Townsman Scott checks in on the elephant in the room.
Before anybody gets upset, let me reassure you: I have no problem with humor in music. My problem is when the humor isn’t funny and/or when it detracts from the overall appeal of the music.
Zappa comes to mind primarily because, more than anyone else, he always made a big deal about the humor he used. And, more often than not, his humor doesn’t do much for me. Let’s face it – the guy was a dork. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make some good music – dorks often do – but his insistence that he was somehow better and smarter than his audience wears on me.
Let me start with his doo-wop fixation. Granted, the lyrics in doo-wop are not epic poetry, but isn’t that obvious to anyone with half a brain? Do we really need some smug bastard to “school” us, over and over and over again? The stuff was made for and marketed to teenagers; it was never supposed to be Shakespeare. For a guy who swore up and down that he loved doo-wop and early rock ‘n’ roll, he sure put a lot of energy into putting it down. It’s no different than, say, Steve Allen’s un-funny bit where he would read rock lyrics out loud.
That’s not to say his humor couldn’t be used to good effect, at least on his ’60s albums. He took some funny swipes at hippies on We’re Only In It For The Money; songs like “Who Needs The Peace Corps?” and “Flower Punk” worked. But once he fired The Mothers, his silliness was allowed to go unchecked. As much as I like The Turtles, the Flo-and-Eddie Zappa records don’t work at all; it’s too much banter and not enough playing. And things went even further downhill after that. Are endless cracks about poodles, dental floss, yellow snow, and blowjobs really amusing?
I’ll make the case that his best albums were mostly instrumental, like Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, and Hot Rats. There’s some interesting, complex music here, and you get to hear him play some tasty guitar. (Not too long after, his guitar playing declined as well; it became endless wanking over pseudo-fusion chord changes played by the best hacks money could buy.)
So, RTH: Can you really make a case that this guy’s smug put-downs changed his music for the better? I look forward to hearing from you.
I’ve had my share of chuckles over some of Zappa’s humor in his music, but too often there’s that “Look at Me, Ma!” quality. Sometimes I’m willing to suspend my own involvement in a song/performance to be dazzled by the humor itself, but most of the time I want to laugh with the music and the performer.
In strict comedy terms, for instance, I’m more willing to drop my personal involvement to be dazzled by some absurd routine by Andy Kaufmann, one that usually seems devoid of human desire, than I am to drop those same concerns to “get into” a prop comic like Carrothead. Zappa’s humor often falls into that prop comic category for me.
When I most appreciate Zappa’s humor is when when he’s merely speaking/being interviewed, although even then he feels the need to bring out the props.