness in French Rural Spaces: Kamini’s ­H ip-Hop Comedy,” Mich Yonah Nyawalo focuses on Kamini Zantoko, a French rapper of Congolese origin. We decided to include this study under “Global Music,” rather than “Selected Artists” because Nyawalo considers Kamini from a historical and sociopolitical perspective that reveals much about the African immigrant experience in France and its impact on French hip hop. Kamini’s humor has found perhaps its fullest expression in video media, in video and on film—most notably the film about his family’s attempts to integrate into French society, Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont (The African Doctor)—which has brought his work to a wider audience and lent him some global exposure. As of this writing, for example, the YouTube video for his first single, “Marly-Gomont” (2006), has some 8.5 million views. The chapters in Part 3 reveal not only the ubiquity of humor in pop music but also the impact of digitization on music. Developments in social media have provided an efficient means to disseminate musics not in the musical mainstream. While listeners are often overwhelmed with all the music available, relatively unknown artists have at least the possibility of being heard and seen. We hope this section will introduce our readers to some artists they have yet to explore.


12 FROM KAISO TO GET ON BAD Humor in Trinidad’s Calypso and Soca Music Amelia Ingram

Comedy and humor are essential parts of carnival performance, especially in Trinidad. According to Carl Hill, one form of carnival humor can be traced to mid-nineteenth-century France and Germany as a lower-class spin-off of bel esprit or witz, the inventive and intellectual wordplay of the elite (see 17–22, 26–27, 41; see Mahabir 55). Wit, or producing jokes through cunning wordplay, served to democratize humor across class boundaries through its critical and emancipatory potential to expose the hidden weaknesses of the bourgeoisie using devices such as irony, satire, and the harlequin’s double entendre (Mahabir 56). Older preexisting (medieval) forms of carnival humor included parody or the “carnivalesque” (which included sexual parody) and the mimicry of “good vs. evil” (mocking the morality of the Church) (Bakhtin 15). In late fifteenth-century Italy, the commedia dell’arte developed as an improvised form of street theater, which used “stock characters speaking in local dialects and often farcical situations” (“Comedy” 228). Carnival festivals across Europe were the ideal platform for dramatic forms of humor and comedy as egalitarian, transgressive, and lowbrow popular entertainment. In the eighteenth century, Europeans encouraged the spread of carnival to Trinidad (and throughout the Americas) as a familiar folk culture, blending or “creolizing” the European tradition among colonized peoples, who ultimately incorporated West African, Asian, and local indigenous cultural elements. In the southern Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, comedy and humor remained essential elements of the creolized carnival within several musical, artistic, and performative traditions. As will be discussed in this chapter, the uses of comedy and humor during Trinidad’s carnival song affirm the three dominant theories of how humor works: as a social equalizer among classes (Superiority Theory); an outlet for social frustrations (­Catharsis ­Theory); and as an oratorical platform to enlighten public opinion (Incongruity T ­ heory) (­Gournelos and Greene 6). The two primary musical styles that utilize comedy and humor in Trinidad’s carnival are calypso and its contemporary offshoot, soca. Calypso has endured as an indigenous art form in Trinidad’s carnival (also popular in other nations of the circum-Caribbean) thanks to audiences’ appreciation of comedic performance and the respect that extemporizing calypsonians receive through their verbal mastery of humor and its delivery. In its most powerful essence, calypso has served as a “newspaper of the street” as described by singer David Rudder (qtd. in McLane), as judge and jury (Rohlehr, “Man Talking”), and as a means to negotiate social change (Mahabir 57). The humor of calypso has enhanced these qualities, elevating the genre to Trinidad’s national song. 107

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Calypso’s Origins Carnival was brought to Spanish-held Trinidad by French Catholic planters in 1783, many of them fleeing the French revolution, slave revolts in Hispaniola, or British invasions in other parts of the Caribbean (Mason 13). In its beginnings, the French practiced a more “genteel” version of carnival with balls, dances, and street fairs, and only white Europeans and “free coloreds” could participate. Festivities were stretched into a season from Christmas until Ash Wednesday (a  ­Catholic holy day which begins the fasting season of Lent). The British seized the island in 1797 and quickly became a part of the island’s white European elite. After the 1838 emancipation of slaves, the white elite largely withdrew from carnival’s street festivities, preferring their exclusive house parties. Carnival thus quickly Africanized among the growing urban lower-class black population, with West African-derived song and dance on the street (Mason 13–14). Urban migration between 1840 and 1870 worsened the destitute conditions among the lower classes of Port of Spain, and a marginalized unemployed group called the jamettes emerged. From the 1860s to the 1870s, the jamettes organized themselves into bands or gangs who took over Port of Spain’s carnival (Brereton 132). Despite efforts by the police and upper class to control it, carnival became an important social release and means of expression for the urban black lower class. Canboulay (patois for “cannes brulée,” or burnt cane) was developed around the time of emancipation as a drumming and dance festival to celebrate the sugarcane harvest in August, but was quickly moved to the pre-carnival period1 as indentured laborers from India and China replaced Africans in Trinidad’s sugarcane fields (“History”).2 Canboulay bands were formed in Port of Spain’s working-class tenement yards to rehearse for carnival. Lead singers, known as chantwells (from the French chantuelles), would compose and sing carisoes and encourage the rest of the band to sing the chorus (Elder 193). Kalinda (also spelled “calinda” or “kalenda”) developed as a set of canboulay stickfighting rituals (Mason 19). The stickfighting accompaniment was a male-dominated and “grossly personal satirical ballad,”3 with chantwells boastfully insulting their opponents and threatening death as a warm-up to the fight. Rivalry between stickfighters was reinforced in song as bands would lyrically compete. The chantwells were sometimes stickfighters and gave themselves grandiose sobriquets such as King, Lord, or “Mighty” (Mason 20). By 1900, canboulay and kalinda were outlawed by the government (Elder 200). Kalinda songs became the basis for the calypso, a genre which formed around the turn of the century. Several other labels for the genre were heard during the transition period, such as calipso, caliso, kaiso, etc. (E. Hill, “On the Origin” 359).4 Calypso fused structural, musical, rhythmic, and lyrical elements from West African, European, and even indigenous cultural influences. The kalinda lent its style of satire, the dramatic duel, syncopated rhythm, and call-response song structure. The drum-based bamboula and satirical belairs also influenced the calypso’s rhythm and lyrics (Mason 19). Early calypso singers used stage names (like the kalinda) and primarily sung in patois, a creolized linguistic fusion of African, French, Spanish, and indigenous phonology, and the common street parlance of nineteenth-century Trinidad (Brereton 164). Frequently, these songs relied on satire, gossip, ridicule, and sexual innuendo delivered via oblique references. The most respected of calypsonians could employ these techniques “on the spot” through masterful extemporization. Kaiso became a label for extemporaneous calypso and those who are masters of it (kaisonians). Simultaneously, a second type emerged, the “masquerade calypso” or lavway (from ­patois “the voice”), which was composed especially to be chanted by a group of masqueraders in street ­procession. (This type later evolved into the “road march.”) While kaiso was a negotiated ­exchange between singer and audience, the lavway was a communal effort, inheriting the communal style of cariso. According to Donald Hill, other subtypes of calypso also developed around


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the same time, including the “leggo” calypso (a street song for the end of Carnival), “oratorical” calypso (which possibly originated from the boasts or insult speeches of costumed characters like the midnight robber or Pierrot), and “ballad” calypso (telling a story) (4). These calypso subtypes loosely divided into those appropriate for outdoor street performance and those of the calypso tents, the formalized venues that evolved from carnival masquerade camps. The “indoor” calypso grew up in the setting of the calypso tent. Informal rehearsals of chantwells and their chorus of masqueraders eventually transformed into a more established setting where sponsoring merchants invited guests and local audiences to a rehearsed show (D. Hill 65). Most of the indoor calypso during this time was sung in patois. In order to be more accessible, sponsors would help build the tent stage to accommodate larger crowds (E. Hill, Trinidad 65). These changes reflected a growing appeal to the emerging middle class and elite.

Improvisation in Early Calypso and Its Humor By 1910, the early calypso focused on picong (derived from the French “piquant” or stinging), a style of verbally improvised song duels aimed at competing carnival rivals (Warner 13). The “single-tone” format was prevalent, in which a single melodic strain was sung in both improvised verse and participatory chorus which involved both the singer and the audience led by a chantwell. The majority of these early calypsos was sung in patois, and sometimes borrowed kalinda lyrics. Patois was also influential in the melodic and comedic style of the early calypso (Warner 30). A popular version of the single-tone calypso used the “sans humanité” (without pity) refrain, which resonated in its double-meaning (both of ruthless competition and lower-class strife). A popular example by “Chinee” Patrick Jones (1906) tells the story of a stickfighting clash between “Feddy” Mungo and “Caynan” of Corbeau Town, “Feddy, c’est un dentist l’annee sala / Parceque e tiray deux dents en Corbeau Town” (qtd. in Cowley 170). Jones calls Mungo a dentist because he took out two teeth of his opponent. The syncopated refrain gave the audience a participatory role with the “sans humanité” adding salt to the wound (Guilbault, Governing 269). The language of picong formed the beginnings of calypso humor (Warner 14). The picong was often achieved with long extemporized rants that demonstrated verbal mastery. However, as singers used the competitive performances to demonstrate their mastery of language, many calypsos in English soon emerged. An example comes from a calypso duel (n.d.) between Atilla and Executor: “I admire your ambition, you’d like to sing / But you will never be a kaiso king / To reach such a height without blemish or spot / You must study Shakespeare, Byron, Milton and Scott” (qtd. in Quevedo 93). English represented the language of the state and the educated elite, and its mastery among calypsonians reflected an increase in English language education (D. Hill, 46) and a growing interest in catering to the middle and upper classes (E. Hill, Trinidad 56). Two singers often matched their “wits and vocabularies” through “long-winded words and high-flown phrases” (Manuel 188). The practice of picong verbal duels continued until the 1960s and became a mark of authenticity (Warner 14). One late example is a calypso duel recorded in 1957 between the Mighty Sparrow and New York-based expat Lord Melody (captured on Calypso Awakening),5 in which Sparrow conquered Melody with his colorful rhyming insults from stanza to stanza in a style similar to the African-American dozens (an improvised verbal contest of insults). However, the fatigue of extended improvisations in a “calypso war” led to an increased use of stock rhymes and phrases. As calypso evolved, a comedic discourse formed over time, allowing artists to employ a vocabulary of local slang, double entendre, and satire familiar to audiences, providing a means to express social concerns, political commentary, and sexual mores. While many early calypsos narrated historical events, they also described racial sentiments, anti-colonial cultural values, and political and religious tensions that fomented in the post-emancipation period. In one example, a bawdy reference to an ample African woman’s backside (“Belle ti Negresse epi bondai mate”) was immediately


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juxtaposed with religious exclamation (“Glo, Glo, Gloria, Gloria c’est pou ou/ Gloria pas pou moen”) to satirize the admiration French Catholic priests would equally display to Afro-Creole women dancing during carnival as to the Virgin Mary (Quevedo 9). Mockery illustrated the moral consequences of mistreatment by government officials, the Church, or a lover, accomplished with the repetition of a final stanza, and ending in the familiar punch of “sans humanité.”

Calypso Developments In the 1920s, calypso outgrew the masquerade camps, and sponsors relocated calypso tents to more accessible public spaces. The change in venue also reflected a growing complexity, with the innovation of a “double-tone” form in which two melodies were implemented, one each for the refrain and the verse. The “sans humanité” refrain fell out of use since staged performance required less audience participation and more rehearsed performative elements. String bands were introduced as accompaniment and a replacement for the audience refrain between each verse (D.  Hill 71). The double-tone style was performed mostly in a major, upbeat key, which lent itself to lighter, humorous themes. Calypso dramas were introduced in the staged shows, with calypsonians dressed as stock West Indian characters, performing short skits with most of the dialogue improvised and sung in rhyme, accompanied by the string band (148). According to Donald Hill, the skits were “gentrified versions of the Dame Lorraine show or little dramatic routines that attended some of the street masquerades” (149). In “The GI and the Lady” (1946), the Dame Lorraine character was performed by Macbeth the Great, along with the Duke and Lord Invader. While calypso dramas fell out of use by the mid-1960s, shorter humorous skits continued during show intermissions and influenced the delivery of calypso humor as calypsonians sometimes wore costume of the characters they mocked (E. Hill, Trinidad 80; D. Hill 149). By the late 1920s, singing competitions were organized by wealthy sponsors and the Carnival Improvement Association, a government organization. By 1939, the first nationally organized calypso competition led to the crowning of a Calypso King, judged by musical elites at the Victory Calypso Tent (D. Hill 76–77). Calypsonians abandoned street performance and were eventually replaced by steel bands, which grew in popularity among the lower class (although they later formed a relationship with singers by playing versions of their latest calypsos) (206–07). Censorship in the 1930s directly affected the rhetorical strategies of calypso humor. Laws would prohibit everything from masking, singing obscene songs, dancing and the “mocking” of the elite (Cowley 194). In 1934, the Theatre and Dance Hall Ordinance required calypsonians to submit lyrics to the police for a permit before singing them in the tent. Government officials felt pressure to censor any song that created a threat to the elite; this led to the increased use of double entendre, or suggestive metaphors, and thinly veiled parody to relay humor. The ordinance was contested by police Captain Arthur Cipriani who argued that it would be difficult to enforce calypso censorship or to control insults or caricature in calypso, particularly if the subject of ridicule is not identified (Rohlehr, “Calypsonian” 9). Calypsonians would address issues of social unrest, inequities, and scandal through ever more carefully crafted language, which could slip by the censors and become a valued form of political and social critique. In 1937, King Radio performed “Sedition Law” and bypassed the censors with generalities (“If you know you can’t use the knife and fork / They mean to license we mouth / They don’t want we talk”) (qtd. in D. Hill 197). During World War II, a group of calypsonians known as the “Young Brigade” began to sing risqué sexual themes, spurred on by the Yankee invasion of soldiers who patronized their tents for local entertainment (Rohlehr, “Calypsonian” 9). An example was Lord Invader’s “Rum and ­Coca-Cola” (1943), later covered by the Andrews Sisters (1945) (D. Hill 235).6 Censorship reached a high point by the end of World War II, with rising unemployment and labor unrest across the island (Cowley 12). Ultimately, government censorship led to greater creativity in comedic strategy and a growing acknowledgment of the calypsonian’s power as a popular voice of the street. 110

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In the 1950s, the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Dr. Eric Williams combined the interests of labor unions and the rising creolized middle class. Calypsonians at this time became increasingly political, singing commentary that would mock, parody, and sometimes praise politicians during the transition to nationhood. Sparrow was crowned Calypso King in 1956 with his immensely popular political calypsos; he reigned for a decade as the leading voice (Warner 64). His “William the Conqueror” (1957) narrated the battle between “Big Brain” (Dr. W ­ illiams) and “Big Belly,” Albert Gomes, an overweight politician whom Sparrow ridiculed in the battle with lines such as “fall down on he guts,” and “Big Belly was with child” (Warner 64). Sparrow’s risqué performance included “gyrations on the stage, the truly grotesque, macabre laughter … would certainly not have been permitted in the 1930s” (Rohlehr, “Calypsonian” 10). In 1962, the country became independent and Eric Williams became the first Prime Minister of ­Trinidad and Tobago. Dr. Williams moved to adopt the calypso and the steel pan as cultural icons as part of a nationalizing anti-colonial agenda. Sparrow eventually became more critical of the government, using parody and double entendre, to create pointed commentary within humorous ballads (­examples like “No Doctor No” (1957), “PAYE” (1958), and “Congo Man” (1965) reflect increasingly dark humor). Other calypsonians followed Sparrow’s humorous lead and referred to the prime minister as “doctor” or “doc,” emphasizing his membership in the educated elite. In “­Outcast” (1963), Sparrow accused the elite of hypocritical appropriation of calypso and steel pan as national culture while still prejudiced against singers and musicians (Rohlehr, “­Calypsonian”  11). Sparrow continued to push the boundaries of censorship, risqué sexuality, and social criticism with an aggressive performance style and even direct responses in verse to the press, such as “Thanks to the Guardian” (1962). Hollis Liverpool, a university professor and public servant, entered the political calypso arena under the moniker “Chalkdust” in 1966, and became a regular performer in the tent and competitions. As a public servant, government regulations forbade him from making public criticism of the state, as well as holding more than one job (Rohlehr, “Calypsonian” 18). Chalkdust defended himself in “Reply to the Ministry” (1969) by presenting several examples of public servants who for years worked at more than one job without question. After the carnival season, he successfully won his case against the government, leading the way for other public servants to sing c­ alypsos, including Short Pants, Luta, Watchman, Kenny J, and Lady B (Rohlehr, “Calypsonian” 18). While censorship in carnival evolved over the years, it always promoted the interests of the g­ overning elite. After independence, the political calypso became one of the most direct c­ hallenges to carnival censorship; it also became a crucial space for public discourse.

Calypso Rhetoric and Discourse: Common Themes and Practices Calypso became a vital form of public discourse among local intellectuals, journalists, calypsonians, and the government. Beginning in the 1940s, calypso became a topic of interest among middle-class intellectuals and nationalists who began to write short books and publish articles commenting on the latest song of the season (Guilbault, Governing 49). Calypsonians would respond via performance with lyrics that were pre-composed, and their lyrics became the dominant social commentary, functioning as a medium for news, scandal, and gossip repeated by everyone from politicians to fellow calypsonians to audiences who adopted their phraseology as familiar rhetoric (Warner 24; Rohlehr, “Calypso” 65). Along with social class and politics, calypsos of the 1950s and later also addressed other issues, including race, gender, and sexuality. According to Rohlehr (“Man Talking” 1), race calypsos tended to dramatize the conflict among ethnic groups by focusing on racial stereotypes, caricature, and a humor based on ridicule of accent, culture, or behavior. For example, Mighty Terror’s 1950 calypso “Chinese Children” used racial traits to contest paternity; since he and his wife are both African, “they can’t make no other kind of child but a Congo,” nevertheless “still 111

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Chinese children calling me daddy” (qtd. in Warner 97). Mighty Terror addressed the African and East Indian assimilation anxiety in “Indian People with Creole Name” (1952), parodying racial difference in Indian names (“Boodoo, Poodoo, and Badoo”). Sparrow used a common trope of the African cannibal cooking the white female to broach the topic of racial miscegenation in “Congo Man” (1964), simultaneously addressing criticism of his marriage to a white woman (Warner 108). Sexual metaphors and risqué sexuality in calypso served to both titillate the audience and provide entertaining humor. Male fears of infidelity (locally called tabanca) were expressed in examples such as Sparrow’s “Rose” (1961), later in the Mighty Duke’s “Don’t Horn Me” (1980), and Mighty Trini’s “Curry Tabanca” (1987). Female calypsonians entered the scene in the 1960s and took on similar comedic strategies to address issues of gender and sexuality along with feminism and gender violence. Lady Iere in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1953) protested poor treatment: “The time is too hard to mind a man that is bad” (qtd. in Warner 106) while in “Engagement Ring” (1975), Calypso Rose voiced anxiety about men’s lack of commitment, “Ah don want no engagement ring / Ah want to hear de wedding bell ringing” (qtd. in Warner 106); and Denyse Plummer became the “Woman [who] Is Boss.” (She won Calypso Queen with this song in 1988.) Despite the serious problem of gender inequality in calypso discourse (see Mahabir; Springer; Warner), suggestive eroticism overwhelmingly won audiences more interested in the thinly veiled vulgarity of sexual double entendre and male/female interplay.

Soca and Change in Carnival In the 1970s, calypsonian Lord Shorty (later known as Ras Shorty I) decided to blend East Indian rhythms and electronic synthesized keyboards from American rhythm and blues in order to formulate a more contemporary style of calypso, known as soca. Soca focused less on the lyrical craft of humor and storytelling, and more purely on rhythmic and dance-inspired road march style (also called “jump up” under the auspices of calypso) (Leu 46). Soca utilized amplified instruments, which allowed it to compete with the volume of carnival steel bands on the road and helped to return carnival song to its participatory roots. Several calypsonians also experimented with soca. Lord Kitchener was particularly admired for his crossover versatility with “Sugar Bum Bum” (1978), a sexy hit admiring a woman’s backside (Walcott). Soca inspired regional and crossover artists as well. In 1982, from the island of Montserrat, Arrow produced one of the most well-known socas, “Hot Hot Hot,” which also climbed the international music charts.7 Arrow’s success ushered in an increased participation and circulation of soca artists from throughout the English-speaking Caribbean (Mason 48; Guilbault, Governing 211). Meanwhile, another interpretation of soca was a retro-crossover by artist David Rudder (from the brass band Charlie’s Roots) who combined soca style with ballad calypso. Rudder achieved success with “The Hammer” in 1986, a lyrical tribute to the death of a steel pan tuner. During that season, he was crowned Calypso Monarch, Road March King, and Young King, and “The Hammer” was the winning song at Panorama, the national carnival steel band competition (Leu 46). Rudder’s success demonstrated soca as a lasting trend in carnival. Soca became a frequent crossover style for artists from other ethnic musical traditions. East ­Indian singer Drupatee Ramgoonai combined chutney music (a traditional Punjabi wedding ­music) with soca in her crossover chutney-soca hit “Lick Down Me Nani” (1988), using the double entendre of “nani” (“grandmother” in Hindi and “vagina” in local slang) to thinly veil sexual desire (Puri 135). Drupatee led the way for the first soca offshoot, the Chutney Soca Monarch competition in 1995, which appealed to the East Indian community (Leu 52). Since then, other forms of crossover genres have emerged, such as raga soca, parang soca, groovy soca, and rapso. Each of these crossovers has adapted the humorous language of each style to produce innovative lyrics that appeal to an ever-widening audience. 112

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Figure 12.1  Calypso Monarch Competition in Port of Spain, photo by author, March 2, 2003.

Soca Criticism and Comedy Soca has been routinely criticized as “party music” popular at large outdoor fêtes (“jump up” and “wave yuh flag” are popular directives). As both calypso and soca coexist on today’s carnival stage, soca artists have received criticism for less lyrical sophistication and for an overemphasis on “bump and wine” and “get on bad” sexual rhetoric. One of numerous editorials (Maraj) complains of “soca singers corroding society for decades with rubbish lyrics, their main muse the female bottom,” quoting Bunji Garlin’s “Red Light District” (2014): “When soca play and dem gyal shake dey bumpa / Every man say dey activate de lumber.” As of this writing, event organizers have attempted to pacify both performers and audiences by giving soca and calypso equal prominence on the carnival stage. This has been achieved through the designation of individual competition awards (Calypso King, Soca King, and Road March King), government sponsorship of performance venues (calypso tents), and government educational programs in traditional carnival arts that aid in cultural preservation and maintenance of older musical forms of calypso, calinda, kaiso, etc. ( Jacob). Nonetheless, changes in lyrical content and performance have led to a rift among loyal calypso audiences and performers, particularly with soca’s “get on bad” ethos as well as critical concerns about creativity. Calypsonians and carnival purists have criticized soca as music that involves less verbal mastery and for not continuing to provide a space for political or social commentary, thereby potentially endangering the future of calypso. Meanwhile, soca fans applaud artists’ efforts to modernize carnival and stay relevant to audiences who listen to increasingly global music during the rest of the year (American R&B, rap, Jamaican dancehall, and other popular styles can be heard on local radio stations outside of carnival) (Guilbault, “Music, Politics” 18). Trinidadian audiences (­particularly younger audiences) are keen to stay “hip” to trends in American popular music as well as those in other parts of the West Indies (Mason 159). According to soca artist Machel Montano, “what 113

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makes soca songs ‘authentic’ is that they are a ‘reflection of us’”—a reflection of the widening intersections between genres, ethnicities, islands, genders, and ages (qtd. in 18). Despite Montano’s vision of inclusiveness, the cost of attending soca performances has become increasingly expensive, exacerbating class differences, and leading to crime during carnival (­Guilbault, “Music” 26).8 Globalization of Trinidad’s carnival and a widening diaspora has diluted the potential for humorous commentary on local issues in soca. Meanwhile, calypso discourse is quickly losing its value among soca audiences; some now argue that it cannot be preserved as an isolated cultural artifact sponsored by the government (Maraj). Ultimately, soca has transformed calypso’s humor to reflect the changing needs of local and global audiences.

Notes 1 In the European Catholic tradition, carnival was held in the pre-Lenten period three days before Ash Wednesday, a moveable religious feast day initiating the Lenten fasting period (see Bakhtin). 2 The indentured population later contributed (along with immigrants from Venezuela and the Eastern Caribbean) to carnival with their own musical innovations (see Brereton). 3 According to Pearse, the kalinda was found throughout the Americas and associated with stickfighting only in Trinidad. See G.W. Cable’s description of kalinda in Louisiana, “The Dance in Place Congo” (1886), quoted in Rohlehr (Calypso and Society 12). 4 Origins of the term “calypso” remain unclear, and several terms have been attributed by various scholars: the patois carrousseaux (house party), the Spanish caliso (topical song), the Amerindian carieto ( joyous work song), and the West African Hausa kaito or kaico (which transformed into kaiso, a congratulatory term)—see E. Hill “On the Origin” 359–61; Mason 19). The word origins are multiethnic and reflect the genre’s own creolization process. 5 Calypso Awakening (2000) is a compilation of live and studio recordings from Cook Records, originally released between 1956 and 1962. “Picong Duel” was performed by Mighty Sparrow and Lord Melody in 1957, originally released on Calypso Kings and Pink Gin (Cook LP 1185). 6 The Andrews Sisters were purportedly unaware of the sexually risqué lyrical humor. For description of Lord Invader’s lyrics and lawsuit over “Rum and Coca-Cola,” see D. Hill (234–39). 7 Buster Poindexter (David Johansen) continued Arrow’s success with “Hot, Hot, Hot” with an internationally successful cover in 1987. 8 Fear of rising crime during carnival has given fête organizers the opportunity to make money on “VIP” tickets. Some argue this encourages crime during carnival—see Guilbault (“Music, Politics”; “Music and Militarization”; Sookraj).

Works Cited Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. M.I.T. Press, 1968. Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783–1962. Heinemann, 1981. ———. Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad, 1870–1900. Cambridge UP, 1979. Calypso Awakening. Various artists, Smithsonian Folkways, 2000. “Comedy.” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 5th ed., edited by Bruce F. Murphy, HarperCollins, 2008, pp. 227–28. Cowley, J. Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making. Cambridge UP, 1999. Elder, J.D. “‘Kalinda’: Song of the Battling Troubadours of Trinidad.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 3, no. 2, 1966, 192–203. Gournelos, Ted, and Viveca Greene. “Introduction: Popular Culture and Post 9/11 Politics.” A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America. UP of  Mississippi, 2011. doi:10.14325/ Mississippi/9781617030062.003.0015. Guilbault, Jocelyne. Governing Sound: The Cultural Politics of Trinidad’s Carnival Musics. U of Chicago P, 2007. ———. “Music and Militarization: Soca, Space, and Security.” Caribbean Military Encounters, edited by Shalini Puri and Lara Putnam, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 331–44. ———. “Music, Politics, and Pleasure: Live Soca in Trinidad.” Small Axe, vol. 31, Mar. 2010, pp. 16–29. Hill, Carl. The Soul of Wit: Joke Theory from Grimm to Freud. U of Nebraska P, 1993. Hill, Donald. Calypso Calalloo: Early Carnival Music in Trinidad. UP of Florida, 1993. Hill, Errol. “On the Origin of the Term Calypso.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 11, no. 3, 1967, pp. 359–67. ———. The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre. U of Texas P, 1972.


Trinidad’s Calypso and Soca Music “History of Carnival and Its Elements.” National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago. new/index.php/carnival-history/history-of-carnival.html. Accessed 3 July 2017. Jacob, Debbie. “Is Calypso Dying?” Caribbean Beat, vol. 89, Jan/Feb 2008. calypso-dying#axzz4uQ8oWwvm. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017. Leu, Lorraine. “‘Raise Yuh Hand, Jump up and Get on Bad!’: New Developments in Soca Music in Trinidad.” Latin American Music Review, vol. 21, no. 1, Spring-Summer 2000, pp. 45–58. Lord Invader, Macbeth the Great, The Duke of Iron. “The GI and the Lady.” Calypso After Midnight! The Live Midnight Special Concert, Town Hall, New York City, 1946. Alan Lomax Collection, Rounder Records, 1999. Mahabir, Cynthia. “Wit and Popular Music: The Calypso and the Blues.” Popular Music, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 55–81. Manuel, Peter. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Temple UP, 1995. Maraj, Ralph. “‘Bumper’ mas.” Trinidad Express, 25 Feb. 2017, Accessed 3 July 2017. Mason, Peter. Bacchanal! The Carnival Culture of Trinidad. Temple UP, 1998. McLane, Daisann. “Pop Music; In Trinidad, ‘Calypso Diplomacy’ With a Beat.” New York Times, 31 Mar. 1991, Accessed 5 July 2017. Pearse, Andrew C. Liner notes. The Big Drum Dance of Carriacou. 1956. Smithsonian Folkways Records, 2004. Puri, Shalini. “Race, Rape and Representation: Indo-Caribbean Women and Cultural Nationalism.” Cultural Critique, no. 36, Spring 1997, pp. 119–63. Quevedo, Raymond. Atilla’s Kaiso: A Short History of Trinidad Calypso. Raymond Quevedo, 1983. Rohlehr, Gordon. “Calypso and Caribbean Identity.” Bucknell Review, vol. 44, no. 2, 2001, pp. 55–72. ———. “The Calypsonian as Artist: Freedom and Responsibility.” Small Axe, vol. 9, Mar. 2001, pp. 1–26. ———. Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad. Gordon Rohlehr, 1990. ———. “‘Man Talking to Man’: Calypso and Social Confrontation in Trinidad from 1970 to 1984.” ­Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 2, June 1985, pp. 1–13. Sookraj, Radhica. “Criminologist: Economic Hardships in Christmas, Carnival Responsible for High Crime.” Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, 24 Jan. 2018,­economichardships-christmas-carnival-responsible-high-crime. Accessed 4 June 2018. Springer, Jennifer. “’Roll it Gal’: Alison Hinds, Female Empowerment, and Calypso.” Meridians, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008, pp. 93–129. Walcott, Stefan. “Snapshot in Soca III: A History of Soca, 1982–1990.” Stefan Walcott: Caribbean Musician, 27 Oct. 2013, Accessed 1 Sept. 2017. Warner, Keith Q. Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso: A Study of the Calypso as Oral Literature. Three Continents Press, 1982.


13 “CALL DE CONTRACTA!” Humor, Innovation, and Competition in Jamaican Music Sonjah Stanley Niaah

Introducing Jamaican Music and Humor The evolution of Jamaican music stands as an archive for mapping creativity, innovation, competition, and performance. Born out of a need to manage the history of oppression and disenfranchisement in a postcolonial context, Jamaican music makers poured their souls into sonic dominance and choreographing new ways of being. Jamaica’s rich indigenous musicscape has its history in sound systems that developed in the mid-twentieth century. They functioned as giant boom boxes to amplify music played on city streets. From the emergence of early sound systems in the 1950s and 1960s to the rise of more contemporary acts, among them Lovindeer, Lt. Stitchie, Tiger, and Professor Nuts, there are under-analyzed strands of indigenous Jamaican music.1 One of these neglected strands is the relationship between popular music and humor, which cuts across key genres, such as mento, ska, reggae, and dancehall, in which innovation, competition, and humor have been key pillars in the development and consequent appeal of the performative enterprise of Jamaican music. This chapter analyzes the significance of humor in Jamaican music, highlighting innovative schemes akin to versioning and clashing as performance modes in three distinct genres—­ dancehall, reggae, and ska. Using a cultural studies approach centered on lyrical content analysis and participant observation over 20 years inside dancehall, I establish humor in Jamaican music as a central feature of what has driven creativity in a symbiotic relationship to struggle. In light of the gap in studies on Jamaican music and humor, this chapter highlights that humor has been part and parcel of competition, crisis, speech patterns, discourses on the body, natural disasters, social commentary, as well as coping strategies within the music landscape. In character, humor has operated as a Janus-faced performance mode, piercing and poignant, and masking, even concealing, crises. Ultimately, this chapter introduces new ways of thinking about Jamaican music and opens new avenues for analysis of Jamaican music and culture.

Intersecting Humor Studies Today From “antiquity to Freud … every attempt to define comic seems to be jeopardized by the fact that this is an umbrella term … that gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogenous phenomena, such as humor, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire, wit, and so on” (Eco 1). Humor studies have seen several key texts and issues emerging in the scholarly investigation of jokes, among them politics, ethics, aesthetics, performativity, ridicule, and 116

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offensiveness, even as there is a lack of consensus about any comprehensive theory. A survey of humor studies contributions, however, produces three main strands of theoretical engagement (see Lewis, Comic and Cracking; Lockyear and Pickering; Morreall): superiority theory, where humor is seen as antisocial; incongruity theory, where humor is seen as irrational; and, relief theory, in which humor is seen as a pressure valve through which social and psychic tensions are released. Lewis sees modern humor as a complex whole whose numerous parts, variables and potential, make it a rich area for scholarly inquiry (see Comic). He moves away from seeing humor as a homogenous category and highlights power as a crucial analytical lens through which humor must be engaged. Elsewhere, Lewis has highlighted two aspects of humor in popular discourse—­ healing humor and killing jokes (see Cracking). Examinations of the intersection between music and humor are less available, and analyses of humor in a performance context have focused on stand-up comedy, films, and other mass/visual media representations. For intersecting Jamaican music and humor studies, I draw on Chang and Chen’s insight that “Jamaicans have always preferred humor to history” (193). Anyone who has experienced Jamaican culture is made quickly aware of the ease with which Jamaicans laugh, even at themselves, while also making others laugh. Jamaicans embody a certain unmistakable cool, an unbothered quality which is embodied in the well-known maxim—“Jamaica, no problem.” At the underbelly of this maxim is a national character, disposition, and spirit to overcome the challenges of life and to live stress free. There is no problem which is deemed insurmountable, and one way to achieve triumph over daily troubles is to face adversity with lightheartedness, to laugh in its face and to disturb its hold on the oppressed. There is something at the bottom of this sense of humor as profound as the “railroad of bones … at the bottom of the Atlantic,” to echo Amiri Baraka (x). But, what drives it and how does it function? In a recent article in the Jamaica Gleaner entitled “Weh Macaroni and Guh,” Daniel Thwaites highlighted the connection between “natural disasters,” both real and imagined, and Jamaican humor. Citing three flood events over a ten-year period and the characters who were central to the humor which went viral, Thwaites suggested that it would be easy, if not foolish, to conclude that rains and flooding (natural disasters) bring out the best in Jamaicans, in light of the characters which gained fame based on contexts of adversity. Clifton “Cliftwang” Brown, Bridgette Bailey (“Rosie”), and Patrick “Macaroni” Harris, all “ordinary” Jamaicans, appeared in mainstream media, as well as YouTube, because of their commentary on natural disasters. Thwaites got to the heart of what natural disasters produced by way of coping mechanisms, where disaster was seen to be a common means by which Jamaicans converted grave challenges into humor. It is worth highlighting that in all three cases, the individuals’ visual and verbal expressions were set to music, increasing their appeal to the Jamaican audience. What became viral videos operated as effective avenues through which the music engineer, communities, and characters were made famous. I engage further below with this context of disasters as one of the significant themes, alongside humorous engagements of the Jamaican body and the supernatural.

Of Music, Rude Bwoys, and Ram Goats Songs of humor made an impression on me as I grew up in 1970s Jamaica. Two such songs were Ernie Smith’s “Duppy Gunman” (1974) and Pluto Shervington’s “Ram Goat Liver” (1976). I can recall laughing uncontrollably whenever my mother played the records as we danced in the evenings when she returned home from work. Though I was very young in the 1970s, this was a period of political tension, international interference, and anxiety about Jamaica’s alignment to a socialist political philosophy and development strategy with Cuba as a major ally. The “rude bwoy” (“rude boy”) phenomenon was at its peak, with youths parading through the streets of Kingston and its ghettoes in politically aligned gangs, armed with knives and guns working to secure the patronage that would ensure advantage with a political party. Several songs about 117

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rude bwoys warned of the judgment that would befall them and inevitable confrontations with “­Babylon.” “Duppy Gunman” makes light of the situation, turning the terror of living in these areas at that time into a joke. With so many rude bwoys around, one could turn up just about anywhere, anytime. Smith laments, “everything was irie, getting in the groove / a jus’ a come dung to movements / then someone said, ‘Don’t move!’” Just as Smith was about to “work his show,” he caught stage fright; he was so frightened he jumped up and ran faster than Olympic sprinter Don Quarrie: “Quarrie was a bwoy to I-man last night, him couldn’t follow me.” The seriousness of the moment—whether it was a duppy2 or a gunman—was neutralized and made humorous. Pluto Shervington’s “Ram Goat Liver” narrates the events of a road accident involving a minibus and a goat. In 1970s Jamaica (as today), a ram goat was considered valuable property and the owner of the goat would have had to be compensated. However, one man immediately suggests that they should “buy a pound of rice” and cook the goat. Tragedy is swiftly transformed into comedy, and joy at the idea of a bellyful of curried goat and rice. So said, so done. And well, after joy there came sorrow. Pluto sang, “before too long you no haffi ask / running belly like a judgement day / an’ everybody in the road a dead wid laugh / It’s then I know that crime will never pay.” If  Ernie Smith’s “Duppy Gunman” and Pluto Shervington’s “Ram Goat Liver” were the quintessential comedic songs of the 1970s, then Lovindeer’s disaster chronicle of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 was that for the 1980s. “Wild Gilbert” (1988) addressed the horrors of one of the most dangerous hurricanes to hit Jamaica in a 50-year cycle. Set to nursery rhyme tunes and littered with double entendre of a sexual nature, the song topped the charts immediately. Speaking behind the hurricane’s back in the wake of its destruction as it were, the singer recounted the disappearance of zinc roofing, wooden doors, and satellite dishes from many homes, the water which wreaked havoc, and the islandwide electricity outage which left many without the ability to store fresh food or manufacture goods. Lovindeer captured many voices in the song: the upper class, the lower class, and even the underclass, outcasts who are rarely given a voice but are extremely prominent in Jamaica. This includes the “ital” Rastafari brethren who heap the curse of thunder and lightning on those who are meat eaters and sellers, such as the Chinese restaurateur who wasn’t spared in the onslaught on roofs. On the other hand, many had victories; looters, for example, thanked the Lord for the Hurricane which allowed them to acquire new refrigerators, televisions, stereos, and video players. There is no other place on the planet which has mastered in such a way the art of converting trauma into laughter like Jamaica. This capacity to laugh as an antidote to suffering is no joke though. Caribbean people deploy their creative energy to survive and even thrive while generating enormous creativity in popular performance, including literary and dance cultures that are global in influence. Beginning with beloved Jamaican folk songs such as “The Buggy Bruk and the Horse Fall Dung,” which have been passed down through the generations and heavily performed by Jamaica’s undisputed queen of comedy Miss Lou (Louise Bennett-Coverley), we see the spirit of rebellion evoked in lyrics that show courage and an unrelenting defiance to slave masters’ attempts to break African spirits with the whip. Songs like “The Buggy Bruk” are direct references to the abolition of slavery, with the buggy being a metaphor for slavery and the horse for the slave. During slavery, many of the songs were rallying calls to show courage and indifference to the whip. The reliance on humor as a coping mechanism in the face of joy, sorrow, anger, regret, frustration, even death, is embedded not only in the creative literary and performance aesthetic but also in folklore represented by proverbs. To “take serious t’ing and make joke” is a national pastime. For example, “tek kin teeth kibba heart bun,” a well-known Jamaican proverb, captures the ­sentiment that a smile (“kin teeth”) prevents the heart from aching; or, from a different perspective, “if you don’t laugh, you will cry.” Humor, therefore, is one of the enduring gifts of Jamaican ancestors, and a common theme in proverbs, folklore, theatre, drama, and music. Examination of the extensive catalog of Jamaican music reveals that the comedic song has a very special place in the various genres and functions as an extension of the Jamaican psyche. 118

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Derrick Morgan’s ska classic “Don’t Call Me Daddy” (1965) takes on the ticklish topic of women who cheat (“give bun”) on their partners and try to give them the offspring of another man (“a jacket”). The painful truth that the child is another man’s becomes a joke: “People listen clearly, this woman is crazy! / The woman she is black and I have natty, natty hair / but Chinese baby come to call me daddy.” Comedic commentary remained popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with artists such as Papa San, Lt. Stitchie, Lovindeer, and Professor Nuts making names for themselves as masters of the art form. Lovindeer, in particular, became a legend. His “Babylon Boops” (1986), for example, has operated on many levels—it is a condemnation of domestic violence; a call to the police to protect women; a masterful lesson by a lyrical maestro on how to use word, sound, and power to change behavior; and an exquisite exposition of the timeless appeal of humor. He explains to the man who has beaten his woman why he came to show him “what police can do”: “I did come to reason with you / cause I know what woman can do / I am a man of the world like you / my woman could give me bun too.” But because the man has beaten the woman, Lovindeer decides not to let him off the hook. The recording is cleverly engineered with knocking, beating sounds when Lovindeer puts a beating on the man as punishment for beating his partner. The comedic rendition becomes a powerful commentary on domestic violence and the responsibility officers of the law must take in protecting abused women. Although, man to man, Lovindeer empathizes with the abuser, as any one of them could “get bun” (be cheated on), it is clear that beating a woman will only get a violent cuckold in trouble with the law. Another classic of the era was Lt. Stitchie’s “Wear Your Size” (1987), in which he tells the universal story of the torture that women endure for fashion. I can recall the months over which this song remained a hit in Jamaica with the song capturing the airwaves and the music video being played repeatedly on television. Of his date, Stitchie sings, “Pain a lick her all over her toe / she squinch in her eye and start to tiptoe / hold mi finger tight like she nuh waan let go / a walk and a wine like we a dance go-go.” The comedic wordplay doesn’t get much better than this novel commentary on the woman who refuses to wear her size. In this context, the body and its torture feature in Stitchie’s dancehall brand of comedy. His admonition is that fashion ought not to take precedence over the care that bodies need to function effectively. His date was ruined as his lady friend became more concerned about her feet. Papa San puts down a-wailing and a-weeping in “Maddy Maddy Cry” (1992) when his girl has been stolen from him by a colleague DJ Half Pint who ridicules him with laughter: “After Half Pint tek way me gal Winsome / laugh after me and tek it for fun / then me go back and talk to Blossom / and she gone left me, true no money nah run.” Essentially, San finds himself without a girl; searching and unable to find one, he contemplates whether his only option is to patronize the ladies of the night (prostitutes) who are known to frequent certain areas of the capital city such as New Kingston. The overwhelming emphasis on the Jamaican masculine norms of having multiple partners and maintaining a reputation of being a girls’ man plays out in the song. The singer experiences embarrassment when he loses his partner to a colleague/friend and contemplates seeing a prostitute. Here again, the emphasis in this comedic song is on the body, this time the male body experiencing sexual disaster with the loss of a partner.

Body Shop The contemporary phenomenon of dancehall artist Gully Bop (real name Robert Malcolm), who shot to fame literally from life in a gully, is a notable case. The comedic sensation went from rags to riches and then back again. In late 2014, a homeless Gully Bop rose to fame after a video of him freestyling went viral. In “Body Specialist,” the unkempt, “mawga” (meagre), toothless Gully Bop, a.k.a. “Country Man,” represents as quintessentially Jamaican with his brand of braggadocio about his incomparable sexual prowess and ability to “tune up” women’s bodies, like an auto 119

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body specialist: “Fi yuh body sick from 1986… / all fi yuh body want a new gear stick / and if yuh body tire smooth, gyal / mi gih eet some grease.” Riding the riddim, by 2015, Gully Bop had captured the imagination of the entire nation as he embodied the true “Jamaican dream” of rising above adversity to claim a space among the popular, complete with a girlfriend half his age. With his follow-up hit, “My God, Dem Nuh Bad Like Me” (2010), Bop took on detractors who wanted to see him flop, taking the boasting to another level, slaying critics with his ability to DJ using razor-sharp lyrics and a music video with professional dancers. Gully Bop’s brand of sexual audacity is somewhat universal among men, but it is perhaps only in Jamaica that one can find women daring to be just as competitive and boastful about their bedroom antics. Lady Shabba’s “Ram Ram” (1993) is particularly impressive in both its hilarity and graphic ­imagery. The outrage in her voice is a delightful addition to the beguiling staccato of her mournful chant about a man who wants “a big mampi” (a very fat woman) but “cyah manage it.” She takes him to task about his inability to cope with her size, mocking him because “him is like a mouse pon a one-dollar bread / Haffi use two hand to lift one a mi leg / Jesus Christ, I gwine kill him dead!” Lady Shabba is remorseless as she publicly flagellates the struggling fella, deriding his inability to withstand her merciless “murderation” of his manhood. She details all the places, positions, and paces that she puts him through, delighting in his surrender to the supremacy of feminine stamina in the boudoir. She observes incredulously: “Him think me done?! Him think me done!” evoking words spoken in a similar vein by Shabba Ranks, the popular DJ from whom her name is taken. She has him in such a state of confusion that he sees the sun and mistakes it for the moon and, with knees shaking, he was so nervous he fainted. She emerged triumphant from the battle between the sexes, having “wined” (in this case, grinded from the winding of her hips) all over the hapless suitor in more ways than one.

Serious Times In February 2018, the internet almost broke—for the millionth time—when Usain Bolt tweeted a picture of himself watching the Super Bowl. The twenty-first century snapshot (or Snapchat) of the digital/social media matrix means we can create and experience this kind of global “Kodak moment” of interactions within minutes, sometimes seconds. A candid shot of the most famous, fastest feet in the world unleashed a torrent of comedic comments, including this gem: “Man toe dem a sing dry cry” (tweeted by @jaebadu_, February 4, 2018), a clever reference to Jamaican artist Sizzla’s 2002 hit “Just One of Those Days (Dry Cry).” In this context, the music became the medium of expression through which comedy glided in the uniquely Jamaican way, within the Jamaican “twitterverse” and also beyond. While comedic translations of the music have begun to occupy spaces within the internet, there is a marked decrease in representations of humor beyond 2000. The use of humor is not as prevalent in Jamaican music in the twenty-first century but there are stalwarts whose works cannot be ignored. Professor Nuts, one of the first DJs to use comedy, said he made a deliberate decision because he wanted to do more than just make people dance (“Professor”). The decision to integrate comedy into his music may have hindered his career, he admits, since “jiggy jiggy” (as in tunes which make you dance) songs are what the younger generation wants, but he considers himself a storyteller. He says comedy has a place not only in dancehall but everywhere. In the song “Satan Strong,” Professor Nuts, whose real name is Carl Wellington, explains that “everyting mi do from wah day mi jus wrong y’nuh / mi nuh know weh dis yah saltness yah come from y’nuh / mussi dats why [Papa] San guh tun Christian y’nuh.” Things are so bad that when he scores with a young lady even that is a source of tribulation. He was so “salt” with bad luck that the girl became pregnant. Nuts explained that the girl became pregnant and told him the child was his when he never left his Trojan (condom) out of sexual encounters. He was convinced the girl wanted to give him a “jacket” because she wanted the child to have his name—that is, she wanted to pass off another man’s baby as Nuts’s. 120

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There is little justice that words on a page can do to translate the uniquely comedic Jamaican attitude in songs such as these, but for the population familiar with the cultural innuendos there is great comic relief in the experience of such songs. This blend of the sexually explicit with the comedic is rare, and in contemporary Jamaican music, artists have opted less for word (fore)play and playfulness. The absence of humor in dancehall led Professor Nuts to conclude late last year that it had no place in the new world order of the Jamaican dance. In an interview with The Gleaner, he states, “Maybe time get too serious with the youth. Them want to hear expletive and sexual interaction, musically… but I think the dancehall is not really for comedy” (qtd. in Small). In the same article, Walshy Fire, a member of the group Major Lazer, stated that he deliberately created a song with humor as a contrast to the usual staple. “I just wanted to put out something fun for the [Christmas] season,” which resulted in “Be Careful” by Lybran (2017). “When Professor Nuts was bringing comedy and stories into the music,” continued Walshy Fire, “it lifted the music. I’m not sure why that has stopped, but it’s something I want to add to all of my productions. The local music industry could use more artists like Lybran and Prince Zimboo to balance the ‘bad man stuff.’” Thus, even as there is a downturn in the use of comedy in dancehall, efforts to return comedy to the dance are visible. In spite of the waning comedic offerings in dancehall, the irrepressible Lovindeer is still showing them how it’s done. In the tune “Dumpling Shop,” featuring Mama Tia (2009), Lovindeer presents a rather tasty version of Vybz Kartel and Spice’s “Ramping Shop” (2009), an erotic, raunchy adult dancehall song whose original raw, and “clean,” versions attracted chastisement from Jamaica’s moral arbiters. It was later banned by the Broadcasting Commission, Jamaica. The word “ramping” is Jamaican vernacular for playing, or rough playing, typically associated with children and children’s recreation. This analogy of “ramping” with sex disturbs the moral sensibility at the base of Jamaican society, which is plagued with teenage pregnancy and increasing child sexual abuse, including incest. Consider some of the exchanges between Mama Tia and Lovindeer that play cleverly on the original recording of “Dumpling Shop”: Mama Tia: “When you ready fi eat / A yah so yuh fi dweet / Me tuck shop open seven days a week”; Lovindeer: “Gee, I never got a snapper like this / Bring de dumpling, gimme wid de fish.” What Lovindeer’s “Dumpling Shop” parody sought to do was what Peter McGraw refers to as “benign violation” (11–12). Speaking openly about sexual intercourse in the Jamaican society in the way Vybz Kartel and Spice do in the original recording is taboo or a violation of the moral code. But Lovindeer makes it “benign” by offering an alternative interpretation in the lyrics, using names of well-known foods for the female sex organ. Therefore, the words “fish,” “meat,” and “underneath” refer to the vagina. The song is laden with sexual innuendos and double entendres that refer to oral sex, genitals, and orgasms—much like a Trinidadian calypso. Lovindeer speaks of putting gravy on the “meat” while Mama Tia replies with statements on the freshness of her “vegetables” and on her serving the best “salad” with the fattest “tomatoes.” Lovindeer’s rejoinder is just as suggestive. He admits that he hopes that upon testing the “food” it will be digested. Due to the linguistic play on words and the ample use of puns, Lovindeer has a fuller discussion of sexual intercourse than is usually acceptable for Jamaican radio airwaves, and thereby safer from public outcry than Vybz Kartel’s lyrics. The guardians of the puritanical moral ethic, a relic of colonial encounter in Jamaica, become easily affronted by explicit musical offerings in publicly unmediated discourses.

The Only Good Clash Is a Sound Clash When it comes to innovation in music, Jamaica bears the distinction of creating the sound clash, riddims, and versioning. The sound clash is a linguistic battle of dub plates (where an artist remixes a tune so that it refers to the selector/sound system for which it is re-made) and special custom-recorded tunes, which are used as metaphors and analogies for physical beatings, war, 121

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and “murderation.” The clash can be between sound systems or artists, where the latter belittle or “diss” (disrespect) their opponents and silence them with fresh, creative, and innovative lyrics. The audience regards the diss as a joke on the opponent. If an artist delivers a diss, the crowd responds with cheers or jeers, signaling their support or condemnation. This pressure results from the need to be innovative. Some of the most memorable clashes have taken place at major stage shows such as Sting and Sumfest but also on the radio. One of the memorable radio clashes was that in 1985 between British DJ Rodigan and Barrington “Barry G” Gordon on the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation Radio 1. In this clash, prerecorded news clips announcing the burial of DJ Rodigan were added liberally for comedic appeal. Similarly, sound system clashes between Lt. Stitchie and Papa San at Sting in 1995 and between four leading ladies of dancehall (Sister Charmaine, Lady G, Lady Patra, and Lady P) also sought to announce the burial of their opponents. Sister Charmaine began the clash with the call, “Hey, Mr. Madden, I want you bring me three coffin …” Mr. Madden (owner of undertakers Madden’s Funeral Home) is called upon to provide the three coffins that will be used to bury her lyrical opponents. This bravado is not confined to the stage or the artist; the ordinary man—and woman—in the street is just as ready to “ride a riddim,” if given the opportunity. It is one of the enduring charms of Jamaica that just about everybody seems to be a performer. In July 2013, a news item aired on CVM, a local television station, featuring an interview with one Bridgette Baily, a.k.a. “Rosie,” whose home had been destroyed by flooding due to what she claimed was the carelessness on the part of a contractor who had worked on a bridge close to her home (“Rosie”). Rosie reported that she and the members of her household were awakened by the presence of water. She estimated the damage to be way more than 30,000 Jamaican dollars—or “tutty grand,” as Jamaicans would say. This paltry sum could not possibly replace her flat screen TV whose damage she bemoaned, brand name furniture, and other appliances. Overwhelmed with passion, Rosie presented her case to the CVM television station reporter like a dancehall artiste riding a riddim, detailing her woes with rapid-fire lyrics, using her head and body to emphasize her points dramatically as she spoke of the conditions she and her neighbors, including babies and children, were now living in because of the damage and germs in the aftermath of the flood. “De baby dem a go ketch meningitis, dem a go sick and dead!” she cried. The performance was impressive, entertaining bystanders and viewers alike, as Rosie demanded that everything she had lost be replaced and the contractor take responsibility for his shoddy work. “Justice we need!” she wailed, striking a chord that runs through so much of our music as singers and DJs alike call on the state to address oppressive actions. Her plea resonated immediately. Rosie spoke on behalf of the nation with such rhythm and comedic impact that DJ Powa, a music engineer who remixes news bytes into dancehall songs, couldn’t resist taking the report and turning it into a dancehall song. “Call the Contractor (Tutty Gran) Remix” went viral on YouTube. And just like that, a star was born. Rosie was dubbed “Miss Tutty Gran” and she became a household name who performed at the Sumfest Reggae Festival that year.

Concluding Remarks A substantial body of evidence backs the theory that some types of comedy—including sophisticated satire, as popularized in the US by Bill Maher, Chris Rock, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Whoopi Goldberg—perform a potent social justice function, “from breaking taboos to holding those in power to account” (see Ziv). Through Jamaican music, issues of justice, interpersonal dynamics, social commentary, and even questioning of strictly held taboos all have a place in the repertoire of the comedy for which the nation has become known. The music has been a site for mature discussions of the body, disasters, relationships, justice, and moral values. Comedic representations of such issues have escaped serious scholarly attention, and this exploratory chapter is a contribution in this regard. I have attempted to show that through innovation, competition, and creativity, whether in ska, reggae or dancehall, the performative enterprise of Jamaican music 122

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stands tall in any conversation about music and humor. In over six decades of indigenous J­amaican music, humor remains an important component, even as it is mobilized in different ways by new, instant technologies. Humor remains the vehicle through which Jamaicans are transported beyond the drudgery of the quotidian to occupy spaces of triumph as they cope. Indeed, given a choice between history and humor, the oft-forgetful Jamaican accused of having a short memory span will choose humor any day.

Notes 1 For scholarship on Jamaican music, see, among others, Hitchins; Howard; Stanley Niaah; Stolzoff. 2 The duppy is part of Bantu folklore, the manifestation (in human or animal form) of the soul of a dead person, or a supernatural being. Jamaica’s folklore is richly scattered with stories of the supernatural and of duppies, in particular, and their power to harm or help. Duppies have been mentioned in many songs including “Duppy Conqueror” (Bob Marley, 1971), “Duppy Gun” (Bunny Wailer, 1976), “Duppy” (Pluto Shervington, 1976), “Duppy Man” (Chase and Status, featuring Capleton’s “Slew Dem,” 2005), “Duppy Know Who Fi Frighten” (Demarco, 2008), “Touch a Button Nuh” (Vybz Kartel, 2011), ­“Sensimilla” (Collie Budz, 2007), and “Duppy Writer” (Roots Manuva, 2010).

Works Cited Baraka, Amiri (a.k.a. Leroi Jones). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. William Morrow, 1963. Chang, Kevin O., and Wayne Chen. Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music. Ian Randle, 1998. DJ Powa. “Call the Contractor (Tutty Gran) Remix (CVM News).” YouTube, uploaded by Mark Johnson, 13 July 2013, Eco, Umberto. “The Comic and the Rule.” Faith in Fakes: Travels of Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver, Minerva, 1995, pp. 272–75. Hitchins, Ray. Vibe Merchants: The Sound Creators of Jamaican Popular Music. Ashgate, 2014. Howard, Dennis Oliver. The Creative Echo Chamber: Contemporary Music Production in Kingston, Jamaica. Ian Randle, 2016. Lewis, Paul. Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Humor in Literature. State U of New York P, 1989. ———. Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. U of Chicago P, 2006. Lockyer, Sharon, and Michael Pickering, editors. Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humor. Palgrave, 2005. McGraw, Peter, and Joel Warner. The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Simon & Schuster, 2014. Morreall, John. “Philosophy of Humor.” 2012. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N Zalta, Stanford University, 28 Sept. 2016, “Professor Nuts Speaks on Comedy in the Dancehall.” The Gleaner, 7 Aug. 2006, http://old.jamaica-gleaner. com/gleaner/20060807/ent/ent2.html. Accessed 28 Feb. 2018. “Rosie Wants Justice, Call the Contractor.” Interview on CVM Television. YouTube, uploaded by Alia ­A llen, 14 July 2013, Small, Kimberley. “Comedy is for Stage Shows, Not the Dancehall.” The Gleaner, 3 Dec. 2017, http:// WiPZ78dNtWg.twitter. Accessed 28 Feb. 2018. Stanley Niaah, Sonjah. Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto. U of Ottawa P, 2010. Stolzoff, Norman. Wake the Town and Tell the People. Duke UP, 2000. Thwaites, Daniel. “Weh Macaroni a Guh?” Jamaica Gleaner, 25 Mar. 2018, commentary/20180325/daniel-thwaites-weh-macaroni-guh. Accessed 30 2018. White, Garth. The Development of Jamaican Popular Music with Special Reference to the Music of Bob Marley: A Bibliography. African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica, 1982. Witter, Michael. “Music and the Jamaican Economy Prepared for UNCTAD/WIPO.” DocPlayer, 3 Mar. 2004, html. Accessed 30 Aug. 2018. Ziv, Avner. Personality and Sense of Humor. Springer, 1984.



