Does music make you LOL?
Some songs are intented to produce mirth, like Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week” which is funny almost in spite of itself. The humour is wry, the subject matter is actually pretty fucking serious. Then there’s out-and-out funny, like Georges Brassens perennially hilarious “Le Gorille”.
Both of these, though, come from a time when music hall and its French and American equivalents were still in memory, perhaps even still in fading existence. This means that the songs’ writing and presentation is fairly obvious in its intent – it was part of a tradition, even if it was diverging from the main body of that tradition.
As time moves on though, things get more and more meta*, with more and more layers of irony, some intended, some maybe not. I find it difficult not to like early albums by extreme metal bands like Celtic Frost and Venom. Both were masters of stagecraft, and both had singers who sang in English “West Country” accents, like roaring pirates – despite neither band being from the West Country- Celtic Frost were from Zürich, Venom were from Newcastle.
The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap was probably intended as satire, as a skewering of rock pretension. A metal piss-take. For me, though, Spinal Tap is a success because it failed to do that. How could you satirise imagination and a sense of playfulness as expansive as Venom and Celtic Frost had? Their art was in itself largely satirical. Spinal Tap was more like cinema cottoning on to the fact that metal – while dark and dealing in heaviness, also had a genuine sense of humour. You could hardly miss it really.
One of the most meta works I can think of is Frank Zappa’s “Broadway The Hardway”, and in particular the song “Any Kind of Pain”. It’s amazing to think that this wonderful episode of R&B – with its great singing, virtuosic playing, sense of melody close to Todd Rundgrens finest work – is a 100% piss take. Seems a waste of melodic chops somehow. The song’s themes are venality/vapidity on the innocent side of things, and control/cynicism on the other. It’s like Zappa just throws this binary into the air, watches it fly for a bit, then lets it explode into meaning: “she only gets half the blame/ unless we extend her”. At the end of the song, comedy has curdled – and the vapid character is now shrouded in pathos. Like much of Zappa, there is a micro-operatic story going on. Complete fucking genius.
Sometimes the comedy in music comes from juxtaposition. (Note: I hate having to use the word juxaposition, but sometimes you have to.) “Giftwrap Yourself, Slowly!” is a great and funny title by Porn Sword Tobacco from the album New Exclusive Olympic Heights. The title, as an imperative, seems to be about valuing oneself, about realising one’s value in the eyes of a sympathetic (significant) other. But it’s also strongly reminiscent of (even if not referencing) “The Gift” by The Velvet Underground:
He would ship himself parcel post special
delivery. The next day Waldo went to the supermarket
to purchase the necessary equipment. He bought
masking tape, a staple gun and a medium sized
cardboard box, just right for a person of his build.
He judged that with a minimum of jostling he could
ride quite comfortably. A few airholes, some water, a
selection of midnight snacks, and it would probably be
as good as going tourist.
… and we all know how that one ends. In “Giftwrap Yourself, Slowly” the LOL is in the juxtaposition of the neatly crafted phrase of the title – it reads like a billboard in space – with the sombre music of the track itself, like tears in slow motion rain at the start of a Byung-chun Min film.
Porn Sword Tobacco have a lot of funny song names. Other favourites include “Carl Zeiss Driving to Work” which brings to mind Billy Connolly’s joke about prescription windscreens, and “Futuristic Rasta Money” whose three words collide so brilliantly, saying a hell of a lot and nothing at all: another billboard in space. Also “Copyright, The Universe” and the succinct, trenchant two-word novel of a title “Freedom Commercial”. Oh, and finally “I Love Riding My Bicycle” whose prosaic-ness is the funny: it has to be the third part of an unrelated triptych that started with Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France” and Boards of Canada’s “Happy Cycling”.
*Meta – creative work referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre. I use it adjectivally. I don’t know if the dictionary does, and don’t much care. Ha!