Does humor belong in music? Emphatically, I say Yes. Bear in mind, I’m among the RTH contingent that not only considers Randy Newman one of the Greats, but also he believes that through humor he gets to the kind of truths that Serious-Minded Rockers couldn’t even come close to grazing. If you’re not down with Newman – he is an acquired taste – you should know I feel the same about The Kinks.
Remember, when I mean humor in music, I don’t mean novelty songs. The key isn’t so much making jokes as it is comic timing. And in fact, I’d argue many of the Accepted Greats of Rock possess this gift: Dylan, The Beatles, The Who, The Stones. (“Baby better come back, maybe next week/’Cause you see I’m on a losing streak” is down to comic timing.)
I lean, then, towards humor that is expressed conversationally in music. So, the elephant in the room, Frank Zappa, doesn’t really register for me. His comic timing doesn’t strike me as tuned to the rhythms of speech as much as the rhythms of the hyperactive xylophone part or crazy time signature.
3 Responses to “Oats on Humor in Rock”
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Of course humor belongs in music. Any emotion or attitude that’s part of life has a place in music.
That said, I suppose the discussion really concerns how humor works in music, and when it does or doesn’t feel effective.
I don’t hate all of Zappa’s humor, for instance, I just think he relies on the same routines too often and does them too much. It’s therefore not Zappa’s humor, as such, that’s the problem automatically, although the more sophomoric “goofy guy” it gets, the less I’m interested. The problem is his tendency to overdo the humor even when it’s good–and it’s this tendency to overdo it that becomes really extreme in some of the late records and makes them almost unlistenable for me.
Bravo, Oats! I think Newman (as opposed to Zappa) has a wide variety of humorous riffs that he uses. Just on Good Old Boys there are shaggy dog stories (“Naked Man”), self-lacerating character studies (“Guilty), and sly narratives (“Rollin'”).
And as you said, Newman is a genius when it comes to showing how people deal with tense situations, how it is the unexpected moments of humor that are the most powerful and truthful. One need look no further than “Louisiana 1927,” where the President makes a an awful, yet funny comment, to his aide about the wreckage.
I’m with Mark on Zappa. One way to categorize his humor is that if the whole joke, and song, can be summed up in the title, it doesn’t work for me. Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow, of course, and Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?, and so on, are elaborate support structures for not much humor or anything else. But from the same record as Yellow Snow is Uncle Remus, which is intelligent, political, and funny, as well as beautiful songwriting such as Zappa rarely allowed himself. Also he had a whole side of Dada-ist humor which came out at odd times, even in his soloing, which wasn’t pratfall-funny, but was often absurd. I did get fonder of the noodly marimba parts over the years, partly as a result of liking any marimba parts somewhat right off the bat. More on the rest of humor in music anon…