“Kwaito” is a popular music genre that emerged in South Africa in the early 1990s. It combined foreign musical elements from hip hop, house, and ragamuffin with earlier South African music styles, such as kwela, mbaqanga, marabi, and bubblegum music (Boloka 98–99; Coplan 12; Steingo, “South African” 336). Even though kwaito is a musical hybrid, it became fast accepted as a distinctive expressive mode of youth in the black townships of South Africa. It is foremost a dance music with an ambience of fun and enjoyment. Its uninhibited indulgence in sparsely clad beautiful bodies, flamboyant fashions, and sensual and skillful dancing was suddenly and widely visible as controls over media were loosened in the postapartheid era. Indeed, coincident with the fall of the apartheid regime, the genre came to be identified as the sound of the new freedom, both in a positive and a negative sense.1 Soon after its appearance, kwaito became enormously popular and, after gospel, the second biggest seller in the South African music market. However, while township youth enthusiastically embraced it, many other people were alarmed by the genre’s apparent superficiality and its lack of sociopolitical and historical awareness. Several academic scholars interpreted kwaito as a promoter of neoliberalism, consumerism, hedonism, and misogyny (e.g., Peterson 210–11; Steingo, “The Politization” 33; Stephens 265). In an earlier article, I have extensively discussed popular and the academic criticism of kwaito as well as the reasons for its appeal among youth (Pietilä, “Body”). I argued that kwaito draws from and renews past and present performance styles that audiences recognize as their own. This chapter examines the popularity of kwaito from a slightly different angle, arguing that humor and comedy were initially essential elements in the performance and reception of kwaito and, indeed, central reasons for the craze it created. I will use kwaito songs, kwaito music videos, and material from my own interviews and casual conversations with township youth to analyze the humorous aspects of kwaito.2

Elements of Kwaito Kwaito was created by producers and DJs. Its performance consists of chanted lyrics and dancing accompanied by electronic music. The chanting and dancing functions are usually mixed; the principal artist both chants and dances while the supporting dancers also sing backup. Because dancing is a key component, the genre’s performers are usually skilled dancers and some of the best-known early artists, such as Arthur Mafokate and Mandoza, were dancers before becoming kwaito stars; Mafokate had won dance competitions and Mandoza used to be a break-dancer in a crew called 124

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Chiskop. During their kwaito careers, Mandoza created his own signature dance style and Mafokate developed several dance choreographies that became hugely popular. Mafokate also discovered and mentored several future popular music stars, such as the kwaito group Abashante, the kwaito artist Chomee, and the afro-jazz artist Lira. Choreographies drew on Jamaican dancehall and several South African and African dance styles, as well as American hip hop. With swinging hips, female kwaito dancers are often perceived as sensual or sexually suggestive, even though they are athletic as well. Men’s styles, however, tend to focus more on the movement of the limbs, with a relaxed mid-body. Kwaito was initially created in the Johannesburg area and its lyrics were sung in the street language of that city’s townships. The mixture of Zulu, Sotho, English, and Afrikaans languages is often labeled isicamto by linguists. Colloquially, it is called tsotsitaal and considered a contemporary version of a gangster language first developed in the townships of the early twentieth century. Kwaito lyrics consist of a few rhythmically repeated catch phrases, and they are typically about fun, sex, dancing, and having a good time, but often, they also include invented and ambiguous expressions, which puzzle listeners and lead to multiple alternative readings. Over time, kwaito changed, leading some researchers in the early 2000s to celebrate what they considered the emergence of a more mature and socially conscious brand of the genre (Allen 4, 102; Ballantine, qtd. in Steingo, “Politization” 30). My township interlocutors acknowledged a change had taken place as well, but most viewed it negatively; for them, the “raw and hard” (DJ Rozzano) sound of 1990s kwaito had shifted toward the more melodic but bland sound of commercial, mainstream pop. Rhythmically, kwaito increasingly resembled house music, with its pace changing from the initial slowed-down tempo of 100 beats per minute to 120–126 bpm. At the same time, it lost its relevance for many of its early fans. Today, some artists attempt to keep kwaito alive as a separate genre, but in its sound and imagery, contemporary kwaito has become quite indistinguishable from commercial house music. At the same time, elements of the early kwaito can be found mixed with other musical styles in some of the emerging youth music genres. My discussion will start with the early, or what many call the “old-school,” kwaito. This chapter explores both intentionally humorous aspects of kwaito and elements that listeners found funny, even if they weren’t necessarily supposed to be. I also examine disparate audience responses to the genre, based on my conversations with township youth. Much of the analysis will focus on the work of Arthur Mafokate (henceforth called “Arthur,” his stage name), with added discussion on Boom Shaka, Thebe, Mandoza, and Spykos.

Delivering a Message The struggle against apartheid intensified the production of political music in South Africa. Emerging in the wake of this struggle, kwaito adopted a deliberately apolitical stance; instead, it borrowed from, and magnified, the buoyant mood of an earlier musical form called “bubblegum,” or township disco. Nonetheless, initially, some messages with sociopolitical weight were delivered through kwaito. For example, some songs by Arthur had serious content. In 1995, he released the song, “Kaffir,” the title taken from a derogatory term used for blacks in South Africa. The song is addressed to a white employer, in South Africa commonly called baas (boss): “Baas, don’t call me a kaffir … Ang’ vele kwa satane maan … La wena never o rate ha nka go bitsa kare o Bobejaan [Boss, don’t call me a kaffir! …I’m not from hell … You won’t like it either if I were to call you a baboon].” The song became widely popular and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but it was banned by several radio stations for the use of the offensive word. In 2009, “Kaffir” created controversy anew, as DJ Fresh played it on the national youth music radio station, the 5FM. The Broadcasting Complaints Commission ruled the song was grossly offensive in a country “where political correctness and sensitivity need to be practiced” and the radio station was fined ZAR 10,000 (about 1,000 US dollars). DJ Fresh reportedly asserted that the complaints to the BCC came from white people (see Steenkamp). 125

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The song thus delivered a serious sociopolitical message that continues to raise emotional and political responses. Arthur’s manner of performing the assertive lyrics of the song is, however, playful. Singing in a mixture of languages, he elongates the words and sentences, creating an image of an employee trying to challenge and evade his boss in a teasing and comical manner. The boss’s lines are authoritarian in content, but in some versions of the song, they are performed in such an angry and high-pitched voice that the boss sounds merely laughable. A danceable beat of synthetized music adds to the lighthearted, humorous flavor. Arthur released another song with a sociopolitical message in 1996, entitled “Die Poppe Sal Dans.” The lyrics tell of black men traveling in various regions of the country to do piecework— KwaZulu-Natal, Orange Free State, and Pretoria are mentioned—and wherever they go, “uBaas, ebethanda ukuthi: ‘Die poppe sal dans jou klein kaffirtjie’ [The boss used to say: ‘The dolls will dance, you little kaffir’].” The lyrics repeatedly ask, without response, what the boss means. Listeners, however, will recognize that “Die poppe sal dans” is a well-known threat in Afrikaans, which predicts trouble or punishment, and means “I will show you,” or “You will see.” In the music video for the song (2006), Arthur sometimes appears wearing a huge Afro wig and dressed in checkered jacket and pants, sometimes in prison uniform. In one scene, he and other men steal jewelry from a home. At times, white men in khaki clothing, carrying guns, chase Arthur’s character and his companions; the dress of the white men suggests they are Afrikaner farmers, the bosses. The protagonist’s putative grandmother and grandfather are also featured, initially sending their grandson on his way with benign smiles, hugs, and small monetary contributions, but toward the end they appear increasingly concerned and disappointed. The overall tone of the video is comedic; Arthur’s character is clown-like and carefree, always smiling, even when chased by the white men with their guns, and in prison, he dances and plays board games with other prisoners. A common theme in “Kaffir” and “Die Poppe Sal Dans” is a kind of cat-and-mouse game between a boss and his employee. The latter does not fear the former’s authority but challenges and evades him in a jesting and teasing manner, making the angered boss look ridiculous. Another type of a power relationship is portrayed in the video to Arthur’s song “Oyi Oyi” (1997). It depicts a confrontation between a man (played by Arthur) and his girlfriend. In the lyrics, the man blames the girlfriend for thinking she is better and smarter than he is, and for cheating on him. Mostly, he calls the woman “my darling, my baby” (mazuzu, mavuvu) but also a “slut” (usikhabarakheshe maan). In the video, set in a dimly lit back alley where a band is playing, the man tries to confront the woman, who dodges and sways, and at times responds to his accusations with a defiant, bold, and direct stare straight into his eyes. Another woman appears—performed by the (now late) popular kwaito artist Lebo Mathosa 3 —who sings the same lyrics as Arthur, but seems to be on the girlfriend’s side. From time to time, the video features choreographed group dancing. It ends with the man and his girlfriend making peace and embracing each other. This music video is obviously inspired by Michael Jackson’s video “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987); both feature the protagonist chasing a woman around a car, group dancing, a concluding reconciliatory embrace, and a setting of shadowy back alleys. “Oyi Oyi” presents another example of fearless, yet evasive, confrontation between a subordinate and a more powerful antagonist. But, while “Oyi Oyi” (both song and video) are not as obviously comical as “Kaffir” and “Die Poppe Sal Dans,” several people I talked with considered the video humorous. One young man explained the following: The manner he is saying it [that the girl is mischievous], it isn’t aggressive, but playful. Even the acts in the video, how they play around each other. That was funny because in the township if you were cheating on your boyfriend, that would not have been funny at all! Either your boyfriend would beat you up or his friends would trap the girl and throw her in the boot of a car and drive away with the girl, and God knows what will happen to the girl (Mngadi).


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Interpreting Meaning The songs discussed earlier have quite clear meanings. The lyrics of most kwaito songs, however, are obscure and polysemic. Part of the reason is that they draw on the ever-evolving township street language while inventing new expressions, which are not comprehensible to people ­unfamiliar with the version of tsotsitaal practiced in Johannesburg-area townships. Often, however, even those in the know struggled to decipher the meanings of lyrics, which were often deliberately vague or open to many readings; trying to make sense of the words became social entertainment in and of itself. Several interlocutors described to me how, for instance, they were confused by one line in particular in the song “It’s About Time” (1993) by the well-known kwaito group Boom Shaka. Rapped by Thembi Seete, the English-language lyric was heard by some as “You gotta sneeze the knees to disease,” while for others it sounded like “You gotta cease the needs that disease with ease.” Nor was there any one interpretation of the line’s meaning; some people believed it was about feminine power, while others claimed that the song still makes them laugh because they cannot make sense of it, no matter how hard they try! Another song whose meaning remains unclear to many is Arthur’s “Koti Koti” (1997). The ­t itle is obscure: Some suggested that it referred to the sound of a knock on the door; others believed it referred to the rattling noise of metal drink cans. Another recurring word in the song, skomorok, was unintelligible, even to many township dwellers; some wondered whether it was a name. One young woman I spoke with initially did not have any idea of what the song means but concluded after watching the video and seeing a particular, repeated hand movement that the word skomorok possibly refers to masturbation. When I asked a couple of young township men about the song, they immediately responded that skomorok means masturbation, one suggesting that koti koti is probably a version of kot kot, which means “over and over.” Indeed, it became common that new kwaito songs would be open to multiple interpretations to the extent that fans would often wait for the video to be released, sometimes supporting one interpretation of the song’s meaning while challenging others and sometimes suggesting whole new meanings. A number of the lyrics and videos of kwaito songs were sexually charged and this led to popular criticism from a number of sources. One target was Thebe Mogane’s song “Bula Boot” (2001). In township slang, the title can mean a request for a girl to “open her ass.” In response to critics who read the song this way, Thebe released a video that made use of an alternative reading of the title “Bula Boot” to refer to opening up of a car boot (for North Americans, the trunk). The lyrics in the video say, “Brother, open up the boot” (Awu buti bula boot). The video came out at a time when young men aspired to have good sound systems in their cars so that they could attract people to dance and party around their vehicles by blasting their music through opened car boots. The humor in the video emerges from the contrast between the protagonist’s aspirations (attracting young women to party around the symbol of his masculinity, the car) and the reality of his clapped-out Morris Mini-Minor that breaks down frequently. In the video, some young (blue-collar) women are attracted to him, not because of his fancy car or sound system but to repair the vehicle (although they dance around it afterwards), thus reversing typical gender roles. A further humorous and telling suggestion of the protagonist’s lack of success is the parade of SUVs smoothly passing by his dilapidated car. Another song by Thebe from the early 2000s, called “Mbobo,” was also controversial. The literal meaning of mbobo is a hole, any hole, but the video for the song suggests that the mbobo in the song refers to a vagina because the camera focuses on girls’ lower bodies as they play pool in bikinis and move in a provocative manner. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) banned the video. Similarly, over time, Arthur Mafokate’s videos were considered by many to have become increasingly one-dimensional, with an emphasis on sexuality. Perhaps his most controversial, but extremely popular, video was made for the song “Sika Le Khekhe” (2005). The literal meaning of the title is “slice the cake,” but the suggestive dance moves of skimpily clad female dancers


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jumping on a bed—and filmed from below—emphasize one of the township slang meanings for “slicing the cake,” which is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Simultaneously, the video introduced a particular gesture to accompany the verbal expression, of moving one’s hand close to one’s crotch. Both the song and the hand gesture became very popular with young dancers and fans of kwaito.

Township Ways Kwaito fans found the guesswork and debates about the meaning of the songs amusing and entertaining. Moreover, the embodied emphasis in kwaito resonated with the ways of communicating in townships, where words often need to be accompanied by a certain gesture or a grimace to deliver their meanings. Linguistic playfulness and the invention of ever-new expressions are appreciated by township youth because “kwaito-speak” (see Satyo) continues the township tradition of displaying street cleverness through linguistic performance and creativity. Kwaito thus resonated with youth because it reflected what people often call “kasi” ways (township ways). Familiar talk, behavior, issues, and aspirations performed by dazzling, skillful, and assertive artists boosted pride among young people. While critics saw the self-praise of some kwaito artists and songs as egotistical, fans regarded it as an indication of, and a model for, respecting one’s township background and efforts. Among such efforts was a township man’s ambition to rid himself of the humiliation and emasculation created by the apartheid regime. The kwaito star Mandoza, in particular, established the persona of a physically strong, potentially violent, and emotionally tough “boss,” “top dog,” and “focused thug” (sgelekeqe). He emulated the figure of the tsotsi (township gangster), but shifted its connotation to endorse “hustling” as an active, and as such respectable, aspiration of finding one’s own means of livelihood and success instead of idly waiting for handouts. Like much kwaito, Mandoza’s lyrics required some interpretive work from audiences, but there was nothing humorous about his self-presentation or music videos— he maintained his pose of the serious and unfailingly tough guy. One of Arthur’s songs, “Inja” (2006), promotes a similar image of a township man as “the Man,” “the Boss,” “the top dog.” But in ­contrast to Mandoza’s consistently serious macho figure, the playfulness, self-irony, tonguein-cheek quality in Arthur’s and Thebe’s early productions emphasized the incongruity between masculine aspirations and reality. Many of the township youth, who initially loved kwaito, were gradually alienated by what they considered its increasingly commercialized nature. For example, one female interlocutor maintained that, over time, “kwaito stopped being about the grassroots, about being black in the township, and started selling the easiest commodities: sex, fun, and fantasy” (Mbongwa). Critics also noted a change in the way women and their bodies were portrayed in Arthur’s videos. Whereas in his earlier performances and videos, women were certainly sexy, they were also seen to be “more powerful, more in charge” (Mavi). In Arthur’s later productions, women were largely seen to serve male fantasies. In general, kwaito was perceived to have become part of a wider commercial music scene that, as DJ Rozzano put it, “thrives on the chick’s legs, skimpy outfits, making of fast, easy money. It’s like a strip show.” While contemporary kwaito music videos still portray some elements of rough township life, they increasingly resemble those of contemporary commercial house music, which depict laid-back, lavish lifestyles of partying, drinking, and dancing in the beach or a club, the men surrounded by beautiful, eager girls, or commercial hip-hop videos with their emphasis on brand-name clothes and luxury cars. Many of the young people most critical of contemporary kwaito were initially fans of the early kwaito, but now embrace more explicitly socially conscious genres, such as conscious hip hop and performed poetry, in which lyrical content and message are important. Those who remain fans of contemporary kwaito and other commercial youth music do not accept allegations that these genres are superficial and sexist, even though they acknowledge that some individual songs may 128

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fit this characterization; instead, they assert, regardless of their gender, that the music represents township life. For instance, producer and artist Mtezman reported that he likes kwaito, commercial house, and some commercial hip hop because they provide something that “we [in the township] can relate to.” He explained that he is not attracted to the “very deep feel” that conscious rappers put in their songs. Mtezman’s experience as a producer living in a township was that hit songs are made of lighter subjects, such as “fast cars, easy girls, and drinking.” A female music fan, Nobuhle Keswa, maintained, “I don’t think kwaito is sexist or empty, it talks about kasi stuff; it’s music with which the youth express themselves and their life in townships.” Sharlene Swartz has noted that, in South Africa, the term kasi often refers to township habits that are considered morally dubious, yet widespread (65, 74). Such habits include familiarity with street life, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, partying, having multiple sexual partners, and possibly dropping out of school and being involved in petty crime. However, many of my interlocutors used the term not only to refer to morally dubious behavior but also to a cool or streetsmart attitude; this latter connotation of kasi ways was also emphasized in kwaito. The evolution of what the critics considered an increasingly commercial kwaito has led some to parody the genre. For example, comedian Tshepo Mogale created an artist called Spykos, derived from a township slang expression for “junk food” (spykos). In his two popular songs and the accompanying videos, released in the early 2000s, he imitates and emphasizes the superficial features of contemporary kwaito. His song “Siya Swima,” for instance, asserts that “Spykos is delicious” and “I’m a swimmer.” The video portrays partygoers standing in a tiny crowded make-shift pool, with perhaps ten centimeters of water, in ascetic township surroundings. One of the guys is dressed in swimming trunks, a bathing cap, and (fake) gold chains. He nearly drowns in the little water in the tiny pool, and needs lifesaving measures. The irony of the song and the video lies in its shallow content, and also in the fact that pool and beach parties are a staple of contemporary kwaito and commercial house music videos, even though many township dwellers do not know how to swim. In “Birthday Yam,” Spykos repeats “it’s my birthday” and that he will celebrate it with girls, balloons, champagne, cake, and presents. The lyrics are set to a slow and monotonous kwaito beat. The music video shows partygoers alternately dancing or gathered around a table bearing cocktails and a disco ball. The men wear ballcaps and floppy pantsula hats, familiar from kwaito and commercial house productions. For some, Spykos’s songs and videos were hilarious, simply because they were so silly; others discerned, and were greatly amused by, their parodic nature.

Conclusion Kwaito and its fans have evolved alongside developments in the wider South African society. What was initially considered new and revolutionary in kwaito has become increasingly viewed as part of the hegemonic, materialistic zeitgeist. Early kwaito’s fun-loving and humorous mood represented, and coincided with, the sense of freedom created by the dismantling of the oppressive apartheid regime. After the political music of the anti-apartheid era, Boom Shaka and other kwaito groups seemed to declare that “it’s about time” to celebrate. Arthur Mafokate’s early songs were “passing a message, but making the message lighter [than the music of the struggle-era]” (Mahlase). Fans of the genre delighted in the ways kwaito conveyed fabulous and inventive—if normatively controversial—township ways of living, dancing, and communicating. Audiences greatly enjoyed seeing, and came to expect, ever new and amazing dance and fashion styles that they would imitate. Comedy formed an intentional part of Arthur Mafokate’s early productions, poking fun at the foolish qualities of his characters. Playing with the meanings of existing and invented expressions from township slang was a source of constant amusement for kwaito artists and the audiences. In addition to portraying the reality of township youth, kwaito addressed their aspirations of breaking out of poverty and 129

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becoming “somebody.” The gap between the aspirations and reality was expressed by some kwaito artists through irony and self-irony. The failing tiny car in Thebe’s “Bula Boot” is an example, as are the efforts of Arthur’s male characters to throw off their subservient kaffir status or to claim superiority by chiding a mischievous girlfriend. A recurring theme is a township man failing to be the boss, the top dog—an aspiration and role model promoted in more or less all of Mandoza’s and in some of Arthur’s recordings. Kwaito evolved along with a mentality of growing materialism in wider society, and among parts of the emerging black elite in particular. This was reflected in kwaito becoming more one-dimensional and simultaneously less humorous and ironic in mood. Simultaneously, by the early twenty-first century, it became more apparent that in postapartheid South Africa, freedom and wealth were enjoyed by the established white elite and the new black state-related elite, while the predominantly black masses continued to live in poverty. For some township youth, kwaito still portrays and celebrates kasi life and values. For others, kwaito and other commercial youth music genres have started to appear as the soundtrack for people celebrating a frivolous, careless, and acquisitive mentality (Pietilä, “Discursive”). Those critics who once found in kwaito a revolutionary potential have moved toward more socially conscious genres; for them, the party is over, and the struggle continues. The invented artist Spykos revived kwaito’s humor, but now, the target of the humor was kwaito itself. Spykos’s songs and videos parody what kwaito has become, mocking its lacking sense of irony. At the same time, early kwaito has become so ingrained in the social and musical memory that recognizable kwaito elements—the bassline, the beat, the groove—can be traced in some of the emerging youth music that mixes diverse styles to create new ones.

Acknowledgment This research was enabled by funding from the Academy of Finland for my Academy Researcher project entitled “Globalisation of African Music” in 2008–2013.

Notes 1 The population categories of Black African, Colored, Indian/Asian, and White were created during the apartheid era. In this chapter, I will use the words black, colored, and white, without quotation marks or uppercase letters, even though I acknowledge that they are categories created to artificially classify and differentiate people. My usage reflects the fact that the labels continue to be used in the postapartheid statistics and popular parlance. 2 Racially segregated areas, called townships, were established as part of the apartheid policies, and people of color were forced to move there while the best areas were allocated to whites. Townships became labor reserves with poor infrastructure and very low level of services; they were huge monotonous areas from which blacks and coloreds (and to an extent, Indians) had to commute to and from their whiteowned workplaces. Postapartheid improvements in housing and infrastructure in parts of the townships have not abolished the historical legacy of relative and absolute poverty in these locations. 3 Lebo Mathosa was a member of the early kwaito group Boom Shaka and later embarked on a solo career.

Works Cited Allen, Lara. “Kwaito versus Crossed-over: Music and Identity during South Africa’s Rainbow Years, 1994–99.” Social Dynamics, vol. 30, no. 2, 2004, pp. 82–111. Ballantine, Christopher. “Popular Music and the End of Apartheid: The Case of Kwaito.” Paper presented at International Association of Popular Music. Montreal, 3–7 July 2003. Bogatsu, Mpolokeng. “‘Loxion Kulcha’: Fashioning Black Youth Culture in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” English Studies in Africa, vol. 45, no. 2, 2002, pp. 1–12. Boloka, Gibson. “Cultural Studies and the Transformation of the Music Industry: Some Reflections on Kwaito.” Shifting Selves: Post-Apartheid Essays on Mass Media, Culture and Identity, edited by Herman ­Wasserman and Sean Jacobs, Kwela Books, 2003, pp. 97–107.


Kwaito of Postapartheid South Africa Coplan, David. “God Rock Africa: Thoughts on Politics in Popular Black Performance in South Africa.” African Studies, vol. 64, no. 1, 2005, pp. 9–27. DJ Rozzano. Personal interview. 16 Mar. 2011. Keswa, Nobuhle. Personal interview. 6 Mar. 2011. Mahlase, Mazwi. Personal interview. 2 May 2013. Mavi, Kanyi. Rapper. Personal interview. 3 Dec. 2009. Mbongwa, Khanyisile. Poet. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010. Mngadi, Sihtembiso. Personal interview. 12 May 2013. Mtezman. Kwaito artist and producer. Personal interview. 26 Nov. 2009. Peterson, Bhekizizwe. “Kwaito, ‘Dawgs’ and the Antimonies of Hustling.” African Identities, vol. 1, no. 2, 2003, pp. 197–213. Pietilä, Tuulikki. “Body Politic: The Emergence of a ‘Kwaito Nation’ in South Africa.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 143–61. ———. “The Discursive Creation of a Subculture by Conscious Rap Adherents in South Africa.” Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, vol. 42, no 2, 2017, pp. 25–42. Satyo, Sizwe. “A Linguistic Study of Kwaito.” The World of Music, vol. 50, no. 2, 2008, pp. 91–102. Steenkamp, Conrad. “Don’t Call Me a Kaffir.” Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 22 Apr. 2009, thoughtleader. Steingo, Gavin. “The Politicization of Kwaito: From the ‘Party Politic’ to Party Politics.” Black Music ­Research Journal, vol. 27, no. 1, 2007, pp. 23–44. Accessed 11 Apr. 2018. ———. “South African Music after Apartheid: Kwaito, the ‘Party Politic,’ and the Appropriation of Gold as a Sign of Success.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2005, pp. 333–57. Stephens, Simon. “Kwaito.” Senses of Culture: South African Cultural Studies, edited by Sarah Nuttall and ­Cheryll-Ann Michael, Oxford UP, 2000, pp. 256–73. Swartz, Sharlene. The Moral Ecology of South Africa’s Township Youth. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Videography Boom, Shaka. “It’s About Time.” YouTube, uploaded by MzansiVids, 22 Nov. 2012. watch?v=Mzxud8tRYJo. Jackson, Michael. “The Way You Make Me Feel.” YouTube, uploaded by Michael Jackson, 2 Oct. 2009, Mafokate, Arthur. “Die Poppe Sal Dans.” Arthur, the Best of – Video Collection, 999 Music, 2006. ———. “Die Poppe Sal Dans.” YouTube, uploaded by ezifresh, 31 July 2011, ODo2vjSbUEQ. ———. “Inja.” YouTube, uploaded by Maura Maciver, 4 Oct. 2008, ———. “Kaffir.” YouTube, uploaded by solbhala, 12 Sept. 2011, ———. “Koti Koti.” YouTube, uploaded by Napo Motshumi, 1 June 2017, Xsb38kIGo88. ———. “Oyi, Oyi.” YouTube, uploaded by Maura Maciver, 16 Apr. 2008, 1PwH1U5s6bU. ———. “Sika Le Khekhe.” YouTube, uploaded by SouthernAfricafeela, 18 Aug. 2008, watch?v=NBB05NOJPDk. Spykos. “Birthday Yam.” YouTube, uploaded by Podium Comedy, 21 Oct. 2011, kQVUC8VkU. ———. “Siya Swima.” YouTube, uploaded by BlitzPatrollie, 25 Apr. 2013, hztbP4gwf Fc. Thebe Mogane. “Bula Boot.” YouTube, uploaded by nhamzee, 17 Jan. 2012, HdR8kI91IY. ———. “Mbobo.” YouTube, uploaded by Thabisa Mangisa, 2 Feb. 2013, gmibEqn2vLM.



If humor has been little studied in the West, it has been studied even less in Africa—a neglect attributable in part to the need felt by Africanist scholars to focus on more “serious” cultural topics in order to combat demeaning, primitivist prejudices about the continent. Thus, anthropologists historically have tended to focus on the grander aspects of African cultures: their cosmologies, kingdoms, millennia-long cultural diffusions, and so on. Humor, when studied at all, has typically been subordinated to these themes, as in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s seminal structural functionalist analysis of “joking relationships” in diverse African cultures. Here, the anthropologist was interested in joking mainly for the ways it reinforced and revealed crystalline, stable kinship systems. Revealing as Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis was, it set a precedent that would for decades limit how anthropologists would approach the topic of humor, when they were inclined to deal with it at all. When joking is interpreted primarily in terms of its functionality in maintaining an ahistorical cultural structure, it is all too easy to lose sight of humor’s essential historicity. Laughter, though, is a historical phenomenon, not a stable, structural one. The changeability and contingency of humor is especially marked in the modern era, with its impetus to constantly spawn new cultural styles and identities tied to those styles. It is with the historical flux of laughter in mind that I have chosen to focus on three strains of humor in Ugandan popular music which emerged successively in the decades following the spread of radio and commercial phonograph records in the mid-1950s. The first, which I call “virtuosic language play,” is characteristic of a genre known as kadongo kamu, which emerged around the beginning of the radio era and continues to be produced today. The genre name, meaning “one guitar” or “lone guitar” in Luganda language, evokes the archetypal figure of the guitar-wielding bard, who wanders from place to place entertaining and educating her/his audiences with dense, often enigmatic lyrics. Kadongo kamu is not considered a comic genre per se, but singers often use humor, especially of a sophisticated verbal variety, to hold listeners’ attentions. “Situation comedy” is the second humorous mode in Ugandan popular music history to be considered here, with a focus on the pioneering 1980s radio dramas of the singer-guitarist M ­ atiya Luyima and his group, Kadongo Kamu Super Singers. Building on the earlier theatrical experiments of kadongo kamu artist Moses Katende, Luyima melded kadongo kamu’s storytelling style with popular theater traditions, to arrive at a distinctly Ugandan style of musical theater for the radio and stage. Comedic interludes, featuring recurring characters such as the local drunk, helped to draw audience members in as active participants in a gradually unfolding story about the tensions of marriage, kin, community, and country. This kind of intensely local, participatory 132

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musical theater took on special cultural importance in a period of economic collapse and political oppression in Uganda’s history. I will call the third and final strain of popular music humor “jokes for circulation.” This is humor that has become prevalent in the era of internet and satellite television, with those new media’s inherent potentials for rapid international dissemination, remixing, and instant celebrity in mind. In direct contrast to kadongo kamu, with its dense and often obscure vernacular language poetry, this kind of joke-driven music tends to be linguistically and formally uncomplicated, presenting few obstacles to cross-cultural translation so that a song stands a better chance of going “viral” not just within Uganda but throughout Africa and globally. The contrast between this new comedic music and the poetically elaborate kadongo kamu pioneered 30 years before demonstrates how humor can shift from generation to generation, corresponding to shifts in technology and political economy. Before proceeding with an exploration of these three strains in popular music, it is worth touching on the deeper historical precedents for musical humor in Uganda, a region where, in precolonial and early colonial times, music-making was powerfully shaped by African royal courts. These historical precedents are especially important in regard to kadongo kamu, which carried into the age of mass media precolonial traditions of elaborate verbal play, and the symbolic role of the stringed-instrument playing bard.

Virtuosic Language Play and the Comedic Bard: Precolonial Precedents An incident of Ugandan musical humor is related in the earliest written account we have of the Buganda kingdom, John Hanning Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863). The British explorer and his party are being entertained by the queen mother at her palace quarters, when a singing “tomfool” is brought in to enhance the merriment: The queen began to sing, and the councillors to join in chorus; then all sang and all drank, and drank and sang, till, in their heated excitement, they turned the palace into a pandemonium; still there was not noise enough, so the band and drums were called again, and tomfool—for Uganda, like the old European monarchies, always keeps a jester—was made to sing in the gruff, hoarse, unnatural voice which he ever affects to maintain his character, and furnished with pombe when his throat was dry. (255) Here, as throughout the Journal, we have reason to question the accuracy of Speke’s cultural observations, deeply colored as they were by the imperial Eurocentrism of his era, not to mention his inability to understand the local language. Was this really an uproarious, comedic atmosphere, or was the explorer merely misinterpreting musical timbres and audience responses which the ­Baganda themselves would have considered regal and earnest? Was the singer actually something like a “jester,” or would he have described himself rather differently? As any ethnographer knows, humor is one of the most difficult phenomena to interpret and even recognize in an unfamiliar culture, and Speke was hardly the most conscientious of ethnographers. Yet I find Speke’s tableau convincing in that it resonates with scenes I personally experienced in Uganda a century and a half later. On several occasions, while traveling around the country, I encountered a singer bearing a one-stringed fiddle or guitar who, sensing the entertainment potential of my solitary white presence, proceeded to extemporize satirical verses about me as well as other notables in the vicinity, to the amusement of a gathering crowd. As in Speke’s account, these contemporary roving singers seemed to be very much “in character”—clowning, scruffy, and playing up their own real or feigned drunkenness. In the precolonial era, music and dance in the southern Uganda region were dominated by African royal courts which maintained guilds of expert musicians who specialized in a variety of 133

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instruments, including flutes, trumpets, harps, lyres, xylophones, and a diversity of drums. These musicians serenaded the king (in Buganda, the kabaka) and his retinue as they went about their daily routines within the royal enclosure and were sent out to greet visitors along the roads and to carry moral messages to the king’s subjects. The omulanga, who played the bow harp, was the most esteemed musician at the Buganda palace, he alone being allowed access to the royal bedchamber in the company of the king and his wives. There, the harpist sang praises and political advice in elegant, often obscure “phrases” (ebisoko) drawing on myths and proverbs that all in attendance were expected to know (Wachsmann 149). There were, additionally, the abadongo, or lyre players, who traveled from wedding to wedding around the kingdom, entertaining guests with songs that mixed domestic moral exhortation with bawdy sexual education (Makubuya 142). In the twentieth century, these lyre players were joined by rather less prestigious players of the endingidi, a one-stringed tube fiddle recently imported by Arab traders. Did these bards ever think of themselves as performing something like “comedy”? Probably not, given that Luganda language lacks an exact translation for this term. More likely, they saw themselves as being engaged in “educating people” (okuyigiriza abantu) and “entertaining” them (okusanyusa abantu). These are the functions that Ugandans most often ascribe to music and musicians today. It is considered only natural that singers, in entertaining and educating, would want to provoke their audiences to laughter from time to time. Some may additionally have played the conventional, self-deprecating character of the fool, if only to insulate themselves from the retributions that people in power, angered by their satirical verses, might wreak upon them. The Asia scholar Beatrice K. Otto, who cites Speke’s narrative, has argued that “fools are everywhere”— everywhere in the world, that is, where one finds courtly organizations of power. In conditions where monarchs and chiefs wield formidable, cruel authority, fools play an essential role, in that they are able to say things which others cannot safely say in the presence of the powerful. ­A fricanists will be reminded of the West African griot, who possesses as a hereditary birthright the special license to speak truth to power. One song in the Buganda royal harpist’s repertoire, “Gganga Alula,” hints that a self-­deprecating, comedic, persona was part of the bard’s conventional role at court. Gganga, the hero of the song, was himself a harpist who, having stolen meat, was expelled from the palace, and had his fingers cutoff as he clung to the palace gate (Anderson 132). In Temusawo Mukasa’s brilliant rendition of the song, recorded by Hugh Tracey in 1952, the harpist implores his audience to “think of the fingers,” and lingers on the image of amputated digits, as if to call attention to his own still intact yet vulnerable fingers as they dance over the strings (Cooke and Micklem 61). This might be interpreted as the classic fool’s move of making his own body the object of derision, thus gently preempting any anger which might result from his proceeding to sing in satirical or critical ways.

Virtuosic Language Play and the Comedic Bard: The Radio Era In the mid-twentieth century, precolonial Uganda’s bardic traditions were refurbished for the guitar, records, and the radio in kadongo kamu music. Guitars proliferated throughout east Africa in the post-World War II period, often acquired by Africans during military service abroad. Guitars and their players were at first seen as very modern and cosmopolitan, in some cases dangerously so. Throughout east Africa, “Guitarists were part of a new order of things” writes African guitar scholar John Low (26). At the same time, musicians and their audiences recognized the similarities between these new portable stringed instruments and indigenous ones. Thus, in Buganda, the guitar was given the same name as the traditional lyre, both being referred to as endongo and their players as abadongo. The traditional bard role was a natural one for guitarists to appropriate and modify for the modern radio era; guitarists could, as it were, serve as the new court jesters within the modern, mass-mediated court of public opinion. The era of phonograph records of Ugandan music—for consumers rather than ethnographic collections—began rather late, getting underway 134

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only in the 1950s. Records from that era by the kadongo kamu singer Christopher Ssebaduka explicitly referenced the musical traditions of old Buganda, both in their rhythmic style and in their bardic attitude. Ssebaduka’s dense, storytelling lyrics made it clear that he was no mere crooner, but rather a wise educator and critic of society. If kadongo kamu singing in some ways resembled the traditional singing of the royal courts and their environs, it also had a distinctive significance relative to the colonial conditions of the time. (Uganda would not achieve its independence from Britain until 1962.) Luganda language, while supported as a language of missionization, was often disdained or outright prohibited. Children in missionary schools were often flogged for slipping into their native tongue, for it was English that was held to be the far more civilized language, the one youth had better master if they wanted to get ahead in the world. Given this colonial atmosphere of linguistic prejudice, kadongo kamu, with its sophisticated Luganda-language lyrics, had subversive, ethno-nationalist appeal. The lauded “deep Luganda” in the genre was something that only the most fluent and culturally steeped Luganda speakers could thoroughly understand.1 A singer might, for example, sing half of a traditional proverb, leaving it to the informed listener to fill in the other half. English-speaking colonials—as well as, importantly, members of rival ethnolinguistic groups—would fail to be in on the joke. Kadongo kamu music reached its peak of popularity well after the end of colonial rule, in the 1990s, with the careers of Fred Ssebatta, Herman Basudde and, especially, Paul Kafeero. It is Kafeero who is said to have established a kadongo kamu ethos of “never repeating a word.” Musically, Kafeero’s songs were highly approachable, with catchy grooves and a clear, minimally ornamented vocal style reminiscent of internationally popular reggae and calypso. Lyrically, however, Kafeero offered a cornucopia of challenging verbal puzzles for fans to wrestle with. A peruser of the English translations of Kafeero’s songs in Kathryn Barrett-Gaines’s edited collection may wonder at his inclusion in a chapter about humor, since his images and topics are typically somber, even morose. He complains often of the moral failings of modern Ugandan society and his own personal failings, and muses darkly upon his own inevitable demise. Yet Kafeero’s singing can be said to be thoroughly comedic, if we follow those philosophers who define humor as, in the first instance, a kind of cognitive play entailing the surprising juxtaposition of ­incongruities (Morreall 12). It is the strange word, unexpected image, or dangling fragment temporarily throwing the listener’s cognitive processing for a loop that makes even the most brooding Kafeero song humorous. For example, in “Dipo Nazigala,” his famous song about his struggles with alcohol, he begins one verse with a puzzling phrase: “I have ground water [like grain] under the sun.” Here, the listener is challenged by the application of the verb “to grind” (okumeketa) to the object “water.” It is, of course, futile to try to grind water—this seems to be the point—and especially futile to do so under the hot sun given its evaporating effects. By the time the listener has worked all of this out, however, Kafeero has unfurled five or six other metaphors in rapid succession. Educated youth are “searching for degrees in their bottles.” To wake up with a hangover is to be “stretched like a guitar string.” A drunk is incapable of working, like a woman suffering from salpingitis (inflammation of the fallopian tube) after giving birth. Cumulative puzzlement is, again, a hallmark of Kafeero’s style, and of the kadongo kamu style in general. It draws listeners in as active interpreters while enhancing the singer’s image as someone who possesses supernatural powers of language, combined with the ability to tease out the invisible, counter-intuitive relationships that exist among ordinary and extraordinary things. The anthropologist James Fernandez, remarking upon a predilection in many African cultures for proverbs and riddles, has suggested that “puzzlement” is understood by many Africans (and, one might add, non-Africans as well) to be generative of “edification: the cognitive construction by suggestion of a larger integration of things, a larger whole” (Fernandez 175). This is one of the senses in which kadongo kamu is educational: it induces in listeners the necessary state of puzzlement out of which holistic revelations can emerge. 135

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In his stage and music video performances, Kafeero complemented his verbal humor with comedic play-acting, appearing on stage in women’s clothes, or portraying the slapstick stumblings of a drunk. Kafeero’s forthrightness about his own drinking in songs like “Dipo Nazigala,” endeared him especially to fans from the slums, and poor rural towns, where heavy drinking is endemic and tied to working-class identity. As I observed at his public funeral in 2007, he was beloved as a man of the people. Yet he was also larger than life in some of his fans’ imaginations: a possessor of mysterious powers of perception and persuasion who hovered outside the boundaries of society, the better to perceive and comment upon the rot within. In this respect, he seemed to be the spiritual descendent of the mysteriously virtuosic bards of the kabaka’s court.

Situation Comedy In the 1970s, Uganda, having only recently achieved its independence, suffered economic, political, and social collapse under Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship, conditions that would persist for years after Amin’s ouster in 1979. As the capital city came increasingly to be ruled by roving thugs and black-market operators and civic institutions shut down for lack of funds and fear of government reprisal, Ugandans’ social lives became more locally isolated and circumscribed. Many left the city for their ancestral rural homes, where they could at least find food, relative safety in distance, and a rudimentary social and political order at the level of kin and community. It was during this fraught period that a new, theatrical, element became more important in Uganda’s popular music, complete with a humorous mode I call “situation comedy,” based on its use of recurrent, relatable, characters. As the capital city’s cultural institutions shut down, roving theatrical troupes, who traveled from village to village putting on musical shows, became increasingly important. The Ugandan scholar Samuel Kasule has referred to some of this as a kind of “guerilla theater”—musical satire laced with political critique for a civil society under siege (Kasule, “Popular” 53). Ugandan ensemble theater traditions, like the bardic tradition discussed earlier, run deep. The Luganda word for theater is katemba, a word which, according to Kasule, originally encompassed a range of kinds of performance, from magical ritual to roleplay (Kasule, “Popular” 42). Both Kasule and Helen Nabasuta Mugambi have emphasized the participatory nature of Kiganda (and more broadly, Ugandan) popular theater practices. Performances, which traditionally take place in the round rather than on a proscenium stage, are porous to audience interventions, and not so distant, structurally, from other communal events like weddings and beer drinks. It is normal for actors to change the content and trajectory of their plays, based on the instantaneous feedback they receive from onlookers (Mugambi 211). In the early 1980s, some kadongo kamu collectives, growing in their rosters, began to experiment with ensemble skits intermingled with their songs, inspired by both the popular theater tradition generally and by successful Kampala variety show acts like the Ebonies.2 The Lukwata Guitar Singers, a historically important group then under the direction of Moses Katende, is said to have been one of the earliest groups to do this. Subsequently, the guitarist-singer Matiya Luyima, working together with Katende and his own group, the Kadongo Kamu Super Singers, took the theatrical kadongo kamu formula to new heights of sophistication as well as popularity. The group’s most remarkable work was the 10-part radio serial Ssepiriya, which featured the same singing characters in a gradually evolving plot which unfurled over a decade, the first installment being recorded in 1981. Each Ssepiriya episode was ten to 20 minutes in length and featured alternating sung and spoken sections. Each was composed and recomposed on the road, the troupe setting up its canvas enclosure in strings of villages around the Buganda region and developing its serial story based on the audience reactions it received. In 2011, I was lucky enough to meet the Super Singers and attend their show at one stop on this decades-long tour in the village of Kijju, an hour’s motorcycle ride off the main paved road. 136

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The audience, which consisted mainly of older men and women, was thoroughly familiar with all the Ssepiriya characters, and applauded uproariously as each appeared at her/his appointed time on stage, from behind a curtain. Especially beloved was the singer Sauda Batenda, a women famous for developing the role of Nakakawa, a young bride who attempts to reject Ssepiriya, the elderly groom her family has chosen for her. With her enormous grin, and flirtatious, ­baakisimba-influenced hip-swiveling, she drew hearty, approving laughter from the audience. In real life, Batenda is married to Luyima, and the whole troupe travels together as a kind of family business. Unfortunately, it is not at all a profitable one. Given Uganda’s lack of a working royalty system for artists, the troupe has been forced to earn what money it can from entrance fees at its shows, which must be set very low, given the poverty of the rural audiences who typically attend. At the height of his success in the 1980s, Luyima was able to pack clubs and stadiums in the capital city, but in recent decades those venues have been closed to his ensemble, dominated as they are by younger celebrity artists who specialize in the new digital dance styles. Typically for kadongo kamu, much of the singing in Ssepiriya is didactic in tone. Luyima, who, as the elder male character Ssepiriya, sings the majority of the verses, offers advice on everything from the proper roles of women in the family to the proper reintegration of each village into the Ugandan nation-state at the dawn of its rebuilding under a new president (Mugambi 212). In each episode, however, these sung lectures are balanced by comedic sections, especially ones starring Katende in the role of Koloneri, Ssepiriya’s friend and a staggering, bug-eyed drunk. In “­Mwefuge Abadongo!” (“Hold On, Guitarists!”), for example, the second half of the 14-minute episode is monopolized by Koloneri who, inebriated as usual, takes upon himself the role of master of ceremonies at Ssepiriya and Nakakawa’s wedding. Standing precariously upon a chair, Koloneri pontificates hilariously, targeting especially the wedding musicians, whom he commands repeatedly to “mwefuge!”—interrupting their playing, then instructing them to resume—until they finally get fed up and topple him from his perch. By focusing much of their radio serial drama on rural, traditional weddings and their social complexities, Matiya Luyima and the Super Singers held up a mirror to a rural world that has generally been underrepresented in mass media streams. In the repressive, collapsed years of the 1980s, the music reminded listeners of the rural, community-scale social foundations upon which a new Ugandan nation might someday be built. Later, when Uganda began to grow again under the neoliberal regime of Yoweri Museveni, Luyima’s kadongo kamu saga remained popular because it validated those same rural foundations in an age of accelerating urbanization and other capitalist disruptions of rural life. As families who used to be bound to the land increasingly left their home plots for work in the city or on industrial plantations, it came as a relief to laugh fondly with the Super Singers at the old rustic ways of life.

Jokes for Circulation In 2011, a hit song from Nigeria, “Ashawo” by Flavour, was inescapable no matter where one traveled in Uganda. With top digital production values and a highly contagious two-bar groove (based, interestingly, on “El Manicero,” a Cuban tune that had stormed across Africa almost a century earlier), “Ashawo” had the sonic hallmarks of a mega-smash. The song’s rise was helped by the fact that, when Ugandan youth Googled “Ashawo,” they found out that it meant something naughty: “prostitute” in Yoruba language. Sensing an opportunity, digital pop artists in Kampala home studios immediately got to work composing their own “Ashawo”-derived songs, often sampling or reprogramming the original’s winning beat, with just enough sonic tweaking and lyrical reworking to signal a fresh, Ugandan, take on the Nigerian hit. The rising availability in Uganda since the 1990s of home computer-based music production studios has both vastly expanded pop music production and democratized it. Whereas a few decades ago, an aspiring singer would be forced to attract the attention of Kampala’s sole 137

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tape-based recording studio to get a record made, today anyone with the equivalent of $50 US dollars can commission a professionally produced track, complete with the latest digital effects, from a small independent studio. The problem now is not how to get on record, but rather how to attract attention to one’s music and one’s personal brand (Pier, Ugandan 161). Artists, steeped in a pervasive culture of marketing, are aware that their potential audiences have plentiful choices and correspondingly limited attention spans. Moreover, they know these audiences will have different levels of fluency in the singer’s language, and different levels of knowledge about, and investment in, the singer’s home culture. Given the diversity of audiences a song might reach through digital streams, it makes sense to keep it simple—avoiding the long, proverb-laced lectures and complicated dramas of kadongo kamu, in favor of a more direct approach. Jokes of a kind that anyone from any culture can immediately grasp are especially useful in the crafting of viral hits. “Ashawo” is an infectious groove tied to a pornographic joke—one that anyone, anywhere in the world, can “get” with a minimum of translation work. (The joke is, essentially, the word “ashawo.”) One hears, with increasing frequency, Ugandan-produced songs that center on a single, easily comprehended joke, often one that is titillating and mildly scandalous in nature. In 2017, for example, one of the chart-topping hits was “Ssente Zange Cassava” (“My Money Cassava”), by rapper Mun G. The refrain, which is in English, goes, “She says she wants cassava. Can you get me a big cassava?” Lest the listener fail to catch the artist’s meaning, Mun G, in the music video, waves a phallic root vegetable at the camera while female dancers gyrate lasciviously. This song was a follow-up to an earlier Mun G hit, “Big Bumpa,” which approvingly compared a woman’s posterior to the bumper of a car: “Bad girl with a big bumper / Booty lookin’ better when she bend over.” Both songs were aimed at Kampala’s club scene, where sexually unabashed “bend over” dances have recently been popular. I would suggest that young Ugandans appreciate these songs and videos not just for their soft pornographic content and dirty joke yuks but also for their circulation potential. In their very simplicity and the corporeal universality of their topics, these songs have what the media theorist Henry Jenkins has termed “spreadability”: a readily apparent potential to proliferate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. “Big Bumpa” is like a message in a bottle: One never knows how far it will float and where it might wash ashore, spreading Mun G’s fame to distant climes. Ugandan youth, most of whom lack the economic and political resources to travel abroad themselves, can take vicarious pleasure in tracking their star’s global trajectory online. Perhaps Mun G will attain the kind of international attention recently garnered by Radio and Weasel, the first Ugandan act to be nominated for the BET awards in Los Angeles, who also appeared on the South Africa-based show Big Brother Africa and recorded with the American rapper Snoop Dogg. Today, far more than a generation ago, there exists a global celebrity circuit which is accessible to Ugandans—albeit only a lucky few. It is stewarded by multinational corporations like Coca Cola, Diageo, and MTN, who use their global media connections to cultivate celebrities from diverse places in pursuit of new local and transnational markets for their products. The joke-centered, globally marketable style of dance music currently popular in Uganda has origins in the Jamaican digital dancehall music popularized in the 1980s by the likes of King Jammy. Dancehall artists—in contrast to their reggae predecessors—made a virtue of their songs’ frequent lack of polish, complexity, and originality. This was music that deliberately sounded as though it was made fast, on the cheap, and with a good deal of direct copying from other songs (Manuel and Marshall 461). As such, it exuded a rough-and-ready entrepreneurial spirit, in keeping with the atmosphere of capitalist fantasies and fears that was then rising in Jamaica and the world. The rampant copying of beats demonstrated digital spreadability in action. Thematically, songs typically aimed at listener’s guts rather than their heads, with “rude boy” raunchy jokes and braggadocio in place of reggae’s cerebral/spiritual musings (Veal 203). It was in the 1990s that a Ugandan music directly inspired by Jamaican digital dancehall, known as kidandali (“dancehall”) 138

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or afrobeat, was first developed. Today, dancehall grooves and joke-centric dancehall attitude dominate the Ugandan airwaves, though other styles of music, including kadongo kamu, continue to be produced and enjoyed.

Conclusion The three strains of humor in Ugandan popular music addressed in the previous sections— virtuosic language play, situation comedy, and jokes for circulation—emerged in historical succession, each responding to particular historical conditions and drawing on the cultural resources, both indigenous and foreign, that were available at the time. In the ways Ugandan musical humor has shifted, over merely a half century, we may find verified the observation we began with, namely, that humor is profoundly shaped by its historical contexts. Generational transitions are an important factor, as each crop of youth turns away from the joking styles of its parents and develops its own proprietary sense of humor. But it is also important to consider specific economic, political, and technological conditions that bring certain kinds of humor to the fore, while others recede. Kadongo kamu, which originated in the late colonial era, was about joking in a sophisticated, “deep” register of Luganda language, in a way that would counter colonial disparagements of African indigenous languages as “primitive.” It was also about refurbishing the traditional role of the string-playing bard, or court jester, for the modern era of radio broadcasts and records. The theatrical variant of kadongo kamu, with its situation comedy, arose in an era of national collapse, when civil society was being forced to reconstitute itself at the local level and people had a special need to see their local systems of kin and community reflected on stage. Jokes about familial arguments, marriages gone wrong, etc., helped convince music fans of the sturdiness of systems on which their nation would have to be rebuilt. Finally, moving to the 2010s, we find a different set of concerns suffusing pop music comedy. Jokes seem to be composed with easy cross-cultural consumption in mind, internet and digital production technologies having introduced exciting new possibilities for instantaneous ­m arket transactions of pop culture across national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. In general, ­humor in popular music has become simpler and more universal in the hope that distant audiences, of different languages and cultures, will be able to get the joke. It is important to note in closing, however, that the Ugandan popular music world is far more complex and heterogeneous than what I have been able to depict in this short chapter. I have not, for example, addressed new modes of sophisticated verbal humor which may be arising in Ugandan hip-hop music to serve as a kind of cultural counterweight to the simple jokes of kidandali. Today, more than ever, ­Ugandans have a great deal of choice in what they listen and laugh to, including old music and new, local- and foreign-made. New comedic styles may dominate the airwaves, but older humorous modes are still enjoyed, not least by young listeners and singers who are discovering them for the first time.

Notes 1 What exactly counts as “deep Luganda” is to some degree a matter of subjective perception, yet there have also been formal attempts to stake out “deep” or “traditional” Luganda as a distinct register in, for example, special dictionaries. One basic example of deep Luganda is to substitute the word ensimbi (shells) for the more common word for money, ssente. Further discussion of “deep” language ideology in ­ annyonga-­Tamusuza Uganda and its verbal manifestations in kadongo kamu may be found in articles by N and Pier (“Language”; “Song”). 2 Established in 1977, the Ebonies are Uganda’s oldest theatrical troupe, known for their signature mix of drama, standup comedy, music, and dance. They were especially important in the 1970s and 1980s, when they alluded in their performances to political topics that were otherwise not publically discussed under Amin’s and Obote’s repressive regimes (Kasule, Resistance 160).


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Works Cited Anderson, Lois. “Multipart Relationships in Xylophone and Tuned Drum Traditions in Buganda.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, vol. 5, 1984, pp. 121–44. Barrett-Gaines, Kathryn. One Little Guitar: The Words of Paul Job Kafeero. Tourguide, 2012. Cooke, Andrew, and James Micklem. “Ennanga Harp Songs of Buganda: Temutewo Mukasa’s ‘Gganga Alula’.” African Music, vol. 7, no. 4, 1999, pp. 47–65. Fernandez, James. Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture. Indiana UP, 1986. Jenkins, Henry. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in Networked Culture. NYU Press, 2013. Kasule, Samuel. “Popular Music and the Construction of Social Reality in Post-Amin Uganda.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, 1998, pp. 39–58. ———. Resistance and Politics in Contemporary East African Theatre: Trends in Ugandan Theatre since 1960. Adonis and Abbey, 2013. Low, John. “A History of Kenyan Guitar Music, 1945–1980.” African Music, vol. 6, no. 2, 1982, pp. 17–36. Makubuya, James K. “Endongo: The Role and Significance of the Baganda Bowl Lyre of Uganda.” Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1995. Manuel, Peter, and Wayne Marshall. “The Riddim Method: Aesthetics, Practice, and Ownership in ­Jamaican Dancehall.” Popular Music, vol. 25, no. 3, 2006, pp. 447–70. Morreall, John. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Wiley, 2012. Mugambi, Helen Nabasuta. “From Story to Song: Gender, Nationhood, and the Migratory Text.” Gendered Encounters: Challenging Cultural Boundaries and Social Hierarchies in Africa, edited by Maria Grosz-Ngate and Omari Kokole, Routledge, 1997, pp. 205–22. Nannyonga-Tamusuza, Sylvia. “Gender, Ethnicity, and Politics in Kadongo-Kamu Music of Uganda.” Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music in Africa, edited by Mai Palmberg and Annemette Kirkegaard, Nordic Africa Institute, 2002, pp. 134–48. Otto, Beatrice K. Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World. U of Chicago P, 2001. Pier, David. “Language Ideology and Kadongo Kamu Flow.” Popular Music, vol. 35, no. 3, 2016, pp. 360–79. ———. “Song for a King’s Exile: Royalism and Popular Music in Postcolonial Uganda.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 40, no.1, 2017, pp. 5–21. ———. Ugandan Music in the Marketing Era: The Branded Arena. Palgrave, 2015. Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. “On Joking Relationships.” Africa, vol. 13, no. 3, 1940, pp. 195–210. Speke, John Hanning. Journey of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. 1863. J. M. Dent, 1908. Veal, Michael. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Wesleyan UP, 2007. Wachsmann, K.P. “An Approach to African Music.” Uganda Journal, vol. 6, no. 3, 1939, pp. 148–63.


16 ABSURDITY AND NOSTALGIA Humor in K-Pop Sarah Keith

First, the obvious: in a chapter on Korean1 popular music (henceforth K-pop) and humor, it is impossible not to mention PSY’s viral video Gangnam Style (2012). The song was, for most non-­ Korean audiences, their first introduction to K-pop. Its absurd visuals, bizarre humor, memorable dance, and slickly produced dance-pop sound made it a global object of fascination and parody. Gangnam Style has since been exhaustively analyzed from multiple angles;2 however, this song and video do not reflect the breadth or diversity of humor in K-pop. In short, while the importance of K-pop has been acknowledged as a global cultural phenomenon (see, e.g., Oh and Park; Shim), this chapter will discuss humor throughout K-pop more broadly. It first aims to uncover the reasons underlying humor in K-pop and its fandom; second, it will analyze two main themes of humor in K-pop music and video—humor as a product of the idol system and humor relating to Korea’s recent history.

Humor and Korean Media Industries: Television and Social Media Much humor within K-pop stems from the relationship between the K-pop idol system and television.3 K-pop is one aspect of the Korean cultural contents industry that spans television, film, advertising, and beyond. Entertainment agencies are typically strongly integrated, both vertically and horizontally, and often include in-house production facilities, marketing teams, and distribution networks, as well as links to other agencies and media networks. Larger agencies represent not only K-pop idols but also comedians, producers, actors, and television personalities. As Fuhr notes, this 360-degree business model means that idols often possess a diverse range of talents; they are not only attractive music performers but also actors, models, and television personalities (71). Television is a crucial component in the activities of K-pop idols. Korea has a substantial and diverse domestic television sector, in large part due to historical controls on the importation of foreign content. Music-themed shows have been a mainstay of terrestrial broadcasters for decades and are still popular today, including the studio-based pop shows Inkigayo, Show Champion, M Countdown, and Music Bank. Idols are mainstays of television variety or reality shows in the “light comedy” genre, which usually function on a simple comedic premise. For example, We Got Married (Munwha Broadcasting Corporation [MBC], 2008–2017) places a male and a female idol together in a mock marriage, while in Infinite Challenge (MBC, 2005–2018) idol guests participate in humorous physical challenges, improvised scenes, and parlor games. Other shows are more specifically music focused; in Weekly Idol (1998–present), idols undertake various comic activities such 141

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as dancing to their songs at double-speed or answering trivia in order to win food. Group-specific reality-comedy shows also exist, such as Run, BigBang Scout featuring Big Bang (YouTube Red, 2017). K-pop has been used as a milieu for comedy in One More Happy Ending (MBC, 2016), a romantic comedy drama about members of a fictional disbanded idol girl group, starring several former and current idols. A capacity for humor is therefore a highly desirable trait for K-pop idols; it not only assists idols’ promotional activities for their music but also provides lucrative opportunities in television, film, and radio. This adaptability affords idols the opportunity to extend their career, which as a music idol is typically limited to less than a decade. Another aspect of humor in K-pop relates to the role of social media in its global distribution and consumption. Oh and Park discuss the role of social media in popularizing K-pop worldwide, and argue that platforms such as YouTube are increasingly important distribution platforms and revenue sources for entertainment agencies. As well as group-specific online series (such as Run, BigBang Scout), social media is used by idols to provide fans with an intimate and often humorous insight into their lives. These include candid Instagram images, vlogs, and official “behind the scenes” accounts such as idol group BTS’s “Bangtan Bomb” YouTube channel, which hosts outtakes, pranks, and other humorous content. These “extras” constitute fan service,4 allowing fans to gain greater insight into idols’ daily lives and to develop feelings of closeness; likewise, idols (and their agencies) cultivate their images through demonstrating personability and humility. Online platforms also host fan-created K-pop content including humorous memes, “crack” videos, and music video parodies. K-pop memes abound, and are created and shared by fans for their (frequently absurdist) humor. Creating and disseminating these memes constitute a social ritual demonstrating cultural capital (Knobel and Lankshear 217). The 2012 “roll like a buffalo” catchphrase is one example of a K-pop meme; initially, a nonsensical English lyric in EXO-L’s 2012 song “Two Moons,” fans created a variety of intertextual memes and images of this phrase (such as “keep calm and roll like a buffalo”) and shortened the expression to “RLAB.” “Crack” videos—unauthorized YouTube compilations—are another widespread phenomenon in K-pop fandom. These videos collate brief excerpts from television comedy-variety shows, footage of idols in awkward situations (made humorous through edits or comical music overdubs), and clips from live events (e.g., an idol losing balance during a concert). Music video ­parodies are ­a nother aspect of humor in K-pop, such as the numerous fan-created covers of PSY’s Gangnam Style; these have been extensively discussed in the literature (see Jung and Li; Jung and Shim; ­K hiun) and therefore will not be discussed here. In summary, humor in K-pop is a form of ­currency for both producers (i.e., idols and their agencies) and audiences. It is woven into the promotional activities of idols, their long-term careers, and their interactions with fans, serving as an integral part of K-pop fandom.

Humor and the Idol System: Absurdity and Comedy Concepts Many K-pop videos employ striking and surreal imagery, focusing on visual aesthetics rather than narrative coherence. Manovich terms this practice “poetic design” and attributes its prevalence in K-pop music video to the influence of digital image platforms such as Instagram (85). This ­attention-grabbing aesthetic can be attributed to the highly competitive K-pop industry, in which few idols or groups attain long-term success; quirky, captivating imagery can help a group stand out in a crowded market. Zany images can be exploited for comic effect, as evident in EXO’s ­music video “Power” (2017). The members, for no explained reason, are within a digital landscape battling a computer-generated robot using fanciful weaponry; when defeated, the robot turns into a toy and the members unleash their “power,” which is represented by a kitten pawing a glowing button. These incongruous images produce, as Stott writes, “ambiguity and the feeling that normality has momentarily decentred for pleasurable ends” (10). 142

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The “decentering” of normality also takes place in the music video for Big Bang’s “Bae Bae” (2015)—with additional subtext. Music and media have long been subject to censorship in socially conservative Korea; television broadcasters have guidelines advising against sexual or “controversial” music performances (Lee), and the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs has banned the sale of albums for lewd lyrics (see Bae). Nonetheless, “Bae Bae” (the video) conveys sexually suggestive meaning through humor and visual metaphor. The song is a mid-tempo hip-hop ballad; its innocuous lyrics praise a “muse” for her beauty. However, the video’s saturated color palette, 5 combined with the group members’ jester-like behavior, effectively frames the music video as a Bakhtinian carnival (see Goffman); a place where ­i nversions and suspensions are permitted and legitimized, and where “licensed transgression” may occur (Stott 34–35). The most graphic “transgression” occurs in a sequence featuring rapper T.O.P. Within the Bakhtinian carnival, T.O.P. plays the trickster, “a witty and irreverent being who violates the most sacred of prohibitions” (Stott 51). Wearing colored contact lenses and dressed in a purple suit resembling Batman villain “the Joker,” he capers down a flower-lined hallway holding a syringe filled with a white liquid. He cheerfully discharges the contents on the flowers and at a female actor’s face—though the moment when the liquid lands is not shown. The humor here arises from the framing of the moment (the surreal scenery, frolicking, and the Joker character) combined with the shockingly graphic allusion to a sexual act. Through its framing and use of humor, “Bae Bae” transcended conservative attitudes and regulations, garnering significant critical attention and winning Best Music Video at the 2015 Mnet Asian Music Awards. The constructedness of idols is another area for humorous exploration, as evident in IKON’s music video “Dumb and Dumber” (2015). Lyrically, the song is about wanting to party and get increasingly drunk, expressed as the English phrase “going dumb and dumber”; the music video illustrates this by showing the group members engaged in various comedic and reckless activities (donning oversized fists and play-fighting, jumping into a pool filled with plastic balls). However, the music video also conveys the artificiality of idols’ identities and provides a metatextual comment on K-pop music video clichés. In the opening scene, the members are shown in a car, immaculately dressed and coiffed; in the next, a member is splayed awkwardly on a bed, asleep in his pajamas; another gazes sultrily at the camera while reclining against a tree in a snowy forest, flanked by wolves; shortly afterwards, a pajama-wearing member perches bird-like in the tree, hooting at the viewer. Rather than a single cohesive narrative showing the idols as either “cool,” “sexy,” or “funny,” the music video switches between these modes for comic effect. This follows the incongruity theory of humor, which Morreall (11) defines as a violation of normal expectations; the audience is presented with conflicting aspects of each member’s persona, which poke fun at the idols’ manufactured characters. This mechanism is also used in “Pajama Party” (2008) by Super Junior-Happy, a subgroup of the 13-member group Super Junior. Until 2008, Super Junior’s music video oeuvre consisted of “tough,” rock- and hip hop-influenced pop (“Twins,” 2005; “Don’t Don,” 2007) and R&B ballads (“Miracle,” 2005; “Marry U,” 2007). In contrast, “Pajama Party” is an aegyo,6 upbeat disco-pop song about inviting a girl over for a pajama party. The music video is humorously framed from the outset, using comic-book panels between scenes in which the group members dance about in their homely pajamas and slippers. Its humor is primarily slapstick but also stems from the incongruity between “Pajama Party” and the group’s mature, polished style in previous videos. K-pop also incorporates “comedy concepts,” short narratives based on humorous premises, which are influenced by television comedy.7 One example of the “comedy concept” is Jung Yong Hwa’s “Mileage” (2015), featuring actor/rapper YDG. The song is an acoustic romantic ballad, with lyrics describing two male protagonists collecting “mileage”—that is, goodwill—from their partners (by complimenting them, paying bills, and changing children’s diapers) so that they can go out together for a monthly drinking session. The music video shows Jung Yong Hwa and YDG 143

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in a cartoon-like world, performing these tasks and flaunting their “mileage” cards. Another example is 4Minute’s “Heart to Heart” (2011), about a relationship with an increasingly indifferent boyfriend. The music video shows the boyfriend conducting an affair, while the group members exact their revenge through various pranks such as replacing his shaving cream with whipped cream and his toothpaste with foot ointment. The female idol group Mamamoo provides further examples of comedy concepts involving wordplay and gender play. “Aze Gag” (2017), meaning “dad joke,” employs wordplay; the members recite numerous puns, which are subtitled karaoke-style to facilitate comprehension. The video for their retro-pop song “Um Oh Ah Yeh” (2015) features the members engaging in gender play. As Moisala argues, music performance is also gender performance, and K-pop idols typically adhere to conventional gender roles. However, cross-dressing is also common, particularly for male idols. Male idols may dress as women for fan service, to thrill audiences during a broadcast or concert; to show the “prettiness” of their faces and shapeliness of their bodies; and for comedic value, playing on the incongruity of a male idol appearing female.8 Female-to-male cross-dressing is rarer, although a “tomboyish” appearance is trendy among Korean youth. The lyrics of “Um Oh Ah Yeh” make light of this, describing an attraction to a feminine-looking man, only to discover (at the song’s climax) that she is a masculine-looking woman. In the music video, one member plays a woman; another plays the object of her affection while the remaining two members play a leather-clad boor and an unfashionable nerd, with the aid of facial prosthetics (Figure 16.1). The members’ slapstick performances mock gender stereotypes; the boor gropes a flight attendant, the nerd guzzles food without considering those around him, and the female protagonist flirts aggressively while wearing a French maid outfit. Humor in the video “Um Oh Ah Yeh” thus draws on the artificiality of both male and female gender roles, parodying gender as a politically enforced performance (Butler 146). The 360-degree idol career model requires that idols develop a diverse skill set, and humor is a marketable attribute across media. While the videos discussed earlier are primarily music videos rather than comedy videos, they incorporate elements of sketch and improvisational comedy, as seen on television shows such as Gag Concert (KBS2TV, 1999–present) and Knowing Bros (2015–present), and are a way for idols to demonstrate their comedic abilities.

Figure 16.1  Gender play in “Um Oh Ah Yeh” (Mamamoo, 2015).


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Humor and Modernity: Nostalgia and Trot Another strand of humor in K-pop music pertains to Korea’s rapid modernization (the “­M iracle on the Han River”) and the cultural shifts that have accompanied it. Korea underwent dramatic economic and social change in the twentieth century, including Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula and the Korean War. Until the late 1980s, Korea was an industrial economy under authoritarian rule and military dictatorship. Lie’s recollection of a brief visit to Korea in the mid-1970s as a teenager describes an unfashionable, culturally uninspiring environment where the only music was “soft, slow South Korean serenades” and folk music (Lie 15). Following the transition to democratic rule in the late 1980s and recovery from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Korea’s economy grew significantly, with gross domestic product (GDP) increasing fivefold between 1988 and 2008 (“World Economic”). Concurrently, the relaxation of restrictions on foreign media imports in the 1990s saw Korean pop transformed (Howard), while the liberalization of media regulations across Asia allowed Korean content to be broadcast in China, Taiwan, and beyond (Shim 28). Since the 1990s, Korean popular culture has been extensively supported by the government as a strategic cultural industry; this has resulted in the hybridized, transnational aesthetic of K-pop today (Shim 38). Contemporary Korean popular culture is therefore very different from that of 30—or even 20—years ago, a phenomenon Kyung-Sup Chang calls “compressed modernity” (1). The modern-day Korea depicted in slickly produced K-pop videos is cosmopolitan and sophisticated; a result of decades of state support and investment, and its international audience. Yet everyday life does not always meet this ideal. Outside of urban youth culture, other fashions, trends, and ways of life exist, particularly for older or less affluent sectors of the population. Korea’s past and its less fashionable aspects are humorously invoked in K-pop for their kitsch and camp value. Sontag characterizes camp as involving an exaggerated and artificial aesthetic sensibility, ironic quotation, a comic view of the world, and an appreciation of bad taste. Broch, meanwhile, defines kitsch as a return to past history and a soothing nostalgia for “a better and safer world” (72–73). The appeal of nostalgia may be linked to dissatisfaction with contemporary Korean society, particularly among young people. The phrase “Hell Joseon,” popularized in online forums from 2010, is a cynical name for Korea that refers to current problems faced by youth including lack of social mobility, corruption, and economic pressures (Schoonhoven). Nostalgia in K-pop can therefore be understood not only as a postmodern aesthetic but also a response to hopelessness and sociocultural problems. Many K-pop songs use a “retro” sound palette, evoking the sounds of popular music in the 1980s. This is not inherently humorous, nor restricted to pop artists in Korea. Several groups, however, incorporate old-fashioned music styles and visuals for their humorous affect. Crayon Pop’s “Bar Bar Bar” (2013) is a camp electro-disco song that evokes the 1980s through its anachronistic synthesizers and a music video showing the members dressed in twee majorette outfits, dancing in a dilapidated amusement park in front of a mural of Michael Jackson and other 1980s pop icons. Their video for “Dancing Queen” (2013) likewise subverts the expected cosmopolitan glamor of K-pop music videos (usually filmed on indoor sets or in fashionable outdoor locations) by showing the group atop a ramshackle overpass and in a field; while in Uh-ee (2014), the members gatecrash a fancy party wearing gomusin (traditional rubber shoes) and headscarves, items of clothing associated with ajumma (older women). As well as the comic element arising from the unexpected clash of old and new, Crayon Pop’s cheery concept relies on nostalgia for a simpler and more carefree time. Nostalgia is similarly evoked in T-ara N4’s music video “Countryside Life” (2013) and Dal Shabet’s “Have, Don’t Have” (2012) where members dance in rural settings and inside a traditional vegetable market. The contrast between the gloss of modern K-pop and the past is taken to the extreme in ­music-comedy duo UV’s “Itaewon Freedom” (2011), featuring veteran artist/producer JYP. Its


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music and video are a pastiche of 1980s pop music, and the lyrics extol the virtues of Itaewon, a Seoul suburb best known for its proximity to a US military base. The inherent joke is that, while Itaewon was fashionable in the 1980s for its high number of foreign expatriates and Western restaurants, today it is viewed as tawdry and far less popular among Korean youth. In the music video, UV and JYP perform outdated dance moves on a cheap-looking set; primitive video effects and VHS-style blurriness complete the illusion (Figure 16.2). It is a sardonic, yet ­a ffectionate—even poignant—parody of 1980s Korea, and the excitement of “freedom” brought about by democratization and liberalization. The video invites the viewer to recall, nostalgically, the innocence and optimism of the past, yet laugh at its artlessness. A more specific quotation of bygone aesthetics for humorous effect occurs in a number of popular songs incorporating trot. Trot, an abbreviation of foxtrot, also known as ppongjjak, evolved from yuhaengga (“trendy song”) in the early twentieth century, and became popular in the 1950s alongside other Western-influenced musical genres (Yujeong Chang). It is considered a “traditional” music, and often incorporates rural themes (Yujeong Chang 62); the genre is favored by older Koreans and is common in noraebang.9 Songs are typically sentimental ballads, though modern trot includes synthesized instruments and an up-tempo beat. The vocal quality of trot is perhaps its most evocative aspect, incorporating expressive features such as slow, heavy vibrato and rubato. In a study of Korean singing voices, Harkness finds that there is a generational difference in vocal quality, in both song and speech; older singers have husky, harsh voices, while younger singers minimize these characteristics (31). A trot vocal is therefore a sonic metonym for the past that can be invoked in seriousness or in jest. A humorous use of trot vocals is demonstrated by Epaksa, a former club singer whose zany, fast-paced “techno-trot” gained popularity among middle-class Koreans in the late 1980s (“Obscured”). Epaksa’s old-fashioned vocal delivery and outlandish appearance, combined with his frenetic synthesized covers of songs such as “Y.M.C.A.,” also made him a popular novelty act in Japan (“Obscured”). Although some (particularly older audiences) may enjoy Epaksa unironically, his kitsch party trot is comical to younger audiences, as shown in a television performance in 2014 ([“Mnet]”). Trot’s camp value is also evident in the videos for Super Junior-T’s “Rokkugo” (2007) and Daesung’s “Look at Me, Gwisun” (2014) which feature trot-style vocals and show the artists in spangled disco-era outfits; likewise, Kim Young Chul’s comic trot music video “Ring Ring” (2017) plays on the cheaply produced visuals for noraebang tracks.

Figure 16.2  1980s pastiche in “Itaewon Freedom” (UV, featuring  JYP, 2011).


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Actor and veteran ballad singer Lim Chang Jung’s trot-influenced electronic dance song “Open the Door” (2013) provides a comic and unusually provocative commentary on contemporary Korea. The song’s lyrics address social isolation, urging the listener to “open the door” and “step outside” rather than passing days alone. Humor arises, first, from the contrast between the modern musical backing and Lim’s emotional, trot-style vocal delivery, using guttural inflections and authentic ornamentation. Its music video features a range of celebrity cameos, droll dance moves, and lurid clothes, and a simple comic narrative. In its opening, Lim plays a deadpan middle-aged singer who enters the dressing room of younger K-pop idol group U-KISS. Lim stares at the members, who rudely ignore him. Enraged at the lack of respect he is given as their elder, he proceeds to systematically vandalize their room and possessions. The music video continues in this manner, showing Lim dolefully observing a range of social evils (such as a restaurant using too much MSG, a girl being bullied, men ogling a woman) before correcting them in comic fashion (throwing the food on the floor, giving the bullied girl a Lim Chang Jung CD, dressing the ogled woman in a parka). In this context, the trot voice is not only a humorous affectation but also connotes the voice of an elder, condemning contemporary social problems. The video “Open the Door” concludes on a political note, showing Lim in front of Korea’s capitol building, the National Assembly Proceeding Hall. The ambiguous implication is either that the political system in Korea is yet another issue in need of remedy—that citizens should “open their doors” and become more politically engaged—or that social evils must be addressed by the government. To return to Bakhtin’s concept of the carnival, the satirical framing of “Open the Door” permits the discussion of problematic sociopolitical concepts, which are normally vulnerable to censure (Choe; Song). As Stott writes, these “licensed transgressions” are “outlets for reckless behavior that enable the continuance of social order” (35). The music video for “Open the Door” thus permits serious grievances to be raised while also containing them within the safety of the comic frame.

Conclusion Humor is a rich mode of discourse in Korean popular music, and in this chapter, I have outlined some common themes. Absurdity, sexual innuendo, self-deprecating humor, comic narratives, and cross-dressing are reliable tropes in present-day K-pop humor. Nostalgia, and its kitsch and camp value, is a more unusual fixation; though not an overt political statement, it nonetheless comments obliquely on Korea’s ongoing social issues and general disillusionment among young people. The main difficulty I have faced in writing about humor in K-pop, however, is the sheer amount of content that exists. Although subjective, the K-pop comic landscape—spanning music and music video, music-comedy acts, novelty songs, variety television, and the online space—seems proportionately much greater than its Western counterpart. This chapter has attempted to explain the reasons for the proliferation of humor in K-pop, starting with the unique situation of K-pop as a system of media production rather than a genre of music. Its entanglement with ­television in particular, as well its global audience through social media, has hastened the ­commodification of humor. A funny moment—whether a segment from a variety show, a comical music video, or a concert pratfall caught on camera—translates to clicks and views on social media, nurtures a connection with the audience, and underscores much of the labor undertaken by fans in the form of memes and other user-generated content. In K-pop, where engagement, exposure, and revenue are increasingly streamed online, humor is serious business.

Notes 1 “Korea” refers to South Korea henceforth. 2 Analyses include its global commodification (Lee and Kuwahara), sociocultural meanings (Cheah and Kim), and fan culture and social media ( Jung and Shim).


Sarah Keith 3 The idol system in K-pop denotes an industrialized process in which recruits (in their early teens, or even younger) are contracted to entertainment agencies, usually following an audition process. These recruits are intensively trained by agencies, which oversee their creative development in music, dance, and physical appearance, as well as secondary skills such as public speaking, or learning Japanese or ­Chinese (Shin and Kim). 4 While the term “fan service” originally referred to the inclusion of gratuitous sexual material in ­Japanese manga for the appeasement of fans (Lamarre 58), it is used in the Korean context to describe general activities outside of an idol’s primary output which cater directly to fans, including holding fan meetings, autograph sessions, and the like (see Kim et al. 1343). 5 Big Bang are renowned for their knowledge and affinity for modern art. The video’s aesthetic, specifically its use of color, flowers, sexual themes, and baroque imagery, particularly recalls Jeff Koons’s 1989 Made in Heaven works. 6 Aegyo is comparable to “cute” (see Manietta). 7 Idol groups often change concepts from album to album. Typical concepts, which encompass the members’ look, themes of their songs, and music videos, include “sexy,” “cute,” “dark,” “urban,” “retro,” and “girl crush” (a tough, cool female persona appealing to the female gaze). Concepts may also be more specific (e.g., wearing school uniforms). 8 In Korea’s conservative culture, LGBTQ issues and homosexuality are largely taboo; humor in male-tofemale cross-dressing is therefore drawn from its scandalous nature as well as its incongruity, although within the frame of K-pop this transgression is sanctioned. However, fictional romantic and sexual relationships between same-sex idols (“shipping”) are a common trope in K-pop fandom and fan culture generally (Hadas). 9 Noraebang (“song room”) is analogous to karaoke. Noraebang is also a popular pastime on chartered buses in Korea, particularly among the older generation.

Works Cited Bae, Ji-sook. “Ban on Rains Song Sizzles Show Biz.” The Korea Times, 25 Nov. 2008. www.koreatimes. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017. Broch, Hermann. “Notes on the Problem of Kitsch.” Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, edited by Gillo Dorfles and Gabriele Mazzotta, Vintage, 1968, pp. 49–76. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990. Chang, Kyung-Sup. South Korea under Compressed Modernity: Familial Political Economy in Transition. ­Routledge, 2010. Chang, Yujeong. “A Study on the Traditionalism of ‘Trot’ – Focused on Yi Nanyǒng’s ‘Tears of Mokp’o.’” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 60–67. Cheah, Joseph, and Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Theological Reflections on “Gangnam Style.” Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Choe, Sang-Hun. “Korea Policing the Net. Twist? It’s South Korea.” The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2012, Accessed 19 Dec. 2017. Fuhr, Michael. Globalization and Popular Music in South Korea: Sounding Out K-Pop. Taylor and Francis, 2015. Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Harper and Row, 1974. Hadas, Leora. “Resisting the Romance: ‘Shipping’ and the Discourse of Genre Uniqueness in Doctor Who Fandom.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 2013, pp. 329–43. Harkness, Nicholas. Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea. U of California P, 2014. Howard, Keith. “The Foundations of Hallyu – K-Pop’s Coming of Age.” Proceedings of the First World Congress for Hallyu Studies. Korea University, Seoul, 18–19 Oct. 2013. Jung, SooKeung, and Hongmei Li. “Global Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Gangnam Style.” International Journal of Communication, vol. 8, 2014, pp. 2790–810. Jung, Sun, and Doobo Shim. “Social Distribution: K-pop Fan Practices in Indonesia and the ‘Gangnam Style’ Phenomenon.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 5, 2013, pp. 485–501. Khiun, Liew Kai. “K-pop Dance Trackers and Cover Dancers: Global Cosmopolitanization and Local Spatialization.” The Korean Wave: Korean Media Go Global, edited by Youna Kim, Routledge, 2013, pp.  165–81. Kim, Samuel Seongseop, Jerome Agrusa, Heesung Lee, and Kaye Chon. “Effects of Korean Television ­Dramas on the Flow of Japanese Tourists.” Tourism Management, vol. 28, 2007, pp. 1340–53. Knobel, Michele, and Colin Lankshear. “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production.” A New ­L iteracies Sampler, edited by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, Peter Lang, 2007, pp. 199–227.


Humor in K-Pop Lamarre, Thomas. “Platonic Sex: Perversion and Shôjo Anime (Part One).” Animation, vol. 1, no.1, 2006, pp. 45–59. Lee, Claire Sungeun, and Yasue Kuwahara. “Gangnam Style as Format: When a Localized Korean Song Meets a Global Audience.” The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context, edited by Yasue Kuwahara, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 101–16. Lee, Yoo Eun. “South Korea: K-pop Music Booms but Censors Still Loom.” FreeMuse ArtsFreedom, 2 Mar. 2014, Accessed 13 Dec. 2017. Lie, John. K-Pop: Popular Music, Cultural Amnesia, and Economic Innovation in South Korea. U of California P, 2015. Manietta, Joseph Bazil. “Transnational Masculinities: The Distributive Performativity of Gender in Korean Boy Bands.” MA thesis, University of Colorado, 2015. Manovich, Lev. Instagram and Contemporary Image. 2017. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017. “[Mnet트로트엑스]돌아온 신바람 이박사_몽키매직@트로트X3회.” YouTube, uploaded by Mnet K-Pop, 4 Apr. 2014, Moisala, Pirkko. “Musical Gender in Performance.” Women and Music Annual, vol. 3, 1999, pp. 1–13. Morreall, John. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. “Obscured Music: The Incredible World of Dr. e.” Fancy Magazine, 2005, html. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017. Oh, Ingyu, and Gil-Sung Park. “From B2C to B2B: Selling Korean Pop Music in the Age of New Social Media.” Korea Observer, vol. 43, no. 3, 2012, pp. 365–97. Schoonhoven, Johan Cornelis. “‘Hell Joseon’—Tales from a South Korean Youth Trapped between Past and Present.” MA thesis, Lund University, 2017. Shim, Doobo. “Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 28, no. 1, 2006, pp. 25–44. Shin, Solee I., and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-Pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980–2010.” East Asia, vol. 30, no. 4, 2013, pp. 255–72. Song, Jung-a. “South Koreans Fear Return to Authoritarian Past.” Financial Times, 24 July 2016, www. Accessed 19 Dec. 2017. Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. Stott, Andrew. Comedy: The New Critical Idiom. Routledge, 2005. “World Economic Outlook Database: By Countries.” International Monetary Fund, Oct. 2010, external/pubs/ft/weo/2010/02/weodata/download.aspx. Accessed 14 Dec. 2017.



The different artistic expressions that define hip hop—namely, rap, break dancing (or breaking), djing, and graffiti—are mostly constructed within urban settings and communities. As an artistic expression that emerged from the Bronx, both the form and content of hip hop gesture toward the urban milieu in which it was conceived. In this sense, hip hop’s urban aesthetic is dramatized in the city walls and subway stations that provide a canvas on which graffiti art proliferates, the concrete surfaces on which b-boys and b-girls perform, as well as the ubiquitous references to urban realities in rap lyrics. Thus, the socioeconomic realities in which hip hop emerged have shaped both its aesthetic features and the subjects tackled in its art form. In many ways, the realities that came to define various cultural expressions that proliferate in hip hop were given shape by specific global economic forces that emerged in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. For example, the impetus to dismantle capital controls across national contexts increased the “the mobility of multinational corporations”: they were hence able to drive down wages by locating production facilities in countries that lacked a unionized labor force or a minimum wage standard in line with their living needs (Norberg-Hodge 181). The impact of capital flight, as some communities moved from a manufacturing economy to a service-driven one, was detrimental to certain already marginalized sections of the African-American community. As the war on drugs was taking off in the 1980s, blue-collar factory jobs that had previously been a source of employment for these communities in the 1950s and 1960s started disappearing. From these contexts, songs such as Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (1982), NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” (1988), Jay Z’s “Wishing on a Star” (1997), and even Notorious BIG’s “Juicy” (1994) capture the hopelessness of those trapped in the urban decay of inner cities, the precarization of black bodies within the prison industrial complex, and dreams of upward social mobility experienced by African-American youth residing in these spaces. The global proliferation of outsourcing and laborsaving technologies similarly impacted the social and economic realities of immigrant communities residing in ghettoized French suburbs. Facing poor employment prospects, discrimination, neglected schools, police brutality, and the spectacle of urban riots, French youth of immigrant origin have often identified with the songs of African-American rappers describing similar experiences; in this way, French rappers were also able to appropriate hip-hop music in order to broadcast their own lives and predicaments. Thus, the aesthetic and thematic features of French rap music, like those of American rap, were largely shaped by the urban spaces from which they emerged. In this way, one can find examples of both overt intertextuality and “inherent hypertextuality” dominating the lyrics of French rap. Aaron Rosenberg defines inherent 150

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hypertextuality as a process “whereby works of verbal or other art, which emerge from similar social circumstances and respond to common societal pressures, may come to relate to each other through character development, plot, thematic content and other elements of creative composition” (41). From this perspective, French rap music not only pays homage intertextually to the lyrics of African-American rappers but also develops themes that are inspired by similar social spaces, economic conditions, and contexts. While a plethora of hip-hop music in the US often engages with subject matters situated within an assemblage of urban themes and backgrounds, other musical varieties such as “country rap” and “hick hop” define themselves against the urban focus that permeates the lyrics of many rap songs. Examples of country rap in the US include the music of artists such as Bubba Sparxx who place an emphasis on rural contexts and traditions in their songs, as well as crossover collaborations such as that between Nelly, a mainstream rapper, and Tim McGraw, a country singer (“Over and Over,” 2004). In certain respects, the entrenched juxtaposition of country music and hip hop, urban and rural, dramatizes the extent to which the boundaries defining these cultural spaces reinforce and reproduce existing essentialist interpretations of black ontology and white working-class identity. While country rap has developed a niche market in the US, in France, one of the first rappers to popularize rural themes in French hip hop was Kamini, a 37-year-old YouTube sensation who was propelled to fame through his humor-filled rap music videos, stand-up comedy, and filmmaking skills. In many parts of France, race, social class, and migrant identities are often spatialized in a series of dichotomies separating the city center from the suburbs, as well as large metropolitan spaces from rural ones. Kamini’s music, his stand-up routine, and the 2016 French comedy drama, Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont (The African Doctor), which chronicles his childhood in rural France, all seek to denaturalize the ways in which the African immigrant experience is often narrowly defined within the parameters of specific cultural spaces, backgrounds, and social class realities. Nonetheless, before examining two songs and a film written by Kamini, it is fruitful first to historicize the African immigrant experience in France, including the formation of ghettoized suburbs and the varieties of hip-hop music that emerged from such contexts.

African Migration to France in the Twentieth Century Africans who migrated to France in the first half of the twentieth century were comprised of students who came to advance their studies in French universities, soldiers from sub-Saharan ­A frica and North Africa who were recruited to fight in World Wars I and II, and factory workers. Between 1913 and 1929, France experienced industrial growth of 40% (Noiriel and Borne 137). At the same time, confronted with a declining population as well as the upward social mobility of French workers, industrialists in France were “forced to concede that only by importing foreign labor could economic growth be sustained” (Camiscioli 6). This demand for labor was partially met by heavy recruitment of workers from French colonies on the African continent. Similarly, the increase in immigration to France in the aftermath of World War II was underwritten by a need to feed the postwar economic boom, a period which became known historically as Les Trente Glorieuses (the Thirty Glorious Years), with large supplies of available foreign labor. During this period, the need for workers was significantly higher than the domestic supply. The French government once again encouraged large-scale migration of workers through its “colonial ties to Africa and the Caribbean” (Helenon 156). This, in turn, “required the construction of large apartment projects [largely financed by industrialists] to house the burgeoning populations of both White native-born French and immigrants” (157). These housing projects, constructed largely in the suburbs of Paris and other major cities, became known as les cités or the banlieues. As the postwar boom slowed in the oil crisis of the 1970s, employment priorities were “given to French citizens and the situation in the banlieue rapidly deteriorated. Immigrants’ living conditions 151

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worsened along with education, housing, and job opportunities” (Helenon 157). Moreover, the social destitution of the banlieue was later also exacerbated by capital flight, including the outsourcing of jobs to other countries (Silverstein 50). In his essay on French gangsta rap, Paul Silverstein contextualizes the impact of capital flight in the French banlieue. According to Silverstein, “In the French case, the movement to European economic and monetary union has both opened the country to job and capital flight and necessitated (in the name of currency stabilization) a reduction of state expenditure that has meant the gradual dismantling of the public sector” (50). As the unemployment rate rapidly increased in sectors of the economy that primarily relied on manufacturing jobs, immigrant communities were disproportionately affected by these new economic realities. Indeed, the rate of unemployment among immigrants in France was twice the national average (50). Hence, Silverstein estimates that in 2002 the unemployment rate in France’s impoverished housing projects was “as high as 85%” (49). It is not surprising, then, that both the atmosphere of urban decay and experiences of social exclusion characterizing the realities of the banlieue permeate many French rap songs. As in the US, French rap thus emerged from a decaying urban environment where the four principal elements of hip-hop culture interacted with one another. While French rappers initially attempted to mimic their African-American counterparts by rapping in English, “they soon switched to French because they were aware that they did not sound as good as those ­A frican-American models” (Prévos 5). Dee Nasty was one of the first rappers to record a hip-hop album in French, titled Paname City Rapping (1984). Other artists such as Lionel D insisted on rapping in French whenever they performed on the radio (5). Initially, French artists like Akhenaton (Philippe Fragione) and Dee Nasty made frequent trips to the US and appropriated the stylistic aspects of hip hop from Brooklyn (Martinez 65). However, French hip-hop artists were not the only ones to cross the Atlantic. As André Prévos documents, “In 1984, Afrika Bambaataa [one of hip hop’s founding fathers from the Bronx] came to France and established a French branch of his movement—the Zulu Nation” (3). During his Parisian trip, Bambaataa crowned many French hip-hop artists as Zulu Kings (Blondeau and Hanak 80). Other French youth who joined the Zulu Nation were often inspired by Bambaataa’s message, specifically the manner in which he embedded his activist discourse in hip-hop culture. In addition to Bambaataa’s influence, the emergence of gangsta rap from California in the late 1980s and early 1990s significantly affected the hip-hop scene in Paris. French hip-hop groups—­including NTM, Mafia K1fry, and Ministère AMER—were seduced by and appropriated the hardcore West Coast genre which eventually supplanted the more reflective New York style of hip hop. The popularity of gangsta rap in the banlieues may be seen, at least in part, as a response to the overzealous policing of such areas—often resulting in the harassment, injury, and even death (at the hands of the police) of youth residing in suburbs. Hence, the music produced, including the use of g­ angster-themed, anti-­police rhetoric in the lyrics, stemmed from attempts to voice anger, despair, and the social and economic exclusion of ethnic and racial minorities from mainstream French society.

Kamini’s Hip-Hop Comedy It is against the urban-centric background from which many French rappers define the exigency of their music that Kamini produces his own brand of “French country rap.” Born in 1979, ­K amini Zantoko grew up in a small rural French village called Marly-Gomont. His father, ­Seyolo Zantoko, was a medical doctor who moved his family from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Marly-Gomont in order to establish a medical practice. Kamini’s song, “Marly-­ Gomont” (2006), highlights his family’s experience as the only black people living in this small village (population approximately 418 in 2008, the year after his song reached #1 in the French singles chart). The rap video, which became an instant internet sensation, was produced on a budget of 100 euros. The video received thousands of views on YouTube and Dailymotion, and 152

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Kamini soon started appearing on radio shows, eventually signing a record deal with RCA for two albums (Grossman). Kamini has often declared in interviews that his music sought to depict realities that were authentic to his own experiences, which were largely different from those of African youth residing in the banlieue. As Kamini states in one of his standup comedy routines, “I do not have what one might call street credibility. At the same time it is not my fault since I come from the countryside. My father was a doctor. I have a nursing degree. I do not have tattoos on my body, and I have never been arrested. So I cannot be credible if I write a rap song where I make statements like, ‘You don’t say hi to me, Kalashnikov! You don’t want to make love, ­K alashnikov! Kalashnikov! Kalashnikov!’”1 Here, Kamini attempts to legitimize his artistic identity as a rapper who is authentic to his own experiences by mocking the exaggerated hypermasculine posture and gangster personae that pervade many varieties of urban-centric French rap—in the process, he validates his rural background as an extension of the social spaces through which hip-hop artists can draw their inspiration. According to Kamini, his father’s decision to move his family to a rural French village was partially motivated by an imperative to save his children from the surroundings and social problems that negatively impact black youth in French urban contexts. In “Marly-Gomont,” Kamini juxtaposes stereotypical descriptions of the rural space in which he grew up with urban clichés that dominate in mainstream French rap music, especially the gangsta rap variety. He thus explains that the village in which he grew up consists of “95% cows and 5% people,” one tennis court, one basketball court, and three young people to play on them. According to Kamini’s humorous description of his village, while banlieue youth can express their anger by participating in street riots and burning cars, this outlet is foreclosed to him since people do not own cars in Marly-Gomont; they only drive mopeds or share the one bus that is available for public transportation. Various passages of “Marly-Gomont” focus on the racism he encountered, from elementary school all the way through high school, as the only black child in his classes. As Kamini explained in an interview with Thibaut Fassuleto at Radio Contact, Since my father was an orphan and given the fact that he really knew about hunger and misery—he would walk for 30 kilometers to school barefoot and without food—he did not understand the suffering we endured from racist insults launched at us in class. From his perspective, that was not suffering. For my father, suffering was not having enough to eat, not having a roof over your head, not having parents, when you have to fend for yourself in order to go to school and have an education. That was how he defined suffering. It really took time for him to understand that as children we did not have this perspective or even his life experience. It took him time to understand that it was difficult for us to endure racist insults on a continuous basis. It is not unusual for the children of immigrants to be more vocal about their opposition to racism than their parents, who are often primarily concerned with integrating successfully into the country and society in which they have been newly adopted. Kamini’s relationship with his father is certainly defined by these dynamics. In “Marly-Gomont,” Kamini depicts both the racist insults and encounters he endured and the generational conflict between him and his father. In a segment of his song, Kamini describes villagers who would tell him, “I don’t like Arabs, I don’t like Blacks, / But you, I like you, even if you are Black.” Here, the idea of the “exceptional” racial token, which allows one to uphold racist beliefs while also encountering and possibly forming close bonds with individuals from minority communities who subvert or do not typify those prejudices, are described in his song for comedic effect. He accomplishes this through satire by appearing to mimic the accent and persona of a villager from Marly-Gomont. In the process, Kamini’s song attempts to undermine the social and cultural processes through which such forms of cognitive dissonance are upheld. 153

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It is worth mentioning that during both rounds of the 2017 French presidential elections, ­ arine Le Pen, the candidate from the far-right, anti-immigrant party, the National Front, M gained the largest percentage of votes in Marly-Gomont as well as in the larger Aisne region where the village is located. While the banlieues are frequently demarcated as spaces populated by immigrant communities, many rural areas in the north of France have, over the years, been perceived as white working-class strongholds for the National Front. In popular French films such as Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les ch’tis, 2008), such regions are sometimes stereotyped as being isolated and backward. Kamini’s “Marly-Gomont” therefore dramatizes the ways in which the spatial cultural politics of race and class, from the banlieues to rural villages, operate in French society. This is accomplished by satirizing the dialect, mannerism, and beliefs of rural residents. The racist attitudes encountered by Kamini and his family in Marly-Gomont, coupled with media representations and perceptions of such spaces in the national imagination, perceptions that are reinforced through Kamini’s own song, gesture toward larger political polarizations defining the region’s electoral relationship to the country at large. Thus, while depicting racist attitudes that exist in such regions, Kamini also reaffirms and reproduces existing urban prejudices about rural communities. Two albums (Psychostar World, 2007 and Extra-Terrien, 2009) and ten singles later, Kamini recently extended his humorous social commentary on the cultural politics of French rural contexts in his 2018 song “Eul’vraie France” (“The Real France”). The title of the song attempts to capture the rural pronunciation of the expression “la vraie France.” In the nonstandard variety of French spoken in this region of France—picard, also known as ch’ti or chtimi—the French definite article la is often pronounced el or eul (Moren). Thus, the local patois replicated in the title and chorus of the song functions as a spatial marker denotating the rural milieu being satirized. Kamini explains the title of his song in an interview conducted on Franceinfo: The expression “the real France” [with local accent], I think I heard it for the first time when I was young. My father was a doctor and so I often accompanied him to see patients. At the time, the elders still spoke Picard. I must have heard that from the mouth of some of the elderly people, or maybe I also invented a little. … I would say that it was a mixture of different things I heard in the local patois. (“‘Je Fais’”) “Eul’vraie France” thus seeks to exploit the social connotations attached to French rural dialects for comedic effect. In their sociolinguistic analysis of rural French dialects, Blanchet and Armstrong observe that the vitality of “dialectical forms of French in rural areas, as opposed to their loss or lack of visibility in towns, strengthens their connotation as ‘ancient,’ ‘rural’ and ‘lower class,’ above all for the upper and middle urban classes” (261). In a context in which standard French is one of the instruments used to define the boundaries of national identity, the song juxtaposes the claims to French authenticity embedded in the statement “eul’vraie France” with the nonstandard dialect deployed to convey such sentiments. However, unlike “Marly-Gomont,” in “Eul’vraie France,” such spaces are not simply mocked for their backwardness, isolation, and racism; rather, Kamini also attempts to highlight the socioeconomic conditions that make these rural areas vulnerable to the far-right anti-immigrant discourse of the National Front. Kamini begins by repeatedly declaring “Ici, ici c’est pas Paris” (“this is not Paris”). The song alternates, on the one hand, between comedic play on words such as “à Paris, ils ont Neymar, et nous ici, on en a marre” (“in Paris they have Neymar [the world’s most expensive soccer player] and here we are fed-up”) and, on the other hand, more serious observations about abandoned factories and schools. If Kamini humorously observes that there are no trendy night clubs in small rural towns, it is only to later remind his audience that there is one doctor for every thousand people in the region. Hence, the popularity of the National Front in such areas and their hatred 154

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of foreigners are described in the context of larger systemic forces that have devastated these rural communities. Unlike “Marly-Gomont,” the audience’s inclination to laugh at the eccentricities of rural French life in “Eul’vraie France” is constantly undercut by reminders of the devastating socioeconomic realities that permeate the region. In other words, Kamini’s new song appears to set up a joke about French rural life only to deny its audience the cathartic ability to laugh comfortably. Written 12 years after the release of his first song, “Eul’vraie France” demonstrates an evolving degree of maturity in the lyrical composition of Kamini’s music.

The African Doctor The development of Kamini’s writing is also reflected in his cinematic work. In 2016, Kamini used his first rap song, “Marly-Gomont,” as inspiration for the script for The African Doctor (­Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont), a film that chronicles his father’s quest to assimilate into French society and to be accepted as the new medical doctor in a rural community. At first, influenced by the popularity of the American television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Kamini wanted to develop a sitcom about an upper middle-class African family that moves to a rural French village. However, after the death of his father in a 2009 car accident, he decided instead to frame his project as a feature length film that would focus on his family’s experiences in Marly-Gomont as a case study of race relations and the accommodation of immigrants in France. Kamini’s film aspires to celebrate his father’s efforts at integration while also critiquing other aspects of his father’s ideology. The film’s humor is primarily derived from scenes that focus on his father’s clumsy efforts to legitimize his presence as a doctor among the villagers. Such scenes include his father’s attempt to be accepted into the community by drinking and playing darts with the locals, as well as his refusal to speak his native language, only later to utter phrases in Lingala when he is inebriated. Since the villagers are initially apprehensive about being treated by a black doctor, the local pub quickly becomes a space that enables him to provide covert medical advice under the guise of simple “bar talk.” In the film, Seyolo Zantoko and his wife, Anne, are portrayed as having different approaches to becoming accepted in their new home. While Seyolo goes to great efforts to erase the traces of his own Congolese background and language in order to assimilate into French society—at one moment in the film he even chastises his children for speaking Lingala—his wife is more determined to maintain her own cultural roots and language; in the process, she chooses to “integrate” into French society on her own terms. These differences create tensions in the family. When their Congolese friends and family come to visit, Seyolo is embarrassed by their African musical interpretation of “Silent Night,” which they spontaneously perform at the local church. He declares, “For weeks I have done everything to get people to accept us. To see us as normal people.” ­Startled by his statement, his friends and family respond: “Because we are not normal people? He’s renouncing his origins, that’s it!” Frustrated by his family’s accusations, Seyolo pleads with them: “Not at all! I just want them to see we’re the same. So I’d rather my family didn’t sing African gospel in front of the whole village on Christmas.”2 In this scene, Kamini’s film dramatizes two contrasting approaches to integration: one that favors the erasure of difference while embracing a homogeneous national cultural identity, and another that celebrates cultural pluralism within the nation-state. The African Doctor seems to favor multiculturalism, as indicated by the villagers’ embrace of Congolese dance and music later in the film. Nonetheless, while the African Doctor celebrates cultural pluralism in its depiction of the immigrant experience, it also offers its own problematic models of integration. For example, The African Doctor celebrates football (soccer) as a shining example of French multiculturalism and tolerance. In the film, the village community rallies around Seyolo Zentoko’s family when they realize that his departure would also mean that they would be deprived of the athletic talents of his daughter, an irreplaceable member of the village’s local football team. However, this popular 155

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celebration of French multiculturalism, expressed through the symbolism attached to the country’s integrated and diverse national football team, often conceals larger systemic structures that lock minority communities out of educational, housing, and employment opportunities. Indeed, the film’s overarching focus on individual hard work as a panacea for overcoming racial prejudices places an emphasis on personal responsibility at the expense of systemic structures that engender and reinforce racialized social inequities. Despite racist attitudes directed at him, Seyolo is able to ingratiate himself vis-à-vis the village community through his relentless work ethic. In this sense, the primary responsibility lies with immigrants who have to “prove” their worth in the face of social prejudices, absolving the dominant culture of any imperative to actively confront its own biases and create a more tolerant and equitable society. As Kamini himself explains, “In the end, you can therefore turn your skin color into an advantage if you are assiduous in your work, and that is a little bit the film’s message” (qtd. in Fassuleto). From one perspective, the film’s emphasis on perseverance in the face of racism is ­understandable— especially given the sense of despair and hopelessness that often afflict young people stemming from minority communities facing such realities. As previously mentioned, it is also not uncommon for first-generation immigrants, such as Kamini’s father, to prioritize hard work and exemplary behavior as a strategy aimed at overcoming prejudices, rather than overt activism targeted against systemic racism. But in a French context where social structures enabling racial inequities are rendered invisible by the government’s refusal to collect data on race and ethnicity, narratives that focus on the individual at the expense of larger social forces also help perpetuate the status quo. Nevertheless, and despite its shortcomings, The African Doctor, as well as the rap song “Marly-Gomont” that inspired the film, humorously dramatizes the ways in which race, class, and colonial technologies of power interact with the cultural politics embedded in rural and urban spaces.

Conclusion By capitalizing on his upbringing in a rural French context, Kamini’s works showcase alternative immigration experiences that tend to be less visible. This is enabled by his specific brand of comedy, which relies on the humor of incongruity, positing cultural juxtapositions: On the one hand, he employs the urban musical genre of hip hop to express rural realities; on the other, in a national context where the black immigrant experience is often confined to cities, the humor in his songs and film largely derives from the village setting to which his educated white-collar parents migrated. These cultural juxtapositions have the effect of providing a rhetorical platform from which he is able to foreground different narratives about immigration and the permutations of black French identity.

Notes 1 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from French to English are by the author. 2 This translated dialogue is taken from the English subtitles of the film.

Works Cited The African Doctor. Directed by Kamini Zantoko, E.D.I. Films, 2016. Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’Tis. Directed by Dany Boon, Pathé, 2008. Blanchet, Philippe, and Nigel Armstrong. “The Sociolinguistic Situation of ‘Contemporary Dialects of French’ in France Today: An Overview of Recent Contributions on the Dialectalisation of Standard French.” Journal of French Language Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 2006, pp. 251–75. Blondeau, Thomas, and Fred Hanak. Combat rap. 25 Ans de hip-hop en France: Entretiens. Castor Astral, 2008. Camiscioli, Elisa. Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century. Duke UP, 2009.


Kamini’s Hip-Hop Comedy Fassuleto, Thibault. “L’interview de Kamini & Marc Zinga.” YouTube, uploaded by Radio Contact, 6 June 2016. Grossman, Lev. “Kamini.” Time, 16 Dec. 2006, 0,9171,1570730,00.html. Hallett, Michael A. Private Prisons in America: a Critical Race Perspective. U of Illinois P, 2006. Helenon, Veronique. “Africa on Their Mind: Rap, Blackness, and Citizenship in France.” The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture, edited by Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. L ­ emelle, Pluto, 2006, pp. 151–66. “‘Je Fais Du Rap Rural Et J’en Suis Fier’: Kamini Revient Avec ‘Eul’ Vraie France’, Un Clip Tourné Sur Ses Terres.” Franceinfo, 15 June 2018, Kamini. “Eul’Vraie France.” YouTube, uploaded by kaminiVEVO, 13 June 2018, watch?v=Fy2VK7nBKhY. ———. “Marly-Gomont.” RCA Music Group. 2006. Time,,9171,1570730,00.html. Martinez, Isabelle Marc. Le Rap Français. Esthétique Et Poétique Des Textes (1990–1995). Peter Lang, 2007. Moren, Eddy. “Le Ch’ti, Le Nord-Pas-De-Calais Et Les Mineurs.” Le Ch’ti, Le Nord-Pas-De-Calais Et Les Mineurs, Accessed 14 June 2018. Noiriel, Gérard, and Dominique Borne. Population, immigration et identité nationale en France: XIXe-XXe Siècle. Hachette, 1992. Norberg-Hodge, Helena. “Local Lifeline: Rejecting Globalization – Embracing Localization.” There Is an Alternative: Subsistence and Worldwide Resistance to Corporate Globalization, edited by Veronika ­Bennholdt-Thomsen, Nicholas Faraclas, and Claudia von Werlhof, Zed Books, 2001, pp. 178–88. Prévos, André J.M. “Two Decades of Rap in France: Emergence, Development, Prospects.” Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the Francophone World, edited by Alain-Philippe Durand, Scarecrow, 2002, pp. 1–21. Rosenberg, Aaron. Eastern African Popular Songs: Verbal Art in States of Transformation. Africa World Press, 2011. Silverstein, Paul A. “‘Why Are We Waiting to Start the Fire?’: French Gangsta Rap and the Critique of State Capitalism.” Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-hop Culture in the Francophone World, edited by AlainPhilippe Durand, Scarecrow, 2002, pp. 45–67.


Part 4

Selected Artists I Humor in Popular Music

Parts 4 and 5 feature case studies of selected artists that explore how and why these artists employ humor and comedy in their work. As we outlined in our general introduction to this volume, we distinguish between humor and comedy. Part 4 examines those artists who are generally more humorous than comedic, which is to say that they rely more on subtlety, more on words, wit, and satire than on jokes, slapstick, and visual appearance. Again, we hasten to add that there is much overlap in the two terms and in the way we categorize the artists in these chapters. For those artists in Part 4, humor represents a smaller segment of their identity than it does for the artists studied in Part 5, for whom comedy is fundamental to their artistic brand. Such categorizing is never easy. We placed Randy Newman in Part 4 because, while comedy is integral in his work, we consider him more of a satirist, a sometimes bitter one who addresses such large topics as the nature of America itself. On the other hand, we place Dolly Parton in Part 5 not because her music is so comedic—it generally is not—but because of her carefully manufactured cartoonish image, on which Pamela Wilson focuses in her chapter and which Parton has manipulated to great success on stage and in the boardroom. We open Part 4 with “The ‘Sly Wit’ of Chuck Berry” by Wayne Robins. Rock and roll’s first poet laureate and the first guitar-slinging singer-songwriter, Berry told stories of fast cars, teenage rituals, and teenage frustrations with clarity, crispness, and ingenuity. On occasion, in songs like “No Money Down” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Berry used his clever rhyme patterns and infectious choruses to explore racial discrimination and stereotyping. Berry, of course, was an important influence on the British musicians who are the subjects of Oliver Lovesey’s essay, “The British Invasion of the Wild West: Country Parody in the Rolling Stones and Other British Bands.” There, Lovesey investigates not Berry’s influence but country music’s influence on 1960s British Invasion bands. In a handful of songs, groups like the Stones, Beatles, Kinks, and the ­Incredible String Band created “second-order” parodies that drew on a received version of country music filtered through Western movies and the music hall. These humorous performances connected the artists with their audiences in what Lovesey sees as a quest to rediscover the lost world of childhood. Lou Reed is rarely considered a humorist. Yet Steven Hamelman identifies the humorous impulse in Reed, which he sees as dry and ironic, raunchy and tasteless, and dark and cynical. In “‘I never said I was tasteful’: Lou Reed and the Classic Philosophy of Humor,” Hamelman draws on the three main theories of humor (Superiority, Incongruity, and Relief ) to explicate songs like “Dirt” and “The Gift,” Reed’s laughter at the end of the original recording of “Heroin,” and

Selected Artists I

his on-stage monologues. Another often dark satirist is Randy Newman. In “Randy Newman’s Satirical Vision and the Myth of America,” Theodore Trost situates Newman’s Sail Away in the context of songs that define and perpetuate the greatness of America, songs like “The House I Live In,” which serves Trost as a foil to elucidate Newman’s satirical perspective. The chapter goes on to discuss Newman’s development as a satirist in Good Old Boys (the follow-up album to Sail Away) and the risks that the ironist takes in being misunderstood. In the closing essay to Part 2, Timothy Gray focuses on the Replacements, punk rockers who evolved into pioneers of the alternative rock movement. In “‘You ain’t laughing, are you?’ Humor, Misery, and the Replacements,” Gray considers the band’s early days in which they played the role of class clown, much like the Stooges and the Ramones. However, as time passed and their music changed, their pain and despair, signaled in Paul Westerberg’s lyrics, could no longer be masked by their funny on-stage dress, drunken performances, and outlandish antics. The Replacements may have laughed until they cried. Much of the humor under discussion in Part 4 is not laugh-out-loud funny—although these artists may have such moments (debatably, Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” or Reed’s attack on critics). While both humor and comedy require the audience and performer to have some shared knowledge and some mutual understanding, the artists here require us to think beyond the immediate grin or even smile. Randy Newman, for instance, questions the myth of America’s greatness in “Sail Away”; the Beatles, Stones, and other 1960s British bands parody the utopian ideal of ­A merica, and the Replacements confront childhood and lost innocence as it slips away.


18 The “Sly Wit” of Chuck Berry Wayne Robins

After Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017, at age 90, the admiring appreciations and obituaries were all but unanimous in identifying the humor in the songs of rock’s foundational guitarist, performer, and singer-songwriter. New York Times critic Jon Pareles noted that “tucked into the lighthearted, telegraphic narratives that he sang with such clear enunciation was a sly defiance, upending convention to claim the pleasures of the moment.” In the Washington Post, Terrence McArdle called him “the sly poet laureate of songs about girls, cars, school and even the ‘any old way you choose it’ vitality of the music itself,” and, in the Guardian, Michael Gray noted that “[Berry’s] material fused insistent tunes with highly distinctive lyrics that celebrated with deft wit and loving detail the glories of 1950s US teen consumerism.” When seminal French rocker Johnny Hallyday died late in 2017, Adam Gopnik noted what the Gallic singer lacked to be understood by Americans: “the Chuck Berry virtues of high-speed compression and sly wit, the rebellious wink and the laconic put-down.” Heck, back in 1972 Richard Williams, reviewing a Chuck Berry hit collection, declared, “Nobody ever voiced the preoccupations of a particular generation more accurately, and with more real wit.” Berry didn’t always appreciate his own gift. On January 23, 1986, I met Chuck Berry at exactly the place one without an appointment might expect to meet Chuck Berry: at the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gala at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. That he would be a charter selection was a no-brainer. He was a creator and innovator, essential to rock and roll, like the other nine inductees that night: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Buddy Holly. Those alive to bask in their deserved accolades were surrounded by press agents, bodyguards, and handlers during the pre-ceremony cocktail hour. But Berry was alone when I approached him with my notebook and pen. “Mr. Berry, when you were writing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Rock and Roll Music’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ thirty years ago, did you ever imagine they’d be ­enshrined in anything called ‘The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’” Berry offered a cold squint and replied without hesitation: “I have no imagination.” Of course, we are sometimes most unworthy judges of our own lives. Robert Christgau gave some perspective on Berry’s importance while noting the man’s disdain for his own talent: “Though he was key in establishing unalloyed democratic fun as rock’n’roll’s core value, he was too cantankerous a guy to leave his admirers feeling that he enjoyed his genius much” (41). He never appeared at ease talking about his wit, his imagination, his impact on rock and roll, with which he was so synonymous that John Lennon famously told US TV host Mike 161

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Douglas in 1972 that “if you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry” (“Chuck Berry”). In a dour interview for New Musical Express in 1973, Berry stunned the rock historian Charlie Gillett1 by lamenting that he lacked the vocal chops of Nat Cole or Frank Sinatra. “I don’t have the voice for that. Whereas I can fake rock—whatever it is, I seem to get by.” Gillett is thrown off by the self-criticism. Chuck Berry “faking” rock? But Berry insists, “I’ve never really created anything. I just re-expose what I hear” (qtd. in Gillett, “Chuck”). Berry has tried to make his miraculous creation, “Roll Over Beethoven,” seem as prosaic as possible. He told Gillett that he wrote the song as he sat at the family piano, trying to read some piano sheet music that belonged to his sister, “far in advance of my one-finger chromatic scale” technique (qtd. in Gillett, “Chuck”). But if the sourcing was that banal, Berry was a master at perceiving the obvious and turning it into something full of wonder and delight. The phrase “Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news” caught the zeitgeist of a changing America. Berry’s assertion was that the rock-and-roll music of teenagers was upsetting enough to lovers of the classics, symphonies, the highest achievements of hundreds of years of European culture that still defined high art in America, that these icons would be rolling over in their graves (a popular American idiom). It was an audacious statement that stirred teenagers: the idea that their music, though simple, had power and value that deserved the attention foisted on the canonical creators. “Roll Over Beethoven” was, of course, funny. Berry was teasing the squares while electrifying the teens with this tale of a protagonist and his friends who wrote to the local DJ, played favorite records over and over on the jukebox, and reeled, spun, and wiggled with electricity and emotion. “Roll Over Beethoven” also namedrops a number of near contemporaneous songs that had the feeling: “Early in the Morning,” “Rockin’ Pneumonia (and the Boogie Woogie Flu),” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” The drops are so casual. Berry’s ability to compress so much energy in so few words and musical gestures makes “Roll Over Beethoven” a monument to the joy of rock and roll itself. Only a few years later, it would be an essential part of the Beatles’ early repertoire, a celebration of both rock reborn and Chuck Berry himself. What was so subversive about the wit of “Roll Over Beethoven” was that the lords of high culture in Beethoven’s camp completely missed the wit and the discipline of the writing. As Lennon said, “In the Fifties, when people were virtually singing about nothing, Chuck Berry was writing social-comment songs, with incredible metre to the lyrics” (qtd. in Beatles 11). Just as Johnny B. Goode could “play a guitar like ringing a bell,” Berry could turn a phrase that could elicit smiles, laughs, and chuckles. He embodies the idea that rock and roll could be a distinctive form of entertainment, and because of the humor in his songs, this proud black man from segregated St. Louis enchanted a white teenage audience. He not only spoke their language but, in some ways, he also invented their language, laying down the lexicon of cars, high school, dating, and leisure. The humor was not always ha-ha funny; it was more situational, observational, and motorvatin’al.

Motorvatin’ to the Calaboose Money made Chuck Berry smile. He repeats variations of this notion throughout the film Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! His own musical idols were bluesmen such as Muddy Waters (who arranged the introduction to Leonard Chess that got Berry signed to Chicago’s Chess Records), Elmore James, and Howlin’ Wolf. But, he says in the movie, those artists were limited to the radio stations and therefore record buyers in the black community in the 1940s and 1950s. When he worked as a housepainter with his handyman father, Berry never heard Muddy or Wolf coming from the radios in the white neighborhoods; he heard Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone, and through a little arithmetic, he figured he could make more money doing what Sinatra and Pat Boone did—that is, playing “nice” music (Hail). 162

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Berry might have been being sarcastic. He might not. Berry’s utterances and behavior were hard for others to read, including Keith Richards, Berry’s greatest acolyte, supporter, student/­ imitator, who produced the music for the concerts celebrating Berry that are at the heart of Hail! Hail! Making the movie, Berry often made Richards miserable, from rehearsals to the stage, arguing about the proper key for certain classic songs and coming close to humiliating Richards over the precise way to strum a riff on “Carol,”2 another song that Richards and the Rolling Stones had recorded a quarter century earlier. Enunciation was critical to Chuck Berry’s success. Unlike blues singers, who slurred their phrases, and country singers, who used elongated twang for effect, Berry used funny words and told funny two-and-a-half minute musical stories, but he pronounced everything crisply and clearly. Sometimes, he made up his own words that standing alone could capture your attention, elicit a smile. It started in the first verse of “Maybellene,” a song that breaks convention by starting with the chorus. After that intro, the story starts. As he “was motorvatin’ to the top of the hill,” he sees “Maybellene” in a Cadillac—a “Coup de Ville,” in one of those bell-ringing rhymes that made Berry not just a songwriter, but a poet. But is it “motorvatin’,” emphasizing “motor,” which would be a smart pun on this paean to the possibilities of the internal combustion engine? Or is it “motovatin’,” which would be a combination of “motor” and “motivation,” which so many teenagers in the 1950s were told they lacked? It may not be important. Either word, as sung by Berry, has what neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin might call “a nice sort of mouth feel” (Personal interview). As a writer, Levitin is attracted to such colloquialisms. In Weaponized Lies, he leavens serious statistical theory with words he finds funny such as “shenanigans” and “bamboozle.” “Bamboozle is a fun word to say, to contemplate,” he told me. “You don’t hear it all the time but you know what it means.” That mouth feel gives a sweet kick to another Berry usage from “No Particular Place to Go” (1964). This was part of Berry’s comeback from a jail stint for violating the Mann Act, a federal crime selectively prosecuted that prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Berry charges involved a 14-year-old girl he had met in El Paso that he brought to work as a hatcheck girl in his Missouri club. He served about 20 months in Federal prison from February 1962 to October 1963. The opening line of “No Particular Place to Go” is straightforward. “Ridin’ around in my automobile,” he sings. In the final verse, however, he switches “automobile” to “calaboose,” and he enunciates the word with both unmistakable clarity and a notable strain, indicating frustration. Unlike motorvatin’, the word calaboose exists, but barely. Listeners no doubt thought that calaboose was some sort of a synonym for jalopy or a car. But calaboose has no relation to automobiles. It derives from “prison” or “dungeon.”3 Since cars meant freedom to American teens, the lyric makes no literal sense. But it sure sounds funny. Perhaps Berry used calaboose to celebrate his freedom after doing time in a Federal calaboose. That Berry during his life served three stretches in the calaboose is well-trod territory. Berry writes of those events in his autobiography with candor and a surprising lack of bitterness. Perhaps there was method, not madness, to beginning that verse with “calaboose.” It solved the problem of creating a rhyme for the second line, in which his intentions were clear: “Still tryin’ to get her belt a-loose.” Seatbelts were a relatively new option in 1964. In fact, the aimlessness of the drive in “No Particular Place to Go” becomes more farcical as the whole point of the drive, and the narrator’s building frustration, was to unbuckle his girl’s seatbelt and do a little romancing, or what American kids called making out. She seemed agreeable, to a point. He pulled over so they could take a stroll in the moonlight, steal a smooch or two or more under the stars. But the seatbelt would not become unstuck. Perhaps that frustration made the car, in that moment, seem like a prison. Cars and girls are the familiar tropes of 1950s rock. The fastest way to a girl’s heart was a fancy set of wheels, at least to get the girl in the car. Berry could not promise results (see Berry 41). The conventional wisdom is that Berry’s genius resided in his ability to express the values, rituals, and codes of white teenagers, the primary record buyers of the 1950s. But, in truth, he understood all teenagers from his own experience as a teenager. 163

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Berry was born October 18, 1926, which would have made him nearly 30 when he recorded “Maybellene.”4 He grew up middle-class, black family in St. Louis that, while not affluent, was comfortable. His father was a painter, carpenter, and a strictly religious, all around handyman, who imparted wisdom about racial matters. Young Chuck worked with his dad throughout his teen years, and earned money from his work. His father also made him well aware of the poor prospects for a black man seen even glancing at a white woman. Berry’s autobiography is full of descriptions of his pushing up against that taboo with the kind of ambivalence that would occasional bring him sexual performance anxiety, at other times delight his propensity for voyeurism.5 He even makes up a word for that taboo: “Hospitaboo,” as in a chapter from his autobiography called “Southern Hospitaboo,” a combination of “hospitality” and “taboo,” or as he writes, “How do you do but don’t-you-dare” (121). When given the opportunity to audition for Leonard Chess at Chess Records in 1955, Berry had two tunes ready: “Wee Wee Hours,” a soulful slow blues, and “Ida Red,” an upbeat country song and a longtime part of the repertory of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. In some tellings, Berry had refashioned “Ida Red” as “Ida Mae.” Berry says he changed the name, at the suggestion of Leonard Chess, to “Maybellene” because the three-syllable switch just felt right. What’s fascinating about “Maybellene” is not that it was derived from “Ida Red”; it is that once refashioned as “Maybellene,” it wasn’t derivative of anything. It was its own thing, neither blues nor country but something else. “The motor cooled down the heat went down, that’s when I heard that highway sound,” the guitar and vocals running on all cylinders. Astonishing to hear. It was a use of language that was inventive, colloquial, and fun to listen to. Both sides of that single got airplay and sales: “Wee Wee Hours” from radio stations and stores in the black community and “Maybellene” from much larger white stores and radio stations. This validation from the pop charts led Berry to coin another word: “Anglopinionated,” “my own word for ‘white worthy’” (Berry 125). Leonard Chess seemed to know—and Berry quickly understood when “Maybellene” ­became a hit—that the real money would come from tapping into that white teenage rock-and-roll ­audience. Berry, as a black man in segregated America, could not be marketed as a personality, or heaven forfend, a sex symbol, though he was undoubtedly a “brown eyed handsome man.” But Berry had to hit them where they lived: in the suburbs, muddling through high school, ­living for leisure, and, above all, fun. But he also wrote about the awkwardness of the transition to adulthood, which he more joyously conveys in “Almost Grown” (1959). With a giddy, ­steeplechase-jumper of a background chorus that recalls Lloyd Price’s near contemporaneous “­Stagger Lee,” Berry recounts the many responsible attributes of the protagonist that should provide some credit toward being “grown.” He uses phrases such as “I ain’t never been in Dutch,” obscure ­h ipster slang for “in trouble” or on someone’s bad side (see Décharné 91). His probity is conveyed in a series of verbal shrugs: “I don’t carouse around too much,” he sings early in the song. By the last verse, he’s married to his hometown sweetheart, with car and with job, “so I don’t carouse around at all.” At least that’s what he says. “Carouse” is such a witty Chuck Berry word, if you think of it as a contraction for “car” and “arouse.”

“Sweet Little Sixteen” Again, the conventional wisdom that seemed to annoy Berry was that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was about a groupie, a teenage girl who habituated the back doors and backstages of rock concerts, eager to please the performers. Songwriter Rodney Crowell has even called the song “the most lecherous song in our lifetimes” (qtd. in Levitin, World 278). In his autobiography, Berry insists that the impetus for the song came while on a package tour with the young Canadian star Paul Anka in Ottawa, Ontario, where a girl of only “seven or eight” ran around looking for Anka or anyone else to sign her tightly clutched “Mickey Mouse” autograph book (Berry155). The situation 164

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is cute, though awkward. If the focus of the song were a little girl, it would be a little perverse. Making the autograph hound a frantic teenager is funnier, in the way that Betty and Veronica in Archie comic books are funnier as teenagers than they would have been as little kids. None of the “cats” would want to dance with an eight-year old; they all wanted to dance with “sweet little sixteen.” Berry also identified not necessarily with a girl of 16 years, but with his own memories of being 16 “with the grown-up blues” (see Berry 154–55). The secret sauce for “Sweet Little Sixteen” is in making the song a shout-out to the power of Dick Clark, host of “American Bandstand” (“… rockin’ on Bandstand”) and the most essential hitmaker in America at the time. Berry was already familiar with the cynicism of the music business, having discovered that Chess Records had bestowed a share of the composing credit for “Maybellene” on two men who had nothing to do with writing the song: Disc jockey Alan Freed, the stairway to nationwide airplay in 1955, and Russ Fratto, a businessman who was close to the Chess family.6 But Berry never sounds cynical. At a time when most media was regional, he toasts the towns and cities across America and teenagers rockin’ in Boston, Pittsburgh, Texas, “around the ’Frisco Bay and all over Saint Looie,” New Orleans—all could ooze with civic pride when Berry named their habitat in this tune. Is there today any rock performer who does not begin a show with “Hello, [insert city here]?”

The Duck Walk If it walks like a duck … it must be a way for Chuck Berry to hide the wrinkles in his suit at a 1955 Alan Freed rock-and-roll show at the Paramount in Manhattan. That is why Chuck Berry went into a crouch, doing his flat-footed glide across the stage, guitar pointing forward like a ­bayonet—all while playing his guitar and hiding the wrinkles in his rayon suit. Any overt message, such as “this machine kills squares …” or “racists …” or “promoters who don’t pay me in cash …” was unintentional. But Berry understood the power of trademark shtick, and the Duck Walk became his visual signature, the visual embodiment of the joy of guitar rock, because, you know, if it walks like a duck, it’s Chuck Berry. Audiences got to see Berry do the signature walk in early show business multi-act movies Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956), and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959). In the latter, a couple intently watches Berry perform “Memphis, Tennessee” on a TV set. They giggle when Berry hits the punch line of the song—“Marie is only six years old”—and break into wide grins when he does a brief duck walk. Berry, duck walking his way offstage, gives a broad wink to the camera. He is always in on the joke. Berry’s limber gymnastics are even better seen in the otherwise forgettable Mister Rock and Roll (1957), in which he performs only the forgettable “Oh, Baby Doll.” But his moves are great: doing a pigeon-toed precursor of the Mashed Potatoes, perhaps, and gracefully jumping side-to-side in rhythm. There’s a small smile as Berry performs—he disdained lip-synching, as apparently done here, so much so that he once argued heatedly with Dick Clark about such a requirement on ­American Bandstand. Berry refused to play the joker himself in movies. His sour disposition toward his acolyte and benefactor Keith Richards, the music producer and bandleader in the 60th birthday tribute to Berry in Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987), did not go unmentioned when Richards wrote his autobiography. “I don’t knock people much (outside my intimate circle), but I’ve got to say that Chuck Berry was a big disappointment” (469). Berry’s music, however, provides hilarious highlights of two of the top-grossing movie comedies. In Back to the Future (1985), Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back to the pre-Berry 1950s and dazzles a high school dance with a duckwalking rendition of “Johnny B. Goode.” The leader of the band, Marvin Berry (Harry Waters Jr.), runs to an office and calls his “cousin”: “Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. … You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!” He holds the receiver out for Chuck to hear. 165

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In Men in Black (1997), alien-hunters K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) head from Manhattan through the Midtown Tunnel to Queens to save the universe from the alien they’ve tracked to the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Park. To beat the traffic, cynical supervisor K tells J to push the red button, thrusting their car into hyperdrive, riding on the walls and ceiling of the tunnel. J is predictably hysterical and disoriented, but K has never been cooler. At the wheel, he pops in an eight-track cassette of Elvis Presley doing Berry’s “Promised Land.” For many fans of Elvis, Chuck Berry, alien life forms, and Queens, NY, it is the funniest, most memorable scene of a memorably funny movie.

Sort of Subversive When Chess Records finally released a Chuck Berry album, After School Session in 1957, Berry was featured on the cover—full face with body in a suit, holding a guitar with his feet slightly pigeon toed in one of his usual stage stances. The album’s biggest hit is “School Day” (sometimes known as “School Days,” and sometimes with the parenthetic “Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell”) perhaps the quintessential Berry song if there could be such a thing. In his superb analysis, Herb Bowie writes, “Even if all we had was this one recording of Chuck Berry’s, we would have ample evidence of art and artist.” It’s a detailed journey through a single day at school: the challenge of classes, the annoyances and distractions of other students, the drama of the lunchroom, the tension building in the endless boredom of afternoon classes until school is out, arrival at the malt shop or candy store, the cathartic release of music from the jukebox, of rock and roll itself. “The feeling is there, body and soul.” The wit is in the details—rhyming “practical Math” and “hoping to pass” took imagination. But his detailed and nuanced recounting of the universal experience of high school comes from his own vivid memories. The appearance of rock and roll, with Berry as its poet laureate, expanded his audience and “School Day” had the longest chart run of any of his singles (­fi fteen weeks). It was #1 on the Billboard R&B chart for five weeks in 1957, and peaked at #3 on the pop chart, surpassed during the 1950s only by “Sweet Little Sixteen” (#2, 1958). The separation of the charts by race made it harder for black artists to hit #1 during Berry’s prolific hitmaking years. (Ironically, keeping “Sweet Little Sixteen” from reaching #1 in 1958 was “Get a Job,” the great comic doo-wop novelty about black unemployment by one-hit wonders the Silhouettes.) Berry’s own songs about race were B-sides of the hit singles and album tracks. While “No Money Down” is about the proclivity of those in the black community to buy on credit and dig into debt, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is Berry’s most audacious racially charged song.7 “Arrested on charges of unemployment,” the protagonist sits in the witness stand. But before he can testify in his own defense, the judge’s wife intervenes, phones the DA, and demands they “free that brown eyed man,” and then repeats with a threat: “If you want your job, you’d better free that brown eyed man.” The final verse tells of a baseball game won by a home run hit by a “brown eyed handsome man,” a Jackie Robinson, a Willie Mays, perhaps, in the early days of baseball’s integration. Greil Marcus asserts that “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is a direct descendant of the quintessential black outlaw blues hero “Stagger Lee,” who Marcus calls “a stone-tough image of a free man” (67). Berry originally planned to identify “Johnny B. Goode” as a “colored boy,” not a “country boy.” Leonard Chess pressed for the change, and Berry did not disagree. “The changes were made for sales purposes. We didn’t want to offend anybody,” Berry told record executive Andy McKaie. But does anyone hear any version of “Johnny B. Goode” and think of the title character as anyone other than a black man?

“My Ding-a-Ling” (1972) Yes, we have to go there. Some of us see it as a stain on Berry’s career, although a supremely ironic one. “It’s one of the crazier quirks of the rock era that ‘My Ding-a-Ling,’ a forgettable


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rude novelty song, is Berry’s only number one single” (Bronson 321). Everything about it is lesser Berry, from the lazy vulgarity to the fact that it was a live recording from a festival in England, an anomaly considering the way Berry frittered away his talent as a performer by recording almost exclusively with unrehearsed pickup bands throughout his career. There’s more irony here. The song, in various forms, had been in Berry’s repertoire since at least the early 1950s, when he would do variations on this 1952 Dave Bartholomew tune for adult audiences in the black-only nightclubs of East St. Louis. Berry was no stranger to copyright claims, of course—on rip-offs of his own work, that is. Courts found that the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” was “Sweet Little Sixteen” with new lyrics about California surfing life. The Beatles’ “Come Together” was judged to borrow from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” in a case in the 1970s that was settled when Lennon made an agreement to record an album of covers featuring a number by the copyright holder, legendary music business hustler Morris Levy. Berry recorded “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1966 as “My Tambourine” and released it on the ­Mercury album From St. Looie to Frisco (1968).8 It wasn’t until “My Ding-a-Ling” became a hit that he felt comfortable performing it for younger fans. “It’s a great novelty, for the adult,” he told McKaie. As always, his diction is perfect.

Notes 1 Gillett, who wrote the first scholarly study of 1950s rock in his book The Sound of the City, notes that Berry can be derivative, noting the similarities between Berry’s guitar break in “Johnny B. Goode” and that in T-Bone Walker’s “Strollin’ with Bones.” 2 Watching the movie again in winter 2018, I noticed that musicians including Berry’s long-estranged pianist Johnnie Johnson and Richards’s drummer and friend Steve Jordan, among others, watched the rehearsal argument with contempt and pity, but that is just an opinion. It does verify Richards’s published opinions of Berry. 3 The original Calaboose ( jail) in Springfield, MO, is now a police substation. The slang might have been regional, as Springfield is 200 miles southwest of Wentzville, MO, Berry’s hometown outside of St. Louis. Merriam-Webster says the word is derived from the Spanish “calabozo,” meaning “dungeon.” The Free Dictionary says it has Louisiana French heritage, calaboose, also related to calabozo. 4 The title of Berry’s first hit has often been misspelled. The title on the sheet music was originally spelled “Mabellene” (see Berry 111). It is sometimes also rendered as “Maybellene,” after the cosmetic line. Berry, who went to beauty school, was thought to have given a shout-out to the brand. The story appears to be spurious. In Berry’s book, he says “Maybellene” was the name of the cow in a children’s book (145). 5 Of the former, his autobiography brings to light his not always platonic relationship with married Texas millionaire and heiress Candace Mossler (235–40). 6 Chess also listed Fratto or Frato as a writer on songs by the Flamingos and by Sugar Pie DeSanto. 7 Marcus argues that the Stagger Lee myth is reflected in songs like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ Stone,” Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” Wilson Pickett’s “I’m a Midnight Mover,” and, perhaps more debatably, the Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” (240). 8 “My Ding-a-Ling” was one of the rare times Berry appeared to have infringed on someone else’s copyright. The credit on the King label for “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1952 is to Dave Bartholomew and Sam Rhodes. For a comparison of Bartholomew’s “My Ding-a-Ling” and Berry’s “My Tambourine,” see “My Tambourine” on the SecondHandSongs website.

Works Cited Back to the Future. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, performances by Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson, Universal Pictures, 1985. The Beatles Anthology by the Beatles. Chronicle Books, 2000. Berry, Chuck. Chuck Berry: The Autobiography. Faber & Faber, 1987. Bowie, Herb. “School Day.” Reason to Rock: Rock Music as Art Form, day.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. 5th ed., Billboard Books, 2003.


Wayne Robins Christgau, Robert. “Chuck Berry’s Promised Land.” Billboard, 1–7 Apr. 2017, pp. 40–42. “Chuck Berry & John Lennon.” The Mike Douglas Show. 1972. YouTube, uploaded by angue 8 Jan. 2017. Décharné, Max. Straight from the Fridge, Dad: A Dictionary of Hipster Slang. Broadway Books, 2000. Gillett, Charlie. “Chuck Berry: Go Chuck Baby Go.” New Musical Express, Feb. 1973. Rock’s Back Pages, Accessed 3 Feb. 2018. ———. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll. Da Capo Press, 1996. Go, Johnny, Go! Directed by Paul Landres, performances by Alan Freed, Jimmy Clanton, Sandy Stewart, and Chuck Berry, Hal Roach Studios, 1959. Gray, Michael. “Chuck Berry Obituary: ‘A Lively, Perfect Fit of Street-talk to Music.’” Guardian, 19 Mar. 2017, Accessed 13 Feb. 2018. Gopnik, Adam. “The Untranslatable French Love for Johnny Hallyday.” New Yorker, 6 Dec. 2017, www. Accessed 8 Jan. 2018. Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll. Directed by Taylor Hackford, performances by Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, and Johnnie Johnson, United International/Universal Pictures, 1987. Levitin, Daniel J. Personal interview. 10 Aug. 2016. ———. Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-truth Era. 2016, A Field Guide to Lies. Dutton, 2017. ———. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Dutton, 2008. Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music. 4th ed., Plume, 1997. McArdle, Terence. “Chuck Berry, Wild Man of Rock Who Helped Define Its Rebellious Spirit, Dies at 90.” Washington Post, 18 Mar. 2017. Accessed 13 Feb. 2018. McKaie, Andy. Liner notes. Chuck Berry: The Chess Box. LP. Chess/MCA, 1988. Mister Rock and Roll. Directed by Charles S. Dubin, performances by Alan Freed, Teddy Randazzo, Rocky Graziano, Paramount Pictures, 1957. “My Tambourine.” SecondHandSongs. Accessed 6 Apr. 2018. Pareles, Jon. “Chuck Berry, Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneer, Dies at 90.” New York Times, 18 Mar. 2017, www.­ Accessed 7 Apr. 2018. Richards, Keith, with James Fox. Life. Little, Brown, 2010. Rock, Rock, Rock! Directed by Will Price, performances by Tuesday Weld, Chuck Berry, and Alan Freed, Vanguard Productions, 1956. Williams, Richard. “Albums: Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade.” Melody Maker, 3 June 1972, 18.


19 The British Invasion of the Wild West Country Parody in the Rolling Stones and Other British Bands Oliver Lovesey While the fabrication of authenticity features in much popular music, it is a central tenet of country music.1 Indeed, a key element in the story of country music is how this tradition of authenticity, sincerity, and timelessness (as if certain songs had always existed, as Greil Marcus argues in Three Songs) was invented or, rather, how the aura of authenticity was co-opted, institutionalized, and commercialized since the first recordings of the 1920s, an era in which this music was in danger of becoming a museum exhibition (Pecknold 1–14; Peterson 6–9). Widespread horror at the risk of country’s contamination of popular music eased with the recognition of country’s commercial clout as well as the grudging acceptance by the 1950s of country’s potential to revitalize popular music, long the preserve of Tin Pan Alley (Peterson 189–91). Henceforward, some of those who came to scoff would stay to line dance. Embracing the comic paradox of fabricated authenticity or acting naturally was a feature of four representative British bands of the mid-1960s, all of whom incorporated aspects of comedy in their stage personae from DIY pantomime to verbal slapstick, circuses, and performances of transvestism. Amid postwar devastation and privation, in a nation of lost childhoods, country music for these bands conjured a utopian wonderland that was emotionally raw, impossibly naive, and slightly ridiculous. Deploying stereotypes like the gunslinger and the drunken doctor, these songs construct an alternate reality, though one that in its origins was populated, in part, by European immigrants whose music and its vocal inflections carried survivals of ancestral voices. Hypersensitive to variations in accent and idiolect, with ears attuned to aural markers of region and registers of class, rank, and station, the singers in these bands from different parts of Britain projected a deft linguistic ventriloquism. Their type of parodic or pastiche-like rendering 2 may respond to their anxieties about appropriation and inauthenticity, their inherited suspicion of bald emotional expression, and their self-perception as entertainers and not simply academic roots archivists or international students of the great American songbook. This chapter examines parodies of country music in the work of some of the best-known ­British Invasion groups of the 1960s: quintessentially British performers interfacing with a quintessentially American musical expression. The Incredible String Band’s “Log Cabin Home in the Sky,” the Kinks’ “Willesden Green,” the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Dear Doctor” deliver a hyperbolic, self-consciously comic parody of music hall entertainment and Western movie versions of country music. They function as at least a second-order parody as they were often imitations of what was already a parody of the genre. The ISB’s and the B ­ eatles’ move into country resembled good-humored homage, the Kinks’ incursion replicated their engagement 169

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with utopian nostalgia, and the Rolling Stones’ involvement shifted from a type of burlesque to a hybridized country blues rock that would define some of their best work. All in various ways drew on the socially subversive potential embedded in the British music hall,3 though their stance was that of depoliticized Wildean court jesters rather than lacerating social critics. When these bands performed country parody in Swinging England, country music was terminally uncool. Country or “hillbilly,” “western,” “corn,” or “hayseed” music had been treated with derision within 1940s popular music (Escott 50, 156–58), Tennessee initially objected to ­Nashville’s becoming country music’s citadel, and some early country performers like Vernon ­Dalhart distanced themselves from its aura of illiteracy, poverty, and clownishness (Pecknold 23–35). These British Invasion bands emerged well before outlaw country, Gram Parsons’s “cosmic ­A merican music,” and hybridized new, young, or alt country. Today, all manner of performers are letting their country roots show from the Nashville Sounds of Dan Auerbach and Jack White to even U2. On his 2017 tour, channeling Sinatra in renditions of “Stormy Weather,” Bob Dylan had a pedal steel in his band, though there is some, inadvertent, late Sex Pistols punk comedy in the proceedings. When the British Invasion bands were parodying country, the industry associated with Nashville was glamorizing rhinestones and sequins, oversized belt buckles and big hair, and sometimes disguising a populist ethic of whiteness, misogyny, and homophobia. Despite its show business kitschiness, however, country music had a connection, via field recordings, with W.E.B. Dubois’s “sorrow songs” and the music of the downtrodden, the American underclass, and a direct aural connection to the immigrant experience and memories of dispossession. Country music emerged from an eclectic blend of “traditional ballads, dance tunes, Victorian parlor songs, hymns, blues and vaudeville numbers” (Escott 121). It was the private music of the voiceless underclass partly inherited from the ballads collected by Cecil Sharp and Francis James Child. Senator Joseph McCarthy—almost a stage villain in this narrative were it not for the shadow of fascism he and his sidekick Roy Cohn, mentor to Donald Trump, cast over American culture—may have created country music or at least its moniker’s enduring success as a marketing category. “Country” prevailed over “folk” due to folk music’s guilt by association with communism during the Red Scare of the 1950s (Peterson 198–99). In the emerging myth of country music as America’s theme song, Appalachia was elevated into a national homeland, its people configured as “noble relics of Elizabethan England” (Peterson 215), among whom “singing was almost as universal a practice as speaking” (Cecil Sharp, qtd. in Mancuso 157). This notion of a living archive of cultural memory representing the origin of the national narrative would be exploited to legitimate the nation’s ownership by white European immigrants. Country could thus be manipulated by right-wing populists as an ethnic signifier, an unbroken circle of rightful possession. Policing the borderlands of “country” and preserving tradition, however invented, with a quasi-religious enthusiasm would continue into the present (Peterson 222–24). Humor always has had a connection with country music.4 Early country music tours were entertainment packages, derived from barn dance or medicine shows, much like mid-1960s rock shows in England. Musicians like Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe featured blackface performers (Mancuso 19). Hank Williams shared the stage, not always comfortably, with Minnie Pearle, Milton Berle, and Bob Hope, and nearly half Williams’s program was a kind of “hillbilly vaudeville” (Escott 170, 197). Williams’s touring and recording income was supplemented with the sale of songbooks for which he charged a “handling” fee: “You send in the money… and I’ll handle it” (Escott 188, 42). In other country compilations, even parody songs had a place (Ford 427). When television overtook radio in the 1960s and 1970s, the “barn-dance” radio format, which blended music and comedy, was replicated in TV programs like Hee Haw and the variety shows of Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell. Along with “[t]he humility that all country performers were, and are, supposed to wear like a crown of thorns” (Escott 164), however stylized, came the persona of the hopeless alcoholic or junkie, a stance embodied by Williams, and his erstwhile imitators Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, a specter far from the W.C. Fields-like comic drunk incorporated into some 1960s rock parodies. 170

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The Incredible String Band (1966–1974) were a cult band whose mid-1960s’ psychedelic folk music, blending diffuse international and Celtic influences—“Scottish tunes” taken to “­Appalachia and back via the Balkans and North Africa” ( Joe Boyd, qtd. in Thomson 63)—as well as a decidedly DIY aesthetic influenced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Their late 1960s’ work moved increasingly into comedy in their Gilbert- and Sullivan-inspired “The Minotaur’s Song” (Hodgkinson 29), and somewhat fey, music hall-inspired songs such as “Old ­Buccaneer” and “Giles Crocodile,” as well as “Little Cloud” with its “ta, ta, ta, bow wow” chorus. “Willow Pattern” is a mock Beijing opera performance, and the audience reactions at the Paris Theatre, London, in the early 1970s on Across the Airwaves indicate the shenanigans on stage. Self-­consciously naive and lighthearted, these comic, erstwhile cosmic, songs provoked a near fanatical devotion in their fans, although as Ian Macdonald points out, the source of their “nostalgia for the innocent vision of the child” (173) was as much the legacy of World War II trauma as of wandering within a child’s garden of grass or LSD. In performance, the band increasingly moved in the direction of “Victorian-amateur-dramatics” (Young, Electric 371), culminating in their critically and financially disastrous double album U (1970). “Log Cabin Home in the Sky” is a country waltz and one of the ISB’s best-known and least idiosyncratic songs. Its melody was taken from Woody Guthrie’s “The Cowboy Waltz” (1944), which Mike Heron heard on a tape acquired via a subscription service prior to the ISB’s formation. Propelled by Robin Williamson’s virtuosic fiddling and punctuated by a washboard rhythm, it was a song they might have performed at Woodstock and garnered a much different future.5 It derived from Heron’s idealized vision of America as the land of uninterrupted song: “We knew you couldn’t take three strides without tripping over a rural bluesman, every church had a gorgeous gospel choir and families sat round in the evening singing Carter Family songs” (Heron 66). From its inception, Heron envisioned the ISB as “a guitar, banjo and fiddle set-up. An American old-timey roots trio…. We saw our set being built out of Carter Family material, jug band tunes, singalong chorus numbers and a few jigs and reels” (77–78). Despite their core instrumental dexterity, the ISB would always embrace Williamson’s DIY ethos of inspired amateurism by playing unfamiliar instruments and incorporating amateurs into the band. The lyrics of “Log Cabin Home in the Sky” are a variation on those of “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane,” probably written by Will Shakespeare Hays (Roberts 118) and popularized in Fiddlin’ John Carson’s 1923 recording. Like later “state” songs, such as “In My Tennessee Mountain Home,” continued still later by Sufjan Stevens, the ISB’s “Log Cabin Home” drew on a tradition of laments addressed to a dilapidated homestead, a possible metonym for the nation. In Hays’s version, the cabin exists in a state of near-total collapse and the singer’s parents have died. Heron’s lyrics, while gesturing to the mortal frailties of the cabin, the nation, and the earth as well as the bone house of the human body, suggest the theme of heavenly reward and reunion common to Appalachian ballads. In Heron’s song, the family circle will be reunited in heaven: “Now there comes a time to every man /…When [he] must run from the deeds he has done /… winter is nigh let us fly to my log cabin home in the sky.” While the ISB usually celebrate blissful living in the moment, being here now,6 the projection toward heavenly reunion in “Log Cabin Home” reflects the band’s mining of older American music with its Christian motifs in their late mid-career work. Its humor lies in its impossibly faux-­ naive stance, a psychedelic wink from across the water at rural American pieties. The song emerged from the expansion of the band’s musical horizons resulting from their exposure to Nonesuch’s ­ mericana overinternational discs (Hodgkinson 29). “Log Cabin Home” conjures a mythic A lapping with memories of watching singing cowboys on screens, memories possibly connected with the song’s composition: “When the group lived in California they were ensconced in a house close to Frank Zappa’s log cabin home which was originally built for screen cowboy Tom Mix” (Brooks 39). However, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, on which “Log Cabin Home” appears, also features W ­ illiamson’s inspired “The Circle Is Unbroken” with his Celtic/Moroccan vocal 171

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pyrotechnics and its overall theme of “marshalling forces for a spiritual quest” (Young, Electric 369), though shortly afterwards the band embarked on a less savory inquiry in Scientology, Rose Simpson recalling that after “conversion” some members considered themselves “saviours” (Stone 201). It facilitated the ISB’s divorce from their original inspiration (Boyd 188); one of their last recordings included a wall of noise contribution to a tribute for L. Ron Hubbard.7 A band perhaps yet more remarkable for its generic shifting and incorporation of parody and pastiche is the Kinks. Their country and “American” works alone might merit a “saviours” album, given their fondness for compilations and making hard C initials into K’s. Ray Davies’s first composition was “Rocky Mountain,” a country pastiche, written when he was studying both Spanish guitar and Hank Williams (Rogan 50–51). The Kinks may have a claim to originating punk or even heavy metal (Davies 20)—with the initial menacing attack of “You Really Got Me,” which Davies insisted had originated as a Chet Atkins-type song (Rogan 146)—popularizing sitar rock in “See My Friends” and being the midwives or godfathers of Brit-pop. However, their main writer’s work was ever engaged in a slow dance with music hall, pantomime, cabaret, musical, film and television, ballet, and operatic forms. Davies’s work also carries a persistent strain of nostalgia for a lost country of childhood, which colors with a certain flippancy what otherwise might be bitter satires of materialism as the English working class’s reward for World War II sacrifices and of the vacuous optimism of the Swinging Sixties. Despite quintessentially English themes, the Kinks display a lingering fondness for an idealized America. Their own “invasion” of America in the mid-1960s was stalled by officious American resentment, but they returned with a vengeance in the 1980s, during the MTV-driven second British Invasion (Rogan 200–04, 227–36, 380). Ray Davies is an artist at home in a variety of multidisciplinary contexts, yet he may be primarily a frustrated filmmaker, and Muswell Hillbillies was originally designed as a film, though the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies was also an inspiration (Kitts 160, 162; Rogan 506). Davies was introduced to film study by his college friend Paul O’Dell who was particularly interested in Westerns. Examining D.W. Griffith, O’Dell acknowledges the director’s technical innovation but focuses on his devotion to ideas and on film as an art form (13, 96–97), which resembles Davies’s innovative elevation of popular music. The musical palate of Muswell Hillbillies eccentrically mixes “country and Irish influences with American country rock, Dixieland, British music hall and folk, complete with conventional brass imitating Salvation Army cadences” (Rogan 412). Davies designated it a “comedy album” and Rob Young calls it “pub rock dreaming of the Grand Ole Opry” (“Muswell” 65). The disc’s comedy targets the pathologies of modern life. A particular anxiety concerns a bureaucracy claiming one’s land or dwelling, and in the DVD accompanying the album’s 2014 legacy edition, Davies in 1972 witnesses the destruction of a block of Muswell Hill houses. Different characters seek redress in drink or drugs or a “cuppa tea,” but persistently desire escape in an Oklahoma or West Virginia “that I have never seen.” America is the fabled land of Western films, and Davies’s 2017 album Americana and particularly its brief “Silent Movie” and “The Great Highway” reflect yet more elegiacally, while shifting in and out of his cod-western accent, on his own near-death experience after being shot in New Orleans.8 “Willesden Green” is a self-conscious country pastiche, which Rob Jovanovic somewhat incongruously refers to as “a slow, bluesy rocker” (174), but it is also one of the Kinks’ most paradoxically English songs. It rehearses the long-distance love affair with American films, but name-checks a working-class area of London, holding fast in its celluloid context to that most English of institutions, the sex farce, as well as the tradition of the penis joke (extending back at least to Tristram Shandy). The 2:21-minute song appears near the end of the soundtrack for the film Percy, the title a euphemism for the penis; the film is an “outrageous sex comedy,” as the trailer available on YouTube promises, along the lines of England’s Carry On comedy films. It concerns a penis transplant, making much of the new digit’s length and erectability. “Willesden Green” is unusual in the Kinks’ catalog in featuring the vocal of John Dalton, the band’s bassist from 1969 to 1976. He mimics a country Elvis of the Vegas- and Demerol-voiced period, laconic, drawling, 172

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and apparently stoned. The “faux-maudlin” lyrics may owe something to Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” (Wirth 62). The singer laments his homesickness following an attempt to settle in the big city where he misses “the folks back home in Willesden Green.” The fondly remembered home is not a log cabin on the green, however, but a “little semi-detached.” The faux-country flavor of the piece is clearest in the spoken or drawled interlude between 1:08 and 1:47, an impossibly facetious, hyperbolic take on talking country blues that also features in the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” and the Rolling Stones’ “Dear Doctor.” Other than the restless lead guitar, the song seems unlike the Kinks, and certainly very different from the bluesy “Completely” or the minor pop classic “God’s Children” elsewhere on the album, as if already, with self-conscious irony, the band is transforming into what Dave Davies would call in another context the “Karaoke Kinks” (Rogan 612). The Beatles made more extensive inroads into comedy than the Kinks, but their intrusions into country are somewhat rare. They were adept at intentional and unintentional parody, and Lennon and McCartney initially had styled themselves a Liverpudlian version of Tin Pan Alley composers writing songs for others. On The Beatles, there is a parody of music hall and silent-film songs in “Honey Pie” and of the Beach Boys in “Back in the U.S.S.R.” “Don’t Pass Me By” and later “Octopus’s Garden” have decidedly country cadences and, like the early cover of “Act Naturally,” promoted Ringo Starr as a type of country crooner. Beaucoups of Blues, recorded in Nashville over 48 hours along the model of Nashville Skyline (Greene 20), was Ringo’s second solo record. Having all members of the band showcase their talents was a feature of the variety revue medium in which the group emerged. They perfected the press conference and photo shoot as comedy fests, and their first two comic films hugely boosted their profile, just as earlier they had performed a spoof of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, available on YouTube. George Martin, their producer, had recorded Peter Sellers, and his work with the comic genius greatly elevated him in their estimation and no doubt facilitated their willingness to experiment with often comic sound effects, and the band created remarkable comedy set pieces such as “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).” Later, George Harrison, whose All Things Must Pass outtake “I Live for You” has pronounced country colorings, produced Monty Python, though his comedy songs, such as “His Name Is Legs (Ladies & Gentleman),” are somewhat clay-footed. “Rocky Raccoon” is a genial country parody appearing on an album of songs, mostly composed on acoustic guitar in India during the Beatles’ retreat with the Maharishi, a set of songs that, in their origins, might be thought of as the Beatles’ basement tapes. The song’s unusually simple strumming pattern differs markedly from other more intricate guitar work on the album. In this respect, as with pre-1950s folk discs in America that sometimes featured accompanying lyrics and music, the recording seems designed to encourage listeners to learn and reproduce the four-chord song for themselves. In a 1968 interview (“Rare!”), McCartney says the song began as a sing-along with Lennon and Donovan entitled “Rocky Sassoon” on the roof at Rishikesh: “I don’t know anything about the Appalachian mountains or cowboys and Indians,” he maintains, admitting the Western drawl was “just a joke.” Interestingly, an early demo of the song available on YouTube (“Rocky”) shows little evidence of the faux-American accent that becomes particularly pronounced in the spoken introduction to the song in its final version, though the accent is yet more exaggerated in take eight reproduced on Anthology 3, which also demonstrates that the lyrics were still in flux over the eight-hour recording session. Irreverent ad libs in some early takes include a shifting American dream geography and penis jokes: “Move over doc, let’s have none of your cock” (qtd. in Lewisohn 149). For Ian MacDonald, “Rocky Raccoon” is one of the “fillers,” a “faintly amusing squib,” designed to expand the album to fulfill contractual obligations, apparent in the song narrative’s incomplete closure (246–47). It highlights Lennon and McCartney’s linguistic dexterity in a “Tom Mix/Harry Langdon silent-cinema yarn about comedy cowboys” (246). The song, however, also demonstrates the apparently effortless breadth of the Beatles’ talents and their good-humored comedy in a homage to Hollywood’s Wild West. It garnered a number of cover versions, including 173

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one by Bob Hope (Guesdon 480). It also accords with the reflections on childhood memories in some of the album’s other fractured fairy tales such as “Cry Baby Cry” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” The title of “Rocky Raccoon” may allude to the craze for raccoon hats in the mid-1950s, when there was a ballad and a film celebrating Davy Crockett (Rogan 34). Its ragged end contributes to an air of lighthearted spontaneity, and its self-consciously absurd details, such as Gideon’s Bible, character aliases, and a drunken doctor (perhaps based on a real incident [Turner 161]), convey a sense of being in the unfiltered, unpolished presence of remarkable creativity, unlike the brilliant masterworks such as “Penny Lane.” We have one of McCartney’s innocently infectious Pied Piper-like “da, da, da” choruses that will elevate even the much-maligned post-Beatles “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The tale of cheating and double-crossed lovers in “Rocky Raccoon” offers a very English account of gun violence, in the more innocent mid-1960s, where shooting only produces theatrical, recoverable wounds. The song’s protagonist Rocky collapses in his room after his rival’s shot, which causes no fatal injury, as the doctor warns, or the beginning of a clichéd Appalachian blood feud, but only a flesh wound. A recoverable loss also ends the Rolling Stones’ country parody “Dear Doctor.” The song invokes a mock-English country world in which having a creased suit jacket is a near tragedy and dying would be in bad taste. Early Rolling Stones’ lyrics were often something of an afterthought, and hard times came in the form of smoking a different brand of cigarettes than those of the “man on the radio” in “Satisfaction”; much later, perhaps a sign of exhaustion with hard-done-by lyrical adventures, we have a corpse encouraging necrophilia in “Start Me Up.” Once the band recovered from their short-lived, ISB-influenced psychedelic holiday on Their Satanic Majesties Request, they returned to their, and particularly Brian Jones’s, roots in blues and country folk on Beggars ­Banquet, the first in a string of albums, brilliantly produced by Jimmy Miller and shortly afterwards featuring Mick Taylor’s virtuosity, that would redefine the band as rock-and-roll roots innovators. While ever displaying the tension of “artifice vs authenticity” (“Rolling Stones” 83), the Rolling Stones’ nearest approach to comedy or humor might be their Rock and Roll ­Circus, despite Jones’s spectral appearance, though its humor may center on the inadvertent comedy of Mick ­Jagger’s performance, but generally they adhered to their image, largely contrived by ­A ndrew Loog ­Oldham, as the anti-Beatles, and not only because they hastened and embittered the ­Beatles’ demise by recommending Allen Klein. However, unlike the other British bands parodying country songs considered here, the Rolling Stones would go on to incorporate country elements in songs as diverse as “Wild Horses” and “Loving Cup.” Despite their broader sendups in faux country songs like “Sweet Virginia” and “Faraway Eyes,” moreover, even their “Dead Flowers” would be covered by Townes Van Zandt and also by his protégé, Steve Earle. The major difference between the louche country blues swagger of “Loving Cup” and the more formulaic country sendup of “Dear Doctor” may lie in the opposing attitudes of their principal songwriters. In his autobiography, Keith Richards credits Gram Parsons with introducing him to “a seam of music that I’m still developing” (247), though elsewhere he recalls playing Sanford Clark’s songs in school (75). The band’s pre-Gram Parsons intrusion into country created “Dear Doctor” on Beggars Banquet, which Richards refers to as one of Jagger’s “great songs” though he maintains that “Marianne [Faithful] had something to do with that” (237; see Lovesey’s “Disenabling Fame” 307). “Dear Doctor” represents a broader, yet more humorous version of country parody or pastiche than even “Far Away Eyes,” a song about which Anthony DeCurtis wrote in the booklet accompanying the 2011 expanded re-issue of Some Girls: … for all its parodic, country elements… the broadness of Jagger’s vocal complicates the impact of “Far Away Eyes,” and introduces another note of humour—the most overlooked aspect of Some Girls. “The actual music is played completely straight,” [ Jagger] explained, “but it’s me who’s not going legit with the whole thing, because I think I’m a blues singer not a country singer—I think it’s more suited to Keith’s voice than mine.” 174

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On the “Mono Edition” of Let It Bleed, however, there is an outtake of Jagger singing “You Got the Silver” showing not the exaggerated faux-southern accent of “Far Away Eyes” or the near-mockery of “Dear Doctor” but an adept, emotionally straightforward sincerity. “Dear Doctor” is a hurtin’, cheatin’ song with a difference. Its instrumental performance is accomplished and “played completely straight,” including skillful harmonica, but its lyrics and vocal delivery are absurd. Jagger has claimed that it is “pastiche,” and, as on “Factory Girl,” an attempt at “acknowledging” the “sense of humour in country music” (qtd. in Margotin 263), but it appears to go well beyond conventional country humor. Its focus is on a heart and not a penis transplant, as in Percy. The drunken character requests his doctor extract his tortured heart and preserve it in a jar to alleviate the pain of his impending marriage to a “bow-legged sow.” Jagger delivers the groom’s mother’s reported speech in the same voice used for the rest of the song. She “ploughed” him with “bourbon” and tells him to ready himself. Placing the ring in his pocket, he discovers a note from his intended, whose voice is mimicked in an over-the-top, cartoonish faux-female falsetto which pushes the song into the domain of burlesque, telling him she’s in Virginia with his cousin. Jagger didn’t use this vocal affectation on the first take of the song, available on YouTube (see “Rolling Stones—‘Dear’”), and his increasingly contrived, outlandish vocals probably signal his growing discomfort—perhaps mimicking that of the groom—with singing a country song. The singer now wants his heart reinserted in the hole in his chest, though he’s “crying tears of relief and my pulse is now under control.” The silliness of “Dear Doctor” is swiftly dismissed and the air of facetiousness is cleansed in the next song in the album’s running order, the slide-guitar classic “Parachute Woman,” an all-American paean to fellatio. Much of the music of the British Invasion bands of the early and mid-1960s, as they well knew, frankly imitated the song traditions of the Americas. Their imitation engaged with humor when they incidentally tackled country, though country music itself had developed a tradition of comedy in songs and performance. From the homage-like, somewhat labored sincerity in the ISB’s parody “Log Cabin Home in the Sky,” with its distinct echoes of earlier songs, to the broader, more ridiculous spoof in “Dear Doctor,” these bands were briefly mimic men selling overseas buyers a version of their own wares. Uneasiness with this position of counterfeiting and discomfort with the formulaic shootin’, hurtin’, cheatin’ narrative clichés in circulation as well as their bald emotional honesty contributed to facetious, hyperbolic expression. Such facetiousness informs vocal delivery but not instrumental performance. Through these parodic country songs, young performers from the British Isles, who had grown up amid postwar deprivation and trauma, reconnected with a lost world of childhood, as featured in Western films and an older tradition of ballads that had themselves crossed the Atlantic and entered the bloodstream of American vernacular music.

Notes 1 This is a central argument of Peterson’s Creating Country Music. 2 See Jameson on pastiche (17) and Hutcheon on parody (72–75). 3 Projecting silent Westerns in the early twentieth century and hosting rock shows in the 1950s, music hall fostered the seeds of its own demise in the early 1960s. 4 One of the distinctive features of country rock may be its unwillingness to engage with the humor of the country tradition. See Cusic elsewhere in Part 1. 5 Live versions of the song appear on Bloomsbury 1997, Everything’s Fine (2003), and Nebulous Nearnesses (2004), and a slow version, with affected “country” vocals, on Across the Airwaves (2007). 6 See Heron’s “This Moment” and Williamson’s “Ducks on a Pond” in which the singer hopes to locate the “paradise island” “everywhere” (qtd. in Norbury 69). 7 Following “Black Jack David” and Williamson’s comic “Circus Girl,” the album’s “Finale” rehearses Heron’s “A Very Cellular Song” performed with Chick Corea and others. 8 Davies suggests in his autobiography that America, and not just New Orleans, represents an undiscovered riff (15).


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Works Cited “Beatles Midsummer Night’s Dream Spoof.” YouTube, uploaded by trekkiekid3000, 5 July 2010, com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg. Boyd, Joe. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. Serpent’s Tail, 2006. Brooks, Ken. The Incredible String Band: Gently Tender. Agenda, 1999. Davies, Ray. Americana: The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story. Sterling, 2013. Escott, Colin. I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams. Back Bay, 2015. Ford, Ira W. Traditional Music of America. 1940. Folklore Associates, 1965. Greene, Andy. “Ringo Starr.” Rolling Stone, 24 Aug. 2017, p. 20. Guesdon, Jean-Michel, and Philippe Margotin. All the Songs: The Story behind Every Beatles Release. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2013. Heron, Mike, and Andrew Greig. You Know What You Could Be. Riverrun, 2017. Hodgkinson, Will. “The Incredible String Band.” Mojo, May 2017, pp. 28–30. Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody. Methuen, 1985. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism. Duke UP, 1991. Jovanovic, Rob. God Save the Kinks. Aurum, 2013. Kitts, Thomas M. Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else. Routledge, 2008. Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. Doubleday, 1988. Lovesey, Oliver. “Disenabling Fame: Rock ‘n’ Recovery Autobiographies and Disability Narrative.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, Winter 2011, pp. 296–322. MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head. Pimlico, 1995. Mancuso, Chuck. Popular Music and the Underground. Kendall/Hunt, 1996. Marcus, Greil. Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations. Harvard UP, 2015. Margotin, Philippe, and Jean-Michel Guesdon. The Rolling Stones: All the Songs. Translated by Richard George Elliott, Hachette, 2016. Norbury, Paul. Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. Grosvenor, 2017. O’Dell, Paul. Griffith and the Rise of Hollywood. Castle, 1970. Pecknold, Diane. The Selling Sound. Duke UP, 2007. Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity. U of Chicago P, 1997. “Rare! Paul McCartney Goes through the White Album Track by Track.” 1968. YouTube, uploaded by Beatle Stories, 25 June 2017, Richards, Keith, with James Fox. Keith Richards: Life. Little, Brown, 2010. Roberts, Andy. “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” beGLAD, edited by Adrian Whittaker. Helter Skelter, 2003, pp. 117–18. “Rocky Racoon.” The Beatles—Home Recordings, May 1968. YouTube. Time, 43:15–45:55. Uploaded by TheBeatlesAtTheStudio, 23 Mar. 2017, ldL5LqEpKvTZwZO-a_ABOG9d2aK. Rogan, Johnny. Ray Davies. Bodley Head, 2015. “The Rolling Stones.” The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, edited by Simon Frith, Will Straw, John Street, Cambridge UP, 2001, pp. 83–85. “The Rolling Stones – ‘Dear Doctor’ (Take 1), 1968,” uploaded by Rollover 1970, 18 Sept. 2011, www. Stone, Christopher James. Fierce Dancing. Faber and Faber, 1996. Thomson, Graeme. “Scottish Folk.” Uncut, July 2017, pp. 60–65. Turner, Steve. A Hard Day’s Write. Carlton, 1999. Wirth, Jim. “Percy.” 26 Mar. 1971. Rpt. in Uncut: The Kinks: The Ultimate Music Guide, 2017, pp. 62–63. Young, Rob. Electric Eden. Faber and Faber, 2010. ———. “Muswell Hillbillies.” 26 Nov. 1971. Rpt. in Uncut: The Kinks: The Ultimate Music Guide, 2017, pp. 64–65.


20 “I never said I was tasteful” Lou Reed and the Classic Philosophy of Humor Steven L. Hamelman

He had an incredible sense of humor. He was not possibly, but definitely, the funniest, wittiest person I’ve ever been around. – Marty Fogel, saxophonist, 1970s sideman for Lou Reed (qtd. in Levy 228)

Bob Dylan’s somber portrait of an alienated modern man on “Ballad of a Thin Man” is momentarily destabilized by a chortle. Similarly, the intimidating cover photo of Blonde on Blonde (1966) is undercut by the circus mood of the opening track, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” on which many people laugh, including the star himself at the 48th second. Dylan laughs often on Concert at Philharmonic Hall (1964), on The Basement Tapes Complete (2014), and on The Best of the Cutting Edge 1965–1966 (2015). All of this laughter, which occupies a tiny fraction of Dylan’s recorded output, humanizes the cool, distant creator of standards such as “Desolation Row” and dark bluesy albums such as World Gone Wrong (1993) and Time Out of Mind (1997)—humanizes an artist who plays whole concerts without so much as saying hello to his audience or smiling at all. Steeped in British music hall routine, the Beatles are quick to laugh in the films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), and the two Live at the BBC boxsets (1994/2013) are filled with the sound of pop stars voicing their joie de vivre. The Beatles’ giggles, guffaws, and chuckles bring joy to listeners who seek the personal touch—for laughter shows openness and vulnerability. (On the original LP tracks, only “Hey Bulldog” includes audible hilarity.) Laughter can also show, as it does at 2:49 of the Kinks’ “Yes Sir, No Sir,” a point of view: Ray Davies’s snickering intensifies the theme of this satire of senseless warfare. Used selectively, as it is by these masters of rock, laughter is a powerful emotional and thematic force in the studio and on stage. Lou Reed embodied a Lower-East-Side aesthetic, the antithesis, it would seem, of the comic mode. Reed was the acid-tongued chronicler of urban deviance, of addicts searching for their mainline, of speed freaks shooting white light, white heat. Yet the dissonant music that matches these identities is belied not only by the light content and warm delivery of many of his group and solo tunes, but also by his laughter on “Beginning to See the Light,” “Foggy Notion,” and “Temptation Inside Your Heart,” and during stage talk on 1969: The Velvet Underground Live (1974/ re-released on The Matrix Tapes in 2015) and Live: Take No Prisoners (hereafter, TNP), a double LP released in 1978 that includes monologues in the late-night stand-up tradition. On TNP’s raucous “Sweet Jane,” Reed follows up a riposte to a heckler (which elicits gales of audience laughter) by asking self-mockingly if he, Reed, resembles Henny Youngman, the quintessential Borscht Belt


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comedian. He proceeds to tell a Henny Youngman-type joke, the one about the wife and the Volkswagen in the living room, saying how funny it is.1 Reed found humor in less corny material too. For instance, he laughs on the original “Heroin,” a song whose theme of self-destruction has few if any equals in rock. Forming the foundation of the philosophy of humor are three main theories: Superiority ­Theory, with roots in the classical age; Incongruity Theory, linked to Immanuel Kant and ­A rthur Schopenhauer; and Relief Theory, which “was not carefully worked out until the ­n ineteenth century” (Morreall, “New” 131). Superiority theorists claim “that when something evokes laughter, it is by revealing someone’s inferiority to the person laughing” (Morreall, Comic 7); it’s “the act of elevating oneself in one’s own eyes at the expense of someone else” (Martin 174). Incongruity theorists claim that we laugh mainly at “some thing or event we perceive or think about [that] violates our normal mental patterns and normal expectations” (Morreall, Comic 11). In this theory, disparity and discrepancy prevail. Relief theorists, Sigmund Freud among them, argue that “[t]he excess nervous energy that is relieved by laughter … is the energy of emotions that have been found to be inappropriate” (Morreall, Comic 17). It feels good and it’s therapeutic, so the theory goes, to laugh at things normally forbidden or censored. Humor specialists agree that each of these theories contains gaping holes; as such, all three have been subject to rebuttal and refinement. Innumerable theoretical tributaries flow from them, some taking shape as elaborations of the original theory, others as distinct theories about the meaning of amusement, comedy, humor, mirth, and laughter. For instance, conceding in the late 1980s that, despite centuries of trying, “we are still without an adequate general theory of laughter,” humor scholar John Morreall argued that “a good way to gain the insights necessary for constructing a comprehensive theory of laughter is to examine the three traditional theories” (“New” 128, 129). Of the three categories, Lou Reed’s humor is most often a matter of incongruity. If we laugh— and by this, I don’t mean actual physical laughter, although it might be that too; but it could be internal laughter, an intellectual “appreciation” or realization that something Reed has described, even something as bad as overdosing, depicts an amusing incongruity: to repeat, if we laugh at something in VU or Reed solo, the reason generally lies in the fact that, to quote Schopenhauer, “The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity”2 (qtd. in Clark 145). The best example is “The Gift,” a short story set to music, from White Light/White Heat (1967). The first incongruity is found in the mix. Filling the left stereo channel is John Cale’s narration, devoid of affect. Audible in the right channel is a grinding riff the Velvets often played live under the title “Booker T.” The tale and tune are individual entities; there’s no bleed-over; the two tracks don’t complement each other at all. The aural incongruity of “The Gift” is enhanced by Cale’s Welsh accent: this tale, written by the New Yorker Reed, concerns three middle-class American college students. There’s nothing inherently amusing about “Booker T.,” a squealing, throbbing groove that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. The tale, however, is packed with amusing incongruities. First and foremost is the hero Waldo Jeffers’s plan to ship himself in a box from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin in order to surprise his girlfriend Marsha, whom he hasn’t seen in two months. Marsha, who, contrary to Waldo’s belief in her fidelity, has been cheating on him, receives the box the morning after spending the night with a certain Bill. Marsha and her “very, very best friend” Sheila—each very describing her is redundant because “best” connotes only one individual friend, thus making each “very” logically incongruous—struggle to open the carton until Sheila takes a sharp tool and drives it into the center, through all the layers of cushioning, impaling Waldo’s head—this “final image,” in the words of Reed’s biographer Victor Bockris, “in the classic style of Yiddish humor that informed so much of Reed’s work” (54). 178

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Random, absurdist details ramp up the ironies: Waldo concocts his mailing idea in the middle of the week before a local parade by a civic group occurs. Checking the mailbox for a letter from Marsha, he finds only a flier from an American corporation targeting homeowners about awnings. Marsha tips Mr. Jameson, who works at the Clarence Darrow Post Office, 15 cents stolen from her mother’s beige pocketbook in the den. Multiple incongruities constitute “The Gift.” On the level of plot, people aren’t supposed to mail themselves as “gifts” or at all; Waldo’s expectations of Marsha’s joy are contradicted by her contempt; Waldo doesn’t need an awning. On the level of writing, good writers don’t use redundant adverbs (very) or throwaway details (the color and location of the pocketbook, the names of the mailman and post office). And on the level of production, music and words are supposed to be in aural and thematic sync. If “The Gift” is a satire, we could more easily justify its incongruities. After all, according to scholar Arthur Pollard, a “[s]atire is always acutely conscious of the difference between what things are and what they ought to be” (3). But while “the variety of satire is almost infinite” (4), “the subject must be worthwhile” (7), and Waldo’s infatuation, and resulting death, do not appear to be such. Furthermore, says Pollard, a “satirist seeks to persuade and convince” (1). Is Reed trying to persuade young men to be less trusting of their (distant) girlfriends? This seems unlikely. Lou Reed wasn’t a prescriptive, didactic, or political writer. He was an observer, one with a satiric bent, able (to quote A. Melville Clark) to skewer both “the flippant and the earnest … by using all the tones of the satiric spectrum, wit, ridicule, irony, sarcasm, cynicism, the sardonic and invective” (qtd. in Pollard 5). That the satiric elements in the song don’t make up an actual satire adds another incongruity to the pile.3 Another reason we may laugh at Waldo is that superiority comes into play. Waldo is the classic “schmuck.” His gullibility amuses listeners—we wouldn’t do anything that stupid: Superiority Theory in a nutshell. Superiority-driven amusement/laughter, although not common in Reed’s songs, is seen again in “Dirt” (from 1978’s Street Hassle), where Reed lambasts an anonymous person who would “eat shit and say it tasted good / If there was some money in it for ’em.” It’s a disgusting image but also a funny one, tinctured by Lou Reed’s audacity for saying it at all. Here, and passim, Reed’s humor supports Freud’s claim that “[t]he pleasure in the case of a tendentious joke arises from a purpose being satisfied whose satisfaction would otherwise not have taken place” (117). Reed says, with fearless wit, what we only dream of saying. Laughter grounded in Superiority Theory, with an underlay of relief, occurs more frequently in Reed’s monologues at the Bottom Line show in 1979 that became TNP, which Mark ­F leischmann and Ira Robbins, in their entry on Lou Reed in The Trouser Press Record Guide, call “one of the funniest and most entertaining live albums of all time” (543). All of the elements of Clark’s spectrum of satire—wit, ridicule, irony, sarcasm, cynicism, the sardonic and invective—are displayed. With his band churning out the groove of the first track, “Sweet Jane,” Reed elicits cheers when, in a free-association departure from the lyrics, he targets his first victim, Barbra Streisand. Impersonating her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, he mimics in a squealing voice “her” gratitude for the “little people” who helped her win her prize. Pause. Then in his normal Long Island voice, Reed spits out, “Fuck her and her little people”—implying, fuck this grand star for calling the people who help to ensure her stardom little; they are as big, or as little, as she is—as we are too. Hoots and howls from the audience show that they get the point, at Streisand’s expense, of Reed’s superiority in everyone’s shared littleness. Superiority reaches even greater heights on “Walk on the Wild Side.” Here, Reed succeeds not only in ridiculing the rock critics he detested but also on inviting his audience members to feel superior to this privileged class of scribes. Extra bite comes from the suspense inherent in Reed’s unrehearsed vitriol and audacity; no one can tell where he’ll go next. He improvises in response to verbal and visual cues, one of which is Bruce Springsteen, who is in the house. After praising him, Reed launches into the journalists who turned on Springsteen, still a few years away from 179

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superstardom. First to fall is Robert Christgau of The Village Voice. Reed sprays this so-called Dean of American Rock Critics with invective (“toe-fucker,” “anal retentive,” and “moron”) and ­sarcasm (“‘Consumers Guide to Rock’ . . . start studying rock and roll, I can’t believe it”). Also lashed is John Rockwell of the Times (“Fuck you! I don’t need you to tell me I’m good,” snarls Reed). Those in the audience able to digest what they’re hearing—that they’re hearing it at all— love these barbs, as when he comes back to Christgau, slamming his “nice little [grading] boxes” and the B+ he gave Reed: “Can you imagine working for a fucking year and getting a B+ from an ­asshole in The Village Voice?” Into his scourge of Christgau and Rockwell, Reed adds jabs at personalities such as Norman Mailer (for his absurd macho poses), Saul Bellow (for being from Chicago), Jane Fonda (for her “sensitive lesbian pictures”), and even himself: “Watch me turn into Lou Reed before your very eyes! [Laughter.] I do Lou Reed better than anybody.” Self-­mockery—according to Freud, “self-mockery was the most distinguishing feature of Jewish humor” (Cohen 4)—vies with self-exaltation as Reed underpins the stream of insult with a syncopated rock foundation. Naturally, there’s a catch. Much of Reed’s humor requires risk—his and ours. To rant “Somebody shoot those journalists. You don’t need those assholes. Why do you let them come in here free?” may be to use superiority in order to leverage crowd laughter, but it is also for Lou Reed to risk lawsuits and bad reviews, while those of us enjoying his tirade risk losing our sense of fairness and decency. At any moment, he might make us laugh at something we’ve been taught isn’t supposed to be funny. We may even have to laugh at ourselves; after all, don’t we read the reviews? The pull of superiority-cum-relief, however, may be too strong to resist. We may think, “Yeah, those reviewers, comped while criticizing artists we like—they deserve Lou’s abuse,” but what happens when his thrusts do offend us? This question is relevant when listening to Lou Reed in our age of monitored morality. The kind of words that Reed sang or spoke in the 1970s on TNP and Street Hassle (1978) have, in the present era, shaken reputations seemingly above reproach. See, for instance, what happened to Paula Deen, whose contrition didn’t matter much to those who deemed unforgivable her use of the “N-word”

Figure 20.1 


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decades earlier. Certain words and topics are off limits except to comedians like Louis CK, who, before allegations of sexual harassment derailed his career, skewered liberal pieties surrounding this very “N-word.” To someone who takes Louis CK’s scathing routine literally, or who’s averse to profanity, or who’s unable to appreciate a comedian’s exposure of the cant and hypocrisy allied to racial slurs, then the most offensive tune on Street Hassle and TNP is probably “I Wanna Be Black.” In her book Conceptually Distinguishing Mirth, Humor, and Comedy, Eva Kort remarks that we “may take Aristotle’s warning [in Ethics] about comedy/humor’s potentially ill effects—that it could be dangerous—especially that it could be base or uncouth in social contexts and even generally destructive to community as well as damaging to the comic agent” (71). Later, she adds, “For surely we do not attribute to someone good humor who uses the comic’s tools to bully and belittle. It would not even, it seems, be unusual for us to be reluctant to claim that jokes used in such ways are funny” (86). In this context, Simon Weaver’s caveats in The Rhetoric of Racist Humor are timely too. Weaver rejects the “exculpatory” approach to humor (which says all humor is harmless, that nothing bad is meant by it) because “racist humour is a form of racist rhetoric that supports serious racism” (8). Although able to see the relief value of racist humor, Weaver stands firm: In relation to racist humour, jokes may act as a kind of coping mechanism for the racist. . . . This does not excuse racist humour, and accounts of humour as a coping strategy that see it in a positive light do not always examine the ethical impact on what they claim is being coped with. These accounts rely on a narrow focus that may consider the joker and receptive audience, and their gratification, but little else. (12) In “I Wanna Be Black” (taking the studio and live versions together), Reed offers enough stereotypes of black sexuality, utters enough obscenity, and expresses enough self-hating Jewishness to offend just about everyone. And still people found it, and continue to find it, amusing. Why? Not because in the mid-1970s and thereafter all or most of Lou Reed’s non-black fans were/are secret racists who were/are glad he revealed a non-black man’s honest feelings about a race that lends itself to absurd stereotypes, but because they were/are not racists and understood that Reed used these stereotypes to expose the racism that necessitated the song’s composition. In the hands of Lou Reed, racial profiling has never been so ironic. To say this isn’t to challenge whether or not the insights of Kort and Weaver apply in most situations, but they do seem open to modification when applied to an artistic text—the only such text in Reed’s 30-plus full-album catalog—in which racist rhetoric is summoned in order to illuminate the problem with racism. In his attempt to answer the question “When is it wrong to laugh?,” Ronald de Sousa touches upon the term “phthonic” laughter—“a kind of laughter that is particularly susceptible to moral condemnation” (238). A Platonic concept that “connotes both the involvement of something evil, and the ambiguity between identification and alienation … the phthonic element is distinguishable from wit” (238–39). De Sousa argues that phthonic laughter requires “endorsement” by listeners, leading to this hypothesis: “The phthonic makes us laugh only insofar as the assumptions on which it is based are attitudes actually shared” (240). In other words, if a person laughs at something malicious or hurtful, it’s because that person is revealing his or her true feelings (here, malicious) about the butt of the joke. But de Sousa also allows for two general categories of humor, the comic and the tragic, that “[l]et us … narrow the case down to the funny and the bitter.” To exemplify these traits he notes, “As practiced by a certain kind of comedian (Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor) it seems as though the funniness is in the very bitterness itself ” (236). This suggests that Reed (whose comic style has been compared to Lenny Bruce’s), as well as those fans who find the outlandish parodying in “I Wanna Be Black” risible, did not share the racist attitude of the song’s narrator.4 Reed employs bitter humor to dramatize the reality of racism. To pull off this feat requires impersonation— the standard move, whatever the subject, of American satirists from Ben Franklin to Tina Fey—at which Reed excels, and listeners react by smiling at the incongruity of it all. 181

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For it must be emphasized that Lou Reed does not want to be black; his narrator (a “fucked-up” Jewish middle-class college student) does. Behind the joke in “I Wanna Be Black” lies the irony that this speaker doesn’t have a clue as to the extent of his racism. He may think he’s elevating and celebrating blackness; instead, he’s revealing his condescending ignorance: an incongruity laced with malice causing unsympathetic listeners to laugh at him. Reed’s narrator aspires to blackness because he feels that blackness, as evidenced for the most part by greater physical endowments among black males, is superior to whiteness. In a reversal of most racist narratives, this racist prefers black to white. To fully realize the narrator’s immaturity and inability to think beyond crude stereotypes of African-American life, for which the narrator yearns, at the expense of his own race, with no sense of irony, Reed had to put himself at the mercy of those listeners (i.e., listeners not familiar with his work) inclined to level charges of racism against Reed himself, thereby misdirecting their disgust at what Reed knew full well is despicable, just as Vladimir Nabokov, despite penning a sometimes comic novel (Lolita) about child-rape, considered child-rape heinous, and just as Mark Twain, despite penning in a sometimes comic novel (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) about slavery, considered slavery heinous. The narrator’s incongruities, coupled with the relief we enjoy when beholding Lou Reed’s nerve and courage to say such things in order to satirize racist fools—these explain why we laugh, chuckle, smile, snicker, or shake our heads in amused wonder when hearing the vile lyrics of “I Wanna Be Black.” Perhaps Reed believed that such extreme comedy was the best way to condemn a human flaw as terrible as racism. But, again, Reed isn’t the racist, the narrator is—and although this fact may be hard for some shocked listeners to grasp, even harder for them would be to grasp the possibility that Reed is chastening non-black listeners who resemble the narrator in wanting to be black too. In other words, the song roots out the racism of non-black listeners who at some unexpressed level succumb to the fantasy of black prowess that the narrator recites in the song. These listeners do want to keep, just as the narrator does, a stable full of black whores—which is the more pathetic since the vast majority of African-American males neither are nor seek to be pimps. Reed takes us to a complicated place indeed, proving Weaver’s general rule that “[t]houghts that could not be expressed in serious communication appear in humour because the joke allows for the expression of a fantasy realm for the joker and audience who accept the joke” (27–28). Superiority Theory runs rampant in “I Wanna Be Black,” where Reed forces us to assume a position superior to the superior-minded narrator only if we are willing to be superior to the rules of engagement (by stomaching the stereotypes) that Reed must vocalize in order to sketch that narrator in all his despicable glory. If we can’t see that the nastiness of racism is best addressed by despicable language, then we ourselves are, along with the narrator, the butt of what Kort fears otherwise would qualify as a destructive type of joke. Put another way, if you and I can’t laugh at it, the joke’s on you and me because then it would be about you and me. Dispensing with lyrics altogether, and thus eliminating its phthonic potential, 1975’s Metal Machine Music is both “Lou’s own form of electroshock treatment, which he administered to the adoring masses” (Hill) and one of Reed’s great comic creations. Consider its near-release on RCA’s storied classical Red Label; its original liner notes (by Reed) crowned by the insulting last sentence in which Reed gloats, “My day beats your year”; and, finally, the album’s contents, universally reviled and about which Reed himself, in the liner notes, said, “No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself,” adding, “I love and adore it.” The punch line, such as it is, implicates consumers who bought and then dropped the needle on a 64-minute ­feedback-fest so painful that in comparison “Sister Ray” seems like a tender folk song. And yet the joke is also on consumers, Lou Reed fans anyway, who didn’t buy it. In his reissue liner notes, David Fricke praises it as “every kind of rock, boiled down to its molten essence.” Sure, it “hurts,” but, “[t]o truly love Metal Machine Music, you have to learn to laugh with it”— with, for instance, “the locked groove at the very end of the record [that] ensured that listeners with manual turntables had to physically shut the music off—or surrender to infinite squeal.” 182

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Reed’s recent biographer, Aidan Levy, is another revisionist who perceives and defends MMM’s perverse humor: The label declined to issue it as a classical record—classical comprised a tiny fraction of the market—but the money grab inadvertently raised the stakes of the joke. The joke was told at the expense of RCA, which shelled out to release the album in four-channel quadraphonic sound, so unsuspecting buyers could experience Metal Machine Music in its full ear-splitting glory. (232) Those interested in Lou Reed are familiar with the two obvious types of his humor evident from the early days of The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) to the late days of Lulu (2011, a collaboration with Metallica)—gallows humor and acerbic Jewish wit. But these ready-made labels, liberally applied to a diverse and complex body of work, are inadequate. Such labels foreclose our appreciation of the subtle elements informing Reed’s comic vision. This chapter has attempted to illustrate that, when viewed from theoretical and philosophical perspectives, Reed’s humor appears far more nuanced and challenging than a superficial tag such as “gallows humor” suggests. To the examples provided in this paper, we can add many other comic moments that indicate an ever-shifting relationship among the long-established theories of Superiority, Incongruity, and Relief. There’s the unaccountably cruel humor in “Animal Language” (Sally Can’t Dance [1974]), which pivots on the murder of a dog and the death of a cat (gruesome Incongruity); there’s the postmodern self-referential visual humor of the cover of New Sensations (1984), where a smallsized Lou, on the floor with a joystick, gazes in video-game bliss at a large-sized image of himself on a television (visual Incongruity with a dash of Superiority to clinch it); and there’s the cynical politics-as-unholy-sex humor of “Sex with Your Parents (Motherfucker) Part II” (Set the Twilight Reeling [1996])—there is no Part I—which for Levy demonstrates “that Lou still had the mordant wit to spew four- and twelve-letter words with maximum impact” (328). (Superiority gone haywire, with a large dose of Relief to buck up the listener who loathes Rush Limbaugh and likeminded personalities who spout about “family values.”) Reed could no more give up humor than give up loud guitars. As Lou Reed aged, the sharp edge of defensive humor and laughter did, in fact, become less incisive and less frequent on record, ebbing as his intellectual and spiritual concerns became more prominent. Albums such as Magic and Loss (elegy in 1992), The Raven (literary re-interpretation in 2003), and Hudson River Wind Meditations (ambient meditation in 2007) resonate with mature reflections on nostalgia, transcendence, love, and mortality. Even New York (1989)—despite or because of its flood of malevolent lyrics depicting a civilization in decline—shows Reed delivering his own version of a jeremiad, a genre grounded in theology, not wise-guy rock and roll. Jeremiads aren’t supposed to be funny. Preachers and prophets write them in order to denounce a group or nation for choosing godless behavior over righteous devotion to God. Still, one does find oneself giggling at many of Reed’s tirades on New York. Either alone or as leader of the Velvet Underground, amid all the decadence, carnage, and chaos replicated in his solo and group output, he could make us smile, chuckle, even burst out laughing at his irreverence, whether he was playing the nasty punk or the outraged Jeremiah. Humor is a well-recognized psychological defense mechanism; it’s also an attack strategy. ­Between those two extremes—one, defending himself against psychological and emotional demons, and two, attacking individuals, society, and the world for its follies and filth—Lou Reed wielded his comic gift, in full flower on TNP’s live version of “I Wanna Be Black.” Having told another off-key joke in a Brooklyn brogue, Reed mutters, “So what’s wrong with cheap dirty jokes, man, fuck you.” “I never said I was tasteful,” he adds, as if defending his freedom to be obnoxious and outrageous in a world of hypocrisy which rewards preening movie stars, third-rate authors, and pampered rock critics. The Bottom Line audience awaits each punch line and each 183

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violation of good taste, applauding and erupting in joy, even though they know that at the drop of a backbeat, Reed could turn on one of them, as when he nails a heckler thus: “If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you”—wham, another hit with the crowd. Reed’s humor in concert and on record makes listeners feel superior to stars and critics, pays back their ability to see the incongruity in everyday life, and provides them relief through the laughter that proves they get the joke, no matter how brutal or vicious—the moralists and the victims be damned.

Acknowledgment An earlier version of this paper appeared as “Why Is This Man Laughing?” in Rock Music Studies vol. 3, no. 2, March 2016, pp. 180–91; reprinted by permission of the publisher Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Notes 1 Lester Bangs didn’t laugh: Lou Reed “belie[d] all his achievements … by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke with himself as the woozily insistent Henny Youngman in the center ring, mumbling punch lines that kept losing their punch” (171). 2 Philosopher Mike Martin notes that “much enjoyment of humor is never expressed in laughter, either because an inclination to laugh is suppressed or because the humor is enjoyed without so much as a felt inclination to laugh” (175). 3 Crawdaddy! reviewer Sandy Pearlman called White Light/Light Heat an album of “albeit-not-hilarious but certainly authentic humor” (61). 4 In his 2015 biography, Howard Sounes alleges the opposite: “Like many people of his generation, [Reed] was guilty of a good deal of casual racism” (220). True, in person, in performance, and on record, Lou Reed was often obnoxious and crude, capable of offending men and women from all walks of life. But there is no evidence that he believed African Americans were inferior to any other race, or that he, a white man, felt superior to them. Reed may well have been a misanthrope, but he wasn’t a racist. Not incidentally, Sounes makes this allegation—the only time he does so in his biography—during his brief remarks on “I Wanna Be Black.”

Works Cited Bangs, Lester. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or, How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake.” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, Knopf, 1987, pp. 169–83. Bockris, Victor. Transformer: The Lou Reed Story. Simon & Schuster, 1994. Clark, Michael. “Humor and Incongruity.” Morreall, Philosophy of Laughter, pp. 139–55. Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “Introduction: The Varieties of Jewish Humor.” Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Wayne State UP, 1987, pp. 1–15. De Sousa, Ronald. “When Is It Wrong to Laugh?” Morreall, Philosophy of Laughter, pp. 226–49. Fleischmann, Mark, and Ira A. Robbins. “Lou Reed.” The Trouser Press Record Guide, 4th ed., edited by Ira A. Robbins, Collier, 1991, pp. 542–44. Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 8, translated by James Strachey, Hogarth, 1971. Fricke, David. Liner notes. Metal Machine Music. RCA/Buddha, 2000. Hill, Michael. Liner notes. Metal Machine Music. RCA/Buddha, 2000. Kort, Eva. Conceptually Distinguishing Mirth, Humor, and Comedy: A Philosophical Analysis. Mellen, 2014. Levy, Aidan. Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed. Chicago Review Press, 2016. Louis CK. “Nigger Jim.” YouTube, uploaded by Kickass Comedy, 22 July 2015, watch?v=VOwjtNEoRYg. Martin, Mike W. “Humor and Aesthetic Enjoyment of Incongruities.” Morreall, Philosophy of Laughter, 172–86. Morreall, John. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. ———. “A New Theory of Laughter.” Morreall, Philosophy of Laughter, pp. 128–38. ———, editor. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. State U of New York P, 1987.


Lou Reed and the Philosophy of Humor Pearlman, Sandy. Review of White Light/White Heat, by the Velvet Underground. All Yesterdays’ Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print 1966–1971, edited by Clinton Heylin, Da Capo, 2005, 61–63. Pollard, Arthur. Satire. Methuen, 1970. Reed, Lou. “Dirt.” Street Hassle, Arista, 1978. ———. “I Wanna Be Black.” Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners, Arista, 1978. ———. “I Wanna Be Black.” Street Hassle, Arista, 1978. ———. Liner notes. Metal Machine Music, RCA, 1975; RCA/Buddha, 2000. ———. “Sweet Jane.” Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners, Arista, 1978. ———. “Walk on the Wild Side.” Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners, Arista, 1978. LP. Sounes, Howard. Notes from the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed. Doubleday, 2015. The Velvet Underground. “The Gift.” White Light/White Heat, MGM, 1967. Weaver, Simon. The Rhetoric of Racist Humor. Ashgate, 2011. EBSCO. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.


21 Randy Newman’s Satirical Vision and the Myth of America Theodore Louis Trost

Satire is an angular humor—at times, a dangerous one. It risks misunderstanding, or even offense, to advance critique. It elicits a kind of laughter that turns against itself. Satire is like a wave that breaks in ripples along the shore and then falls backwards, undoing itself in undertow. While writing about satire from a literary perspective, Abrams and Harpham define it as “the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, ­contempt, scorn, or indignation.” Unlike comedy, whose purpose is fulfilled when laughter is evoked, satire derides: “it uses laughter as a weapon and against a butt that exists outside the work itself.” Satire can engage a variety of targets, including “an individual… or a type of person, a class, an institution, or even the entire human race” (320). It is a rhetorical strategy that renders ridiculous for the sake of ethical purpose or moral persuasion. It may imagine a better world, but at the very least, it invites or invokes a reappraisal of the way things are, of what is taken for granted. Among the popular troubadours of the last half-century, perhaps no one has resorted to satire as often or as effectively as songwriter Randy Newman. His most commercially successful satirical adventure, the jovial ditty “Short People,” peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts in February 1978—one position behind the Bee Gees’ #1 hit “Stayin’ Alive.” “Short People” exemplifies the ambiguous quality that is characteristic of songcraft in the satirical mode. Literally, the song levels an attack upon diminutive individuals, mocking them for possessing “little hands,” among other things, and suggesting that they have no reason to live. The song does include a musical bridge (sung in angelic harmony by two Eagles plus J. D. Souther), which undercuts the divisive ideology that dominates the rest of the tune. In a ringing appeal to universalism, the choir acknowledges that short people are the same as everyone else and affirms the importance of human relationships in familial terms. Nevertheless, these same background vocalists are incorporated into the song’s concluding chorus, a seeming celebration of exclusion, with its wish to evict all short people from the vicinity: “Don’t want no short people ’round here.” While the canny interpreter might recognize the song as a satirical exposé on the problem of prejudice, this interpretive key cannot be imposed upon the song by the thought police of commerce or a preemptive parental advisory notice. And, as Randy Newman himself discovered, the intent of an alleged author is not particularly relevant in determining the meaning of a work of art. Thus, the song gained for Newman “both a wider audience and the ire of those who misunderstood the song’s broad satire on bigotry” (“Notes”). Indeed, because of “Short People,” Newman became the recipient of death threats in Memphis, presumably from persons who understood the song as a provocation and took offense (Young 00:25:21–00:27:08). 186

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That’s the risk of satire. It can leave the wrong people laughing, the right people unsettled, and everyone just a bit enraged. For the songsmith to pray with Nina Simone, Eric Burdon, and others that desperate refrain, “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood,” would be pointless, for satire courts misunderstanding. It is a “dark matter,” as Randy Newman suggests with the title of his latest album Dark Matter (2017). And yet the peculiar quality of satire consists in this: It enlists mockery to reverse itself. It offers mockery for the sake of “de-mockery,” if you will, or even democracy. In this chapter, I argue that Randy Newman enlists satire on behalf of the demos, the common people, who are both the agents and the objects of his wit. To make this case, I will eventually focus upon a group of songs that appeared during a most unsettling time in the history of ­A merican democracy (a time much like our own). Newman’s album Sail Away was released in May 1972 as the Vietnam War dragged on and Richard Nixon, in his quest for a second term as President of the US, pursued an at-times-unlawful campaign against the Democratic candidate George ­McGovern. Newman’s follow-up album, Good Old Boys, was released in September 1974, a month or so after Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace as a consequence of misdeeds exposed during the Watergate investigation. Throughout this period, a great contest over ­A merican identity absorbed the attention and engrossed the energies of the nation. Indeed, the foundational “myth of America” was in jeopardy. The first part of this chapter, therefore, considers American “greatness” as it is appropriated and perpetuated in the popular World War II era song “The House I Live In.” This song is an exemplary manifestation of the American myth and, as such, it serves as a foil to Randy Newman’s artistry. It opens with a rhetorical question that could well appear in the civics portion of a naturalization test: “What is America to me?” The answers to this question that the songwriters propose and the selection of verses its various interpreters choose to perform suggest a diversity of possibilities that all contribute to the common mythology. The second part of the chapter then turns to Randy Newman’s Sail Away album to examine the myth of America through the lens of satire, with special attention to the treatment of race and religion as they arise and are addressed in certain songs. The conclusion points briefly to the subsequent development of satire on Newman’s Good Old Boys album and considers the risks satire poses for those who would unleash its perplexing style of humor.

“What Is America to Me?” The lyrics to “The House I Live In” are attributed to Lewis Allan, a pseudonym adopted by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol as part of his songwriter persona. Meeropol was active in left-­ leaning artist circles in New York starting in the 1930s. He wrote songs intended to advance solidarity among working-class people and across religious and ethnic boundaries. He held idealistic views about American society, as his early involvement with labor organizations and the Communist Party suggested. But he was also a social critic capable of dark irony and poignant imagery as demonstrated by his anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” (1937), which was famously associated with (and frequently attributed to) Billie Holiday (see Baker 53–54). Meeropol was a self-taught musician. Although he was proficient enough as a pianist to play professionally during his graduate studies in English literature at Harvard, his primary strength was as a lyricist. He therefore teamed up with a number of musicians over the years to produce songs and musical revues (Baker 25–34). A lasting partnership was forged during the summer of 1936 with Earl Robinson, who wrote the music to “The House I Live In.” A composer and balladeer, Robinson had studied composition with Aaron Copeland. The two met at Camp Unity, a progressive resort in New York State where Robinson was serving as music director.1 That same summer, Robinson provided melody and musical accompaniment to “Joe Hill,” a poem by Alfred Hayes (“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”), which quickly became a rallying cry for the labor movement and which was later memorably performed by Joan Baez at Woodstock. Both 187

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Meeropol and Robinson were acutely attuned to international developments during the 1930s. In addition to songs that were critical of racial and religious intolerance, they wrote songs in opposition to the rise and extension of fascism. Meeropol’s “Chamberlain Crawl” (1939), for example, criticized England’s policy of appeasement with Hitler’s Germany (Baker 33–38). Once the US abandoned its neutral position in the aftermath of the “German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939,” artists, including Meeropol and Robinson, were encouraged by Roosevelt’s government to “reinforce patriotism, strengthen confidence in America, and provide new motivation for the workers” (Baker 39). Into this environment of common cause and patriotic purpose, the song “The House I Live In” came into being. In its fullest form, “The House I Live In” consists of nine stanzas in praise of American democracy, racial diversity, religious tolerance, and a historical commitment to human liberty.2 The first stanza asks rhetorically, “What is America to me?” The songster then proposes the name itself, the symbol of the flag, the concept of democracy, and the nation’s geographical location as possible answers to the question. The second introduces “the house I live in” as a foundational aspect of American identity, mentions various shopkeepers who maintain businesses in the nearby street, and then asserts affiliation with people of all religions and races. The third stanza refers to the importance of work, the sense of camaraderie within community, and the right of free speech as key features of Americanness. The fourth depicts America as a place of great diversity through a contrast between a penthouse apartment and a tiny corner newsstand. America is the locus of weddings and funerals, joy and sorrow, and all contribute to a collective dream that has been growing for 150 years (or more, depending on when the song is sung). The fifth stanza lists many of the elements of the first four verses and then privileges “the people” as the key ingredient in the making of America. The sixth addresses the racial make-up of the nation more specifically with a reference to both black and white neighbors and calls America a “home for all of God’s children.” The seventh stanza returns to “the house I live in” as a foundational aspect of American identity, then lists friends, people who live on the other side of the railroad tracks, and a variety of working folk, including farmers, sailors, and builders, as contributors to American greatness. The eighth offers a series of heroic figures, including Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, and Paine; it recalls historical battles where “freedom’s fight” was engaged in the past; and it alludes to the challenges that still face the nation. The ninth stanza expands the notion of “the house I live in” to include an omnipresent goodness, shared wealth and beauty, freedom and liberty, and promise for the future. The final line of most of the stanzas serves to sum up the virtues enumerated throughout the verse with the statement, “That’s America to me.” A selection from these stanzas constituted the many different versions of the song that were recorded by various artists since the 1940s.3 “The House I Live In” was initially popularized by Josh White, a bluesman and folk singer who, at the invitation of President Roosevelt in 1941, was the first African-American artist to give a command performance at the White House (Wald 68–70). White’s version appeared four years into the World War II, in 1944; it provided him with his first major hit record. White shortened the original composition to five stanzas by including the prefatory first stanza and then skipping to the final four verses. The ensuing song emphasizes the laborers who built the country, its racial diversity, and the march of freedom its history advances. The song concludes on a hopeful note, sounding the promise that bends toward a better future: “With its promise for tomorrow, that’s America to me” (White). The bold patriotism of the song quickly attracted other interpreters who enlisted it for propagandistic purposes in the service of the nation. Frank Sinatra recorded “The House I Live In” in 1945. His rendition, too, was reduced to five stanzas, but he employed the first five stanzas. Thus, Sinatra included the many religions and races that made up America, but the explicit reference to black and white neighbors as well as the specific laborers who figured prominently in Josh White’s version are absent. Sinatra ends on a rousing affirmation of the gathered community: America’s 188

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greatest asset is “especially the people,” in his rendition—an intimation, perhaps, of the US Constitution and the collaborative activity of “We the People.” The song was featured in the ten-minute short film, The House I Live In, written by Albert Maltz and produced by the RKO Radio Pictures, in 1945. The film received a special Academy Award the following year in recognition of its stand against ethnic prejudice. As the tale unfolds on screen, Sinatra completes the recording of the song “If You Are but a Dream” and steps into the alley to refresh his voice with a cigarette. Just then a gang of schoolboys races by in pursuit of a lonely victim who drops his books and crouches against a wall. Sinatra intervenes, determines that the apparently Jewish boy has become the object of wrath on account of his religion, and then tells the gang that singling out people because of their religion is what Nazis do, not Americans. Sinatra eventually sings the song “The House I Live In” to suggest the meaning of America to the upcoming generation. As Sinatra bids farewell to the pacified lads, the ringleader of the gang picks up the victimized boy’s books and bids him to join the group as they exit the alleyway. Aside from Sinatra, perhaps the most prominent interpreter of “The House I Live In” was Paul Robeson, the great African-American bass singer, civil rights and union activist, and critic of imperialist causes. As with other songs that he sang, notably “Ol’ Man River,” Robeson exercised his freedom as interpreter to change lyrics and to emphasize particular aspects of the song that he deemed significant. While he typically sang the version of “The House I Live In” that was first introduced by Josh White, Robeson added as the final stanza the concluding lines favored by Sinatra. Thus, Robeson ends his rousing version of the song recorded in 1952 with the insistence that “the people” are the “true America.” Perhaps as an indication of who “the people” are, Robeson altered the lyric in the historical stanza by substituting for (Andrew) Jackson the name of (­Frederick) Douglass in the list of venerated patriots.4 By reconciling some of the oppositions that linger in the background behind the song, ­Robeson’s version of “The House I Live In” is particularly emblematic of the American myth because it adjusts for deficiencies in the myth while also serving to perpetuate it. Robeson’s inclusion of F ­ rederick Douglass among the nation’s wise men incorporates the great rhetorician and abolitionist into the master narrative that is already overcoming—and in song, at least, already has overcome—­ difference. In the world invented and portrayed in “The House I Live In,” the penthouse dweller and the shopkeeper, the white neighbor and the black, the grocer and the butcher, J­efferson and Douglass, along with individuals of all faiths, constitute “the people.” America becomes a home for all God’s children, and all religions too. Myth, by this reckoning, is not necessarily false or true. Rather, it is a rhetorical strategy that offers “one particular and therefore contestable viewpoint as if it were an agreement that has been reached by ‘we the people’” (McCutcheon 204). As Abel Meeropol later discovered, it is not so easy to undo a myth. After receiving criticism for the simplistic resolution of religious differences in the 1945 film, Meeropol explained that his song anticipated what America could be. To press the point, he then reimagined his lyric in a newspaper article defending the song’s intent: “The house I live in / The same for black and white, / My country right or wrong / And if it’s wrong to set it right.”5 In the second half of this verse, Meeropol quotes Karl Schurz, Senator from Missouri during the presidency of Ulysses Grant. Schurz famously insisted that “my country, right or wrong,” was an insufficient declaration of patriotism without the ensuing commitment to instigate necessary change (Trefousse 180). This revised verse, however, was never incorporated into subsequent recordings of the song. ­Meanwhile, Meeropol’s comrades found out how fragile their inclusive vision of America really was. Many of those involved in the dissemination of “The House I Live In” came under suspicion in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Josh White, Paul Robeson, and Earl Robinson were all labeled Communists and encountered various degrees of public scorn and limited employment opportunities during the “Red Scare.” Screenwriter Albert Maltz was cited for contempt of Congress because he refused to answer questions about his political involvements with Communists; he was jailed for a time as a member of the “Hollywood Ten.” Abel Meeropol and his wife, Anne, 189

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managed with some difficulty to avoid the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Eventually, they adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and raised them in “the house they lived in” as their sons: Michael and Robert Meeropol (Baker 63–64).

“It’s Great to be an American” So far in this chapter on Randy Newman and satire, considerable attention has been devoted to the “American Myth” as constructed in the song “The House I Live In.” And this is so because, without the presuppositions that myth instills in its loyal but sometimes questioning citizens, satire would not be possible at all. One must know the myth to appreciate the assault upon it that satire initiates. Once the myth is recognized, then satire can go to work in myth’s dark reaches to pierce its monolithic surface, to crack its encoded norms, and to suggest another point of view. Randy Newman’s album Sail Away (1972) appeared at a time when the slogan “my country, right or wrong” had gained new currency in the domestic turmoil surrounding the war in ­Vietnam (see Bill Zimmerman, in Burns). Rather than attack this sloganeering head on, Sail Away effectively launches an investigation into the basic question that so animated the received myth of America. What is the nature of the “true” America? The title track and opening song on the album constructs a vision of America as a brave new world full of hope and possibility. Hunger is no problem because watermelon and pancakes are available in endless supply. In addition, the environment is benign. Carnivorous animals, including lions and tigers, don’t roam the land, and the snake, too, is absent from the scene. Without threats to body and soul, happiness abounds. Life becomes a ritual of religious celebration; all that’s left to do is “sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.” Whether this is understood as a prelapsarian vision of innocence or an eschatological enactment of the Peaceful Kingdom, it amounts to the same thing: “It’s great to be an American.” The orchestration, meanwhile, underscores the pastoral nature of the lyric and helps to conjure up images of a land a-flow with milk and honey. But then an invitation is extended to the implied addressee: “Climb aboard, little wog—sail away with me.” With the casual appearance of the racial slur “wog,” an element of verbal dissonance is introduced into the song. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “wog” as a “non-white person” and describes the term as derogatory and offensive. In addition, the use of the diminutive to qualify “wog” suggests a posture of superiority toward the addressee that serves to open up the satirical quality of the invitation. Suddenly, this becomes the seduction song of a slave tradesman, inviting innocents to undertake a journey to a land that will in no way resemble the one promised in the opening stanzas. As the piano comes to the fore and the song takes on a hymn-like ­character, the chorus repeats the invitation to sail across the ocean to Charleston Bay—where close to half of all African enslaved people were delivered, eventually, to America. According to the myth, the tired, poor, huddled masses sail away from hostile territories in the quest for greater freedom and a safe home in America. That’s the master narrative. But “Sail Away” tells a different story, one that satirizes the myth to expose its vulnerabilities and casual lies. And so, when the third stanza avers that everyone in America is free to enjoy home and family, this claim rubs against the displacement and the disintegration of family that the institution of slavery would impose. Meanwhile, the hymnodic three-note plea of the chorus, “sail away,” partakes of a long tradition in American song, a gospel tradition, in which a plea for exodus is also advanced. Coincidentally (perhaps), the rhythmic pattern of Newman’s song fits neatly into the refrain of the old spiritual, “Steal Away”: “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus, steal away home” (Work 123). Thus, by association, “Sail Away” resonates not only with an African-American song that articulates a longing for another home but also a song that served to encode resistance to the slave system itself. As noted in one contemporary hymnal, “Nat Turner reportedly used ‘Steal Away’ to call together his followers in 1831” (Presbyterian 358). Satire points to what the myth leaves out as well as the distortions it perpetuates. 190

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While laughter is usually the appropriate response to typical modes of humor, the emphasis in satire falls upon the incongruous relationships that develop in the tale the satirist presents, resulting, more often than not, in a furrowed brow (Mulder and Nijholt 3). In the case of “Sail Away,” the ideological commitment to freedom is undercut by the invitation to become a slave. A further complexity in Randy Newman’s satirical approach to song-making is his resorting to various personae to articulate the message of his songs. At a time when songwriters were adopting a confessional mode of self-presentation, Newman established an ironic distance from his songs (for listener and performer alike) by donning masks through which the songs could speak themselves into existence.6 An album like Sail Away, then, becomes a collection of different voices, a potpourri of the vox populi, as it were. The variety of voices Newman employs can pose difficulties for the interpreter in search of satire. “Lonely at the Top,” the second song on Sail Away, appears to be the simple confession of a road-weary artist. He has reached the pinnacle of his profession but is unable to enjoy his success. People pay a lot of money to see him; they give him parades and shower him with affection, but he is indifferent: he doesn’t care. He even calls his followers fools. Newman wrote the song with Frank Sinatra in mind (Young 17:01–17:38). He subsequently presented it to Barbara Streisand, who felt the song was too earnest (Wild, “Of Freaks” 6). Also exhibiting earnest qualities is the album’s third song, “He Gives Us All His Love.” On first listen, at least, this seems an unabashed hymn of devotion to a God who showers love upon his people, who is always available, and who wishes nothing but goodness and kindness for all of humanity. Indeed, the song has been recorded as a forthright praise song by a number of born-again artists including Wanda Jackson—once the Queen of Rockabilly, who restarted her career as a gospel singer in the 1970s with Praise the Lord (1972). But there are cracks in the facades of these songs, suggesting satirical intent. For one thing, the God in “He Gives Us All His Love” merely smiles down “from up above.” He may know about the trials and tribulations people face, and He may hear the cries of infants and witness the deaths of the elderly, but like the superstar in “Lonely at the Top,” he responds with indifference. Second, as songs that are presented in sequence on an album, “Lonely at the Top” and “He Gives Us All His Love” are subject to what literary critic Meir Sternberg has called the “primacy effect.” By this theory, first impressions of “relevant expositional material” create a dominant impression that is qualified or modified as information is communicated later in the narrative, or, as applied in this context, in subsequent songs on an album (Sternberg 95–98; Sklar 461). Thus, what constitutes greatness—either for God or for the lonely singer at the “top” of his profession—is tempered by the ironic relationship of the prospective slave to the notion of greatness already attributed to America and exposed as a dubious quality in the album’s first song. Similarly, the magnificence of a religion that promises a life of casual psalm singing about Jesus is problematic inasmuch as these songs of adoration are hymns of the enslaved to the ostensible master of their masters. But third and most significantly, “Lonely at the Top” and “He Gives Us All His Love” prepare the way thematically for two additional songs that appear on the other side of the record (or later on the CD version of the album).7 The first of these, “Political Science,” offers a defense of the American way of life in the face of the general disdain directed toward the US by other nations during the Vietnam War era. As the free world’s greatest power, America finds itself, as it were, lonely at the top. The solution “Political Science” proposes is to “drop the big one” and pulverize those nations that withhold their gratitude and respect from “us.” A catalog of catastrophe follows from this course of action: “Boom goes London and boom Paree… / We’ll set everybody free.” According to this vision of a new order, the mauled world will become a world mall where ­Japanese kimonos and Italian shoes will be donned by the victors who conquer to assert their prominence. Only Australia will be spared for the sake of the kangaroos and good surfing. The last song on the album continues the engagement with theology that was initiated with reference to Jesus in the song “Sail Away” and affirmed by the humble supplicant in “He Gives Us All His Love.” And so the lonely superstar God himself offers the song cycle’s final word in his 191

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address to an inquisitive humanity in “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” The use of the word “love” in this particular context modifies the listener’s understanding of what constitutes God’s love earlier on the album. As if in response to the assertion “He gives us all his love,” God sums up his loving ways in sardonic fashion: “You all must be crazy to put your faith in me / That’s why I love mankind.” In advance of this affirmation, God explains that he burns down cities, afflicts children, allows misery, and laughs at the prayers that are offered up to him; still human beings call themselves blessed and insist upon their need for him. It is a curious covenant indeed. These five songs, drawn from the larger context of Sail Away, allow for an interrogation of the American myth.8 On the one hand, the religious character of the American people is affirmed and their status as greatest among all nations is suggested. At the same time, Newman’s satirical approach attacks the myth of America by way of indirection and humor. The nation that would lead the free world is also the one with access to power sufficient to annihilate the rest of the world—and perhaps the inclination to do so, depending on who is running the nation at any given moment in its history. The kind of absolute power, or omnipotence, that America possesses has a theology behind it, one that deems the nation exceptionally blessed. But Newman casts suspicion on unexamined loyalties to a God whose motives, and manifestations of love, are, at best, mysterious. Even as he allows that freedom is a quality of particular concern for Americans, Newman points to the history of exploitation and racism that underwrites the slave trade and enunciates its prejudices in a little word like “wog.”

Conclusion Sail Away offered a collection of 12 songs, many of which are thematically connected. N ­ ewman’s follow-up, Good Old Boys, is a concept album, with songs that represent the musings, pleas, and the tales of white southern working-class folk. Rooted in a particular social milieu, Good Old Boys advances common concerns despite, or because of, Newman’s method of adopting a ­variety of voices to articulate his ideas. In singing these songs of the Southland, Newman addresses such issues as pride of place (“Birmingham,” “Louisiana 1927”); the plight of the working poor (“Mr. ­President, Have Pity on the Working Man,” “Kingfish”); the debilitating allure of alcohol (“Guilty,” ­“Rollin’”); and the abusive relationships that result from confused notions of manhood (“Marie,” “A Wedding in Cherokee County”). All of these songs employ satire in one form or other. But satire in its most daring form is presented in the album’s opening song, “­Rednecks,” which challenges the basic notion of American righteousness. “Rednecks” begins with a framing story about an encounter on television between classic representatives of a divided America. On the one side is a “smart-ass New York Jew”; on the other side is Lester Maddox, the former Governor of Georgia, who wielded axe handles to chase unwanted guests out of his barbeque restaurant then chose to close down his business rather than serve food to African Americans. According to rock journalist David Wild, the TV host was Dick Cavett, who was not Jewish (“Randy” 8). But since the song indulges in stereotypes, the assumption that any media personality from New York must be Jewish is pertinent to the song’s greater purposes. The songster admits to a series of characterizations about white southerners— their accents, drinking habits, and dimwittedness—and then boldly announces that rednecks in the South are “keeping the niggers down.” This shocking manifestation of racism fits stereotypes of southern culture and instills a sense of disdain and superiority in all outside of the region and many within. But the lower class, admittedly dumb, narrator goes on to point out that although northern whites set black folks free in the Civil War, they also enforced the segregation of the African-American population into substandard housing environments in numerous prominent northern towns, including Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago. If this is freedom, it is the freedom “to be put in a cage” of a de facto segregated society. This satirical attack upon the American 192

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myth suggests that the projection of blame for the nation’s racial problems onto the South obfuscates the role of self-righteous northerners in the continuing saga of the nation’s racism. Satire “tells the truth but tells it slant,” as Emily Dickinson might say. While “Rednecks” demonstrates satire’s ability to employ mockery to engender a grander notion of democracy, the song also highlights the risks of satire. For those unattuned to the nuance of satire, a song like “Rednecks” can be easily weaponized. In the hands of, say, the hypothetical punk metal band White Teutonic Front, “Rednecks” could become an anthem of hatred or a fight song in the service of the white power movement. Both the words that are used and the characters who use them, or the persona through which they are expressed, are key to satire’s purposes. “We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks and we’re keeping the niggers down,” sing the White ­Teutonic Front. “W T F?” the puzzled overhearer declares. Is that a manifesto? A declaration of faith? Or is it radical critique—an attack upon the whole racist system? That’s satire.

Notes 1 Gordon identifies “Camp Unity” specifically as a communist enclave. 2 The nine stanzas described here are a composite of two versions recorded by Earl Robinson. The 1944 V-Disc version omits what I list as the sixth stanza, namely the one about white and black neighbors. The 1957 Folkways version includes the sixth stanza but omits the seventh, the one that refers to friends beyond the railroad and the workers who built the country. 3 “The House I Live In” was first featured in the Broadway production Let Freedom Sing at the Longacre Theater in New York. The production was reviewed unfavorably, but the song “The House I Live In” was commended (Atkinson, see also Robinson; Gordon 152). 4 The song was recorded during a performance at a 1952 civil rights meeting in Chicago. Robeson, ­blacklisted at the time, was accompanied by pianist Lawrence Brown (Robeson). 5 This version is from an undated and unidentified newspaper clipping titled “‘The House I Live In’: Lewis Allan Defends a Famous Song.” The clipping is reproduced in Baker 56–57. 6 Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, released shortly before Newman’s Sail Away, is probably the quintessential example of song-making as personal revelation. 7 The argument developed here is based on a notion of narrative time relevant in the age of the long-­ playing record. Admittedly, the resort to the “shuffle” feature on music reproduction devices in the digital age undermines the reliance upon sequence that was etched into the vinyl tracks of yesteryear. 8 Additional songs from the album, including “Old Man,” “Burn On,” and “Dayton, Ohio-1903,” among others, would fit well into the scheme suggested here.

Works Cited Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 9th ed., Wadsworth, 2009. Atkinson, Brooks. “The Play.” Review of Let Freedom Sing, New York Times, 6 Oct. 1942, p. E18. Baker, Nancy Kovalef. “Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan): Political Commentator and Social Conscience.” American Music, vol. 20, no. 1, 2002, pp. 25–79. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. 3rd ed., Watson-Guptill, 1992. Burns, Ken, and Lynn Novick. “The Vietnam War: Why It Was the Conflict That No One Wanted to Talk About.” USA Today, 11 Sept. 2017, p. D1; Accessed 10 Dec. 2017. Dickinson, Emily. “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” (1263). The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Harvard UP, 1998, Accessed 13 Dec. 2017. Gordon, Eric A. “Today in History: Earl Robinson, Composer of ‘Joe Hill’ Born.” People’s World, 2 July 2015, ­Accessed 11 Dec 2017. The House I Live In. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, written by Albert Maltz, starring Frank Sinatra, RKO, 1945, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.


Theodore Louis Trost Jackson, Wanda. “He Gives Us All His Love.” Praise The Lord, Capitol, 1972. McCutcheon, Russell T. “Myth.” Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. ­McCutcheon, Continuum, 2000, pp. 190–208. Mitchell, Joni. Blue. Reprise, 1972. Mulder, M.P., and A. Nijholt. “Humour Research: State of the Art.” University of Twente, Center of Telematics and Information Technology, Technical Report CTIT-02–34, Sept. 2002, pp. 1–24. Newman, Randy. Dark Matter. Nonesuch, 2017. ———. Good Old Boys. 1974. Warner Brothers, 2002. ———. Sail Away. 1972. Warner Brothers, 2002. ———. “Short People.” Little Criminals, 1977. Warner Brothers, 2013. “Notes.” CD booklet. Randy Newman, Little Criminals, Warner Brothers, 2013. The Presbyterian Hymnal. Westminster-John Knox, 1990. Robeson, Paul. “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” Songs of Free Men, 1947, Columbia, 1977. ———. “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” The Odyssey of Paul Robeson, 1952, Omega Classics, 1992. Robinson, Earl. “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” V-Disc, 1944. ———. “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” A Walk in the Sun and Other Songs and Ballads, Folkways, 1957. Robinson, Earl, and Eric A. Gordon. Ballad of an American: Autobiography of Earl Robinson. Scarecrow, 1988. Sinatra, Frank. “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” Columbia, 1945. Sklar, Howard. “Empathy’s Neglected Cousin: How Narratives Shape Our Sympathy.” The Palgrave Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism, edited by Donald R. Wehrs and Thomas Blake, Springer, 2017, pp. 451–80. Sternberg, Meir. Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. Trefousse, Hans L. Carl Schurz: A Biography. Fordham UP, 1982. Wald, Elijah. Josh White: Society Blues. U of Massachusetts P, 2000. White, Josh. “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me).” ARC, 1944. Wild, David. “Of Freaks, Geeks, and God.” CD booklet. Randy Newman, Sail Away, Warner Brothers, 2002, pp. 5–8. ———. “Randy Newman’s Southern Discomfort.” CD booklet. Randy Newman, Good Old Boys, 1974. Warner Brothers, 2002, pp. 4–11. Work, John W. American Negro Songs and Spirituals. Crown, 1940. Young, Kirsty. “Desert Island Discs: Randy Newman.” BBC Radio 4, 24 Oct. 2008, radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/328c86db. Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.


22 “You ain’t laughing, are you?” Humor, Misery, and the Replacements Timothy Gray In Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981–1991, Michael Azerrad chronicles indie rock in the pre-Nirvana years. Most of the book’s musical heroes are applauded for their earnestness and their grassroots idealism: a true alternative to corporate rock. Compared to the dozen other bands that Azerrad profiles (Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, Husker Du, et al.), the Replacements seem both representative and anomalous. Their recording career fell neatly within the decade Azerrad demarcated, and like the other bands, they faced a conundrum when major labels came calling. Yet they regularly eschewed the sincerity that most indie acts took as their hallmark. The Replacements had a hard time keeping a straight face, laughing dismissively at mainstream success and scotching attempts by others to provide them their big break. While their raucously tuneful music set them up as Most Likely to Succeed, they preferred the role of Class Clown. Not everyone got the joke. In a letter sent to Musician magazine in 1989, a mystified Jon Bon Jovi asked, “How can the Replacements be the best band of the ’80s when I’ve never even heard of them?” (qtd. in Walsh 14). For discerning listeners, the blow-dried rock star’s statement is unintentionally funny. Two years prior, also in Musician, Tom Waits offered a different view of the Replacements: “I like their stance. They’re question marks” (qtd. in Montandon 115). Waits doubled down a month later in New Musical Express: “The Replacements? They seem broken, y’know? One leg is missin’. I like that” (qtd. in Mehr 307). This from a man who sang “I Shot the Sheriff” whenever police funerals marched by. Waits had a twisted sense of humor, and he saw the Replacements carrying his torch. But whereas Waits portrayed himself as a weird old man, even in his youth, the Replacements saw themselves as bratty adolescents, even as they aged. They were teenage losers who were nonetheless kind of cool. Any armchair psychologist would say their unrelenting laughter veiled their insecurity. Paul Westerberg, the band’s singer and chief songwriter, probably agreed, for he eventually gave expression to such doubts in sensitive compositions. Fans still debate whether he spoiled the humor that had been the band’s calling card. The Replacements legacy rests on their powerful rock sound, and on their live performances, which could be tight and professional, but often careened toward drunken breakdowns, full of clever banter and creative high jinx. Producer Joe Henry describes the Replacements’ sound as “raw and unmannered, yet folksy, all at the same time. It was funny and pissy and arrogant and mopey, without being self-conscious about any of it” (qtd. in Walsh 38). Singer Lianne Smith likewise observes, “Rock is made up of mixtures of ‘I Don’t Give a Fuck’ and ‘I Give More of a Fuck Than Anyone Else on the Planet,’ and somehow Westerberg found the perfect proportions 195

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for a cocktail that got us all high” (qtd. in Walsh 77). Westerberg’s sardonic humor recalls another Minnesotan, Bob Dylan. Interestingly, both liked the circus. Dylan sang about geeks and fabricated an autobiographical statement about running away with the circus as a boy. Westerberg, a high school dropout, educated himself by reading PT Barnum at the local library. His favorite Barnum quotation, “Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung” (Mehr 85). In the Replacements, Westerberg had a host of clowns at his disposal. Once he traded the role of clown for that of ringmaster, however, the band began to fray. Clowning took on various guises in the Replacements camp. Guitarist Bob Stinson was the “clown with his pants falling down,” except he was likely to ditch the pants and wear a dress, a tutu, or trench coat, under which he wore nothing at all. A lovable oaf, Bob usually reverted to laugh-at-me mode. Physically abused as a child, he acted out as a teenager and was sent to Red Wing hospital, where he received the following prognosis: “Bob will act foolishly and try to get others to act foolishly in an attempt to get accepted” (qtd. in Mehr 213). A band like the Replacements was his natural landing spot. Bob’s half-brother, Tommy Stinson, was only 12 years old when he joined the Replacements. Dwarfed by his bass, little Tommy was a spectacle, a conversation piece, and a jailbait sex symbol. In the early years, his Prince Valiant haircut would fly upwards during his on-stage jumps, making him look like Claribel the Clown. Later, Tommy sported a blonde spiky haircut, resulting in the nickname “Skunk.” After his hair grew out, he fashioned the rooster-head hairstyle immortalized on the cover of Let It Be. Ridiculousness never looked so good. Drummer Chris Mars wasn’t as showy, but occasionally he would disappear before concerts and emerge caked in greasepaint as “Pappy the Clown.” This meant Mars had gotten drunker than usual and was taking his turn sabotaging the band’s live performances. Mars’s bandmates freaked out at his Pappy persona, perhaps fearing this clowning might bring collateral damage, John Wayne Gacy (Pogo the Clown) style. If the Replacements’ career were pitched as a sitcom, the situation would be professionalism, and the comedy would concern fear of success rather than fear of failure. Instead of using their dressing rooms, Bob Stinson recalled, the band would sit in different corners of the bar, and ascend the stage from various directions once they were announced (Walsh 102). Gina Arnold once said the advantage of indie rock was that audience members could envision having a beer with a band after the show, and then go have one (Powers 242). The Replacements went one better: they were found drinking with the audience before the show. “We were afraid of becoming what we hated, which at the time was a self-important and arrogant band,” Westerberg said, and alcohol provided them necessary cover: “We’d get drunk because we were basically scared shitless, and that snowballed into an image” (qtd. in Azerrad 212). It’s hardly coincidental that the band’s boldest lyric about anti-professionalism (“The label wants a hit / And we don’t give a shit!”) arrived in “Treatment Bound,” a bouncy tour-de-farce about their drinking binges. Drunkenness certainly fueled Westerberg’s sarcastic stage patter, down to his signature mumbles. “Ain’t we professionable?” he asked during one shambling performance (qtd. in Mehr 71). Physical comedy and practical jokes aided the band’s allure. The Replacements asked audiences to throw spare change, then scrambled to gather as much as they could for themselves, like deranged buskers. They made nice with REM when they opened for that band, but stole their backstage spread of food and booze while the headliners performed. They distracted a secretary at Twin/Tone Records in order to steal what they believed were the master tapes of their early albums, and proceeded to roll these tapes (copies, it turned out) down a hill, into the Mississippi River. Embracing a dumbed-down variety of American humor, the Replacements were inspired by the Stooges, which is to say both the Detroit-based proto-punk band led by Iggy Pop and the slapstick comedy troupe led by Moe Howard. Iggy and the Stooges sang directly about the doubts plaguing American teenagers, especially (perceived) stupidity and boredom. Iggy was also known for bizarre stage antics, like smearing his torso with peanut butter, or cutting himself and bleeding 196

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on his audience. The Stooges were regularly championed in Creem magazine, the back issues of which Paul Westerberg read voraciously at his local library. The Three Stooges provided another farcical model. How else to explain Bob Stinson grabbing Tommy and Paul by their manes and knocking their heads together? “We both fell like bowling pins,” Westerberg recalled (qtd. in Mehr 120). Consider, too, the band’s sartorial choices, which ranged from dresses they pilfered from the headlining band’s wives to the split-in-the-crotch leotard Bob wore (and in which he somersaulted) during their infamous Saturday Night Live appearance, and from the mismatched plaids and porkpie hats they sported at record label events to the “Yail University” T-shirt Mars wore on stage after a Los Angeles Times reporter claimed he could pass as a Yale student. Other occasions saw Paul and Tommy pretending they were dogs, licking up whiskey from a saucer on the ground (preshow), and Paul swinging like Tarzan from a chandelier at Portland’s Pine Street ­Theater (postshow). “They always fall,” Westerberg said of the chandelier. “But damn, it feels good for that one split second” (qtd. in Mehr 286). Channeling another comedic hero, Westerberg appeared at a Canadian concert as Alfalfa from the Little Rascals, replete with fake freckles and suspenders, sabotaging his vocals with Alfalfa’s pubescent voice cracks (see also Mehr 129, 148, 280). The Replacements’ postmodern vaudeville routine made them a unique act during the heyday of indie rock. Listening to the band’s studio albums, however, we notice a vector of sensitivity intersecting those funny story lines. Determining how and when Paul Westerberg’s puerile laughter morphs into melancholic self-reflection is my main theme going forward.

The Music The nine recordings the Replacements released between 1981 and 1990 resemble a bell curve. The band put out four studio albums on an independent label and four studio albums on a major label. In the middle was an impromptu concert recording captured near the end of their 1984 tour. The first two albums consisted of raw punk rock. The second pair of albums was better crafted, with a mix of mid-tempo and fast compositions, and even some thoughtful lyrics. These albums became classics of college radio, and they represent the band at its peak. The next two albums, issued on Sire Records, mark the band’s awkward transition to major label status. The final two albums witnessed the disintegration of the band, their push for mainstream success arriving too late, their frivolity and friendship withering away. “I’d rather be really good at being crappy than really crappy at trying to be good,” Westerberg crowed as he launched his career (qtd. in Walsh 55). Over time, as that dynamic got skewed, the band’s humor faded away. Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1980) and Stink (1981) contain the “loud fast rules” elements of hardcore punk, but these discs are cut through with giddiness and a genial lassitude missing in most hardcore music. According to Azerrad, the Replacements’ early songs “took the adult stereotype of teenagers as lazy, maladjusted human beings and gleefully ran with it, nullifying the insult by celebrating it” (202). “Shiftless When Idle” is a rollicking anthem of slackerdom (“I ain’t got no idols / I ain’t got much taste / I’m shiftless when I’m idle / I got time to waste”). So is “I Hate Music” (“it’s got too many notes,” Westerberg complains). “White and Lazy” and “Fuck School” tell you what you need to know about the band’s ambitions. Ironically, the latter song was a big hit at Regina High School, a Catholic girls school in Minneapolis where the four rowdy dropouts were asked to perform (twice!). “God Damn Job” articulates in plain English exactly what Westerberg’s father demanded he procure. Mulling his fate, Westerberg says he might as well “get a god damn girl” to fulfill his family’s expectations. Grumbling capitulation to parents is usually good for a laugh, and that moment is announced right in the debut album’s title, a funny confession coming from a singer whose first “god damn job” was that of janitor. But humor just kind of followed Westerberg around. As custodian in the office of Minnesota Senator David ­Durenberger, he had access to the legislator’s stationery. Naturally, he would pen songs like “We’re Gonna Get Drunk Tonight” beneath the heading “From the desk of U.S. Senator …” (Mehr 39). 197

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Sorry Ma is all dumb fun, starting with “Takin’ a Ride.” It’s a dicey proposition to hop in the van with four inebriates, none of whom possess a driver’s license, but what the hell. David Lee Roth boasted that Van Halen was a cruise ship people couldn’t resist boarding, and here was the punk rock version of that. On this particular joyride, humor derives from common juvenile predicaments. “I Bought a Headache” is about buying bad pot for “eight dollars, fifty cents” at an arena rock show: “Smoking marijuana till it’s comin’ out of my ears / A long-haired girl shaking way past her years.” Admittedly, there’s a hint of heartbreak, an inkling that teens are going down the wrong road, Westerberg inserting a rave-on cliché—“you gotta c’mon, c’mon”—to comment ironically on the peer pressure leading clueless pot users to their predicament. The Replacements revisit this theme on “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” a track on Stink, Bob asking very slowly, in a (t)hick country accent, “Hey Merle, got any ’ludes on ya?’ only to be interrupted by Westerberg’s curt “Too late!” The shenanigans continue on “Customer,” an ode to unrequited teenage lust set in a convenience store, second home to many a lazy teenager. Battling shyness, Westerberg is reduced to asking his shop girl crush, “Where’re the Twinkies?” and “What’s on sale?” just to bask in her presence. “If Only You Were Lonely,” an acoustic number left off the debut album, expresses similar sexual longing, albeit much more wistfully. Alas, Westerberg is not much happier once he actually gets the “god damn girl,” as “I’m in Trouble” (“You’re in love, and I’m in trouble”) and the expiration-date special “Love You Till Friday” (“Some girls are a pain in my life/ When they try to be my wife”) each attest. Meantime, in “Staples in Her Stomach” (an outtake from Stink), Westerberg deflates pornographic fantasies by staring too hard at a centerfold pictorial. The recurring theme is misspent youth. The Replacements’ next phase was kicked off by Hootenanny (1983), a multifaceted joke and one of their best albums. In the 1960s, the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis was a hotbed of the folk revival. Musicians and writers celebrated folk authenticity on coffeehouse stages and in the pages of the Little Sandy Review. Bob Dylan circulated briefly in this orbit. Hootenanny is a parody of this scene. First, the Replacements filched the cover design and liner notes from a 1963 Crestview Records folk music sampler of the same name (Mehr 119). Hootenanny refers to a tradition of singing and playing instruments at an informal social gathering (or “hoot”). In concerts, the Replacements replicated hootenanny tradition by swapping instruments and fudging their way through rudimentary versions of songs. Now, trapped in the studio with uptight producer Paul Stark, whom they wished to needle, Westerberg covertly took over from Mars on drums. Mars switched to lead guitar, Bob Stinson played bass, and Tommy moved from bass to guitar. “Hootenanny in E,” Westerberg shouted. The improvised tune issued by voluntarily displaced bandmates was augmented by a single lyrical phrase, “It’s a hootenanny!” sung over and over (“all night long!”). Once “Hootenanny” stumbled to a finish, Stark recommended a playback, and another, more polished take. Westerberg would hear none of it. “Nope,” he said. “That’s it; first song, side one” (qtd. in Mehr 120). And that’s where the song appears. Throughout their career, the band would switch instruments for “Hootenanny” and for the cover songs they lovingly mangled. At some shows, Westerberg would invite audience members or roadies on stage to play the instruments. It was another way the Replacements distanced themselves from self-righteous punk bands. “Let’s have a hootenanny here,” Chris Mars said, only half-jokingly, when asked to explain the move away from hardcore themes and rhythms. “Let’s settle down and have a hoedown and loosen it up and have some fun” (qtd. in Azerrad 208). Loosen it up, they did. The band adopted a ski bum attitude in “Buck Hill,” named for a modest slope outside Minneapolis, adjacent to a freeway. The surf guitar sound might seem foreign to snowy Minnesota until you realize the Trashmen recorded “Surfin’ Bird” there. Geographically specific high jinx continued on “Lovelines,” named for the personal ads section in Minneapolis’s City Pages. For Westerberg, each personal ad functions as a found poem and an opportunity for an improvised comedy sketch. He recites verbatim the paper’s saucy come-ons, editorializing with funny voice inflections. The “Pure silk, pure seduction” ad receives a breathy, call girl treatment. 198

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An ad for a “scientific formulated unscented spray” meant to attract women receives a pubescent voice crack from Westerberg when he mentions the “concentrated male pheromone.” His reading of a sentimental love letter closing with “Miss ya a lot. Luv Kitten” inspires the band’s true pubescent, little Tommy Stinson, to kick in some salacious background vocals: “Kitten! Oh yeah, oh yeah! Kitten! Oh yeah, oh yeah!” It’s “Person to Person,” Westerberg sings/recites, “And it’s all a bunch of shit.” To conclude, he cites his City Pages source in the thickest possible Minnesota accent: “Wednesday, October 13, 1982/ Volume 4, number 79.” In retrospective, Hootenanny was a candy-colored party: fun while it lasted. The Replacements made joyful leaps and downward spirals seem like the best form of dance. “Willpower” was a spare and somewhat haunting internal monologue about addiction, but most songs had them crashing parties and laughing in the face of despair. In “Hayday,” Westerberg admits their heyday “ain’t gonna last,” but he hardly seems to care. Likewise, in “Color Me Impressed,” he skewers fashionably “depressed” trendinistas who wouldn’t accept him anyway. In “Run It,” Westerberg recounts a motorcycle escapade with Mars in which the two ran afoul of the law after running red lights and leading cops on a chase through the streets and up a couple lawns. Mars spent the night in jail and lost his license, but it made for a funny story. “Take Me Down to the Hospital” is a blithe recounting of their toxic boozing, as is “Treatment Bound,” the so-called “Ballad of the Replacements,” written by Westerberg and recorded live in the Stinson basement by bandmates who hadn’t yet learned the song. As with the title track, the flubs were left in. When Paul shouts for Bob to take the solo, the surprised guitarist knocks over a stack of beer cans and the song sputters hilariously to a halt. Tommy laughingly asks about a part he missed, and Paul provides a garbled response: “Fucked it up.” Increasingly, the band’s punk attitude found a home in mellower musical styles (here, a country shuffle), contradictions be damned. Hootenanny was “the first album that sounds just like us,” Westerberg said (qtd. in Mehr 121). For their next recording, the Replacements did a very Replacements thing. They decided to name their upcoming album after the next song that came on the radio. The opening strains of Paul McCartney’s piano settled the issue. Let it Be (1984) represents the apex of the Replacements career, and a touchstone of college rock. Boisterous bouts of humor blast through a muscular wall of sound, only to compete with a few softer numbers and Westerberg’s growing ambivalence about the constant clowning. On Let It Be, humor is certainly there, but it’s thrown into relief. The famous album cover depicts the bandmates perched like a flock of (mocking)birds on the roof of the Stinson house. They look groggy and untucked, yet unified. Tommy Stinson sports his rooster haircut and rubs his weary eyes with the back of his hand, perhaps removing sleepy winkers after a long night of partying. It’s an iconic rock-and-roll image, and its band-of-brothers’ vibe extends to the music. The band never sounded so tight, or the guitars so loud and intertwined, as they did on Let It Be. The instrumental heft pushed Westerberg’s verbal playfulness into new frontiers. “One more chance to get it all wrong,” he surmises on the opener, “We’re Coming Out,” and after that, all bets are off. On “Gary’s Got a Boner,” an uproarious school bus humor piece (“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” is another), Westerberg sets up a high school loser for a little embarrassment, noting that “Gary” has an erection, and that he might want to do something about it. Funnier than the verbal shock is the long instrumental break, a fierce and resoundingly loud guitar duel between Paul and Bob that parallels anything the Stones did in their twin guitar attacks. It’s funny because the raucous sound approximates the hormonal drive pulsing through Gary’s teenage body. Caught in the band’s caterwauling roar, we are experiencing what Gary is experiencing, whether we want to or not. “Gary’s got it! He’s got it!” Westerberg screams tauntingly, and I reckon the band had “it” also. Their immaturity is so blatant as to become largely forgivable. “Seen Your Video” is another track on which guitars deliver the punch line. We know that the Replacements regularly took shots at those who rejected them. “Shut up” (on Sorry Ma) was a “weapon song” (Mehr 53) that Westerberg directed at hostile audiences and promoters: “Tell me 199

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about your rock band / Tell me about your job / Shut up.” Meanwhile, concert favorite “Hear You Been to College” blasted pretentious collegiate types coming home to showboat their knowledge. “Seen Your Video” takes a similar tack as it targets TV-ready bands: “Seen your video / It’s phony rock and roll / We don’t want to know.” But the song’s real effectiveness derives from its instrumental parody of MTV’s station ID song. The band opens with a series of power chords, then locks in with a roaring guitar sound that tunnels beneath the melody line. Next, the guitars soar in an anthem-like passage (which will underscore the closing vocal section) before erupting in a series of metallic squeals and a tumbling piano figure. Two and a half minutes into the song, Tommy chimes in with the track’s first words: “All day, all night, all music video,” effectively swiping language from MTV’s 1983 on-air promo. Paul follows suit, lambasting the phoniness of it all. To seal the deal, “Seen Your Video” concludes with the four power chords heard at the opening, like we’re listening to Beethoven’s Fifth; it’s a three-minute symphony exposing the prostitution of rock music by media and marketing. That the band does so not just with words but also with a guitar riff that mimics and ultimately surpasses MTV’s theme song makes “Seen Your Video” a rock-and-roll parody for the ages. Elsewhere, though, the tide was turning in Westerberg’s songwriting. Songs like “If Only You Were Lonely” (from Sorry Ma), and “Within Your Reach” and “Left of the Dial” (from ­Hootenanny) had recorded Westerberg’s sensitive responses to unrequited love, but Bob Stinson rejected another of his early solo efforts, “You’re Getting Married,” as too soft. No matter. On Let It Be, Westerberg included a powerful trio of songs (“Unsatisfied,” “Sixteen Blue,” and “Answering Machine”) that traded laughter for tears. “Unsatisfied,” an existential howl, was inspired by life in the tour van, where everybody, at one time, cried on the way to a gig. Although Westerberg later disavowed the song as too melancholy, it became an indie rock favorite. It’s a forerunner to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” although it possesses more of a punk edge, the song’s emotional wail recast as a challenge. “Look me in the eyes / Then tell me that I’m satisfied / Were you satisfied?” Westerberg wrote “Sixteen Blue” for Tommy Stinson, but also for anyone (including himself ) who remembers what it’s like to be sixteen. “Your age is the hardest age / Everything drags and drags,” Westerberg sings, empathetically. He captures the paradox of adolescence in Tommy’s beautifully gawky figure: “Lookin’ funny / You ain’t laughing, are you?” Ostensibly, Westerberg is calibrating Tommy’s teenage sadness; “looking funny” is not something Tommy regards as humorous, and thus he’s not laughing. Heard in broader context, though, Westerberg’s question seems less of a lament and more of a bare-knuckle challenge (like “Unsatisfied”). Saying “You ain’t laughing, are you?” is like a tough guy asking, “You got a problem with that?” Heard this way, “you” becomes anyone who looks at Tommy disapprovingly, while Paul, who asks the question, serves as Tommy’s protector. It’s possible the Replacements began to resent those who laughed at them, just as they dismissed those who regarded them too seriously. “Sixteen Blue” is an intensely personal song in which the bandmates close ranks, collectively and individually, looking out for Tommy but also nurturing their own inner teenager. Moreover, much as guitars underscore the humor on “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “Seen Your Video,” the poignant lead by Bob Stinson on “Sixteen Blue” takes up where Westerberg’s vocals leave off. Sonically, Stinson’s solo is a warm and loving gesture, a long arm he slings protectively across his little brother’s shoulders when he is feeling blue. It’s also a lament offered by an addict hoping his sibling can avoid the pitfalls he has suffered. Beautiful but haunting, “Sixteen Blue” is a song marking the point when laughter is no longer a diversion, when it is seen to come at a loved one’s expense, when it signals hurt. The boys in the band turn to their funny-looking little brother, praying for his safe passage and rethinking what it is they’ve become. Yes, the Replacements learned to laugh again. Near the end of the 1984 tour, they allowed a besotted performance in Oklahoma City to be recorded and distributed as The Shit Hits the Fans (1985). A month later, they sabotaged a concert showcase for major label heads at CBGB, where they appeared as “Gary and the Boners,” failed to finish most of their songs, and blatantly asked 200

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executives in the audience, “Have we got a major label deal yet?” The execs walked out, but the Replacements got the major label deal, regardless. Sire looked like a good fit. The band’s lawyer was allowed to cross out the word “seriously” in the contract clause stating that “the artist will seriously pursue its career.” Sire execs Seymour Stein and Michael Hill indulged the band’s drunken reverie far longer than anyone else at the label thought prudent. “Pleased to meet me. The pleasure is all yours,” Tommy Stinson told the Sire suits at the playback party for Pleased to Meet Me (1987). Stein joined the frivolity at the celebratory dinner, leaping on the table and singing “You Are My Sunshine” as band members made hot fudge sundaes on each other’s heads and smeared chocolate on a Memphis restaurant’s silk damask wallpaper (Mehr 253, 254). But things had changed. When fans listened to the album released on Sire, the joke songs (“Waitress in the Sky,” “I Don’t Know,” et al.) weren’t really funny, just mean or boring. Edges had been smoothed away. High jinx still permeated some live shows (the band performed motionless as statues after the opening act, the Goo Goo Dolls, hopped around too exuberantly on stage), but even there, the percentage of professional sets rose. Maybe adolescent humor had an expiration date. Or perhaps “Here Comes a Regular” and “Skyway,” acoustic masterpieces Westerberg contributed to Tim (1985) and Pleased to Meet Me, respectively, so dominated the other material that the Replacements could no longer be viewed solely as funnymen. Punks who admired the early Replacements never forgave Westerberg these sensitive musings. Steve Albini fired an early salvo in his review of Let It Be: “Self-consciously ‘gut-wrenching’ in its pandering sensitivity and pathos, this record is irretrievably lost in the maudlin cabaret of Westerberg’s folk music blatherings. … I used to love these guys, now I hate this guy” (qtd. in Walsh 142). One friend told me that when he heard “Answering Machine” on multiple phone recordings at his college dorm, he gave up on the Replacements; Westerberg had “gotten all sensitive.” Others regarded every album after Tim as a “Westerberg solo album.” Sure, sales figures rose, and AOR radio stepped up once college radio stepped away, but people stopped laughing, and coincidentally or not, the Replacements began to turn on each other. If Stephen Sondheim sent for the clowns, Westerberg sent the clowns packing. As Pleased to Meet Me producer Jim Dickinson recalled, “When we started, ‘art’ was a word [Westerberg] wouldn’t let me use. By the end of the session, he was calling himself an ‘artist’” (qtd. in Mehr 240).

Conclusion The Replacements should be remembered as one of rock’s most humorous acts, an invigorating presence in a decade when rock needed a shot in the arm (or a shot upside the head, Three Stooges style). They never hit the big time, and this was attributable as much to their aging out of adolescence as it was to their penchant for self-destruction. Once Paul Westerberg matured, the Replacements not only made us laugh but also prompted us to think about why we laughed, and by then the jig was up. As Elvis Costello says, “There’s something about the daredevil nature of certain kinds of groups like the Replacements that can’t really be sustained or revived” (qtd. in Mehr 391). Alcoholism was clearly a factor. The Replacements’ drunken performances had become hackneyed by the late 1980s. Besides, addiction isn’t funny, no matter how many times you try to laugh it off. Alcohol abuse took most band and crew members to rehab, and it took some to their graves. An interview with a teenage punk rocker in The Decline of Western Civilization shows her laughing while saying, “I guess I’m an alcoholic.” Her laughter rings hollow, though, just as it would for Westerberg and company. Consider the phony howls on “Bastards of Young” and other late-era Replacements rave-ups. Nothing’s funny when you’re caught trying too hard. Neither was it funny when Westerberg forced Bob Stinson, just back from rehab, to chug a bottle of champagne during a 1985 performance. Bob cried, but he loved the band, and he took the drink. He was fired a few weeks later (qtd. in Mehr 189). Westerberg disputes the story, but the cost to Bob was 201

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indisputable. He died from his addictions in 1995, at age 35. Eventually, Westerberg realized that “Fall Downstairberg” was a drunken alter ego he no longer cared to maintain, but serious damage had already been done. In an early moment of awakening, Westerberg penned “Here Comes a Regular,” his least funny song, and arguably his best. “Well, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst / After a hard day of nothin’ much at all,” Westerberg sings. It’s harrowing to hear a young man identify as an alcoholic on his band’s major label debut (Tim). The song is stark, and strangely beautiful; it’s just Westerberg, with an acoustic guitar and a piano, facing a mountain of hurt. Summer’s done, so why bother to cut the grass? In fact, why do anything at all, except take up residency at CC’s bar? Suffice it to say, when you’re a regular, you’re no longer a replacement. You have a fixed persona, described unflinchingly here as a “fool who wastes his life, God rest his guts.” Newly signed to Sire, Westerberg should have been on top of the world. Instead, he turns inward, for he knows that, even as opportunity for stardom has come his way, “Opportunity knocks once, then the door slams shut.” His tone is angry, defeated, and plaintive. Peter Buck called the song “Midwestern fatalism.” I’d call it “tears of a clown.” Westerberg himself has searing memories of the song: “We’d always said, ‘We’re a bunch of drunken fucking losers.’ That was the joke. But to put it in serious terms wasn’t something I was ready for” (qtd. in Mehr 183). Once you take a joke seriously, it’s no longer funny. Once you tally your long line of jokes, you might see that your life has become a joke, and that’s not funny, either. For years, the Replacements were a joke, but Paul Westerberg was too talented and thoughtful to remain one, and that was the band’s downfall and their bitter blessing. “Dope Smokin’ Moron” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” got us laughing, but “Sixteen Blue” and “Here Comes a Regular” have had more staying power. “Eventually the Replacements would become a sort of cartoon, typecast as a bunch of idiot savant boozers,” Azerrad says. “Fans could get the vicarious thrill of being a melancholic slob, a lovable asshole, a soulful drunk, a free spirit. But for the band itself, booze and drugs would exact a heavy toll” (213). Infighting replaced frivolity. Predictably, in ensuing decades, reunion tours and aborted recording schedules lasted about as long as a Chris Mars motorcycle ride, except that Mars wasn’t aboard any longer, having opted for a straighter, saner path. Luckily, the masterpieces from the past remain. As an aging Gen X slacker, I occasionally convince myself that I can go back in time, down a couple beers, act like a knucklehead, and forget to take out the trash. Yet I have songs in my head reminding me of where that’s going to lead. So, I laugh along with the Replacements, and then I leave it at that.

Works Cited Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981–1991. Little, Brown, 2001. The Decline of Western Civilization, Part One. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, Spheeris Films, 1981. Mehr, Bob. Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. Da Capo, 2016. Montandon, Mac. Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader. Thunder’s Mouth, 2005. Powers, Ann. Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America. Da Capo, 2001. The Replacements. The Complete Studio Albums 1981–1990. Rhino Records, 2015. Walsh, Jim. The Replacements: All Over but the Shouting. Voyageur, 2007.


Part 5

Selected Artists II Comedy in Popular Music

“Comedy is a serious business,” said W.C. Fields. “A serious business with only one purpose—to make people laugh.” Of course, there can be other purposes, but for the artists in Part 5, with the exception of Dolly Parton, laughter is one of the prime objectives of their well-crafted artistry. The artists here are not as much concerned with satire or social commentary as they are with ­relatively innocuous jokes, skits, pratfalls, and parodies. They aim for belly laughs, not the knowing grin or snicker. Theirs is a friendlier humor, at least on the surface. Part 5 opens with “The Coasters: Funny and Not So Funny,” a study of the early r­ hythm-and-blues vocal group who became known as the Clown Princes of Rock and Roll. In an effort to understand the band’s comedic success, Lawrence Pitilli analyzes the lyrics, musical arrangement, vocals, solos, sing-along choruses, and more in four Coaster hits composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (one with Doc Pomus). But while these songs by such “polished comedians” could deliver a good laugh, they also, sometimes with hindsight, reveal much about 1950s America, not all of which is positive. Contemporaneous with the Coasters was another member of royalty, the UK’s Lonnie Donegan, also known as the King of Skiffle. In “Lonnie Donegan: From Trad Jazz to King of Skiffle and Variety Star,” Mats Greiff charts Donegan’s rapid rise from jazz-band guitarist to teen idol and “variety star” in the mid-1950s. Greiff explores the influence of folk music and music hall on Donegan, known for such songs as “Rock Island Line” and “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” as well as Donegan’s influence on subsequent generations of UK rockers. Dolly Parton straddles Parts 4 and 5 of this volume, fitting neatly in neither. Parton has written and performed country classics that are not the least bit funny: “Coat of Many Colors” (1971) and “Jolene” (1973), for example. But we placed Parton in Part 5 because her hypersexualized, overthe-top, comedic image is a major part of her brand, which is also the topic of discussion in Pamela Wilson’s “Mountain Butterfly: Dolly Parton’s Transformational Persona in American Country Music.” Wilson argues that Parton’s comically garish appearance and one-liners have enabled her to navigate complex gender politics to become a much beloved and admired artist and a corporate magnate in a male-dominated industry. In “The Wacky and Zany World of Flo & Eddie,” Thomas Kitts focuses on Mark Volman (Flo) and Howard Kaylan (Eddie). The chapter begins with a discussion of their comedic work with the Turtles, particularly on Battle of the Bands, before turning to their stint with Frank Z ­ appa’s ­Mothers of Invention, and then, and mostly, on the comedic strategies of Flo & Eddie, who employed parody, slapstick, sing-alongs, wordplay, and silly songs in performance and on record. This chapter will also consider reasons for the limited commercial success of the duo, who never

Selected Artists II

developed more than a cult following. In “‘Dare to Be Stupid’: Covering ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic,” Michael Mooradian Lupro takes his cue from Will Brooker who, for one year, dressed, ate, and lived as David Bowie. Lupro spends only a few days as “Weird Al” but that time did provide him with a deeper understanding of the minds and muses of the master parodist. Lupro shares his experiences with us and discusses Yankovic’s formula as a “compelling auteur,” his ability to inspire younger musicians, and the huge success of Mandatory Fun. Part 5 closes with Eric Abbey’s study of the Aquabats in “The Aquabats! Defeating Evil One Show at a Time.” Abbey charts the band’s origins in the early 1990s in the California punk scene which they later came to satirize, the formation of a ska band, their fun-filled live shows, and their moderately successful television series. Drawing on interviews with band members and others close to the band, on Huizinga’s concept of play, and on Debord’s work on spectacle, this chapter argues that the Aquabats, particularly in live performance, create a space where their audience can play, have fun, and relive, perhaps even reinvent, childhood memories. Critics tend to privilege the artist who addresses “serious” issues (like Randy Newman) over the comedic artist (like “Weird Al”). However, with Part 5, we call attention to those musical comedians too often overlooked in studies of popular music. As these chapters reveal, a study of such artists is illuminating from artistic, sociopolitical, and historical perspectives. A hilarious one-liner from Dolly Parton or a musical skit from Flo & Eddie can be loaded with implication. After all, a joke can be more than a joke.


23 The Coasters Funny and Not So Funny Lawrence Pitilli

In David Seville’s 1958 hit song “Witch Doctor,” the protagonist finds a simple solution to his problematic love life by reciting a series of nonsense syllables, thus winning the girl of his dreams and avoiding the pain of unrequited love. In the same year, Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” finds the central character escaping the ravenous jaws of an alien invader when the purple monster reveals that his sole purpose for visiting earth is to join a rock-and-roll band. The ­Playmates deliver a great punch line in their late 1950s hit “Beep Beep,” a highway tale of competition between the drivers of a little Nash Rambler and a Cadillac, leading to a surprise conclusion as to why the smaller vehicle is easily winning without shifting out of second gear. These three songs are a small representative sample of the humor-based songs, sometimes referred to as novelty songs, of the 1950s and early 1960s. Yes, they are filled with comedic charm by presenting out of the ordinary characters in challenging yet harmless situations. And, yes, the protagonists easily embody heroes who provide a happy ending in a lighthearted manner. During this time period, there was a plethora of songs considered humorous in their lyrical construction and comedic vocal delivery yet possessing an underlying complexity in terms of subject matter and characterization. Here, enter the Coasters. This legendary vocal group had its origins in a successful Los Angeles doo-wop group called the Robins, which had been recording since 1949. In 1955, original members Carl Gardner and Bobby Nunn teamed with Billy Guy and Leon Hughes with accompanying guitarist Adolph ­Jacobs to form the Coasters (referencing their West Coast base). Two years later, Nunn and Hughes were replaced by Will “Dub” Jones and Cornell Gunter. The new lineup of Guy, Gardner, Jones, and Gunter recorded most of the Coasters classics. The new members proved to be most valuable to the group with Jones playing the role of the boisterous clown. This lineup was ultimately crowned the Clown Princes of Rock and Roll. At this point, we must consider the legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the common denominator for both the Robins and Coasters who, in addition to writing hit songs for Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Ben E. King and others, wrote some of the Coasters’ ground-breaking hits, including “Young Blood,” “Searchin,” and “Yakety Yak.” Both born of Jewish heritage, Leiber came from Baltimore, Maryland, and Stoller from Long Island, New York. They met in Los Angeles, California, in 1950 where Leiber was a senior at Fairfax High School while Stoller was a freshman attending Los Angeles City College. In their after-school hours, Leiber worked at Norty’s, a local record store, and Stoller played piano. Their shared love of blues and rhythm-and-blues forged the beginning of their songwriting partnership with Stoller 205

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as composer and Leiber as lyricist. Jimmy Witherspoon recorded their first commercial song, “Real Ugly Woman,” in 1950, which was followed by their first hit, “Hard Times,” recorded by Charles Brown in 1952, the songwriters’ breakthrough year when they wrote “Hound Dog” for blues singer Big Mama Thornton, a hit for her in 1953. However, it would be Elvis Presley’s rock version in 1956, which catapulted the duo into legendary songwriting status. Leiber and Stoller expanded their professional horizons when, in 1953, they formed Spark ­Records, on which quickly followed the hit songs “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “Smokey Joe’s Café” by the Robins. The label was later sold to Atlantic Records, which proved to be most fortuitous for the duo as they were contractually allowed to produce for other record companies, thus becoming the first recognized independent producers in rock-and-roll history. During this period, they wrote hit after hit for the Drifters, the Coasters, and Elvis Presley. In the early 1960s, they formed Daisy Records, where a young Phil Spector honed his production skills. As independent producers, Leiber and Stoller continued their hit song streak with “Tell Him” by the Exciters, “She Cried” by Jay and the Americans, and their own composition “Love Potion #9” recorded by the Clovers. They then started Red Bird Records, which released hit songs like the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” and the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” After selling Red Bird, they wrote the Peggy Lee classic “Is That All There Is?” in 1969 and produced “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel in 1973. Independent projects followed in the subsequent decades, but none achieved the commercial success that the pair had with the Coasters. Leiber and Stoller’s compositions provided the springboard for the Coasters’ recording success as well as a wealth of material for analyzing their underlying contextual complexity. Many of these Leiber and Stoller songs by the Coasters reflect serious issues such as venereal disease, stalking, and juvenile delinquency, to mention a few. Yet the Coasters’ reputation as a comedy-singing group may have distracted early listeners and audiences from perceiving the seriousness of the lyrical content. Perhaps it is the passage of time that provides hindsight for lyrical content. Examine, for instance, the O’Kaysons’ 1968 hit “I’m a Girl Watcher.” It is a song about a guy who enjoys looking and admiring beautiful women as they pass. However, in mid-song, he sings “…here comes one now,” and, at that moment, utters “umm umm” with a subtle yet seductive tone. At the time of the song’s release, this utterance was part of the lyrical charm. Today, we call such a vocalization catcalling. Similarly, in 1983, the Police’s signature song, as composed by Sting, “Every Breath You Take,” might be interpreted as a comforting love song about a protective lover. However, at the time of its release, we might have been reminded of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and interpreted the song as a caveat for the emergence of dictatorial, surveillant governments. In 2017, “Every Breath” might be construed as the classic stalker’s anthem, especially when noting the repetitive lyric, “I’ll be watching you.” Sting states, I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize it at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control. (qtd. in Davies and Smith) The Coasters’ discography has provided much listening entertainment to this day. Yes, on the surface, the songs are humorous and melodically pleasing with their infectious enthusiasm and sing-along choruses. Sometimes, however, we need distance to hear a song more clearly. Upon their release, many of the Coasters’ songs were generally regarded as humorous and light entertainment. Yet, today, while we still enjoy them for the same reasons as the initial listeners, we can see that their recordings provide an insight into the psychological mindset of the 1950s teenager as well as a serious commentary on manners, mores, and behavior in mid-twentieth-century America. It is the passage of time that gives us the opportunity to investigate these songs for the concealed gravity of their lyrical content. 206

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Are These Songs Really Funny? “Charlie Brown” “Charlie Brown,” recorded in 1959, might be the quintessential Coasters’ song, complete with flawed humorous characters and comedic vocal deliveries. In “Charlie Brown,” the protagonist, a high school student, finds himself in constant trouble: “Why’s everybody always picking on me?” Perhaps it is Dub Jones’s bass-infused, tragic-comedic line juxtaposed to the up-tempo, major-key arrangement, the nursery-rhyme introduction (“fe-fe, fi-fi, fo-fo-fum”), and King Curtis’s playful saxophone that diverts the listener’s attention from Brown’s underlying criminal nature. When first introduced, the affable class-clown Brown seems a mischievous teenager, maligned and misunderstood by his peers and school administration. The comedic effect of Jones’s delivery coupled with the high-pitched “Yeah you!” recorded at half speed at the end of the song’s bridge, belies the seriousness of Brown’s actions. However, Brown is hardly the innocent he portrays himself to be. He has defaced school property by writing on the walls, publicly gambled on school grounds, and antagonized fellow students by throwing spitballs at them. The opening lines signal Brown’s criminal conduct as we hear that smoke is detected in the school auditorium, strongly insinuating that Brown is an arsonist. Later in the song, Brown enters his English class and calls his teacher “Daddy-O,” reminding listeners of Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Glenn Ford’s character Dadier, mocked by his delinquent students as “Daddy-O.” At the time of the song’s release, adult Americans were frightened by a teenage culture that appeared dangerously rebellious. Between 1950 and 1955, crimes committed by teenagers increased by 45%. In New York City alone, juvenile arrests more than tripled between 1950 and 1959 and juvenile court cases more than doubled between 1948 and 1957. In 1955, besides Blackboard Jungle with its high school delinquents, Rebel Without a Cause featured James Dean who played a troubled teen and who frightened parents by becoming a hero to many sons and daughters. In 1956, Frankie Lymon, with the doo-wop harmony support of his group the Teenagers, defended himself to the teenage record buying public (and perhaps their parents as well) with the song “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.” In 1960, a public opinion poll issued by the US Children’s Bureau found that juvenile delinquency ranked third behind national defense and world peace as America’s top three greatest concerns (McIver 4–5; see also “Fear”). Interestingly, the timely “Charlie Brown” was preceded in the previous year by the Coasters’ #1 smash hit “Yakety Yak” in which a stern parent orders his son to “tell your hoodlum friend outside / You ain’t got time to take a ride.” Although “Charlie Brown” is replete with serious issues such as a young life going astray, social persecution (no one offers to help Brown but instead ridicules him), disrespectful behavior, and criminal activity, the Coasters’ joyful and humorous delivery give listeners and audiences freedom from such disturbing issues. Novelist Borden Deal states, It is the task of the artist, and his responsibility, to create and maintain that sense of continuity of the human community. He formulates and synthesizes and transmits the symbols and the images, in all the various forms of his art that contain within themselves the sum total of the human experience. (239) Perhaps the sum total of human experience in “Charlie Brown” reflects more than just the juvenile delinquency of that period as we also see neglect, persecution, and deception as well as the fun and joy in the rhythms of life. When listening to “Charlie Brown” today, however, a very different listening experience ­occurs. Juvenile delinquency pales in comparison to current issues plaguing our youth such as depression, suicide, and cyber bullying. I think the awareness of these current issues has broadened 207

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and intensified our collective radar in perceiving the serious threats to our youth in our very fast-paced, complex modern world. This newly developed perception allows us to supersede the humor inherent in “Charlie Brown” and see the flawed and tragic nature of the song’s protagonist. Hopefully, we can still be entertained, remembering our initial reaction to the Coasters’ humor.

“Young Blood” Leiber and Stoller were having success with songs set in the ghetto featuring black characters. Yet, by 1955, the songs were appealing to a wider audience. Their composition “Young Blood,” written in collaboration with legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, was one half of a 1957 two-sided hit with “Searchin’.” Pomus is credited as the idea man, supplying the title and story line. The entire song was written in approximately 30 minutes—15 minutes for the lyrics and 15 for the music. Although thrilled to be co-writing with Pomus, Leiber and Stoller did not intend to write a song about social justice or societal enlightenment. The song tells a familiar tale of boy likes girl, boy chases girl—a very common theme in popular music. However, the lyrics reveal a total lack of reciprocation on the female’s part. The male protagonist sees his love object from a distance and goes so far as to follow her home. He exclaims repeatedly that “she’s the one” and that he can’t get her out of his mind. Only the girl’s father rescues her from an awkward encounter, emphatically warning the boy, “You better leave my daughter alone.” Another critical issue arises in the song, namely catcalling. As with “Charlie Brown,” “Young Blood” raises a critical societal issue: catcalling and stalking, both of which are now recognized as criminal acts defined as a whistle, shout, or sexual move on another person. The reports of incidences of catcalling are wide ranging with 65% to 99% of American females claiming to have been catcalled in their lifetime (Whittaker and Kowalski). The male protagonist in “Young Blood” boldly and repeatedly asks the female for her name and shouts in her direction, four times in a row, “Look-a-there.” When “Young Blood” was released, there was no social outcry rallying for women’s rights and legal justice for such crimes. That was unfamiliar legal territory and, thus, there was no collective societal consciousness about these issues. There was, though, a collective musical consciousness as related to the familiar rock and roll beat, sing-along chorus, easily recognized rhyme patterns and, of course, the gritty vocal delivery of the Coasters, all of which might have diverted public attention from any underlying serious issue. Society, however, did develop a sharper perspective on such matters as some popular culture references in cinema and song may demonstrate. Movies such as Play Misty for Me (1971), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Fan (1981) and songs such as Carly Simon’s “You Belong to Me” (1978), Lionel Richie’s “Hello” (1983), and Morrissey’s “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” (1994) share a common theme of possessive and obsessive love. Therefore, society progressed in its awareness of this social malady throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as stalking became familiar territory for moviegoers and music lovers and, unfortunately, for real-life victims in those decades and beyond. As recent as 2016, 7.5 million people are stalked each year in the US—­ females more than males. To be more specific, 61% of female victims and 44% of male victims are stalked by current or former intimate partners; 25% of females and 32% of males are stalked by an acquaintance. It is also projected that 15% of women in the US will be stalked in their lifetime as compared to 6% of males (“Stats”). Stalking and catcalling are now criminal acts, all too familiar in contemporary American culture. The rates of incidence are so commonplace and astronomical that perhaps we have evolved to an unfortunate extreme, becoming inured to its damaging effects on victims. Survivors have suffered from depression and various forms of post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to moving their residences and changing jobs in order to escape punishment and abuse from their perpetrators (see Rooney). Yet the unfamiliarity with the psychological effects of these criminal behaviors in the 1950s is perhaps one reason why “Young Blood” is still widely interpreted as a classic 208

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boy-meets-girl song. With stalking and catcalling considered harmless male fun in the 1950s, “Young Blood” was considered a fun song. As any teenage record reviewer on American Bandstand would have said, “It has a good beat and you can dance to it.” But give the song a second listen. There’s something very sinister going on in those lyrics, and that’s no laughing matter.

“Poison Ivy” Pure and simple, “Poison Ivy” is a metaphor for a sexually transmitted disease – or the clap – hardly a topic for a song that hit the Top Ten in the spring of 1959. But the more we wrote, the less we understood why the public bought what it bought. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t matter. We were having fun. (Leiber 141) This quotation perhaps gives great insight into both the paradoxes of commercial songwriting and the spirited mindset of the Leiber and Stoller/Coasters collaboration. Yet the underlying theme of “Poison Ivy” is a serious one, metaphorically replete with caveats, symptoms, and after effects. While incidents of syphilis increased during World War II, Americans were fearful of the disease and its social stigma (see “Sexually Transmitted”).1 During the 1940s, there was a plethora of public health service, anti-STD posters with slogans such as “She may look clean but…,” “Crossing your fingers won’t prevent venereal disease,” and “VD can be cured but there’s no medicine for regret” (Peppers). Innocent Party, a 17-minute film available on YouTube, reveals the almost obsessive fear that played an active role in the mindset of American teenagers. With “Poison Ivy,” the Coasters seem to mock this obsession. With the exception of the reference to “calamine lotion”2 in the third verse, the Coasters sing of the after effects of syphilis, especially the scratching and itching. The sexual innuendos certainly point to an intimate involvement with lines about “creepin’ around late at night” and warnings not to “mess around.” It is perhaps the rhythm-and-blues flavored vocal and instrumental arrangement coupled with a very accessible sing-along melody that undermines the seriousness of “Poison Ivy.” However, the record, which reached #1 on the R&B chart and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959, is a testimonial to the power of commercial songwriting and vocal performance, so much so that it obscures the STD issue in several ways. Consider the song’s conclusion as the Coasters sing La da la da la da, a series of logatomes3 with teasing inflections and an almost childlike reverie. In addition, Poison Ivy might be the name of a very seductive woman, who perhaps may have an STD, but this possible naming personalizes the lyrics and gives the male listener a sense of a one-to-one connection with the song and, in this context, Poison Ivy herself. Furthermore, the rhymes deliver an enjoyable comedic experience. Ingenuous with whimsy, they are clever and funny: “bumpy” and “lumpy,” “ocean” and “lotion,” “fool ya” and “cool ya.” Yet the Coasters and Leiber and Stoller belie any dangers or potential tragedies associated with syphilis. As Leiber said, “…we were having fun…” but perhaps only tragically so.

“Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)” The Coasters’ “Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)” reached #16 on the R&B chart and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. Performing in innocent 1950s America, Little Egypt, a stripper with acrobatic prowess and flamboyant beauty, finds herself in a love relationship with a regular customer. The vocal arrangements have the Coasters singing their verses in elongated phrases that reflect slow and rhythmic bump-and-grind inflections, giving musical atmospheric support to her striptease act. Yet they maintain an innocence by consistently singing childlike logatomes like “ying-yang.” The song has several implications: Little Egypt embraces her work; she probably works the night shift in a 209

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predominantly male domain; and she defies the era’s “cult of domesticity,” which pressured women to fulfill their duties as wives and homemakers (“Women’s Roles”). Thus, our song’s heroine embraces an autonomous lifestyle contrary to the societal constraints of that time period. The dancer’s autonomy and freedom-loving independence is further demonstrated by a “picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine,” which was dated “Phoenix, Arizona 1949.” This tattoo might symbolize the pioneering, independent spirit of the cowboy and the American West. In the final verse, however, the narrator reports that Little Egypt “doesn’t dance there anymore.” He triumphantly proclaims that he and Little Egypt are married with seven children. Little Egypt fulfills the role of the 1950s housewife; she mops, shops, and cares for the children, who imitate their mom’s dance routine. This conclusion is presented as “the happy ending,” commensurate with the 1950s’ ideal that “fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949 – the ­housewife-mother” (Friedan 92). In retrospect, the song can be interpreted quite differently in the 2000s. Consider Little Egypt’s tattoo alone. In today’s American culture, such a tattoo is known as the derogatory “tramp stamp,” minimizing women as indiscriminate sexual objects. P ­ aradoxically, the year 1949, as cited earlier, is the year purported by Friedan for ushering in modern female domestication while that same year is the liberating date tattooed on Little Egypt’s spine. In 1957, Betty Friedan began writing The Feminine Mystique (published in 1963), which is widely regarded as the progenitor of the modern women’s movement (see Spender 7–18). The ­six-year time span would represent a good portion of our dancer’s domestication period. I ­believe the ­modern feminists would view Little Egypt’s life very sadly. They would see that this ­independent and self-empowered woman was engulfed by the cult of domesticity. Note that the household ­duties are performed by her alone and that the narrator does not mention anything about ­sharing ­domestic chores. The only legacy of her past independent life is her children’s ­imitation of her dance routine. This final scene in the song’s conclusion might provide the listener with a “­ happily ever after” effect of domestic bliss on par with the household wholesomeness of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet television show of that era. However, seven children are, in a word, a handful. Much responsibility comes with this territory not to mention financial ­challenges and sleepless nights. In hindsight, we don’t know if Little Egypt is a contented person in her newfound d­ omestic situation. What is apparent is that she doesn’t have a voice in assessing her ­post-professional life. We only hear things from her husband’s perspective. That, in itself, may be a form of o ­ ppression. But in 1961, I think that the Coasters were just having fun telling a story about some very i­nteresting characters and entertaining us in their inimitable style.

Conclusion: Forever Funny But… Most of us appreciate a good laugh. Many of us treasure a good insight into the human condition. Some of us value hindsight when it affords us an opportunity to clarify social issues both past and present. The Coasters’ discography provides ample opportunity for music lovers of all ages and generations to enjoy and explore their music on any of these levels. However, if we were to signify the primacy of any of these listening strategies, it would be comedy. The Coasters still reign as the Clown Princes of Rock and Roll, and rightly so. Even though the songs discussed earlier contain somewhat hidden topical issues, there are many Coasters’ songs that are, for lack of a better phrase, just plain funny and entertaining. “The Shadow Knows,” a spoof on the 1930s serial radio drama, informs us of a guy who is worried that his girlfriend might be cheating on him. Although this situation may be emotionally challenging for our protagonist, the comic tone of the vocal delivery delights us. In “Down in Mexico,” finding romance on a dance floor south of the border is the encouraging message. On “Searchin,’” the detective show-themed hit, we get a quick earful of the playful freedom inherent in the Coasters’ vocal arrangements when a falsetto intones the line “Bulldog Drummond.” And “Along Came Jones,” a musical parody of the 1945 Western comedy film of the same name, gives us the unison intoned line followed by a vocal sound effect “…and then? and then? … ah ah” 210

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The Coasters were an extraordinary group. They had recognizable lead voices; a memorable bass singer; well-choreographed dance steps; and, of course, expertly written commercial songs. They sang about improbable situations with the ease of polished comedians. And they also had timing—excellent career timing. In the American post-World War II era, humor provided muchneeded healing for the US, and the Coasters provided at least some of that healing. It was as if every listener kept hearing the same joke and punch line in their comedy routine. The big difference was that every listener could sing along to that joke and punch line. Perhaps it’s the musical factor that, on the one hand, perpetuates the comedy of their recording legacy and, on the other hand, disaffirms some of the seriousness of their discography. Comedy may be a serious business, but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh and sing along with the Clown Princes of Rock and Roll.

Notes 1 “Syphilis trends have followed a roller coaster course for the last half [of the twentieth] century. Its incidence rose during World War II, but fell thereafter, coinciding with the introduction of penicillin. The lowest levels were observed at the end of the 1950s, but from the 1960s on, the incidence of syphilis increased” (“Sexually Transmitted” 17). 2 Calamine, more popularly known as calamine lotion, is an over-the-counter medication used to treat mild itchiness due to sunburn, insect bites, and mild skin irritations. In the 1950s, it was heralded as a household cure-all for such maladies, including poison ivy. 3 Logatomes are nonsense syllables that do not possess denotative meaning, yet can imply a certain feeling within a specific context. Doo-wop lyrics contain many logatomes, such as doo wah, yip yip yip, and so forth. The term doo-wop itself is a logatome.

Works Cited Davies, Hunter, and Giles Smith. Interview with Sting. Independent, 30 April 1993, www.independent. Accessed 17 Dec. 2017. Deal, Borden. “The Function of the Artist’s Creativity and the Collective Unconscious.” Southwest Review, vol. 51, no. 3, Summer 1966, pp. 239–53. “Fear of the American Teenager.”, n.d., Accessed 15 Dec. 2017. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. 1963. Norton, 2001. Innocent Party. Centron Corporation. Directed by Herk Harvey, written by Margaret Travis. 1959. YouTube, uploaded by Shaggylocks, 25 May 2016, Leiber, Jerry, et al. Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography. Simon and Schuster, 2009. McIver, Robert M. The Prevention and Control of Delinquency. Aldine Transaction, 1966. Peppers, Margot. “‘She May Look Clean but…’: 1940s Anti-STD Posters Warn Soldiers of the ‘Booby Trap’ of Disease-ridden Prostitutes.” Daily Mail, 10 June 2013, She-look-clean--1940s-anti-STD-posters-warn-soldiers-booby-trap-disease-ridden-prostitutes.html. Accessed 17 Dec. 2017. Rooney, Emma. “The Effects of Sexual Objectification on Women’s Mental Health.” OPUS, 2017, ­ Accessed 24 June 2017. “Sexually Transmitted Diseases in America: How Many Cases and at What Cost?” American Social Health Association, Naked Truth, Dec. 1988, Accessed 20 June 2017. Spender, Dale. For the Record: The Making and Meaning of Feminist Knowledge. Women’s Press, 1985. “The Stats on Stalking: What Do You Know about This Form of Abuse?”, 11 Jan. 2016, Accessed 26 June 2017. Whittaker, Elizabeth, and Robin M. Kowalski. “Cyberbullying via Social Media.” Journal of School Violence, vol. 14, no. 1, 25 Sept. 2014, pp. 11–29, doi:10.1080/15388220.2014.949377. Accessed 19 June 2017. “Women’s Roles in the 1950s.” American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 6, 1950–1959, Gale, 2001, pp. 278–280. U.S. History in Context, UHIC?u=newh97416&xid=84a77f08. Accessed 17 Dec. 2017.


24 Lonnie Donegan From Trad Jazz to King of Skiffle and Variety Star Mats Greiff

On July 13, 1954, members of Chris Barber’s Jazz Band were recording at the Decca studio in ­northwest London. During a break in the session, band member Lonnie Donegan took the ­m icrophone and performed the Leadbelly song “Rock Island Line” in his own particular style— that is, with Donegan’s vocals in a distinctively high nasal voice, adopting an undefined ­“American” accent, accompanied by the simple instrumentation associated with what was to ­become the ­popular ­British musical genre known as “skiffle.” The musicians were Donegan himself on guitar, jazz singer Beryl Bryden on washboard, and Chris Barber (who played trombone in the larger band) on bass (Humphries 99–104). This break followed a pattern established in live performance a few years earlier by Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, with whom both Barber and Donegan had previously played, whereby between the “trad” (New Orleans-style) jazz sets performed by the full band, a smaller combo would play a few folk and blues songs (Barber 26–27; Humphries 75). “Rock Island Line” was originally written in 1929 as an exercise in corporate boosterism by Clarence Wilson, an employee of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The version most of us know is based on later field recordings by Alan Lomax in 1934 or Leadbelly’s studio recordings in 1939. It’s a humorous story of a train driver who puts one over on the railway tollgate operator by pretending to carry (toll-free) pig iron when, in truth, his train carried pigs and other livestock. ­Donegan’s version was one of two non-jazz tracks on Barber’s first album, New Orleans Joy (1954). The following year, Decca released the song as a single, credited to the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group. In January 1956, it climbed to #8 in the British charts; later that spring it, it also reached the American Top Ten (peaking again at #8), a rarity for a British recording at that time. Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line” is often seen as a starting point of the British skiffle movement which reached its height in the UK between 1956 and 1959. It was a youth movement crossing class barriers, and centered on a particular music style: the playing of African-American blues and Appalachian folk songs accompanied by a mixture of both manufactured instruments, such as guitar or banjo, and repurposed or home-made instruments—for example, transforming a washboard into a percussion instrument, or manufacturing a string bass from a broom handle for the neck, a tea-chest or washtub for a resonant body, and household twine for the string. It was DIY (“Do It Yourself ”) music, music which almost anybody could play with few rudimentary skills, not unlike the emergence of punk rock two decades later (Bragg 392). It was also quintessentially British, and the movement grew rapidly. By 1956, more than 600 skiffle bands were established in Greater London and it is estimated that by 1957, about 50,000 bands had been established all over Great Britain with some 300,000 teenagers involved (Humphries 167–70; McDevitt, Ch. 8). 212

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However, Lonnie Donegan was not originally feted as a teenage idol. According to the (anonymous) liner notes for his first solo album, Lonnie Donegan Showcase (1956), he was already identified as a “variety” star. A contemporary review in The Times further established Donegan’s credentials: … the successful Variety star cannot rely on that one sure-fire number, on the wizardry of the recording engineer or on the artificial boost achieved by the plugger. He must have A Good Act – an act sufficiently good to impress critics and public on Monday, so that there will be more people coming to pay out their money to see him on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Donegan did more than that. His dynamic rhythmic singing, backed by the compelling beat of his Skiffle Group, broke records at the Variety theatres and drew in more customers than they had enjoyed for months. (qtd. in Frith et al. 103) The rapid rise of Lonnie Donegan as a solo artist is remarkable. “Rock Island Line” sold more than one million copies. Many of his subsequent releases went even higher in the charts. In just a few months, his artistic life changed from playing banjo in someone else’s band in small jazz clubs to touring the US and performing in and selling out the biggest variety theaters in Britain while singing songs by American radical songwriters. How was it possible that a jazz musician, who began singing American folk songs during band breaks, came to be recognized as both a successful music-hall performer/variety star and an idol to a generation of teenagers? The answer lies, at least in part, in the role that humor played in Donegan’s music and career.

Variety Theater in the 1950s: Music Hall Origins In order to understand the musical tradition from which Donegan emerged, it is important to understand the links between the variety shows of the 1950s and music hall, that largely w ­ orking-class cultural form which emerged in Britain first in the late nineteenth century and which featured comedians, dancers, musicians and singers, often acrobats, conjurors, contortionists, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Variety theater was the direct descendent of British music hall; it took the typical music hall show, that might play to a couple hundred patrons, to large theaters and eventually to audiences of millions on television, as exemplified by the long-running TV show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium (1955–1967, and many revivals). A typical variety bill is described by a reviewer in The Times, writing about a show at the London Palladium in 1951: When an act such as the Five Varias, venturesome young ladies who do astonishing things on trapezes, opens the entertainment, we know we are in for an evening out of the ordinary. Bears (Miss Edith Crocker) that ride bicycles seven feet high, a gentleman (Mr. Rex Ramer) who sings duets with himself, another gentleman (one of Los Ona) who juggles with knives and stands on his head at the top of a long ladder which somebody else is balancing on the soles of his feet, this is once more the true stuff of music-hall, which we have been hankering after for a long time. (“Palladium”) During the 1950s, the importance of comedians and comedy singers was repeatedly emphasized in reviews and articles on variety theater and music hall. An editorial in The Times in 1951 stated that comic singing once was “the mainstay of the whole evening’s enjoyment,” and complained that it scarcely survives (“Music-Hall”). In a review of a show at the London Palladium, the writer stressed the importance of comedy: The comic side of the programme is as well furnished as the marvelous side. Mr Jimmy James has polished his sketch of the tipsy wayfarer until its essentially British humour seems at least as dazzling as anything we import; Mr. Hoagy Carmichael, the American composer and 213

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singer of popular songs, has a dry humour and an amusing affection of nonchalance; and with the help of a vocal quartet called the Striders. (“Palladium”) When looking back at “the Cockney Comedian,” a Times correspondent emphasized that not just the tunes but also the lyrics and the way of singing them were essential characteristics of music hall songs (“Heyday”). In particular, comedy singing was one of the original foundations of music hall that was viewed as essential if this form of entertainment were to survive in the new television era. Another essential feature of music hall amusement was that working-class people could recognize themselves in songs and jokes. Already in the 1890s, singers and comedians like Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno were performing humorous songs about working-class life ( Jones 496–97; see also Kilgariff ). In the transition from music hall to variety theater in the 1950s, however, new acts were added to the bill who were not always consistent with the tradition. In particular, more conservative reviewers complained about jazz and other kinds of “new” music that entered the scene. Under a headline “No time for comedy in modern jazz,” The Times lamented that modern jazz lacked a sense of humor. Jazz was regarded as serious music, listened to by young people with serious, leftist attitudes, in which there was no room for comedy, and hence this kind of music did not really belong in the modern variety performance: With the decline of the English music-hall into a glorified listening-booth in which popular recording “artists” of the day offer us anything but free samples of their wares, it is hardly surprising that the age-old tradition of the comic song should have declined and virtually disappeared with it. Since modern popular songs are largely a derivate of jazz the absence of the comic element is not altogether surprising, for a sense of humour – let alone a sense of comedy—is a quality which has grown increasingly rare in jazz. (“No Time”) While not an exponent of the burgeoning “modern jazz” scene, Lonnie Donegan was one of the artists who could bridge the gap between jazz and music hall by performing American songs with a sense of humor.

From Jazz Musician to Teen Idol to Old-Fashioned Comedy Singer Lonnie Donegan was born Anthony James Donegan in 1931 in Glasgow, Scotland, but his family moved to London when he was one, and it was mostly in the East-end borough of East Ham that he was raised. He left school at 14 and worked in a succession of jobs before he was conscripted into the army for National Service in 1949. Meanwhile, Tony Donegan, as he was then known, bought his first guitar, took a few lessons, and began hanging around jazz clubs. He was invited to join a band in Ilford, Essex, which also featured a young trombone player, Chris Barber. Donegan continued to play jazz while in the army until posted to Vienna in 1950. Because Vienna was still under Allied Occupation, there he was exposed to music brought over by the American Forces, music by Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and, his particular hero, Lonnie Johnson, from whom he borrowed his first name, believing “Lonnie” to be a more appropriate moniker than “Tony” for a folk/blues singer. “Donegan played guitar and sang folk songs in the barrack room and sang to his own guitar accompaniment at troop concerts” (Dewe 14), and it was at this time that he also developed his singing style, a high, nasal, backwoodsy tenor that he picked up from early American country artists. Back in civilian life in 1951, he formed his own New Orleans-style jazz band and, in 1952, got to perform on the same bill at London’s Royal Festival Hall as his namesake, Lonnie Johnson. After his own group disbanded, he performed as a solo artist and also began playing with Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine, and others who would go on to form, first, Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, who began the tradition of skiffle breakout sessions during 214

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jazz concerts, then Chris Barber’s band under whose aegis he would make that fateful recording of “Rock Island Line.” Following the success of that single, Donegan left Barber’s band and embarked on a ten-week tour of the US in the spring of 1956. Returning home, he signed a contract with Moss Empires to perform at their chain of variety theaters (Dewe 81). A review of a show at the Prince of Wales Theatre in December 1956 describes one of Donegan’s first performances: Miss Anne Shelton and Mr. Lonnie Donegan with his Skiffle Group lead the attack at the Prince of Wales Theatre this week, presenting styles that could hardly be more contrasting. Mr. Donegan shows a wilder punch. He hits with all he has got and this, in the case of such a highly mechanized band, is quite a lot. To “skiffle”, it seems, is to present American folklore songs in terms of modern jazz, and the vigour and adroitness of the performance are undeniable, with now and then a half-wild and plaintive echo from the backwoods to remind us of the music’s origin. (“Prince”) The reviewer for The Times was clearly unsure how to categorize this new music—perhaps not surprisingly. Although Lonnie Donegan started out in Ken Colyer’s and Chris Barber’s jazz bands, he was able to make the transition to variety theater because of his knowledge of music hall. Even if Donegan, and the entire skiffle movement, embraced and performed American folk, blues, and country songs, they did it in their own style and they were regarded as typically British. Many of them had their roots within an English working-class culture, in which music hall was an essential part. From that, they created a new transnational musical style, which contained elements of both radical American music by, for example, Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie and British music hall. Over the next five years, Donegan enjoyed a string of hits as he placed 24 records in the UK Top Twenty singles chart, plus two Top Ten albums (Lonnie Donegan Showcase, #2 in December 1956, and Lonnie, #3 in November 1957). Although Donegan’s stage show already featured verbal and physical comedy, thus meeting the expectations of variety theater audiences raised on music hall traditions, most of these recordings were of American folk and blues songs played, relatively straight, in skiffle style—often songs attributed to, or previously recorded by, Huddie Leadbetter (“Leadbelly”) and/or Woody Guthrie. These included “Stewball” (#2 in 1956, b/w the traditional song, “Lost John”), “Cumberland Gap” (#1, 1957), “Gamblin’ Man” (#1, 1957), and “The Grand Coulee Dam” (#6, 1958), while other hits included Donegan’s cover of Johnny Horton’s recordings of “Battle of New Orleans” (1959—Donegan’s single reached #2 in the UK charts, while Horton’s peaked at #16) and “Sal’s Got a Sugar Lip” (#13 in 1959), along with his versions of traditional tunes such as “Tom Dooley” (Donegan’s more up-beat version peaked at #3 in 1959, outdoing the Kingston Trio, whose version reached #5 in the UK), “I Wanna Go Home (Wreck of the ‘John B’),” #5 in 1960, and “Michael, Row the Boat” (#6 in 1961). Signs that Donegan’s skiffle/pop music recordings and his variety theater/music hall performances were beginning to converge came with the release of his 1957 single “Gamblin’ Man.” Rather than in the recording studio, the song was recorded live at one of Donegan’s performances at the London Palladium. The other side of the single, promoted as a “double-A-side” with “Gamblin’ Man,” also recorded live at the Palladium and subsequently the better-remembered, was “Puttin’ on the Style.” (“Puttin’ on the Style”/”Gamblin’ Man” is also noteworthy as the last British #1 single to be released only as a 78 rpm record.) Originally recorded by country singer/ songwriter Vernon Dalhart in 1925, “Puttin’ on the Style” pokes wry, gentle, almost affectionate humor at its subjects, successively the “sweet sixteen” year-old giggling at the boys in church, the young man in his hot rod car, and the preacher in his pulpit who “roars with all his might.” They’re all acting, “puttin’ on the agony / puttin’ on the style / that’s what all the young folks / are doing all the while,” as the songwriter/observer smiles indulgently at their antics. 215

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Donegan’s (or his management’s) embrace of comedy became more obvious with “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (on the Bedpost Overnight),” a novelty song chosen for its comedic content. Like other Donegan novelty songs, it was recorded live (at Oxford’s New Theatre in late 1958) and released in late January 1959, soon peaking at #3 in the UK charts. (In the US, it wasn’t released until 1961, when it reached #5, giving Donegan his biggest hit in the Billboard Hot 100.) “Chewing Gum” was based on a prior American song entitled “Does the Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight,” written by Billy Rose, Ernest Breuer, and Marty Bloom, first recorded by the Happiness Boys in 1924, and later a hit for country stars Lulu Belle and Scotty (best known for writing and recording “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”). The title is changed in Donegan’s song to accommodate the sensitivities of the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC). Since the publicly owned BBC forbids advertising, and since mention of “spearmint” might suggest endorsement of “Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum,” Donegan’s version referred to generic “chewing gum” instead. Like “Puttin’ on the Style,” “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour” allows Donegan to show off his banjo-playing chops. But it also reinforces, and literally places on record, the humorous element of his performance style already manifested in his variety theater appearances. “Chewing Gum” is a nonsense song, a series of humorous vignettes in which the disposal, or temporary parking, of “used” gum is placed into question. From Granny, who sticks gum around her bed hoping to catch a prowler who will make her night, to the waiter who gets stuck on, and presumably witnesses events in, the bed of a honeymoon couple, “Chewing Gum” is a wealth of double entendre and suggestive humor. The comedic element of the song is reinforced in live performance by music hall-style interplay between Donegan and other members of his band; for example, the bass player asks Donegan a series of rhetorical questions, such as “If Tutankhamen got sick, would I call his mummy?” (Does Your). The comedic elements might elicit as many groans as laughs, but they are recognized for their lighthearted nature, and they place Donegan firmly within the music hall tradition. He knew perfectly well how to adapt himself to the music hall stage and the tradition of comedy singers (Humphries 142, 199–202).

Donegan’s Humorous Peak: “My Old Man’s a Dustman” Arguably, the most famous comedy song performed by Lonnie Donegan is “My Old Man’s a ­Dustman” (1960). Like Donegan’s other more humorous songs, “Puttin’ on the Style” and “­Chewing Gum,” it was recorded during a live performance, and like those songs, it marked a move away from music based on American folk and blues songs to re-emphasize his music hall origins and influences. But unlike “Style” and “Chewing Gum” (which were written by ­A merican songwriters), “My Old Man’s a Dustman” is a total departure from anything Donegan had recorded before. Its authorship is exclusively British, credited to Donegan, Peter Buchanan (then Donegan’s manager), and Beverley Thorn (pseudonym of notable English songwriter, Leslie ­Bricusse), and it is based on a song (“My Father Was a Fireman”) sung by British troops in World War I. Unlike Donegan’s skiffle recordings, or even his previous recordings, its subject matter has no connection to the US. Indeed, in its address to working-class politics and its use of English slang, “Dustman” is a purely English hit; perhaps not surprisingly, although it occupied the #1 position in the UK singles chart for four weeks in March–April 1960, and also reached #1 in ­Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand, it never registered on the US singles charts. As the title suggests, the chief protagonist of the song is the “singer’s” father, a dustman (a garbage collector) by trade, driving his “cart” (garbage truck) through the streets of London. Like many working-class people in Britain in the 1960s, he lives in a council flat (public housing) and normally dresses in work attire—“cor-Blimey” trousers (untranslatable), hobnail boots, and a dustman’s hat, whatever that looks like—and he’s not well-off financially; “In fact, he’s flippin’ skint [broke].” He’s a rough customer: When people on his route don’t leave a tip at Christmas, he


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leaves some of their rubbish on the doorstep, and when one “client” complains, he punches him. But he’s a lover as well as a fighter: In one verse, he remarries at the age of 86, and in another, when he misses a lady’s bin on his rounds one day and she chases after him, crying “You’ve missed me, am I too late?” he replies, “Nah, jump up on the cart.” Live performances frequently saw Donegan and his group members telling jokes between, and sometimes in the middle of, songs, often engaging in physical humor as well. In “Dustman,” for the first time, the music hall “patter” is inserted into the recording itself (of course, it was recorded live). On three separate occasions, the singing gives way to spoken interplay between Donegan and his lead guitarist, Les Bennetts, usually beginning with Donegan interjecting, in a mock upper-class accent, “I say, I say, I say,” before launching into a corny joke about dustbins; for example, Lonnie: “I say, I say, I say!” Les: “Not you again!” Lonnie: “My dustbin’s absolutely full with toadstools.” Les: “How do you know it’s full?” Lonnie: “‘Cause there’s not mushroom inside.” The same kind of corny humor reappears in the last verse of the song, concerning the dustman finding a tiger’s head mounted on a piece of wood (“The tiger looked quite miserable / But I suppose he should”); as he drove down the road, “a voice began to wail,” asking where the tiger’s head was, to which the band in chorus replies, “Four foot from his tail.” That same kind of interplay may be seen in performances of the song from Donegan’s TV show, Putting on the Donegan (1959–1962). In a YouTube video of a performance from 1961, obviously the closing song of the show, Donegan thanks his guests, then engages in a little physical musical humor with Pete Huggett, usually his bass player, but here playing violin, before launching into the song as drummer Peter Appleby walks on stage bashing on a dustbin instead of a drumkit (“My Old”). Again, the singing is interrupted by “I say, I say, I say” interludes between Donegan and his straight-man Les Bennetts (on this occasion playing double bass instead of guitar). The song features three verses, only one from the original recording (the “jump up on the cart” verse). One new verse is about that Australian natural wonder, the platypus, which allows Donegan to engage in a double entendre about the animal’s “platy” and its “pussy.” Nowhere in that verse is the dustman or “my old man” even mentioned, but he returns in verse 3 as an astronaut landing in Russia, greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who kisses him and holds him to his heart; “My dad said, ‘what’s your perfume, mate? / Reminds me of my cart.’” Making fun of a world leader in this way fits with the class politics that permeate the song. Working-class life is treated with much sympathy, the upper classes are satirized by mocking their accents, and Donegan introduces the song by informing his audience that he has a story for them; “To tell it is a must / About an unsung hero / Who moves away your dust.” While said in a lighthearted way (and in the TV performance, delivered while humorous interplay goes on with violinist Huggett), these lines introduce the song as a serious message to respect working-class people and their toil. Joking on serious matters, such as the severity of working-class existence, was common in music hall and Lonnie Donegan picked up this hereditary cultural element when he performed on stage. In doing so, Donegan uses the comedy in two ways, to create an awareness of working-class life and to rebel against the power of the ruling class (see Billig 2). With the dustman’s actions and expressions of resistance against middle-class norms as an example, it is also possible to relate Donegan’s performance to the medieval carnivalesque tradition, described by Mikhail Bakhtin, which at least temporarily turned the social world upside down, doing away with hierarchies, privileges, and norms (21–25). Then, Donegan uses contestive humor as a challenge to authorities and hegemonic norms when describing stigmatized work (see Billig; Holmes). Consequently, Donegan was not just a pop-singing teenage idol. His way of using contestive humor in a music hall-tradition bridged a generational gap. Through his rebellious use of humor, he also challenged the hegemonic order, reflecting the leftist attitudes shared by many in the skiffle movement and the associated 1950s folk revival in the UK (see Arthur).


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From Skiffle to the British Beat Revolution: Lonnie Donegan’s Legacy Using a well-known melody and changing the lyrics in order to relate to current events or as a vehicle for a political message has been common, not just in music hall but in many different contexts. The purpose, of course, is that the song should be known and easily recognized by people. The melody of “My Old Man’s a Dustman” is still used by a generation too young to have experienced Lonnie Donegan firsthand. One recent example occurred during the 2016–2017 season when thousands of supporters of Leeds United, the English football club, used “Dustman’s” melody to laud defender Pontus Jansson. Between verses celebrating his skills, the crowd sang the chorus, “Pontus Jansson’s magic. / He wears a magic hat” (“LUFC”). In so doing, they demonstrated the extent to which Donegan’s song had become embedded in popular culture. In some ways, “My Old Man’s a Dustman” is a continuation of the themes found in Donegan’s earlier skiffle recordings—especially those in which he covered songs made famous by Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly, often songs about the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed. At the same time, the stage performance we see in the 1961 TV show is a far cry from skiffle. Indeed, it represents a full embrace of music hall/variety theater entertainment, “the very music that skifflers had fought so hard to escape from” (Bragg 375). Donegan and his bandmates are wearing suits—Donegan even sports a bowtie—which may have been in keeping with expectations of performers, and hosts, on variety television at the time, but again something of a contrast with the fashions of teenagers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is also worth noting that “My Old Man’s a Dustman” is credited to “Lonnie Donegan and His Group,” where previous recordings had been credited to “Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Group.” Of course, by 1961, the skiffle movement had already run its course, and Donegan’s career as a teen idol and hitmaker was also nearing its end. In late 1961, Donegan had a UK #9 hit with “The Party’s Over,” a sentimental, choir-­ accompanied remake of the song recorded by Doris Day, among others, in the mid-1950s. It was

Figure 24.1  Lonnie Donegan in 1960, photo courtesy of Sydsvenska Dagbladet.


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a portentous choice. He charted only one more single (returning to Leadbelly for source material) with “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” #11 in 19621; ominously, it overlapped in the charts with “Love Me Do,” the Beatles’ first UK hit, and over the next few months variety stars like Donegan (because this is what he had become) were swept away by the “Beat Revolution.” But, although the skiffle craze was never regarded as exclusively a youth movement, since it had close connections to jazz, blues, folk, and music hall entertainment, it created a precedent for the beat revolution. Recall that the Beatles had their origins in skiffle band the Quarrymen, while the do-it-yourself element of skiffle, whereby anyone who was sufficiently interested could pick up (or build) an instrument to make music, was replicated in the mushrooming of beat groups in every part of Britain. Consequently, many musicians of the 1960s pay tribute to skiffle as an important part of their musical development; for example, Keith Grant and Don Craine from the Sixties British blues band, Downliners Sect, told me in an interview: “Those in our generation of musicians who do not mention Lonnie Donegan as a great inspiration to their own careers are liars.” However, it was not only the music of the skiffle craze that the 1960s pop-musicians inherited. My point is that it was also a matter of attitude and stage performances. Grant and Craine stated in the interview that Downliners Sect always used humor in their stage performances in the early 1960s, and acknowledged their connection to traditional British working-class culture which L ­ onnie Donegan helped transform from the music hall and variety theater stage to modern pop music.2

Conclusion Perhaps almost the last word in this chapter should be given to Chris Barber, who was in on the beginning of the skiffle boom and the launch of Donegan’s solo career. Writing in his autobiography, Barber acknowledges that he was caught unprepared by the success of “Rock Island Line” and Donegan’s subsequent career trajectory: Because Lonnie had been very involved in the band and in playing New Orleans jazz, I perhaps didn’t realize at the time just how caught up in the world of vaudeville he was. From what he told me later, out of everything he did in his career, the recordings he made with Max Miller were the ones he was most proud of. Lonnie was very good at doing these comic set-piece gags on stage. (46) Donegan’s interest in and influences from the British music hall comedy singing tradition led to a totally new style of performing American music. In England, both white American and black American working-class songs were performed by Donegan and other skiffle artists in a new way, such that the radical messages of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie were put into a British context and connected to British working-class culture—often, given Donegan’s music hall influences, with a humorous bent. By being at the crossroads between American and British working-class culture, Donegan, in his performances, combined the radical messages in American songs with a sense of rebellious British humor. Simultaneously, this contestive approach nourished social protest in ­England in the 1950s and gave birth to a new musical style which, in turn, influenced developments in British popular music in the 1960s and subsequent decades.

Notes 1 Many years later, Donegan returned, one more time, to the British charts as one of the named artists, along with Van Morrison, Chris Barber, and special guest Dr John, on The Skiffle Sessions: Live in Belfast 1998, which peaked at #14 in the UK album charts in 2000. 2 A month after his last UK Top 20 hit, Donegan recorded with one of his heroes, Max Miller, the “Cheeky Chappie,” regarded as one of the greatest standup comedians and comic singers of the music hall era.


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Works Cited Arthur, Dave. Bert: The Life and Times of A.L. Lloyd. Pluto Press, 2012. Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais och skrattets historia (Rabelais and his World). Anthropos, 2007. Barber, Chris, with Alyn Shipton. Jazz Me Blues: The Autobiography of Chris Barber. Equinox, 2014. Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. SAGE, 2005. Bragg, Billy. Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. Faber and Faber, 2017. Dewe, Mike. The Skiffle Craze. Planet, 1998. “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (on the Bedpost Overnight)?” YouTube, uploaded by johnatkin69, 3 July 2010, Frith, Simon, et al. The History of Live Music in Britain, Volume 1: 1950–1967, From Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Ashgate, 2013. Grant, Keith, and Don Craine. Personal interview. July 2017. “Heyday of the Cockney Comedian.” The Times [London], 9 Jan. 1958. Holmes, Janet. “Politeness, Power and Provocation: How Humour Functions in the Workplace.” Discourse Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2000, pp. 159–85. Humphries, Patrick. Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock & Roll. The Robson Press, 2012. Jones, Gareth Stedman. “Working-Class Culture and Working-Class Politics in London, 1870–1900: Notes on the Remaking of a Working-Class.” Journal of Social History, vol. 7, no. 4, 1974, pp. 460–508. Kilgariff, Michael. Grace, Beauty & Banjos: Peculiar Lives and Strange Times of Music Hall and Variety Artists. Oberon Books, 1998. “LUFC Pontus Janson Magic Hat Song.” YouTube, uploaded by Proper Sport, 23 Jan. 2017, com/watch?v=_M-RN_-jnhk. McDevitt, Chas. Skiffle: The Definitive Inside Story. Rev. ed. Rollercoaster Books, 2012. “Music-Hall Memories.” The Times [London], 1 Sept. 1951, p. 5. “My Old Man’s a Dustman (Live) 1/6/1961.” YouTube, uploaded by Paul Griggs, 28 Dec. 2013, com/watch?v=ODEShfdxoR0. “No Time for Comedy in Modern Jazz.” The Times [London], 5 Jan. 1957. “The Palladium. True Stuff of Music-Hall.” The Times [London], 27 March 1951. “Prince of Wales Theatre. Variety Performance.” Review in The Times [London], 4 Dec. 1956.


25 Mountain Butterfly Dolly Parton’s Transformational Persona in American Country Music Pamela Wilson

I was just a white trash country kid from way back in the mountains. —Dolly Parton (“Dolly Parton Interview”) I never thought I had to, you know, to beat the men down to raise the women up. I just try to raise the women up and do what I can. I’m very proud to be a woman. I’m very proud of all the accomplishments that women do. —Dolly Parton (“Larry”) At a time when fan armies, like the electorate, are split into competing factions (Beyoncé’s ­Beyhive, Rihanna’s Navy), it seems one thing everyone can agree on is a love of Dolly Parton. —Alex Frank

One can hardly speak about the talented country singer and cultural icon Dolly Parton without employing double entendre to invoke her bodily image as well as noting her deep contradictions. “Among her oversized attributes, she’s got a big voice, big hair, and a personality as big as the Great Smoky Mountains,” writes Arthur Levine in a 2016 news article. She is “a talent of great proportions,” puns Appalachian humor scholar Loyal Jones, who also quotes journalist Hal Crowther as saying, “Beneath a blinding surface of deliberate exaggerated self-satirizing artifice lurks one of the most engagingly authentic individuals in the Nashville pantheon” (Country 286–87). While Dolly Parton is unquestionably the “queen” of country music as a singer whose 50-year career has bridged and survived the significant transformations in that music industry and its culture, she has also achieved broader respect and admiration (and a huge fandom) beyond the country music market. This recognition has come not only through her crossover success as a pop singer but also through her roles as a comedic film actress; a “shrewd” and “savvy” entrepreneur and businesswoman; a benevolent philanthropist to her native Tennessee mountain region; and, in her later years, a postfeminist “cultural matriarch” (Lamont). In addition, she has joined the pantheon of iconic gay idols, becoming “a patron saint of drag queens” (Severson); in fact, she is often quoted as saying of herself, “It’s a good thing that I was born a woman, or I’d have been a drag queen” (Haller). Her ironic, overblown, and caricatured physical stylization as what she often explains was her little-girl idealization of the town prostitute—with bleached blonde hair teased high, a heavily painted face, close-fitting clothing enhancing and revealing her extra-large breasts in outfits often


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sequined and bejeweled, and high-heeled shoes on her otherwise tiny frame—transform her into both a trampy and a campy figure, her larger-than-life top-heaviness appearing to defy gravity. As a musician, Dolly Parton has released 91 albums and recorded nearly 800 songs, about half of which she penned or co-wrote. She has won nine Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), twelve Academy of Country Music Awards (including Entertainer of the Year), dozens of BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) awards, several American Music Awards, more than a dozen awards each from CMT (Country Music Television) and the CMA (Country Music Association), and numerous other national and international awards, including the National Medal of Arts. Parton began her television career as a regular performer on The Porter Wagoner Show from 1967–1974. She has hosted her own television musical shows, as well as various TV specials. She appeared in starring roles in such films as 9 to 5 (1980), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), and Steel Magnolias (1989), in each case embodying strong and formidable working women characters. Her extremely successful business empire has primarily been focused upon bringing about economic development for her home county of Sevier County, Tennessee. Her business interests include the theme park Dollywood, along with several other tourist ventures, Blue Eye and Dolly record labels, two music publishing companies, and Sandollar Productions, which produces feature and documentary films. As a philanthropist, Parton has leveraged her personal wealth to support causes in which she believes, primarily through the establishment of the Dollywood Foundation in 1988 but also through charitable contributions to the American Red Cross, PETA, the American Eagle Foundation, a local medical center, and many others. Parton foregrounds her gender in every aspect of her public life. The Dolly “character” encodes two contrasting connotations of womanliness into her persona: first, the strategic construction of a hyper-feminized-to-the-point-of-caricature physical persona (as described earlier); and, second, the deep-hearted compassion and generosity that drive her rhetorical persona. This latter side of the Dolly persona is reflected in many song lyrics, her frequently quoted platitudes (which tend to be sweet and sentimental, sometimes described as “schmaltz” by critics), and her philanthropic deeds focused on helping women, children, and families. This dual mode of womanliness (as both sexual and maternal, although one is meant to be read ironically and one earnestly), coupled with her always-on identity as an activist/advocate for, and representative of, her native Appalachian mountain culture and her (white, an unspoken racial identity) working-class family roots, have contributed to her distinctive positioning as an American cultural icon. Juxtaposing “the synthetic and the sincere” (Haller) in a dialectic that never attempts to reconcile its contradictions but instead plays upon them, Parton has exercised a feminist sensibility throughout her career while remaining staunchly apolitical and refusing to affiliate with any political movements. This strategic positioning has kept her ingratiated with her more conservative base even while she has “walked the walk” as a fully empowered female icon in both the entertainment and business worlds. Parton has actively evaded any politicization of her strength and accomplishments as a woman as well as any declaration of her personal political leanings (Hensch). Yet many women claim her as a feminist icon, though her style of feminism fits more in line with postfeminism in her rejection and implicit critique of second-wave feminism and her alignment with the subjectivity of the white, working-class “country” or Appalachian women (as opposed to the middle-class urban and suburban cultural positioning characteristic of the second wave). The “Dolly Parton” construction itself is a play in multifaceted and multilayered simulacra. It invites a poststructuralist Barthesian semiotic interpretation (i.e., following the theoretical models of Roland Barthes) of the complexity of her multiple levels of signification as expressed through her public personas both on stage and off stage, in interviews and appearances—since she is always performing her act at one level or another. Although her audience knows that a “real” person exists beyond the rhetoric and wigs and costumes, Parton as engineer of those images and that 222

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rhetoric never truly allows us into the Goffman-esque “backstage” for a view of the “real” woman behind the images, although she frequently tells us how “real” she is: “The magic with me is that I look completely false when I’m completely real” (qtd. in Lamont). She has perfected her rhetoric, from the frequently repeated comedic one-liner retorts and routines (such as “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” or “I know some of the best Dolly Parton jokes—I made ’em up myself ”) to the oft-quoted folk wisdom that has become popularized in books and internet memes, often about rainbows, butterflies, love, dreams, and smiles. These aspects of her rhetoric—the butterfly symbols, for example, and the bits of folk wisdom she calls “Dolly-isms”—are part of her self-branding, as she explains when asked in a 2016 interview about how the new DreamMore Resort Hotel at Dollywood reflects the “Dolly” brand: We have to “Dolly-ize” everything. Butterflies are my symbol. As a child, I used to get lost chasing them and got my butt whipped for wandering too far off. So we have butterflies everywhere. We have some of my sayings—“Dolly-isms”—in different places. There’s a whole layout of my album covers. It’s in good taste. There’s a fine line between taste and gaudy. (Parton, qtd. in Levine) Parton’s songs themselves are mostly (with some notable exceptions) earnest rather than humorous, although her performances of even the straightest love songs may be playful and teasing (as seen in her flirtatious duets with Kenny Rogers, for example). Alternately, there is a hyper-earnest and sentimental side of Dolly’s performing persona, such as “From Here to the Moon and Back” (a 2012 love song featuring Jeremy Jordan and Kris Kristofferson). Moreover, Parton is not beyond parodying herself, which adds a mind-boggling layer to the degrees of irony and parody embedded in her image, such as in a comedic rap performance she did on Queen Latifah’s television show in 2013 (“Dolly Parton Raps”). A queen of mixed messages, Parton and her performative persona signify authenticity, honesty, and down-to-earth “realness” while demonstrating a mastery of artifice, constructedness, and masking. Dolly’s body is an ironic showcase of excess and caricature that references all of the hypersexualized blonde bombshells of American popular culture. These include Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, who preceded her, as well as those whose images have to some degree referenced her, such as Madonna and Lady Gaga—all powerful entertainers. She also references the stereotypical hillbilly characters such as Daisy Mae (from the L’il Abner comics) and Ellie Mae Clampett (from the 1960s television hit The Beverly Hillbillies). Parton’s ironic play with her image has been much commented on over the decades. Novelist Lee Smith explained how Parton plays with her act. “It’s like she’s putting something over on the world, and the audience, particularly if it’s a country audience, is in on the joke. The dumber she acts, the more they think that the discrepancy make for a whole lot of irony…. She does a parody of herself ” (qtd. in Jones, Country 286). In my earlier writing about Parton (Wilson), I emphasized that one cannot understand her power, and the power of her signification, by considering her solely as representing Appalachia, as someone with working-class roots, or just as a woman in a music industry long dominated by men. It is the intersectionality of all of those identities—region, class, and gender as well as the unvoiced signifier of race—that positions Parton in a particular habitus1 from which she and her persona speak, and her voice, while not the only representative of that habitus, has been one of the most recognized. Gender—and her complex and contradictory construction of a very particular type of femininity that has both utilized and defied stereotyping—has played a major role in her success. She rose to success by “playing” the “old boys” to allow her a place in the room by creating a persona that would be acceptable within the patriarchal structure, in spite of its exaggeration of all those qualities of femininity admired and valued by patriarchal society—sweet, soft-spoken, voluptuously sexy without being raunchy. Her first musical hit in 1967, “Dumb 223

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Blonde” (written by songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman), revealed her mindset to any who were prescient enough to perceive it: “Just because I’m blond, don’t think I’m dumb / ’cause this dumb blond ain’t ­nobody’s fool.” A recording of her singing this song on the Bobby Lord television show in January 1967 reveals that Parton’s image started out as rather demure and respectable, with a tall beehive hairdo and a conservative, church-like dress befitting of a proper southern woman of the time. Over the next decade, her hair gradually became blonder and bigger, to the point of caricature, and her dresses became closer-fitting to accentuate her extremely curvaceous hourglass figure, marked by prominent breasts and a small waist—a figure that very closely resembled the iconic and extremely popular Barbie dolls. This resemblance led to Parton eventually taking up the moniker of “Backwoods Barbie” (the title track of her fortieth studio album, released in 2008). The lyrics to this song (self-written) echo and resonate with her song from 40 years earlier, as she explains, “I’m just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair / Don’t be fooled by thinkin’ that the goods are not all there / Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that / I’m as shallow as I look, ’cause I run true and deep.”

Dolly Parton and Country Humor Dolly Parton’s aesthetic sensibilities, from her musical styles to her linguistic dialect, were shaped by her native working-class Appalachian culture. Her brand of humor, too, reflects the culture in which she grew up. Most particularly, what distinguishes her humor from that of many other country musicians is the specific subregion she represents—the mountain traditions, which are only a subset of the cultures from which “country” music emerged—as well as her class and gender. The construct of Appalachian culture that has become accepted by mainstream America ­inextricably links region with race and class, usually without finding the need to voice these l­inkages, resulting in the silent assumption that “Appalachian” refers to the culture of poor or working-class, white, mountaineers.2 Therefore, almost all scholarly and popular work on Appalachian embeds region and class into its very definition, inscribing “Appalachian” identity as not just regional but also working class (and equating it with “hillbilly”) in spite of the reality that significant percentages of the population of the Appalachian region are not working class or not white. From the writing of scholars of “country,” southern, or Appalachian humor, we can distill some common elements that help to provide a cultural context for, and influence upon, the cultural sensibilities of humor displayed by Dolly Parton in her visual, spoken, written, or behavioral rhetoric. Jones (Country) provides a history of the development of humor and comedic routines as part of country music performances (see also Don Cusic’s chapter in Part 1 of this volume). Dolly Parton came of age in the older culture of country music, during which time she developed her style and persona; following a long tradition of comedic musicians, she created her “character” based upon an archetypal rural stereotype, but unlike the small group of comedic women performers who had preceded her and who laid the foundation for her—most notably Lulu Belle Wiseman, Cynthia Mae Carver’s “Cousin Emmy,” Sarah Colley’s “Minnie Pearl,” or June Carter Cash—the Dolly character’s style was built not upon a quaint image of a rural girl in gingham and pantaloons but upon the voluptuous suggestiveness of a trollop or floozy—probably the first and most lasting humorous country music sex symbol. Although her styles and physical/visual image changed somewhat during the 1980s and 1990s, Dolly Parton never radically changed her persona but instead adapted it to the various contexts into which she placed herself to appeal to a younger and more mainstream audience without leaving her old followers behind. As she has aged, her persona has transformed from Porter Wagoner’s pretty and sexy “dumb blonde” sidekick with the sweet mountain voice into a larger-than-life pop-culture icon who not only sings a variety of styles of music with a fierce passion but who can also relate to her followers through her comedic movie roles and her off stage image. Through 224

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her mainstream performances and appearances, audiences have come to know her compassionate nature and her signature shrieks, giggles, and high-pitched laughs just as well as they have come to recognize her pure voice or her excessive figure and hairstyle. Scholars who study the humor of subaltern disempowered groups—minority, regional, local, or women, for example—provide us with insights about the role that humor plays in constructing social and cultural identities, particularly in terms of articulating local community or gender identities as part of dynamic tensions about power embedded in historical social relations and cultural politics. Judith Lee emphasizes the implicitly political nature of nearly all humor, since it affirms selected values while “debasing” others (139). While much of this humor depends upon creating an “us” versus “them” dynamic, with the butt of the joke being at the expense of the cultural other, this “Other” can be either another subcultural community or group (a more horizontal disparagement) or it can be a dominant or oppressive “Other” (a vertical disparagement that speaks to the inequalities of power relations from the perspective of the underclass). For this reason, we might expect that “reading” or interpreting such humor would be quite different between those who share a cultural identity and those who are outsiders looking in. This has very much been true in terms of the interpretation of a great deal of country music humor and especially Dolly Parton’s humor, whether encoded into her visual and performative style or her verbal rhetoric. In writing about the role of humor in constructing local identities in Crete, Villy Tsakona points out that a salient feature of local (what we will call “subaltern,” for the sake of an analytical category) humor is its role in resisting homogenizing pressures. While this has always been true in structural terms, the current era of globalization provides an even greater threat to local or regional subcultures. Tsakona discusses the culture of resistance and rebelliousness using ­Manuel Castells’s model of legitimizing versus resistance identities, emphasizing that identities are constructed through semiotic behavior. Whereas legitimizing identities are those introduced by the dominant institutions to “extend and rationalize their domination,” resistance identities are generated by social actors who are in positions that are devalued or stigmatized by the dominant society, “thus building trenches of resistance and survival” (Castells 8). Humor, explains Tsakona, is one of the most common discursive strategies used by many cultural communities for the construction of resistance identities: “This resisting function of humour is considered by humour researchers as one of its most significant aspects, especially when it comes to negotiating and debating political issues” (124–25). Loyal Jones, whose scholarly work on humor is generally less politicized, does however find agreement in terms of his studies of Appalachian humor, which he notes frequently makes fun of mainstream culture: “Sometimes the laughter itself and the poking fun can be used as a kind of resistance and a way of keeping your own sense of worth and humor alive” (Self ). Though she is surely in the so-called “one percent” in terms of wealth, her working-class and middle-class country fans still believe they can relate to Dolly Parton because of her self-deprecating humor and her continuing to speak truth to power from the subjectivity of that “white trash country kid from way back in the mountains” rather than presenting herself as a rich entertainer and movie star who has risen above the common person. Much of her persona, and her humor, is self-effacing and self-mocking, never letting her “character” take herself very seriously. As Hal Crowther said, “She has this way of making fun of herself and undercutting herself in a way that connects with the audience” (qtd. in Jones, Country 287). Robert Higgs explains that Appalachian humor is “essentially a democratic humor that casts a skeptical eye upon human nature itself ” (Laughter 583). Both he and Jones posit that Appalachian humor is based primarily upon a Calvinist theology that embraces the tragic view of the human condition since it perceives humans as being flawed, leaving them with no control over their ultimate destiny or salvation, which leads mountain people to laugh at themselves and others. They approach life with compassion and irony, a self-deprecation “aimed at those who pretend to be what they are not, nor could be” ( Jones, “Appalachian” 20). These strategies provide people with 225

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ways to cope with lives that are often disappointing and unpredictable, making them both humble and defiant. “Here in Appalachia,” Jones explains, “we have endured, partially at least, because we could laugh” (“Appalachian” 20). He characterizes the humor as lighthearted banter, usually a gentle wit, not aimed to embarrass but to create a social leveling that brings those who think they are better than others down to size and emphasizes that each person is as good as any other. Associated with this is a self-effacing modesty as well as a stubborn pride and self-reliance. Higgs discusses one particular strain of such humor found in literature as well as musical comedians such as Minnie Pearl and Ray Stevens that he associates with the literary character Sut Lovingood, created by George Washington Harris. “On the track of hypocrisy and pretense,” he writes of this archetypal character, “his only weapon [is] a ready wit” (Higgs, “Laughter” 583). He calls this stock character “the self-deprecating eirôn” or comic trickster who, through his irony, reveals the tension between cultural attitudes where stereotypes collide. Scholars have noted the role of wordplay in southern and particularly Appalachian humor. Higgs explains the important role of verbal bantering, a to-and-fro of one-liners or teasing ­remarks meant to gently disparage the other person, which, by their nature, are intended in an affectionate or approving way even if the words indicate otherwise (“Laughter” 618); it is a form of sarcasm as well as one-upmanship, a verbal competition. According to Higgs, “The main element of mountain humor is the trick. It revels in language. It is comic as opposed to satiric. It is not deceived by human nature. The essence of mountain humor is like coal. It is deep, it is dark, and it is hard. It is ironic” (“Southern” 157). In contrast, he explains, “Deep South humor is essentially sentimental. It is like cotton, fluffy, worn where you can see it. It is on the surface. It is easy to commercialize. It appears on the Grand Ole Opry” (157). Dolly Parton’s humor embodies all of these characteristics, both Appalachian and southern, from her self-mocking and irony to her gentle and modest witty banter that pervades all of her performative interactions—with co-performers, audiences, and interviewers alike. Through her role as the irony-exposing comic trickster, she reveals the cultural tensions regarding social class and gender expectations that can be appreciated by anyone (but especially by women and the working class) as well as showing up those who believe that a little “white trash mountain girl” can’t possibly be smart enough to pull off all the accomplishments that Parton has achieved. She also utilizes this in her one-liners and her banter, including tossing out one of her stock punchlines as an answer to an interview question, catching the interviewer off-guard with her witty (though canned) responses. This practice, in which she seems to delight, reflects one of the major tropes of country music humor: the dialectic between the characters of the rube or “country bumpkin” (or hillbilly, in the Appalachian context), on the one hand, and the “city slicker,” on the other. I might note that this latter category can extend beyond the urban specificity to include anyone who is in the outgroup—be they in a higher class, better educated, a different gender, or from another region—as long as they deem themselves superior to those in the first category. A “Dolly-ism” that reflects how Dolly Parton engages this strategy on a gender level is her saying, “Many an old boy has found out too late that I look like a woman but think like a man” (qtd. in Jones, Country 287). Another quotation, this one from Parton’s song “Country Is as Country Does” (2001), reflects the constant dialectic between the Appalachian habitus and that of wealth and higher class (with all its trimmings). “I can live in a mansion or a double-wide / Eat sushi raw or my catfish fried … / ’Cause I’m quite content with who I am / And if you ain’t, well, kiss my ham / Country is as country does and I’m country to the bone.” Parton also interjects wordplay into these lyrics, associating “ham” with country cuisine as well as using it as a metaphor for one’s buttocks (substituting for the expression “kiss my ass”), then continues also to align the country ham metaphor with herself by juxtaposing it with “to the bone,” which is another expression meaning “all the way through” but here also obliquely references the hambone. All in all, the song captures one of the cornerstones of Appalachian humor 226

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in its defiance and self-acceptance, leveling and equalizing those who live in mansions with those who live in trailers. It speaks to the demographic of people born into working-class families who gained economic wealth and moved “up” in the socioeconomic scale but who still self-identify with the cultural positioning or habitus (or subjectivity) that country music interpellates.3 Of course, the danger inherent in self-satirizing humor—especially when based upon irony, sarcasm, or caricature—performed for a larger audience is that the meaning construed by members of the out-group (whether horizontal or vertical, in terms of relative power) may be quite different from the meanings made by those who share the same cultural identities. This differential perception and interpretation is based upon the cognitive biases and cultural lenses of the interpreter, creating what may be a negotiated or oppositional reading to the intended humor. In fact, the irony may be overlooked altogether. The American mainstream or dominant society often considers self-satirizing subaltern ingroup humor to be tendentious. We might posit that what may be group-affirming and even resistant humor to an in-group audience (such as irony and self-satire) may be interpreted as tendentious and demeaning/insulting to those outside the group. This may occur if the interpreters do not understand the cultural meanings of various symbols or if they overlook or misunderstand the ironic intention encoded into the humor—the wink that is understood and appreciated by insiders and signifies “this is just me making fun of myself (and of us).” An outsider might view Dolly Parton’s persona as fluff, tacky (i.e., in poor taste), offensive to women, offensively mocking of working-class and/or mountain people—or even more dangerous, it might feed into the preexisting stereotypes that already exist about “hillbillies” and their culture. As we might surmise from the studies cited in the previous paragraph, similar principles are likely to be true in terms of dominant white perceptions of African-American in-group humor as well as mainstream urban and suburban Americans’ responses to “country” or “hillbilly” humor. Will the city slickers appreciate the jokes about the country bumpkin tricksters “pulling one over” on them, or will they only see the stereotypical country bumpkins and laugh at them rather than laughing with them?

Conclusion In the more than half a century since Parton’s career began, country music has transformed from the nostalgic vestiges of a time-long-past, impoverished, regional folk subculture that r­ epresented the oppressed, mostly white “hillbilly” miners, millworkers, and sharecroppers. Today, it is an extremely lucrative and distinctive meta-genre of American (not just southern) music that still, to a great degree (as witnessed by the popularity of country singer Blake Shelton’s comedy on the mainstream music contest show The Voice), relies on a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating but ­resistant humor while proudly embracing a distinctive set of values that define and reflect the cultural positioning of its audience. Today’s country music industry enunciates the voice of twenty-first century middle-American culture and politics, those, for example, living in what is sometimes called “flyover country” (Bullard). The contemporary country music audience has broadened significantly from the original rural, southern, and working-class audience. Since her debut in 1967, Dolly Parton has continued to navigate the complex gender politics and ideological waters of country music as a much-admired pioneer and icon in the industry, a beacon for female singers and songwriters, as well as one of the wealthiest country music stars as magnate of The Dollywood Company. Parton’s comedic and often-contradictory persona of a hypersexualized, cartoonish, and garish hillbilly girl-woman provided her with a foundation through which she slyly gained a great deal of power in the male-dominated country music industry of the early days of country music. She has continued to skillfully manipulate her tool kit of signifiers as she has constructed a complex body of meanings (oops, there’s a double entendre) that, in turn, contribute to her “brand.” Her fans across America and around the world remain transfixed by her continued development as a singer and songwriter whose lyrics, heartfelt compassion, 227

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and Dolly-isms “speak” particularly to her largely female as well as gay following (while her looks seem to have perhaps a greater role in attracting her straight male fans). Even beyond her fan base, Parton maintains respect as an iconic postfeminist who has worked within the male-dominated music industry to transform it by mentoring younger female entertainers as well as to economically transform her local home region and educate its population. With irony, gentle wit, and teasing humor, Dolly Parton as a performative public figure has carefully calculated, designed, and maintained her “character” to simultaneously parody traditional expectations of women in her southern Appalachian culture—as well as in the broader American culture—while also embodying their, and her own, strength.

Notes 1 Here, I adopt Pierre Bourdieu’s term habitus to refer to a cultural positioning based on all of the intersecting factors that create both Parton’s identity and the perception of others regarding her position based upon her encoded style, tastes, and other class, race, gender, and cultural signifiers with which she aligns herself. 2 While working-class black mountaineers do indeed exist, and have often shared many of the same social and economic conditions of their white counterparts (especially in the coal-mining regions), white ­Appalachians are generally the default for Appalachian while studies of Black or African-American (as well as Melungeon and Native American) Appalachians are the marked categories—see Turner and Cabbell; Hayden; Inscoe; Webb. 3 The use of “interpellates” here references Louis Althusser’s concept by which ideology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects.

Works Cited Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Verso, 1970. Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice, Cambridge UP, 1977. Bullard, Gabe. “The Surprising Origin of the Phrase ‘Flyover Country.’” National Geographic, 14 Mar. 2016, Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity. 2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. “Dolly Parton Interview (2013).” 60 Minutes Australia. YouTube, uploaded by WalrusRider, 12 May 2017, “Dolly Parton Raps about Miley Cyrus and Twerking for Queen Latifah.” YouTube, uploaded by ODN, 19 Oct. 2013, Frank, Alex. “15 Minutes With Dolly Parton: The Queen of Country on Wigs, Relationships, and Presidential Politics.” Vogue, 10 Aug. 2016, Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Random House, 1956. Haller, Scot. “Dolly Parton: Come on Down to Dollywood,” People, 5 May 1986, archive/cover-story-dolly-parton-come-on-down-to-dollywood-vol-25-no-18/. Hayden, Wilburn Jr. “Appalachian Diversity: African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and Other Populations.” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, pp. 293–306. Hensch, Mark. “Dolly Parton: Clinton and Trump ‘Both Nuts.’” The Hill, 26 Aug. 2016, http://thehill. com/blogs/in-the-know/in-the-know/293488-dolly-parton-clinton-and-trump-both-nuts. Higgs, Robert. “Laughter and Humor.” Appalachia Inside Out, Volume 2: Culture and Custom, edited by ­Robert Higgs, Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller, U of Tennessee P, 1995, pp. 583–618. ———. “Southern Humor: The Light and the Dark.” Laughter in Appalachia, edited by Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler. August House, 1987, pp. 153–59. Inscoe, John C., editor. Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation. UP of Kentucky, 2001. Jones, Loyal. “Appalachian Humor.” Laughter in Appalachia, edited by Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler, August House, 1987, pp. 19–28. ———. Country Music Humorists and Comedians. U of Illinois P, 2008. Lamont, Tom. “Dolly Parton: ‘There’s more to me than the big hair and the phoney stuff.’” The Guardian, 6 Dec. 2014,


Dolly Parton’s Transformational Persona “Larry King Interviews Dolly Parton (September 2016).” YouTube, uploaded by New News UK, 20 Feb. 2018, Lee, Judith Y. “The Year’s Work in American Humor Studies, 2011.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 27, 2013, pp. 139–88. Levine, Arthur. “Dolly Parton on Dollywood, the New Resort and Her Fear of Coasters.” USA Today, 31 Mar. 2016, Self, Ben. “Laughter in the Mountains: A Conversation With Appalachian Studies Scholar Loyal Jones.” ­Christian Appalachian Project, 5 Feb. 2015, Severson, Kim. “Dollywood: A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Gay.” New York Times, 22 Aug. 2014, www. Tsakona, Villy. “Constructing Local Identities via/from Humour: A Cretan-Greek Case Study.” Styles of Communication, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017, pp. 118–47. Turner, William H., and Edward J. Cabbell, editors. Blacks in Appalachia. U of Kentucky P, 1985. Webb, Althea. “African Americans in Appalachia.” Oxford African American Studies Center, www.oxfordaasc. com/public/features/archive/0213/essay.jsp. Accessed 11 Aug. 2018. Wilson, Pamela. “Mountains of Contradictions: Gender, Class, and Region in the Star Image of Dolly Parton.” Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-Tonk Bars, edited by Cecelia Tichi. Duke UP, 1998, pp. 98–120.


26 The Wacky and Zany World of Flo & Eddie Thomas M. Kitts

In early 1970, amid lawsuits and managerial confusion (six different managers in five years), the Turtles broke up (see “Howard”). Led by vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, the band had scored five top-ten US singles with three more in the top 20 over a five-year span. Their 1967 smash “Happy Together” propelled them to international stardom.1 Yet much of the rock intelligentsia did not take the Turtles seriously. Sure, they played their own instruments on records—not always the case at the time—and they could sing, but they were a singles band that seemed incapable of making the complete statement demanded by the album, then the measure of artistry in the rock world. Besides, their hair was not quite long enough, their bodies not slender enough, their guitar solos too short, their politics nonexistent, and they missed both the Monterrey Pop Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969). But what they lacked in sex appeal, they made up for with musical talent and a freewheeling, undisciplined humor. On The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, Volman, who wore a dark brown tie stitched to a tan woolen sweater, distracted a flinching Kaylan, the lead vocalist, by seeming to blow a trumpet into his ear during “Happy Together” (see Turtles, 1:53). Rock stars were expected to be more earnest about their music—and their dress. Compare, for example, the unsmiling Jefferson Airplane, dressed appropriately with hippie flair, as they performed “Crown of Creation” on Sullivan in 1968 (see Jefferson). Clearly, the Airplane were rock and the Turtles were pop, mere pop. As Mark Volman put it, “There is always the hipness factor. … If you were going to be a hip-music advocate you had to be careful about who you liked. That has always been a big problem with popular music” (Volman, Telephone). However, musicians like Frank Zappa heard something in their music: gorgeous harmonies, well-crafted songs, and wit, no matter how silly. The largely overlooked The Turtles Present the ­Battle of the Bands (1968) was a brilliantly humorous concept album that, despite featuring two top-ten singles, reached only #128 on the Billboard charts. The Turtles spoofed various types of music on the album: psychedelic (“The Last Thing I Remember”), maudlin country complete with weeping (“Too Much Heartsick Feeling”), surf and Beach Boys car music (“Surfer Dan”), ­u ltra-serious folk songs (“Earth Anthem”), and primitive indigenous rhythms with the naughty and percussion driven “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)”—­ pronounced “I’m chief come-on-I-wanna-lay-ya.” “Elenore,” a song of seduction, was the first international hit from the album, peaking at #6 in the US, #7 in England, and #1 in New Zealand. The singer, intoxicated by his target’s looks, avoids the girl’s discerning parents and plots to get her into a darkened theater, but not to “watch the show.” He tries lover’s talk—well, almost. After 230

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he declares her “groovy” and his “pride and joy,” he runs out of words and seems anxious to cut to the chase with the economical but unromantic “et cetera”: “You’re my pride and joy, et cetera.” Kaylan’s vocals are alternately seductive and pleading, and always effectively dramatic. The song was not supposed to be a hit: “‘Elenore’ was a parody of ‘Happy Together.’ It was never intended to be a straightforward song. It was an anti-love letter to White Whale [our record label]. … So I gave them a very skewed version of [‘Happy Together’] … with all these bizarre words” (Kaylan, qtd. in Wild). The Turtles hoped that executives would listen to this odd-sounding record, realize the group could never produce another “Happy Together,” and stop nagging them for a duplicate. White Whale, however, loved it. The “problem,” as Kaylan writes, was that the production “WAS so damn good” (qtd. in Wild). But that was not only a problem with this single but also with the entire album. The songs may have been conceived as spoofs, but they ended up, mostly, as good songs, from a variety of genres. Battle’s second hit single, “You Showed Me,” which peaked at #6 in the US, features a hauntingly drowsy rhythm, sighing strings, and ethereal vocals.2 “Buzzsaw” slows the riff from “­Shotgun” by Jr. Walker and the Allstars (1965) and cleverly signals its source by titling the song after another powerful and loud device. Still, “Buzzsaw” pulsates with a soulful, hard-rocking edge before giving way to a lively organ solo. Closing the album is “The Story of Rock and Roll,” a joyous pop song which pulls together Battle of the Bands by reminding us that rock and roll began in the South, passed through New York, and crossed the US, absorbing musical influences along the way. But it is all rock and roll, music that “reaches right to your soul.” Perhaps the Turtles respected the music too much to mock it—although they had no problem lampooning its stars. In the end, Battle of the Bands confused listeners—and consumers do not buy products that confuse them. Was this a comedy album mocking rock and roll’s earnestness or a serious album by a band exploring or paying homage to various rock-and-roll subgenres? The music, vocals, and production are of high quality, but the lyrics could be inane without being surreal—as in “Chicken Little Was Right” about someone who stole the world, or “Food,” a takeoff of Brian Wilson’s “Vegetables” (1967), which begins with a celebration of “hamburgers, cheeseburgers, spaghetti, rice, French fried potatoes, and goulash.” If timing is everything, particularly in comedy, the timing for Battle was off. With the Vietnam War in full escalation, with race riots breaking out in American cities, and with the pain of the political assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, rock stars were expected to be countercultural leaders, politically charged, and purposeful and somber in their music and radical agendas. The purpose of Battle of the Bands was unclear at a time when rock heroes had perhaps an inflated sense of their own musical and political importance. However, the juxtaposition of humorous and serious songs on Battle of the Bands would be the hallmark of all future work of Volman and Kaylan.

The Zappa Years “Great, the bum is a bum again,” responded Sid Kaylan when his son told him of the Turtles’ breakup (qtd. in Thompson). However, Volman and Kaylan would not be unemployed for long. In May 1970, armed with backstage passes acquired through Kaylan’s cousin Herb Cohen, who was Frank Zappa’s manager and his cofounder of Straight Records, Volman and Kaylan went to see Zappa perform with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. After the show, Zappa, a Turtles fan, greeted the pair warmly and invited them to his home for a barbecue that upcoming Sunday when he asked Volman and Kaylan to join the Mothers of Invention. Zappa, of course, was always humorous if not madcap in his music and album artwork. His lyrics were sometimes absurdist, sometimes satirical, sometimes silly, and generally witty. Volman and Kaylan, who developed a lifelong friendship with Zappa, served him well in their under-twoyear stint with the Mothers. They featured prominently on four albums and a film—Chunga’s Revenge (Oct. 1970), Fillmore East—June 1971 (Aug. 1971), 200 Motels (Oct. 1971, film Nov. 1971), 231

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and Just Another Band from L.A. (released March 1972, recorded August 1971). (Several other live albums featuring the pair have been released since the late 1980s.) It was with the release of Chunga that Volman became Flo and Kaylan, Eddie. In a lawsuit won by White Whale, Volman and ­K aylan were prohibited from performing or recording as the Turtles or under their birth names. They needed pseudonyms. With artwork for the album nearing completion, Zappa nagged the pair for names. Finally, Volman took the name Phlorescent (sometimes Florescent) Leech after a roadie named Carlos, a flamboyant dresser and a perceived moocher, and Kaylan selected E ­ ddie from another roadie named Dennis, who the duo thought looked more like an Eddie than a ­Dennis (see Kaylan and Tamarkin 122; Kitts 86). With Zappa, Flo and Eddie sang lead and back-up vocals and expanded Zappa’s theatrical and comedic repertoire—not always to the satisfaction of his fans or his band. Members of the Mothers would complain that “We’re not a rock and roll band; we’re a comedy group” (Volman, qtd. in Kitts 86). On various message boards, fans debate Zappa’s recordings featuring Flo & Eddie. One post, for example, states, “I never found them funny at all and I’m glad they didn’t hang around for long” (Stewart; see also Texursa; R9350; InForTheKill). On stage, Zappa would play some complex music with lengthy guitar solos, and then, as ­Volman remembers, he would signal to him and Kaylan as if to say, “Take it away, you fat dopey clowns” (qtd. by Volman in Thompson). Flo & Eddie, pudgy and perhaps bare-chested, would then take center stage for often raunchy songs and routines, like the absurdist drama “Billy the Mountain,” which could extend to 30 minutes, or “Mud Shark,” “Bwana Dik,” “Willie the Pimp Part I” and “Part II,” and “Do You Like My Car,” with Flo pretending to be a young girl swooning over the seductive rock star Eddie. The pair also sang the more standard rock songs included in Zappa’s genre-hopping set like “Tears Began to Fall” and, near the end of the show, “Happy Together.” Flo & Eddie’s tenure with the Mothers ended abruptly on December 10, 1971 when a jealous boyfriend of a female fan pushed Zappa from a London stage into a concrete orchestra pit, ten feet below. Zappa suffered severe injuries confining him to a wheelchair for several months, keeping him off stage for nearly a year, and leaving him with lifelong chronic back pain. Regardless, Flo & Eddie and the other Mothers needed to work. They entered the studio in 1972 to record The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie for Reprise Records, which hoped to capture both the small but devoted Zappa following as well as those Turtle fans who may have been put off by Zappa’s crude humor and complex musical fusions.

Flo & Eddie Recordings Someone picks a banjo above muffled conversation; the banjo stops but the murmuring and quiet laugher continue; “one more … Pete Townshend,” Flo says inexplicably. The banjo resumes its slow pick-and-strum pattern as the background patter stops. Flo sings a childlike melody in a happy, high-pitched voice: “I’m the Phlorescent Leech / He’s my partner Eddie.” A grand churchlike choir breaks in with a resounding “Eddie.” Howard with similar childlike affection and pride enters: “He’s the Phlorescent Leech / I’m his partner Eddie.” The stately chorus reenters: “We hope you’re ready / For Flo & Eddie,” repeating to fade out. With the voices accompanied only by the banjo, “Flo & Eddie Theme,” under a minute, sets an odd tone for The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (1972), their first album as a duo. It sounds like two cute eight-year-olds proclaiming their everlasting friendship. Is this rock and roll? Certainly not the rock and roll of Who’s Next (1971), which expanded rock’s musical vocabulary with the Who’s groundbreaking use of the synthesizer, and not the rock of the raucous Exile on Main Street (1972) in which the Rolling Stones insisted on rock fundamentals. The following track, “Thoughts Have Turned,” adds to the confusion. The intro replaces the banjo with a swiftly strummed guitar riff, followed after four beats by a decisive power chord 232

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before the drum and band kicks in. It sounds like a cross between “Street Fighting Man” and “Pinball Wizard.” The story tells of a mysterious woman who hangs out in a garden and serves the singer as a spiritual guide. The singer falls in love with her but cannot bring himself to reveal his love out of fear of destroying their platonic relationship. Complete with a psychedelic slide guitar, a clearly imitative intro, and those signature high, ethereal vocals of Flo & Eddie,3 the song surely must be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps a parody of psychedelic rock or grandiose rock stars and their self-assured musical and lyrical imaginations. I have long thought the track would have fit snuggly on Battle of Bands, a kind of spoof but somehow an effective song as well, too good to be a parody. I asked Volman, who sings lead and co-wrote the track with Kaylan, about “Thoughts Have Turned”: “I don’t think I ever thought of ‘Street Fighting Man’ or ‘Pinball Wizard’ when we made that record. I don’t. … It was just a really good riff to kick the song off, the album off. It was … jarring, from the banjo to that riff” (Telephone). Obviously, the song had no comic or parodic intent. I based my reading of the song on what Alexander Brock called the metacommunicative process, or secondary cues or clues about the communication at hand—signals, which, to me, were direct and explained the song. I took my cues from the obvious lightheartedness of the “Flo & ­Eddie Theme,” placed “Thoughts” in the context of previous work of the artists, that is, Battle of the Band album, and recalled their comic performances during the Zappa years. Volman’s statement or authorial intent does not invalidate my reading, but it is somewhat relevant to my argument here, which is that Flo & Eddie never achieved widespread commercial success because, for among other reasons, they confused audiences, especially on record, who were not sure when they were being humorous and when serious. Consider the confusion of Side Two of the duo’s second album, Flo & Eddie, released in 1973. The side begins with a 28-second marching drumbeat, which kicks into a rowdy version of “(The Best Part of ) Breaking Up,” originally released by the Ronettes and produced by Phil Spector (1964). It’s upbeat, with Flo’s falsetto wooohs, Eddie’s odd vocalizings at the 1:33 mark with “Come on, baby” accompanied by Flo’s screams of yiys and yays underneath, and recurring doo-wop logatomes and bass vocals. Inspired seemingly by Zappa’s “Tears Began to Fall,” which featured Flo & Eddie, this recording is more chaotic than the more controlled recording of the Ronettes. It could be a gentle mocking of the girl group, but once again it seems too well produced and sung to be a parody. When Ronnie Spector sings “Come on baby,” she is more tender, sweetly persuasive, whereas Eddie is more aggressive, sexually so. So is it a parody? It could be, but once again Flo & Eddie cannot seem to resist making a good record. The next track “The Sanzini Brothers” is pure comedy. Flo, in cracking excited voice, introduces the Sanzini Brothers (“Adolph, Rudolph, Rip-off, and Jack”) who will perform their “horrible sodomy trick.” A pumping circus organ pops out and stops for a drumroll and some suspense-filled oohs and ahs. The organ returns after the trick, which we hear nothing about, for part two of the song when the rhythm shifts into a slow rock jam with Eddie, echoing “Breaking Up,” sneers “Come on, baby,” a sexual invitation as both vocalists moan and groan for the last minute and a half of the track. Is this the cue that the cover of the Ronettes is indeed a parody? Or do we consider each track independently? I’m not sure. The next track, “Another Pop Star’s Life,” contributes to the humorous mood. It is certainly a take-off of the Who’s sound, complete with a Roger Daltrey scream right from “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Townshend guitar slashes and a Townshend-like solo at the end, computerized riffs from the synthesizer, complex John Entwistle-like bass lines, and Keith Moon-like restless poundings. The singer’s observations are biting: “Well, he looks 17 / And he acts like a queen / And he knows it … Oh, his music is a joke / Because he does too much coke / And he shows it.” They lost a friendship, briefly, over the song as Marc Bolan (T. Rex) recognized himself as the target. I asked Volman if, indeed, he was writing about Bolan. “Yes,” but then quickly added, “It was an amalgamation [of ] all of the British rock icons of that particular time: Marc, David [Bowie], 233

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Gary Glitter” (Telephone). It is Flo & Eddie’s most inventive satire and best produced parody, but not one that all rock fans appreciated. Few wanted to hear their icons attacked. To confuse matters further, “Another Pop Star” bleeds into the ballad “Just Another Town,” the lack of pause between the songs along with the repetition of another in the titles signals their connectedness and, we might think, a continuing satire. But “Town” peels off the outward image of the pop star to reveal his loneliness, uncertainties, and insecurities as he experiences the dull repetitiveness of touring. There is no humor, satire, or irony—at least that I can detect. Flo sings lead with a breathy tenderness that can be moving: “And the lights they all go down / On just another town … And the crowd they give encore [sic] / And you say, ‘Just one more’ / But you’d have crumbled / If they had not asked you back again / You’d be so empty.” Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” (1966) and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” (1973), this insider’s view reveals that all that glitters is not gold. On stage, Eddie would often mock Flo’s performance: “Very sensitive, Flo, just like a big Joni Mitchell concert” (“Flo & Eddie” 38:18). The album closes with “Marmendy Mills,” a song about Kaylan’s childhood in Marcy, NY, and a seven-minute plus mini-musical that with its grand piano, strings, woodwinds, rhythm shifts, and motifs could be at home on Broadway. In fact, that’s how producer Bob Ezrin (Alice ­Cooper, Kiss, Lou Reed) envisioned the song after Kaylan played it: “A full symphony!... And we’ll do it live, like a Broadway show!” (qtd. in Kaylan and Tamarkin 188). It’s a somewhat bleak song about the passing of time and the fleetingness of life. The father, for instance, sings to his son about moving west to Los Angeles and the impending end of childhood and “the good old days.” Thus, Side Two moves from a rollicking, lighthearted take of “Breaking Up” to pure comedy, to parody and satire, to bleakness and a tale of lost innocence, with no definite transitions other than the pause between some tracks. Listeners, in 1973, were not sure how to read the shifts between the serious and humorous, and confusion does not lead to huge sales, particularly to younger audiences. Flo & Eddie released three more studio albums: Illegal, Immoral and Fattening (1975), Moving Targets (1976), and Rock Steady with Flo & Eddie (1981). Each album juxtaposes and merges the humorous and the serious to various extents. Illegal is mostly humorous and Rock Steady is a straightforward reggae album, which in itself sends a mixed signal—can we be certain it’s straightforward?—especially with a cover that features the duo lounging like tourists, complete in sunglasses drinking cocktails from hollowed pineapples. The confusion was further heightened when the album was re-titled upon re-release: Prince Flo & Jah Edward I. None of Flo & Eddie’s albums charted in the Billboard top 200.

Flo & Eddie on Stage “It may be that that they appeal more to rock critics, who are the perfect audience for their ‘inside’ jokes, than to the general public, but it is more likely that they simply need to be seen live,” wrote Robert Palmer about their December 1976 Bottom Line performance. Yes, but I would add that Flo & Eddie needed to be seen in a small club like the Bottom Line, capacity 400, as opposed to M ­ adison Square Garden, capacity approximately 20,000, where they opened for Alice Cooper in 1973. Comedy works best, as Olga Khazan attests, when “the audience [is] physically on edge, which is why most comedy clubs cram people into a tiny room and force them to sit on hard stools. … [I]t’s best if the audience doesn’t get too comfortable.” For Flo & Eddie’s annual Bottom Line shows from 1979 until 1994, usually during the holiday season, their cult following squeezed, not very comfortably, into wooden chairs before long thin tables perpendicular to the stage. With the audience in the performer’s sight and therefore always mentally and “physically on edge,” Flo & Eddie might look for participants to play Wheel of Fortune, demand that the audience sing along to a television theme song, blow into the New Year’s Eve horns placed on their table and serve as the brass section for Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park,” or watch Flo simulate oral sex with stuffed animals. 234

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Figure 26.1  Album cover for Illegal, Immoral, and Fattening (1975).

“The shows at the Bottom Line were more like doing off-Broadway theater than a rock and roll show in a nightclub,” says Flo, to indicate the zany and unpredictable performances—although, to be precise, he no doubt meant Off-Off Broadway.4 Flo and Eddie, along with drummer Joe Stef ko, conceived the Bottom Line shows in late hours while on tour. Flo explains, “We usually left right after the show to drive to the next town in the wee hours of the morning and it was during these rides that we … talked about our cultural icons … and all the current events that eventually became part of the shows” (Volman, “Titles”). Unfortunately, no show or video excerpts from the Bottom Line are available on YouTube or elsewhere as far as I know, but in 2009 Flo and Eddie did issue a double CD with highlights from the Bottom Line gigs. New York “Times,” 1979–1994: Live at the Bottom Line captures the vibrancy and hilarity of the performances, and there is a YouTube video of a complete hour-long Flo & Eddie set from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, in 1975, when the duo opened for Stephen Stills before a crowd of 3,200 (see “Flo & Eddie”). On stage, as on record, a Flo & Eddie show combined slapstick and satire, discord and harmony, bawdy one-liners and sophisticated parodies, self-deprecation, and attacks on stars. It was a wonderfully off-(off-)balanced production, both “deranged [and] delightful” (Zito), which brought audiences, as Palmer writes, “to the brink of hysteria.” The Bottom Line could be filled with props: balloons, kazoos, noisemakers, and, Volman adds, “stuffed animals, fences, clothesline, hippos and all of the blow-up toys” (Volman, “Titles”). Flo & Eddie often used their bodies, their pudginess as props, particularly Flo, who might slash his guitar windmill style, à la Townshend (one of their favorite targets), leaping and stumbling; he might crash onto the stage after an absurd attempt at a pirouette, or the two might awkwardly kick their legs during “Happy Together” (un)like the Rockettes. And they just looked funny. As Ernie Welch wrote in The Boston Globe, “Volman and Kaylan were always a rotund pair who resembled a timid pro wrestling tag-team instead of teen-dream pop stars.” The pair laughed at their pudginess. In “Moving Targets” (1976) they sing, “Search every house in every land / Hunt for the fat guys / Look for their band.” 235

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The humor was always topical, but never political or, I think, offensive, as the audience knew what to expect, and if they didn’t, they learned from “Cheap,” a sometimes opener from Illegal: “Now, this is a cheap little concert … I’m going to abuse your eardrums / I’m going to make fun of your eyes / This whole concert is a great hunk of shit, yeah!” New material, often drawn from hit television shows, current films, or songs, would be combined with a sprinkling of Turtle hits, Zappa numbers and bits, and fan favorites like “Nikki Hoi,” off Phlorescent Leech and which features Eddie, who in something like a Mexican accent sings of being shipwrecked on a tropical island, of waiting for a Cunard cruise ship to rescue them, and of praying to Nikki Hoi “to guide us to Nikki heaven.” But, according to Volman, “the peak of insanity … during these shows” was the “Tibetan Memory Trick,” which Flo & Eddie delivered in unison at lightning speed as audiences cheered them on through lines like “Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array … Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates, with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth.”5 Said Volman, “It really was us just trying to make ourselves laugh” (Kaylan et al.). Of course, on any given night any rock star could be subject to caricature. On New York “Times,” they spoof George Harrison’s nasally vocals on “Within You and Without You” and Tracy Chapman’s earnestness on “Fast Car.” Kaylan called this “who’s going to sue us next material?” (Kaylan et al.). They always featured an outstanding and veteran band that would play a few serious songs (“Marmendy Mill,” “Rebecca,” for example) from the Flo & Eddie albums, for, as Volman says, “die-hard fans” (Kaylan et al.). The show was fun, irreverent, and full of surprises and good music.

Conclusion For most mainstream rock audiences, humor and rock merge about as well as Christianity and rock. Since the mid-1960s, rock fans have held a prejudice against the combination of rock music and humor, unless the humor be satirical, sardonic, or dark. Audiences, and perhaps critics and DJs, seem to think that rock comedic acts, of which there weren’t and aren’t many, would not focus on ­ utles, “For a ‘comcomedy if they had the necessary musical chops. Consider one posting on the R edy’ group, they made some great records, none better than [‘Let’s Be Natural’]” (­A ndyWilkinson, emphasis mine). I don’t think rock audiences listened to Flo & Eddie objectively. Some FM DJs on a few free-form stations did, on occasion, play cuts like “I Been Born Again” (1972), “Feeling Older Now” (1972), and “Keep It Warm” (1976), but none of their tracks received consistent airplay. When Flo & Eddie first appeared on the scene in the early 1970s, their target rock audience, that is, those who bought records and concert tickets, ranged primarily from high school age to recent college graduates. Many, particularly those on the younger end of that range, turned to rock musicians and their music for cultural, social, and political insights, and in a time with a pronounced generation gap, for personal development and identity construction as well (see ­McLean et al. 166). Rock culture provided many adolescents with a narrative, one “integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose” (McAdams and McLean 233) and one in which they could place themselves and thereby shape and reshape their identities. Many adolescents internalized the images, real or imagined, that the rock star projected—for example, the brooding poetic isolation of Bob Dylan, the gender-bending of David Bowie, and the communal spirit of Jerry Garcia—all romanticized heroes with seeming certainty, purpose, and rebelliousness. However, it was difficult for this younger audience to see their narratives in Flo & Eddie, two overweight rock stars who were sometimes serious, sometimes not, and sometimes too ambiguous to figure out. Besides, they often mocked rock icons on record and on stage, and seemed more anti-rock stars than rock stars. The world just wasn’t ready for the wacky and zany world of Flo & Eddie. 236

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Notes 1 Happy Together hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1967. Other hits included “It Ain’t Me Babe” (1965, #8), “You Baby” (1966, #20), “She’d Rather Be with Me” (1966, #3), “You Know What I Mean” (1967, #12), “She’s My Girl” (1967, #14), “Elenore” (1968, #6), and “You Showed Me” (1969, #6). 2 “You Showed Me” was written by Jim (Roger) McGuinn and Gene Clark in 1964 when they performed as a duo. They recorded the song but chose not to release it on the Byrds’ first album, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965), but released it on the compilation Preflyte (1969). 3 Flo & Eddie had a highly successful career as backing vocalists, singing with T. Rex, Steely Dan, David Cassidy, Stephen Stills, Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper, the Ramones, Blondie, Duran Duran, and many more. 4 The designations Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off Broadway have little to do with location and everything to do with regulation. Broadway houses hold above 500 seats and must be in the Theatre District on NYC (from approximately 40th Street to 54th Street between 6th and 8th Avenues); Off-Broadway theatres seat between 100 and 499 and, like Off-Off Broadway theaters, which seat under 100, can be located anywhere in NYC. Minimum actors’ salaries depend on the designation. Because of the low economic risks, Off-Off Broadway, which allows productions not to pay actors if the run is limited, tends to be more experimental and risk-taking. 5 The Tibetan Memory Trick “was actually an announcer’s test that involves retention, memory, repetition, enunciation, diction, and involves ten factors that use every letter in the alphabet a variety of times” (Volman in Kaylan, Stef ko). Flo & Eddie learned the series of nonsensical tongue twisters after seeing Jerry Lewis perform it on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, probably when Lewis substituted as guest host in 1970 or early 1971.

Works Cited AndyWilkinson. “Let’s Be Natural by The Rutles.” That Was My Jam, 8 April 2015, http://thatwasmyjam. Accessed 5 Feb. 2018. Brock, Alexander. “Humour as a Metacommunicative Process.” Journal of Literary Theory, vol. 3, no. 2, 2009, pp. 177–94. “Flo & Eddie—Full Concert—10/29/75—Capitol Theatre (Official).” YouTube, uploaded by Rock on MV, 4 Nov. 2016, “Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles talk about their managers.” YouTube, uploaded by ­Grepssoftly, 5 Nov. 2015, InForTheKill. “Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.” Rate Your Music, 12 July 2006, https://rateyour Accessed 5 May 2018. Jefferson Airplane. “Jefferson Airplane—Crown of Creation—1968.” YouTube, uploaded by Lung Farang Channel, 23 Oct. 2016, Kaylan, Howard, and Jeff Tamarkin. Shell Shocked. Backbeat Books, 2013. Kaylan, Howard, et al. Liner Notes. New York “Times,” 1979–1994: Live at the Bottom Line, CD, Manifesto Records, 2009. Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Feb. 2014, Accessed 5 Feb. 2018. Kitts, Thomas M. “‘I’m a Singer in a Band who came out of High School and Lucked on to this Thing’: An Interview with Mark Volman.” Rock Music Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 77–91. McAdams, Dan P., and Kate C. McLean, “Narrative Identity.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 3, 2013, pp. 233–38. McLean, Kate C., et al. “Constructing the Self in Early, Middle, and Late Adolescent Boys: Narrative Identity, Individuation, and Well-Being.” Journal of Research on Adolescence, vol. 20, no. 1, 2010, pp. 166–87. Accessed 5 Feb. 2018. Palmer, Robert. “Flo and Eddie Satirize Rock,” New York Times, 7 Dec. 1976, p. 49. R9350. “Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.” Rate Your Music, 12 July 2006, https://rateyourmusic. com/board_message?message_id=571013. Accessed 5 May 2018. Stewart, David. “Why did Frank Zappa hire Three Members of the Turtles to Join the Mothers of Invention.” Quora, 12 Jan. 2016,­ Turtles-to-join-the-Mothers-of-Invention. Accessed 12 May 2018. Texursa. “What Do You Think of the Flo & Eddie Era? Zappa.” Reddit. 2017. Zappa/comments/6lhkoc/what_do_you_think_of_the_flo_eddie_era/?st=jf1gy4ji&sh=d8456896. Accessed 15 May 2018.


Thomas M. Kitts Thompson, Dave. “Zappa and the Mothers—The Flo and Eddie Years,” Goldmine 2002. http://wiki.killugly–_The_Flo_And_Eddie_Years. Accessed 5 Mar. 2018. The Turtles. “The Turtles—Happy Together (1967).” YouTube, uploaded by Ricardo on 26 Jan. 2013. www. Volman, Mark. “Titles: New York ‘Times.’” The, 26 Mar. 2009, times/. Accessed 5 May 2018. ———. Telephone interview. 16 Mar. 2016. Volman, Mark, et al. “Contents: New York ‘Times.’” The 26 Mar. 2009, newyorktimes/. Accessed 5 May 2018. Welch, Ernie. “Turtles Revive Goodtime Rock; The Turtles—In Concert with Chance Langton, at­ ­Jonathan Swift’s: Cambridge, Tuesday Night.” The Boston Globe, 13 May 1983, p. 1. Wild, David. Liner Notes. Solid Zinc: The Turtles Anthology, 2002. Zito, Tom. “Deranged, Delightful.” Washington Post, 9 Nov. 1975, p. 89.


27 “Dare to be Stupid” Covering “Weird Al” Yankovic Michael Mooradian Lupro

Weirdosh Aloyscious Yankeefoxtrot. It would be fittingly strange and funny if “Weird Al” ­Yankovic really was christened something that weird and outrageous, a name given him at birth and valorously inscribed on his official government-issued identification. Living with such a moniker might partly explain how he turned out so, well, weird. With every mispronounced roll call from a teacher and subsequent peer taunting, and every time a barista asks, “How do you spell that?” it would be easy to imagine a young Weirdosh thinking to himself, “As you have destroyed my name, I will destroy your most cherished pop songs.” As much sense as that would make, unfortunately, Weirdosh Aloyscious Yankeefoxtrot is not “Weird Al” Yankovic’s real name. Rather, “Weird Al” was born, in Downey, California, in 1959, with the relatively standard appellation of Alfred Matthew Yankovic. Thus, the eponym of “Weird Al” was not a birthright drawn from a long line of old-world familial nomenclature but rather a status earned through behavior, attitude, and ultimately one of the greatest catalogs of musical parody in the known universe. Dare to be Stupid (1985) isn’t just an album title. It is an incitement, a call to act, and an invitation to reject the exceptionalism that made the 1980s so awesome. If Beck’s “Loser” (1994) is an anthem for the archetypal coming-of-age Gen Xer, Dare to be Stupid was their developmental sing-along not unlike the role the Wiggles play for toddlers today, a learner’s permit for those who would drive the countercultural dictates of late twentieth-century alternative popular music production. “Weird Al” told the Gen Xers that they didn’t have to accept the consensus discourse. If the words of the well-known pop songs, those in the heavy rotation of hits, are not sacrosanct, what else that seems mighty and fixed and inaccessible might be fun to dismantle and repurpose for more fun, more silliness, more joy. “Weird Al” Yankovic makes the impenetrable realm of pop songwriting, perceptually occupied by eccentric stars in Los Angeles and London, accessible to the weird and nerdy everywhere: “Let’s Dunce / Put on your clown shoes and act a fool / Let’s Dunce / Let’s have a food fight, a ridiculous food fight” (to the tune of “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie, 1983; parody by the author, 1985). There may be many greater catalogs of musical parody in any of the billions upon billions of unknown universes beyond the taint of humanity, but as of this writing, they remain unknown, as is implied by the inclusion of the word “unknown” in the term “unknown universe.” If one accepts the possibility that there are indeed multiple universes, there could be one in which the greatest pop songs of that universe, over the course of a generation, are expertly parodied by a genuinely weird person of humble beginnings and a sincere respect for the art they satire. No one in this universe, however, the known universe that we know, can definitively say that such 239

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an artist exists in an unknown universe because of the unknownness of that universe. Ours is the only universe, at least that anyone not wearing a foil hat admits to knowing of, that enjoys the distinct pleasure of having our most famous pop songs deconstructed and reconstituted, often with food and always with great joy and respect, to the delight of fans of all ages. Given the views shared by the foil-hatted conspiracy theorist “Weird Al” performed in the video for his parody of Lorde’s “Royals” (2013) called “Foil” (2015) that universe may actually be known, but only by the illuminati and shadow organizations. In the brilliant second verse, “Weird Al” might be trying to signal that he is in touch with (or is perhaps even the Manchurian Candidate of ) the other potential Als in the other, unknown to most but known to him, universes: “And still the government won’t admit they faked the whole moon landing / Thought control rays, psychotronic scanning / Don’t mind that, I’m protected cause I made this hat /… From aluminum foil” (“Foil” to the music of “Royals”). “Weird Al” is best known for his parody covers of contemporary hits and their accompanying videos but he also writes and records his own original material. He also wrote and starred in a major film (UHF, 1989), starred in an eponymous and short-lived TV show, and served as leader of the house band, a sort of Doc Severinsen of the digital age, for Comedy Bang! Bang! One of pop music’s most accomplished accordionists, Yankovic has earned four Grammys, the first for “Eat It” in 1985, and the most recent for his Mandatory Fun album in 2015. He has also amassed four gold records, six platinum records, and may have recorded more songs about food than all artists of the rock era combined (actual results may vary). A serious consideration of his music, videos, and performances is long overdue. Those readers awaiting such a serious consideration of his music, videos, and performances will have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, I hope to offer an appropriately parodic examination of the “Weird Al” mystique that attempts to understand the mind and muse of Yankovic. Given the popularity of a single from Mandatory Fun, “Word Crimes” (based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” 2013), the author also strives to meet Yankovic’s exacting standards of grammar, spelling (or misspelling), and punctuation. The estate of Marvin Gaye has not, at the time of this writing, expanded its copyright suit against Thicke to include Yankovic. To best gain access to the mind and spirit of “Weird Al” as a cover artist, it makes sense to attempt to cover a methodology. In this case of a parody cover, the original source “hit” is Will Brooker’s Being Bowie documentary (see, too Brooker and Hughes). In order to understand ­Bowie’s mindset and vision, Brooker embodied David Bowie as fully as possible by trying temporarily, but as authentically as possible, to live in Bowie’s many different musical, fashion, and sartorial phases. Dr. Brooker spent a year dressing, eating, singing, occupying his geography, and generally living as much like Bowie as he could. Brooker described his methodological intention: “I decided to try to reconstruct and enter into Bowie’s cultural framework; to experience some of what he experienced, to engage with his influences and see if it gave me insight into his creative output at various times” (Brooker and Hughes). Through an attempt to situationally occupy Bowie personas, Brooker endeavored to gain creative insight rather than attempt the impossible of replicating Bowie’s unique life experiences. Brooker suggests looking at his work more as an artistic endeavor than a replicable scientific study: “The idea is to inhabit Bowie’s head space at points in his life and career to understand his work from an original angle, while retaining a critical and objective perspective at the same time” (qtd. in Varga). Like Brooker’s David Bowie study, this cover study created a set of performative situations to shed light on how and what the subject creates. Whereas Bowie was so prototypically chameleonic that it took Brooker a year to sufficiently cycle through them, “Weird Al” has been singular in his aesthetic and technique his entire four-decade-plus career, so I have only deliberately attempted to tap into the mind and the experience of “Weird Al” on a few select appropriately absurd occasions: a graduation ceremony, a layover at Singapore’s Changi Airport, and an autograph session at the Rose City Comicon. Also fueling the need for a very small set of performative situations relative 240

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to Brooker’s year as David Bowie, is that Bowie died during Brooker’s study. While there is no proven cause and effect between study and subject, haste and caution are warranted; if only for his role as accordion diplomat and olive branch to accordion fan Kim Jong-un of North Korea, given the precarious state of the world today, the loss of “Weird Al” Yankovic is a price that simply cannot be afforded at this delicate conjuncture.

Being “Weird Al” Yankovic When the scheduled keynote speaker for the Senior Inquiry Graduation Ceremony canceled at the last minute, I put on a wig, Hawaiian print shirt, and an accordion, and took the stage in her stead. I remembered how nervous being the focal point of 600 pairs of eyes can be, even while posing as someone else. I felt the thrill of a large peel of laughter. Afterwards I learned that my students, at least those who knew who “Weird Al” was, didn’t realize until that day, after a year of working together, that I was—and this is their unprompted choice of wording—so “weird.” During my long layover in the Singapore airport a few weeks later, it was way too hot to wear my “Weird Al” wig, so I carried around a head shot of Mr. Yankovic and asked strangers from across the globe what they thought of him. I was disappointed to learn that while he is ostensibly big in Japan, he was relatively unknown by the global travelers transiting through Singapore. Either that or they did know “Weird Al,” but were afraid to engage in conversation with someone walking around an airport holding a celebrity glossy. Upon learning that my neighbor had tickets to get an autograph from Yankovic at the local Comicon, I lent him the wig and accordion and my business card with a little note asking if he’d be interested in being interviewed. Though “Weird Al” himself was humored by the cosplay, and in general enjoys lampooning celebrities and their lifestyles, he is indeed a big enough celebrity himself to have handlers who make sure the line of autograph seekers moves quickly and efficiently—so, no interview. Altogether, my attempt to “cover” Brooker yielded one major insight: being a cover artist is even harder than it seems. But in terms of the spirit of Brooker’s endeavor, I realized that I had long ago begun gathering “cover” data on “Weird Al.” Even before the staged entries into the weirdness of “Weird Al” Yankovic performed specifically for the purposes of gaining the insight necessary to write this chapter, an immersion in “Weird Al” had already happened. I’ve been soaking in it, nearly for life. I’ve been trying to cover “Weird Al” Yankovic since I first heard “Another One Rides the Bus” on the Dr. Demento radio show riding around suburban Los Angeles in my parents’ van in 1980 (not in “Weird Al’s” Lynwood exactly, but in a nearby and culturally homologous geography). Without so much as making a conscious decision to do so, my appropriation of “Weird Al’s” appropriation was like a very comfortable “aha moment” type of resonance with what was already there but perhaps dormant, more of a natural latent capacity to be a dork than a choice to be weird. Where Brooker had to do extensive costuming and global travel to tap into Bowie, I’d already walked “Weird Al’s” streets, attempted to replicate his style of jokes and his sartorial aesthetic, and adopted his methods of making one’s own version of pop songs, albeit with less skill, nuance, and talent. See, for example, “Running down the road on a head full of coke / Got Diablo Canyon on my mind / If I can write something / That will appeal to yuppies / I can dig my own gold mine” (to “Take it Easy,” the Eagles, 1972; parody by the author, 1982). “Weird Al,” MTV, and I all came of age around the same time, and just as there was a symbiotic relationship between the growth of Yankovic’s art, methods, and fame, and the success of a video music channel, my own first experimentation with songwriting and performing were supported by my consumption of “Weird Al” videos in high rotation on early MTV. Experiencing “Weird Al” Yankovic live, say perhaps at the Del Mar Fairgrounds the night of high school graduation in the mid-1980s, audience members might find themselves marveling at the astounding accordion solo in “Whole Lotta Lunch.” More recent audiences, say perhaps the tweenager daughters of someone who saw “Weird Al” at the Del Mar Fairgrounds the night of high school graduation, 241

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may find themselves giggling their way through his local stop on the Mandatory Fun tour, taking particular delight in the Star Wars medley: “He said, ‘Luke, stay away from the darker side / And if you start to go astray, / Let the Force be your guide” (to “Lola” by the Kinks, 1971; parody by “Weird Al”). There is not much written about “Weird Al” Yankovic outside of standard reviews of shows and albums, with the excellent exception of Weird Al: The Book by The Onion’s Nathan Rabin written with “Al Yankovic.” The Book is largely standard pop star biography punctuated with sidebars/jokes and photo captions from Yankovic himself. Despite his mammoth footprint on contemporary popular culture, there is not much scholarly writing on “Weird Al” either, though one of his song titles is used in the title, before the colon, of Kendall’s investigation of racialized computing stereotypes, “‘White and Nerdy’: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype.” On the relatively rare occasions when “Weird Al” has been subject to scholarly attention, it has been almost exclusively in relation to copyright issues and the legal boundaries of satire. While Yankovic has been very diligent and overly conservative in securing permissions for his parodies from the original artists and the record labels that produce them, his work often comes up in discussions about how other artists work within and/or disrupt the legal and ethical framework under which intellectual property is created, distributed, and sold under the current global corporate capitalist cultural/economic machine (see Sanders and Gordon; Lemley; Kozumplik and Kreutziger). Yankovic has not taken a public position on copyright issues or shared his personal views on the subject, other than stating his professional conviction that it would be rude to use someone else’s song without their permission. While his long-standing practice of securing unequivocal permission to use the relevant source materials deprived the world of “Snack All Night” when Michael Jackson wanted to protect the original message of “Black or White” (1991), it served as an inoculation against the post-release regrets and rejection of “Amish Paradise” (1996) by Coolio, the author of the source text “Gangsta’s Paradise” (1995). Yankovic’s work in television, film, and especially music video is a cornerstone at the foundation of the house that “Weird Al” built. Starting with “Bedrock Anthem” (1993), he began to take the reins of his own music videos. His success there has led to directing non-parody videos for artists as diverse as Hanson, Jeff Foxworthy, and the Black Crowes. For fans of “Weird Al’s” visual style, the 1996 video for “Wail” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is an excellent example of the productive interplay between Yankovic’s humor and more serious artists. With his extensive use of costuming and exaggerated comportment, “Weird Al” is no stranger to physical humor. His true gift though, and the key to his enduring trans-generational appeal as a humorist is his wordplay. Yankovic’s method is broadly applicable and amply attempted. A recent excellent example of regular people taking up “Weird Al’s” method of reconstructing pop song lyrics as a means of communicating ideas and building community are the Cassini Virtual Singers.

Rocketman’s Spaceship: Does it Really Know Which Way to Go, or Is That Just Major Tom? The Cassini Virtual Singers are “a group of technicians, scientists and engineers working on the Cassini-Huygens Mission to the Saturnine region” that, according to the kids’ page on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, “delights colleagues and friends with creative renditions of famous tunes in which the harmony remains the same, but the lyrics reflect the subjects of their daily lives” (NASA; emphasis added). The Cassini Virtual Singers mixed their love of the Yankovic method at the first Jet Propulsion Lab Christmas party after the launch of Cassini-Huygens probe on its mission to Saturn in October 1997, underwhelming their audiences and filling their own hearts with such colleague-pleasers as “Take Me out There to Titan,” based on the melody of the famed seventh-inning stretch all baseball fans know by heart. Subsequent Cassini Virtual Singers 242

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ventures include “Cassini Goes On,” based on the Titanic theme song (1997) and a parody or subversion of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” (1983), dubbed “Every Turn You Make,” in which the original stalker lyrics are revised to show the immense astro-navigational challenges faced on the Cassini Mission and to celebrate their considerable achievements in meeting those challenges. On the occasion of Cassini’s final descent into the Saturnine atmosphere, ending a four-year mission that unexpectedly lasted for nearly 20, the Cassini Virtual Singers marked the bittersweet occasion with a parody of “Come Sail Away” by Styx (1977): A gathering of review boards appeared above my head / They approved my disposal plan, and this is what they said / They said go take the plunge, go take the plunge, go take the plunge Ca-SS-i-ni / Come take the plunge, come take the plunge, come take the plunge with me (2017). David Bowie’s music was used on the International Space Station to make the first music video produced in space, but perhaps “Weird Al,” through the Cassini-Huygens Mission, may be the artist, outside of those on the Voyager Record (1977), to travel the farthest away from earth. While, as stated earlier, we don’t know if there is an equivalent to “Weird Al” Yankovic in any possible unknown universes because of the broadcasts of the Cassini Virtual Singers broadcasts it may be possible that he is known to those in one of those unknown universes should they actually exist. One thing we do know is that Yankovic may prove to be a critical figure in keeping our known universe known to those presently living on earth. As of this writing, the leader of North Korea and the 45th President of the US are playing a game of rhetorical nuclear chicken. Assuming these pages are being read by live humans and not being used as nesting material for some postapocalyptic mutant after one or both of those gentlemen mistakenly make their rhetorical battle real, it may be because of the accordion diplomacy deployed by “Weird Al” Yankovic. Although almost as little is known about North Korea and its government as we know about unknown universes or universes we don’t know yet but might someday, we do know that Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission when headed by North Korea’s former leader Kim Jong-il, is himself an accomplished accordionist. In 2017, this astonishing fact was taken advantage of by the host of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in an attempt to calm nuclear tensions through “the international language of the accordion” (“North Korea”). After detailing the state of the crisis, Oliver invoked the mutual humanity of the two countries and the distinct likelihood that the vast majority of regular people in each country would agree that a nuclear war is a bad idea no matter what their respective leaders say. Then, after noting the little-known fact outside of North Korea, but very common knowledge inside North Korea, that North Koreans love the accordion as an accessible and portable instrument of the people, Oliver offered some cultural diplomacy to the North Korean people by kicking over the remainder of the show to “someone who plays the accordion like a [expletive redacted] angel.” “Weird Al” Yankovic than launched into an original polka, “Please Don’t Nuke Us North Korea,” in which he sings, “You’d like us if you got to know us I bet / We’re mostly harmless decent people / Hey we’re really not so bad / My point is, please don’t nuke us North Korea.” It’s so funny because it’s so true. Yankovic’s most recent album, Mandatory Fun (2014), is arguably one of his best collections of songs. His creative formula has essentially remained the same for 40-plus years: choose a catchy pop hit, rewrite the lyrics for maximum topicality and silliness, record spot-on performances and arrangements with the same band. The videos, always a medium in which “Weird Al” has excelled as a compelling auteur, showed that Mandatory Fun was more than a recycled formula and that Yankovic can adapt to the times. To coincide with the release of the album, one new video was released each day for eight straight days. Eschewing older video outlets, each day’s video was posted to a different relatively new media platform such as Nerdist, Funny or Die, and College Humor. Each release was heavily promoted through social media and he offered special pricing through online retailers. It worked. Within two weeks of release, Mandatory Fun became “Weird Al” ­Yankovic’s very first #1 record on the Billboard Hot 200 Albums Chart. 243

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School of Rock The attempt to put one’s own words to the tune of existing well-known pop hits teaches more than mimicry. Especially for a young person just beginning to take language for their own test ride, the attempt to craft homophonic rhymes is a big boost to an understanding of the rhythmic patterns of English, as well as stretching one’s vocabulary. On a lovely fall Saturday morning, Mississippi Studios is packed with parents, siblings, junior rockers, and friends for the Led Zeppelin edition of the School of Rock’s Arena Rock series of concerts. The miniature Pages and Plants in training, ranging in age from 8 to 14, did a better job of capturing the spirit of the Led Zeppelin catalogue than the officially sanctioned Jason Bonham Experience. Of course, the drummers had the most difficult time, as replicating John Bonham’s drumming is a task no human has sufficiently mastered ever, but within what is possible, they pretty well nailed it. More than giving the audience a close enough approximation, covering Led Zeppelin gave the School of Rockers potently valuable experience in music making. While Led Zeppelin is to many the gold standard for rock music playing, no individual measure of their music is beyond the capability of a novice willing to practice. What distinguishes Jimmy Page’s playing isn’t the difficulty of any particular measure, but his uncanny ability to string all those little easy parts together into a compelling whole. A Page solo is much greater than the sum of its parts, but each part is somewhat accessible to a novice. To cover that style of playing provides a lesson in advanced musicality more than advanced licks. Among other things, what makes John Bonham a superlative cover experience is that, again, no individual unit of his playing is all that difficult, but the subtle shifts in feel while staying in power are impossible to replicate. Nevertheless, while the School of Rockers were not able to replicate Bonham, each advanced their own ability to generate their own feel through their attempted approximation of Bonham. Should they later endeavor to cover a simpler drummer, or start writing their own rhythm parts, having reached for that powerful level of Bonham drumming feel they will have grown in their own drumming identity and skill much more than if they had never attempted such a difficult covering task. Even though they will inevitably and grossly miss the mark, their attempt to embody Bonham advances their understanding of their own playing. Much like Brooker’s attempt to embody Bowie and my performance of “Weird Al,” musical embodiment is an effective tool for understanding one’s subject: “We are big stars / We have big egos / We’re really glad we all forgot / To invite the guys from the Eagles” (parody by the author, 1986; to the tune of “We Are the World,” 1985). Participating in music-making gives the lay person a very user-friendly opportunity to feel as the artists do, to get a taste of the much-coveted sensation of sharing your heart and soul beyond one’s own circles and, if it’s really working well, the soaring feeling of riding on the waves of human emotion that can return to the performer. That feeling is magic, and to my mind is one of the greatest of the human experiences. It is intoxicating in any dose (and may partially explain why other forms of intoxication are ubiquitous among those who know the thrill of performance). That feeling is an especially rare element in the mundanity of daily life at the end of global capitalism. One of the greatest barriers to acquisition of this feeling for most of us is the self-imposed notion that “I can’t sing.” “Weird Al” Yankovic shows us that we can sing. He has done his mighty best to destroy the notion that one needs to be someone special or have a special ability to sing pop songs. Rather, he shows us how to embrace making pop music one’s own. Thanks to the inspiration of Ambassador Yankovic, you don’t even have to get the words right to sing along and feel the joy and the human connection of performance. This is not to say that “Weird Al” is an amateur or a savant. His impeccable work ethic and diligent persistence in working his craft (see Rabin) also serve as a model that aspiring artists would benefit from heeding, but there are many hard workers in this world. There is only one figure who has for a generation been the preeminent sign pointing to the on-ramp of the freeway that is the feeling one gets when participating in creation. He teaches how to celebrate, specifically how


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to make the most out of the enjoyment of popular culture derived from actively participating in popular music. Through “Weird Al,” one can learn to navigate how to simultaneously express oneself and respect what great artists have made. The negotiations we make are where we test the zest of our amateurism against the rigor of the popular works by the greatest professionals. As the Rolling Stones so eloquently stated on their underappreciated and funnier than most people give it credit for album Their Satanic Majesties Request, “Why don’t we sing this song all together” (“Sing This All Together [See What Happens],” 1967). With “Weird Al” Yankovic as our North Star, anyone can have fun navigating his or her own productive relationship with the glorious detritus of late capitalist popular music.

Works Cited Being Bowie. A film by Will Brooker and Rebecca Hughes. 2016. YouTube, uploaded by the Visitor, 4 May 2017, Brooker, Will. Forever Stardust: David Bowie across the Universe. I.B.Tauris, 2017. Brooker, Will, and Rebecca Hughes. “Being Bowie.” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, 4 Dec. 2016., Accessed 13 May 2017. Gani, Aisha. “Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Academic to Spend Year as David Bowie’s Many Personas.” The Guardian US Edition, 18 Aug. 2015, Accessed 1 Aug. 2017. Kendall, Lori. “‘White and Nerdy’: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 44, no. 3, 2011, pp. 505–24. Kozumplik, Cindy, and John Kreutziger. “Copyright Compliance: Conducting a Fair Use Training Session.” Community & Junior College Libraries, vol. 16, no. 1, 2010, pp. 21–36. Lemley, Mark A. “Should a Licensing Market Require Licensing?” Law and Contemporary Problems, vol. 70, no. 2, 2007, pp. 185–203. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Cassini Mission Kidspace, Accessed 25 Sept. 2017. “North Korea Crisis.” YouTube, uploaded by Last Week Tonight, 13 Aug. 2017, https://youtube/TrS0uNBuG9c. Rabin, Nathan, with Al Yankovic. “Weird Al”: The Book. Henry N. Abrams, 2012. Sanders, Charles J., and Steven R. Gordon. “Stranger in Parodies: ‘Weird Al’ and the Law of Musical Satire.” Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 11–46. Varga, George. “University Professor Spending a Year as David Bowie.” The San Diego-Union Tribune, 18 Aug. 2015, Accessed 24 June 2018.


28 The Aquabats! Defeating Evil One Show at a Time! Eric J. Abbey

Formed in 1994 in opposition to the negativity prevalent in the southern California punk scene, the Aquabats dedicated themselves to fun, humor, and childlike play. From the time of their formation, they rejected the beer-fueled aggressiveness of the punk mosh pit and, instead, performed in costumes and developed cartoonish story lines that featured heroes and villains with the good guy emerging victorious. They were tongue-in-cheek and satirical, and played out their joke to the fullest. Their music, often very good and always competent, was too frivolous for the earnest punk crowd and too surf-like for most of the third wave ska audience. However, ska was predicated on upbeat rhythms, and the scene advocated fun and dancing, and the music of the Aquabats looked back to a time of innocence rather than experience. Cofounders Christian Jacobs, Chad Larson, and Boyd Terry, all from Orange County, CA, decided to adopt more ska rhythms, to de-emphasize but not eliminate their surf roots, and to add band members to round out their new ska sound. “[We] combine[d] Devo with surf music and ska” ( Jacobs, qtd. in Lloyd 2). In a short time, the Aquabats, in full regalia of superhero-like costumes, found their home in the ska scene among fans of rising ska luminaries like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and the Dance Hall Crashers. However, the Aquabats had a head start on most of the local bands on the southern ­California ska scene: they had media savvy and industry connections. Christian Jacobs had worked in television as a child actor. At age ten, he appeared in a 1982 episode of The Love Boat and worked regularly in television and film until 1990.1 In 1999, he created a failed pilot, The Aquabats in Color! which tried to recreate the band’s stage antics for the small screen. Jacobs and co-creator Scott Schultz found television success in 2007 with the children’s series Yo Gabba Gabba, which ran until 2015. What Jacobs said about Yo Gabba Gabba could just as easily have been said about the Aquabats: “So I think in being a show that’s kind of almost a superhero spoof show, we’re satirical on the whole superhero genre” (qtd. in Blitz). In the early 1990s, Jacobs’s television experience along with ska helped the Aquabats replicate the fun and circuslike atmosphere of a children’s television show—although in later years, with their fan base established, surf began to reemerge as more dominant in their sound. To be clear, the band’s music was, of course, important, but it has always been secondary to their on-stage performance. Besides Jacobs’s experience in television and his viewing of American children’s shows, the Aquabats had another television referent: Ultraman, which premiered on Japanese television in 1966.2 While the original show lasted just one season, it has reappeared in syndication and in various forms over the years. 3 Ultraman, part of the Special Science Search Party that defends Earth from alien attackers, transforms into a superhero to fight all kinds of monsters. 246

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However,  Ultraman can only battle for three minutes before he returns to human form in need of recharging. He battles monsters like the coin eater Kanegon and the space dinosaur Zetton, both, like all the other monsters, are played by actors dressed in costumes with limited technological effects. The series is very much in the visual style of the old Godzilla movies. In fact, ­U ltraman’s first monster-maker was Toru Narita who worked on the Godzilla films. The influence of ­U ltraman on the live performance of the Aquabats is striking. Like Ultraman, the Aquabats flaunt their low-tech production and capture the feel of the show in their battles with monsters and in their music. Much like Ultraman’s time limit in heroic form, the Aquabats’ songs are usually no longer than three minutes. The music propels the action on stage as the songs discuss these enemies and battles. The song “Powdered Milk Man,” for example, talks about how cereal is harmful with powdered milk and how the enemy must be stopped to save cereal from the evils of powdered milk. In their live shows, the Aquabats play on traditional superhero tropes. By playing sometimes bumbling and frightened superheroes and featuring comical villains, over-the-top costumes, and stage sets, the band creates what might be considered a live children’s television show or, seen another way, a live comic book. The performance is intended to be fun and the fans attend the shows to participate in the ridiculous and crazy antics of the Aquabats superhero squad.

Performing Humor The plot of an Aquabats performance calls on band members to defeat evil and save the world through music.4 Along the way, there are usually some interesting diversions. A member of the band, or perhaps more accurately, cast, might dress in a chef ’s outfit and host an actual on-stage barbecue, or he might wear a grass skirt and a fez hat. The Aquabats signature costumes, however, remain modified wet suits, designed by bandmate Boyd Terry,5 who once worked in a surf apparel shop. Along with the music, the fans of the Aquabats enjoy the spectacle, which might include battles with villains like Powdered Milk Man and Giant Robot Bird Head, plot twists, the diversions, and the staged commercial breaks. One commercial, for instance, sells the benefits of “Rub-O-Rama,” which helps children fall asleep, and another sells the Aquabats’ pudding dispenser belt, which will satisfy the wearer’s impulsive pudding cravings (see “The Aquabats Official Pudding”; “The Aquabats Official Rub-O-Rama”). Watching the Aquabats is like tuning into a children’s television show or a good comedy troupe. MC Bat Commander (Christian Jacobs) consistently addresses the audience as “kids,” “homies,” and “dudes.” The script is loose with room for audience participation and the band improvises its routines freely and maybe even recklessly. Children are thrown from the stage to crowd surf and members of the audience are invited on stage to dance and sometimes perform as “cast” members and perhaps play a villain (see “The Aquabats Have 5yr old kids”). Matt Flood, who would become founder of Asbestos Records, promoted a show in his college cafeteria featuring the Aquabats. He remembers a frenzied show and being called up to the stage: The band killed it, and as they came to their last song, I’m standing right in front of the stage. The Bat Commander announces, “We’re going to close with a song by a band who makes a lot more money than us. … Annnnnnd Flood is going to sing it for you.” He grabs me and pulls me on stage, slams the mic into my chest, and then jumps headlong off stage tackling a guy in a lobster costume. I have no idea what’s going on … and the band launches into Blink 182’s “Dammit” (ironically, this is one of Travis Barker’s last shows with the Aquabats before joining Blink) and I sang a Blink song with Travis drumming before anyone in Blink did. After the show I was the only one allowed backstage (AKA the back room of the cafeteria) when they had their costumes off, and we talked about the Dead Milkmen, and random other weird stuff for a few hours. 247

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The particular gig that Flood discusses reveals something else about the band. Playing a one-off show at a college cafeteria in the middle of a major tour because someone asked them to do it demonstrates the band’s commitment to the underground scene and their reliance on the scene to build a fan base. Flood recounts how the booking came about: My first encounter with the band is always one of my favorite memories. [In the] mid-­n ineties I used to trade tapes with people around the world so we could check out local bands in a pre-mp3 world. A girl in California sent me a tape that had the Aquabats on one side, and the Bruce Lee Band on the other. I immediately contacted the ’Bats and asked them to come play for us. I was told they were just a dumb local band who would never make it to the East Coast. … Fast forward a few years. My mom calls me at college, saying, “Someone named the Bat Commander called for you? And he wants you to call him back.” … So that was fun to explain. So anyway the band had an off date on their tour with Blink 182 and wanted to do a show for us. I promised them $300 and they came to play the cafeteria at my school. An insane amount of people showed up, as ska was really blowing up at that point in Connecticut. Before the Aquabats achieved commercial success, gigs like this one led to a devoted cult following who referred to themselves as the Aquacadets. As the years passed, the Aquacadets, like fans of any group, expect to hear the band perform some “greatest hits,” songs like “Cat with 2 Heads,” “Pool Party,” “Pizza Day,” “Red Sweater,” and “Martian Girl.” In “Pool Party,” for example, an unpopular student invites his schoolmates to a summer pool party. However, the unexpected occurs; the party is a smash hit. “It was a pool party for the cool kids at my school,” affirms the chorus. The unpopular student has nothing to whine about. He can celebrate having hosted the best party of the summer. “The ratio of girls to guys is five to one. / There hasn’t been a party like this since 1981.” The tongue-in-cheek humor, the feel-good ending, and the unpopular student’s victory resonate with those who had less than glory days in high school. In a way, at a live performance, those former uncool students are hanging at the Aquabats’ cool pool party. The singer in “Pizza Day” remembers being a “poor kid” in elementary and junior high school. Mom said I should ask about how poor kids can get fed / So I got a book of tickets and a schedule and it read: / Monday—hotdogs, Tuesday—taco / Wednesday—hamburgers and chocolate milk / Thursday—Sloppy Joes and burritos in a bag / Friday was pizza day the best day of the week. As an adult, the singer longs for the security he felt during pizza day. It is a sad lyric: “I wish I had some more stability / I wish I had somebody making lunch for me / I guess I miss the simple things of life.” However, any sadness and bitterness are undermined by the fast, upbeat rhythm and the funfilled performance, which includes a giant blown-up pizza tossed into the audience and battered around. While listeners may long for easier times, when, for instance, lunch was planned for you, the music and pizza prop allow audience members to smile as they remember. Other songs in their set, which might include “Cat with 2 Heads,” “Fight Song,” and “Powdered Milk Man,” concern battles with monsters and aliens that the Aquabats must destroy to save Earth. “Red Sweater,” their “love song,” is about a young crush: “I met you in third grade / I didn’t know that you liked lemonade / I met you another year later / You wore a red sweater with an alligator.” The young singer pledges his love to the girl forever. The song captures pure innocence. There is no sarcasm or angst even though the love does not last. It is a joyful reminiscence: “You and me and that red sweater.” Songs about young love and monsters are always performed with tongue-in-cheek humor and spectacle, and intended to appeal to their audience’s sense of nostalgia, invoking television shows or personal memories. There is none of the angst of punk bands. Flood comments, “I think it’s supposed to be a musical nostalgia clusterfuck of sorts for people roughly our age, 35 to 45. Chock full of action figures, bad sci-fi, memories of school 248

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lunch programs, etc. … more so to make you smile about a more whimsical, magical time in your life.” This nostalgic effect creates a shared sense of community between band and audience. John Morreall writes, “We enjoy humor at whatever stage because … it takes us out of the role of mere passive observers of a world already given and lets us become, like the artist, creators of a new kind of reality” (65). I argue that the experience at an Aquabats show is more intense than at most humorous performances. Not only do the fans of the Aquabats “get” the humor but they also “get” to participate in the spectacle, very directly. MC Bat Commander invites the audience to combat the monsters by throwing toilet paper or plastic balls at them. During “Magic Chicken,” some in the audience may receive fried chicken from a crewmember or another audience member dressed in a chicken’s costume. Others, young and old alike, are invited on stage to dance during, say, a mariachi number. An Aquabats performance is always amusing, high-spirited, and chaotic. In fact, the spectacle puts the audience and band on the same plane in a newly constructed reality of play. Johan Huizinga states that “play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (103). The Aquabats with the audience create this “temporary sphere,” a safe, utopia childlike world, where innocence and good prevail over evil. More than most performers, the Aquabats get the audience to lose themselves and escape into the childlike dimension of play much the way Huizinga went on to explain: Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious,” but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit to be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise and other means. (107) The audience’s entertainment at an Aquabats show and its dedication to the band very much result from its absorption into the world of Aquabats play. Less nostalgic and perhaps more punkish but still playful, the Aquabats fight another type of villain: the record industry and the label executive, complete with business suit and unfair record contract. The band may be a part of the entertainment industry, but they can still rail against it, specifically the music industry. Guy DeBord illuminates how the Aquabats construct a spectacle to satirize the spectacle of the industry. For DeBord, everything is spectacle because of the control of the social world by dominating power structures. “The spectacle does not realize philosophy,” writes DeBord; “it philosophizes reality, reducing everyone’s concrete life to a universe of speculation” (2). The Aquabats mock the music industry even as they work in it, and they mock superheroes even as they create them. As Jacobs states, Of course, it would be great if everyone liked [us] because then I could pay my bills, but that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re really wanting to be something different, and even though the idea is an old one, it’s working because there hasn’t really been a very successful inept superhero satire that you still care about, you know? I guess The Tick 6 was, but I felt like the comics were so much better than the TV show. (qtd. in Liu) Just as the Aquabats do, DeBord suggests that the spectacle can be attacked from within and/or through mocking it. “The real values of culture can be maintained only by negating culture. But this negation can no longer be a cultural negation. In a sense, it may take place within culture, but it points beyond it” (28). Thus, through the creation of the spectacle of their live show, specifically in their confronting a record label villain, the Aquabats and their audience, who are very much 249

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Figure 28.1  The Aquabats 2005 CD.

involved in the drama, deconstruct the larger spectacle of the entertainment industry and look hopefully to a “point beyond” the current industry. The satire in an Aquabats performance comes through in their exaggeration of the superhero genre. In the show, both live and in the television series, the members wear awkward looking uniforms, travel in a modified van, use hand signs that supposedly reflect their “super powers,” and behave melodramatically. These are not the X-Men or the Avengers; this is a group of geeks. “We are a kiddie band,” says Jacobs. “It’s satirical but that is the levels we play to. We have always been a campy kiddie act. It never changed. Maybe those kids just grew up” (Escoto). In the camp of the performance is satire. In “Lovers of Loving Love,” for example, the entire song is based on rock songs about love, particularly from the 1980s. The lyrics are silly: “It’s so hip / To give a kiss / And taste cherry chapstick.” As Jacobs explains, “It’s definitely a pretty tongue-in-cheek cheesy rock song. … When we play it live the older kids are kind of chuckling and the younger kids are, like, holding hands with their girlfriends and singing along with it. … It’s kind of funny that way” (qtd. in Tucker).

Music and Humor Matt Flood appreciates the music of the Aquabats and tries to defend the musical quality of their first two albums. However, he cannot seem to help connecting the music to the live show and qualifies their musical achievement with an if: I think seeing the band definitely adds a good deal to their music. I personally love their first two albums. I think they stand alone very well, if you’re a fan of campy/humorous bands. … I’d say the nearest comparison would be Pain. Growing up loving bands like TMBG [They Might Be Giants], Dead Milkmen, and King Missile they were a perfect band to check out. So the music and their whole schtick stands alone fine … but they’re soooo over the top and never break character in their live shows; it’s like being inside an insane comic book. 250

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Thus, for many of the most ardent Aquabats fans, the music is secondary—although blogger and Aquabats fan Holly Homan disagrees: “I can listen to their songs and enjoy them as much as I do their live shows.” But is the music always secondary in comedic performance? And, does it matter, since the music, performance, and humor are so intertwined. People make distinctions between serious and popular music all the time. Simon Frith suggests that “[i]n analyzing serious music, we have to uncover the social forces concealed in the talk of ‘transcendent’ values; in analyzing pop, we have to take seriously the values scoffed at in the talk of social functions” (“Toward” 133). Aquabats fans, like Flood, seem to recognize the lightness of the Aquabats’ music and qualify their passion or approval for the band’s music, concerned perhaps about their taste being “scoffed at” by others who may think they have poor taste, thus costing the Aquabats’ listeners cultural capital. To the Aquabats audience, while the music adds value to the comedy and helps tell the evening’s various stories, the music still functions as music and has an impact on them whether they realize it or not. The songs may be jokingly sweet and address childhood or adolescent themes, but they appeal to the audience’s nostalgic impulses and in some cases give the audience a chance to reconsider and perhaps revise childhood memories. Stephen Halliwell’s discussion of mimesis is relevant here: Aristotle’s claim that music has a special capacity for the mimesis of ‘character’ (ethos) involves the supposition that the elements of musical representation and expression can ‘kinetically’ capture, and convey a hearer’s ‘sympathetic’ feeling, something of the psychological dynamics (at root, of pleasure and pain) active in qualities of ‘character’ and in emotions associated with them. (30) The audience is reminded of childhood and past experiences as the music captures the emotions of this time period for the fans. They are drawn back to childhood play. Similarly, Susanne Langer explains the significance of the power of music to engage listeners: Because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with musical forms than with the forms of language, music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach. … The real power of music lies in the fact that it can be ‘true’ to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot. (235, 243) Thus, while Aquabats fans consider the music secondary to the spectacle, the spectacle would lose its authority without the songs. For some in the audience, the triumph of innocence in songs like “Pool Party” gives them the victory they may not have attained in their early years.

Alright, Buddies, and Dudes! The Aquabats have sustained a career of some 25 years. From time to time, they continue to release new material, such as Hi-Five Soup in 2011, and reissues, such as The Fury of the Aquabats, remastered in 2018, and they still tour, just not as frequently.7 In 2012, the Aquabats returned to television with a series, The Aquabats! Supershow!,8 with the Aquabats as the heroes who perform music, create mayhem, and save the world from monsters during every live show.

Notes 1 Jacobs had small but not recurring parts on television sit-coms (Married with…Children, Roseanne, among others), minor roles on several television movies and feature films, and was a regular as Joey Stivic on Gloria (starring Sally Struthers, 1982–1983) and as the voice of Cavin for the 1985 season of Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears.


Eric J. Abbey 2 Jacobs has consistently cited Ultraman as an influence, along with other Japanese children’s shows and cartoons like Battle of the Planets, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robo, and Speed Racer. He has also cited American children’s shows and cartoons like Batman, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and others (see Blitz, Beland, Goldman). As Jacobs says, “I was there at ground zero for the Golden Age of children’s television when everything exploded: Sesame Street, Electric Company, all the Sid and Marty Krofft shows, Land of the Lost, Banana Splits—all that stuff” (qtd. in Blitz). 3 In “Ultraman: Ultracool at 50,” Matt Alt explores the show and its various spinoffs to determine its enduring popularity. “Over the past fifty years, the ‘Ultra’ series, as his titular works came to be known, grew to encompass some twenty-nine television shows, the latest incarnation of which, ‘Ultraman Orb,’ began airing in July [2016]. That’s not to mention dozens of films, stage shows, video games, and countless toys of the heroes and monsters.” 4 The closest group to construct a show like the Aquabats is Gwar with their outer space antics. The Aquabats could be considered a safer, more child friendly version of Gwar mixed with Devo. 5 Boyd Terry performed with the Aquabats from 1994 to 2002. Largely credited with developing the band’s ska sound, the trumpeter appeared onstage as Catboy. 6 The Tick, a comic book created in 1986 by Ben Edlund, was a satire of superhero comics that made fun of the genre with a tick gaining super powers. It became a television show on the Fox network in 1994. 7 The Aquabats gave a well-received performance before 20,000 people at the Back to the Beach Ska ­Festival at Huntington Beach State Park, CA, April 28–29, 2018. Travis Barker joined his former band on drums for a few songs. As Holly Homan wrote, “They have one of the best live acts of any band. They wore their obligatory space cadet outfits and battled various monsters. This time the monsters were sand fleas who claimed Huntington Beach was their turf and the Aquabats were invading. A battle ensued with Aquabats and sand fleas throwing punches. But as much fun as their stage show and antics are, the music of the Aquabats can stand alone. I can listen to their songs and enjoy them as much as I do their live shows. They ended their set with Pool Party and invited children and parents to join them onstage to sing and dance along and before long the stage was full of young children, (some of whom were toddlers) and stage props (a giant snake and a giant pizza slice).” 8 The Aquabats! Super Show! first aired on the HUB network March 3, 2012 and ran until January 18, 2014. It has since been picked up by Hulu, where all 21 episodes are currently available.

Works Cited Alt, Matt. “Ultraman: Ultracool at 50.” Japan Times, 16 July 2016, tv/ultraman-ultracool-50/#.Wy0Nqq2-KCQ. Accessed 22 June 2018. “The Aquabats Have 5yr old kids stage dive/crowd surf @ Chain Reaction 7/23/12.” YouTube, uploaded by MissKittyKatMeow, 24 July 2012, “The Aquabats Official Pudding Dispenser Belt Commercial.” YouTube, uploaded by the Aquabats, 22 Dec. 2010, “The Aquabats Official Rub-O-Rama Commercial.” You Tube, uploaded by the Aquabats, 22 Dec. 2010, The Aquabats. “Pool Party.” Myths, Legends, and other Amazing Adventure, Vol II, Fearless Records, 2000. ——— “Lovers of Loving Love.” The Aquabats vs. the Floating Eye of Death, Goldenvoice Records, 1999. ———. “Red Sweater.” The Fury of the Aquabats, Goldenwire Records, 1997. Beland, Justin. “Interview: Christian Jacobs of the Aquabats.” Chunk Glasses, 22 Mar. 2013, www.chunky Accessed 22 June 2018. Blitz, Stefan. “FOG! Chats With Aquabats Team Leader MC Bat Commander Himself, Christian Jacobs.” Forces of Geek, 2 Mar. 2012, html. Accessed 12 Oct. 2017. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Hobgoblin Press, 2002. Escoto, Mike. “The MC Bat Commander of the Aquabats Talks Alien Conspiracies, Homestar Runner, and Biz Markie.” Phoenix New Times, 18 Feb. 2011,­commanderof-the-aquabats-talks- alien-conspiracies-homestar-runner-and-biz-markie-6620347. ­Accessed 18 June 2018. Flood, Matt. Personal interview. 20 Aug. 2017. Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge UP, 1996. ———. “Towards as Aesthetic of Popular Music.” Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, edited by Richard Leppert and Susan McClary, Cambridge UP, 1987, pp. 133–50. Goldman, Eric. “How Batman Influenced the Aquabats! Super Show!”, 2 Mar. 2012, articles/2012/03/03/how-batman-influenced-the-aquabats-super-show. Accessed 22 June 2018. Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton UP, 2002.


The Aquabats! Homan, Holly. “Back to the Beach Festival in Huntington Beach, CA, Brings Two Days and Nights of ­Sumptuous Ska under Sunny Skies.” East Portland Blog, 3 May 2018, www.eastportlandblog. com/2018/05/03/back-to-the-beach-festival-in-huntington-beach-ca-brings-two-nights-of-­ sumptuous-ska-under-sunny-skies-by-holly-homan/. Accessed 22 June 2018. Huizinga, Johan. “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon.” The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, MIT Press, 2006, pp. 96–121. Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Harvard UP, 1957. Liu, Ed. “Toonzone Interviews Christian Jacobs on ‘The Aquabats Super Show!’” Toonzone, 28 May 2013, Accessed 22 June 2017. Lloyd, Robert. “Return of the Aquabats Interview II the Q &A.” Los Angeles Times, 15 June 2013, www. html. Accessed 23 June 2018. Morreall, John. “Humor and Aesthetic Education.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 1981, pp. 55–70. Tucker, Jeff. “The Aquabats: Bring on the Superheroes…with a Little Tongue in Cheek.” Arizona Daily Sun, 15 Dec. 1999,­ article_500f0ac3-a37f-5308-b937-e38ad6d381d4.html. Accessed 18 Jun 2018.


Part 6

The Music Mockumentary

Since at least the advent of MTV in 1981, and especially following the launch of YouTube in 2005, popular music has been increasingly consumed in audiovisual form, as music video, or as the soundtrack for or subject of theatrical films. In Parts 6 and 7 of this volume, we examine diverse examples of the relationship between humor and popular music on-screen. Part 6 features four chapters on the subject of the music mockumentary. In Part 7, we explore other dimensions of humor and music “on screen.” The music mockumentary is a subgenre of the broader genre of the mockumentary, which includes those films and television shows that use the conventions of the documentary form, for ­humorous effect, to tell a fictional story (think, e.g., of The Office). The music mockumentary focuses and often creates a humorous effect by exploiting and subverting the audience’s expectation of the “rockumentary,” documentaries about rock artists and rock music that have become increasingly prevalent since the 1960s. In the opening chapter in Part 6, “‘It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever’: A Genealogy of the Music Mockumentary,” Michael Brendan Baker and Peter Lester delineate the conventions of the subgenre and trace their origins to three definitive texts: All You Need Is Cash, the 1978 television film about the fictional band, the Rutles; Bad News Tour (1983), again a TV show about a fictional, eponymous, touring metal band; and the feature film This Is Spinal Tap (1984), which has become perhaps the standard against which all other music mockumentaries are measured. Baker and Lester go on to develop a genealogy of music mockumentaries, across different genres of popular music and originating in different cultures. They also explore the extent to which their examples are simple parodies of the rockumentary (or of previous mockumentaries such as Spinal Tap), or more critical satires of the music business, the mass media, celebrity, and related aspects of contemporary culture. As Baker and Lester note, certain films employ elements of the mockumentary tradition as one tool to tell a story, to advance a narrative. Hence, while not strictly “a mockumentary,” we have included in this section Scott Henderson’s chapter “‘We Must Be Flipping Out’: Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels as a Carnivalesque Subversion of Pop Music,” in part because it uses techniques that would become staples of mockumentary filmmaking and because, like the best mockumentaries, it treads a fine line between fact and fiction such that the audience is sometimes uncertain which is which. As Henderson argues, 200 Motels is both surreal and carnivalesque in satirizing the rockand-roll lifestyle and the music industry. Zappa and codirector Tony Palmer use often-bawdy humor not only to subvert popular mores and the authority of the music business, but also to demonstrate the limits to carnivalesque “licensed transgression.”

The Music Mockumentary

The other two chapters in Part 6 examine in more detail two of the “foundational texts” of the music mockumentary. First, in “All You Need Is Cash: Skewering a Legend with the Prefab Four,” Kenneth Womack describes the venture by an alumnus of the Monty Python troupe (Eric Idle) and former member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Neil Innes, sometimes also called “the seventh Python”) to subvert the mythology of the Beatles by creating an equally mythical band, the Rutles, whose career both predates and parallels that of their near-namesakes. Through faux-archival footage, talking-head interviews, and carefully crafted parodies of Beatles’ songs, performances and television appearances, as well as the introduction of real-world celebrities to play versions of themselves or others, Idle and Innes subvert and critique celebrity culture and pop nostalgia while establishing many of the conventions that would come to mark the genre. But if there is one film that, in the popular imagination, stands as the music mockumentary, it is This Is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner and released in 1984, initially to only moderate box-office response, before its release on home video, becoming a cult classic. In “This Chapter Goes to Eleven: This Is Spinal Tap and the Blurring of Authenticity and Fabrication,” Colin Helb traces the pre-Spinal Tap careers of the principals behind the film (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Reiner), analyzes the relationship between humor and music in the film itself, and then outlines the subsequent career of the band because Spinal Tap, the fictional creations of the motion picture, became a real-life band, recording albums and performing live, continuing to reinvent the band’s “story” over the years. As Helb argues, Spinal Tap is a simulacrum, neither fully “real” nor “unreal,” a satiric creation of referential popular culture that took on a life of its own. From its origins in such texts as All You Need Is Cash, This Is Spinal Tap, and Bad News Tour (originally an episode of the British TV show, The Comic Strip Presents, 1983), the music mockumentary has become a popular form of parody, satire, and critique, applied to numerous genres of popular music. We encourage readers to explore this subgenre, perhaps starting with the three films just mentioned, if they haven’t seen them, and then perhaps moving on to some of the less well-known mockumentaries discussed in Lester and Baker.


29 “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” A Genealogy of the Music Mockumentary Michael Brendan Baker and Peter Lester

Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery. —Charles Caleb Colton, 1820

In 1934, on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland, pioneering filmmaker Robert ­ laherty and his crew were collecting material for a feature-length nonfiction film documenting F the premodern conditions endured by residents of the rough North Atlantic outpost. Discussing the ways in which Flaherty prearranged character interactions and informally scripted many of the scenarios that would ultimately feature in his films, camera assistant John Taylor later recalled for filmmaker George Stoney that he wrote in his notebooks at the time the word “mockumentary” to describe this creative treatment of the nonfictional material (How). Although the term would not circulate in a more meaningful way until the mid-1970s and would not be widely adopted by critics and audiences until the mid- to late 1980s, “mockumentary” has become the standard descriptor for works of fiction which appeal to documentary aesthetics and modes of representation in order to establish an interpretative frame for the audience. These “fake” documentaries generally make no effort to conceal their “fakeness” from the viewer and instead use the form in creative, often playful ways for a wide range of purposes, including humor and critique. Within the mockumentary genre, the music mockumentary constitutes a coherent subgenre with a small number of vastly influential films. Styled primarily upon the rockumentary genre—specifically, the observational films of the 1960s, the concert films of the 1970s, and the archive-based expository music documentaries of the last 40 years, each invested in the historicization of popular music and musicians—the basic premise of the music mockumentary is comedic engagement with the world of popular music through satire, farce, and parody, using (or presenting the illusion of ) the representational strategies of nonfiction. The music mockumentary leverages the audience’s knowledge of the codes and conventions of the rockumentary genre and, more generally, those of popular music, to establish and deliver a variety of comedic premises. Recognized primarily for its commercial breakthrough with Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (USA, 1984), the music mockumentary dates back to the 1970s and comprises dozens of films and television programs addressing a range of musical styles and performers with an emphasis on comedy writing and comic performances. Within the mockumentary genre, theatrically released music mockumentaries are historically strong commercial performers and several endure as pop cultural touchstones (see “Mockumentary”). Beginning with The Rutles: All You Need


Michael Brendan Baker and Peter Lester

Is Cash (Eric Idle and Gary Weis, UK, 1978) and the iconic This Is Spinal Tap, the cult appeal of music mockumentaries has been proven time and time again, despite ever-diminishing artistic returns. Drawing upon Roscoe and Hight’s typology of the mockumentary form, general theories of parody and satire, and the foundational influence of the rockumentary genre, this chapter presents a genealogy of the music mockumentary, detailing its successes, limits, and potential.

Music Documentary and Mockumentary The primary point of reference for the music mockumentary is the rockumentary. This ­music-focused documentary genre emerged in the 1960s and rose in critical acclaim and commercial popularity through the 1970s, both in North America and elsewhere. Mirroring the spectacular heights of rock’s mainstream appeal in the first era of stadium tours and multimillion selling albums, the rockumentary genre visualized popular music in ways that would persist through subsequent decades and across media formats and platforms. The category is not simply a collection of nonfiction films on the subject of popular music, but rather an evolving audiovisual genre that is both premised upon and integral to the music, the industry, and the communities it celebrates. These films canonize not just the music and musicians but also the stagecraft, performance styles, equipment, itineraries, rituals, outsized egos, and fans that comprise rock culture (and popular music culture, more generally). And while the term “rockumentary”—as obvious a portmanteau word one can conceive of—was coined in 1969 in promotional material for a radio documentary on the history of popular music, it is most often attributed to the fictional character Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner), the filmmaker at the center of the most beloved music-focused mockumentary of all time: This Is Spinal Tap. The mockumentary (and “fake” documentary) is integral to documentary studies (Roscoe and Hight; Juhasz and Lerner; Lebow) though the terms remain fluid and imprecisely defined. Roscoe and Hight introduce a model of “mock-documentary” that balances the intention of filmmakers with the interpretative freedom of audiences, and highlight the degree to which “fake” documentaries encourage reflection upon the documentary genre itself. The model is concerned primarily with “the type of relationship which a text constructs with factual discourse” (64). While documentary genres are most often identified in terms of the subject matter with which they engage (e.g., the nature documentary), mockumentary film and television have a more nuanced relationship with its source material, and categorizing the work requires a sensitivity to the filmmaker’s intentions and the audience’s interpretative frame. “Parody mockumentaries” are identified by Roscoe and Hight as those films which “feature the consistent and sustained appropriation of documentary codes and conventions in the creation of a fictional milieu” and “make obvious their fictionality (the audience is expected to appreciate the text’s comic elements)” (68). Humor, here, is founded upon the contrast between the discourse of sobriety central to classical documentary representation and the comic or absurdist subject matter examined by the mockumentary filmmaker. The authors astutely acknowledge that most mockumentary films illustrating a parodic approach “adopt a strong frame of nostalgia in their presentation of fictional representatives of an era or cultural idiom,” and this is especially true of the music mockumentary (68). While parody is the primary form of humor mobilized in the music mockumentary, there are key films Roscoe and Hight would characterize as “critique.” Such mockumentaries move beyond simple parody and engage with larger social and cultural forces by “incorporat[ing] a partial or muted critique of media practices themselves (and especially documentary as a mode of inquiry, investigation and examination)” (70). In this way, the parodic tendencies of one form of mockumentary give way to more satirical examinations of the subject matter and introduce higher degrees of reflexivity as the films “open more space for an audience to recognize the problematic nature of any appropriation of documentary codes and conventions” (70). 258

A Genealogy of the Music Mockumentary

The distinction between parody and satire or critique is important for understanding both the development of the music mockumentary and the divide which separates the strongest work within the genre from its weaker counterparts. Parody involves the imitation of existing work and generally adapts or deforms specific features of that work in service of a comedic premise. Satire, on the other hand, addresses larger aspects of society but may use parody to achieve its goals. Zoë Druick, building upon the work of Hutcheon, Dane, and others, addresses this dynamic within the context of audiovisual practice: Parody is a double-voiced discourse and as such addresses a sophisticated reader or viewer expected to decode multiple texts in dialogic relation. Parody is, then, by nature a self-reflexive textual maneuver. Satire, by contrast, is a commentary not on a text but on the social world. Where parody is a discourse on texts, satire is a discourse on things. (107) While the most successful music mockumentaries balance the parody of particular artists and their portrayal in visual media with the satirical exploration of specific popular music milieus (e.g., fan cultures, the music industry), many are merely parodies of canonical works that lack the satirical depth of their more accomplished progenitors. These lesser films often resort to farce in a manner that completely explodes the nonfictional conceit presented to the audience, thus diminishing the impact that the other comedies are able to achieve by leveraging the anxiety and discomfort of both the fictional characters and the imagined filmmakers when the events of the film are p­ urportedly “real.” With all of this in mind, the music mockumentary is most often effective—most funny—when the humor operates on two complementary levels: at the level of parody engaging the audience’s knowledge of the mockumentary genre, its urtexts (most often This Is Spinal Tap), and the popular music referent; and at the level of satire with the audience’s extra-textual knowledge of popular entertainment more generally, including the worlds of celebrity, industry, and audiences. The commercial imperative of the music mockumentary subgenre reflects that of its nonfiction parent, the music documentary or “rockumentary.” Like rockumentary, all of these films rely on the interest of an already established music audience for their success. Indeed, the two most distinctive traits of the music mockumentary throughout history are the commitment these films have to the genre’s basic formulas established in a corpus of work crystallized within the subgenre by the mid-1980s, and the closeness with which the appearance of these films directly correlates to the commercial profile of the music genre or artist-referent featured in the “fake.” There is a direct correlation between the commercial profile of any given musical genre and the number of “fake” documentaries produced about imaginary figures from that musical milieu. Consequently, the following discussion is organized partly on the basis of genre, as well as Roscoe and Hight’s important distinction between parody and satirical critique. But we begin with the founding texts.

Ancestors If there is a single film that serves as a gateway into the music mockumentary for filmmakers and audiences alike, it is without question This Is Spinal Tap (1984). The film is a titanic balancing act of thoughtful characterization and expert improvisation that simultaneously retraces the history of documentary film and popular music at large. However, Rob Reiner’s classic sits alongside, and actually postdates, two television productions that together serve as the true foundation of the genre. The first, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (Eric Idle and Gary Weis, UK, 1978), is a remarkable re-imagining of the history of popular music and the place of prominence occupied by the Beatles. The second, The Comic Strip Presents… Bad News Tour (Sandy Johnson, UK, 1983), is an intelligent and hilarious critique of the hardscrabble mythology of rock music. Across these three examples, subsequent generations of filmmakers would find both the conceptual and 259

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aesthetic horizons and the basic comedic formulas of the genre laid bare. Both The Rutles and This Is Spinal Tap are the subjects of other chapters in this volume,1 so our discussion of them here will be brief, with more emphasis laid on Bad News. The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a made-for-television film co-produced by NBC and BBC Two, effectively introduced the world to the music mockumentary as a fully formed subgenre of film comedy. The story of the imaginary Rutles is presented as a hosted television documentary examining the career and explosive popularity of a band that pre-dates the Beatles yet mirrors their career in comically precise ways. Through faux-archival footage, talking-head interviews and stage performances, the filmmakers create a parallel world in which four young men from Rutland (England’s smallest county) chart a course for the young lads from Liverpool, but then disappear from pop history. The film contains sequences wherein the Beatles’ iconic television appearances and on-screen performances are faithfully recreated and then fully parodied; the level at which myriad Beatles references are made is microscopic, with visual iconography, lyrical allusions, and particular production techniques, all brought into the realm of the Rutles in utterly convincing and often hilarious ways. Bad News Tour (Sandy Johnson, UK, 1983), produced as an episode of the sketch comedy series The Comic Strip Presents … (Channel 4, Season 1, Episode 4), departs from the classical compilation style mocked by All You Need Is Cash and adopts a hybrid observational-participatory style (often referred to as cinéma vérité) in its chronicle of a metal band’s attempts to create and establish a mythology with little in the way of discernible musical talent, a seeming disadvantage further exacerbated by the highly dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics of the group. The response to the program was such that, like the Rutles before them, the fictional band, Bad News, became real-world performers; and structurally, stylistically, and thematically, Bad News Tour appears to have been a direct influence upon This Is Spinal Tap, though the films were in production concurrently—the resemblance between these two films and their influence on rock music and culture is so striking that contemporary audiences would likely be confused as to which film came first. The sequel, More Bad News (The Comic Strip Presents …, Series 3, Episode 17, Channel 4, 1988, directed by Adrian Edmondson), tracks the band’s reunion after a spectacular collapse several years earlier. It follows more closely the conventions and iconography of the rockumentary genre with such well-established rock-doc elements as the recording studio, contract negotiations, the production of a music video, internecine disagreements, and a “where are they now” framing device that re-introduces the main cast. A degree of self-reflexivity, missing from the first film, is present here and is very effective in demonstrating the music mockumentary’s awareness of itself as a genre. The film culminates with the real-world performance of Bad News at the Monsters of Rock Festival at Castle Donnington in August 1986 alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Def Leppard, Motörhead, and Warlock. In many ways, More Bad News is both a satire of the ­rockumentary genre upon which all of this work is based and a direct response to the audience expectations established by This Is Spinal Tap. For many audiences and critics, the music mockumentary is Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy classic This Is Spinal Tap. The influence of the film is so profound that f