Smiling feels really good. Laughter feels even better. I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees – except, perhaps, the misanthropic person who left the gratuitously vitriolic comment last week. But he probably just needs a hug.
So we all agree that smiling and laughter are good, and yet, music connoisseurs tend to be unreasonably wary of humor in music. Whenever a song or a musician is deemed funny, he or she is almost immediately taken down an artistic tier. We’re happy to laugh, but we’re not sure we can call it music. After all, music is supposed to be serious, isn’t it?
Last night, I was hanging out with a friend of mine. He’s not only extremely knowledgeable about music, but also has a well-developed sense of personal taste. Imagine my surprise when my friend said that Magic Cyclops isn’t a real musician. For those who might not be aware, Cyclops is a hilarious performance artist whose songs and musical persona simultaneously lampoon and revere rock-n-roll clichés. He pretends to be from Iowa. He pretends to have a British accent. He performs with a backdrop that looks like a public access weather map. He performs songs with names like, “Teen Pregnancy – Don’t Do It” and “Wrath of (Chaka) Khan.”
See? Made you smirk, at least, didn’t it? Well, my buddy’s thesis was that Cyclops is a comedian and karaoke performer (he usually performs with just a microphone and backing tracks from his laptop – and has also hosted karaoke nights for many years), but that he isn’t a musical act. Now, my friend is entitled to his opinion, but I found this suspicious. Why should the fact that something’s funny make it less “musical?” What about Johnny Cash’s version of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue?” What about Weezer’s “Sweater Song?” What about the entire catalog of Loudon Wainwright III?
Oddly enough, this is the same friend who first turned me on to 3OH!3, the overtly humorous and undeniably musical electro-hip-hop act from Boulder. Despite the fact that this duo draws from a diverse musical background, is clearly schooled in generations of rap, and has irresistible beats and flow, 3OH!3 has often been criticized in the hip-hop community for not being “real.” While they certainly have fun with rap and hip-hop tropes and indulge in no small amount of onstage buffoonery, Sean Foreman and Nathaniel Motte are dedicated, passionate and pretty damned funny musicians who simply make the music that they make. And it happens to come out as funny as they are much of the time. When you read the screeds against them on hip-hop boards, it’s almost as if the “heads” are worried that 3OH!3’s humor is somehow being used against them.
Maybe that’s the root of the suspicion of funny music. No one likes to be made fun of, so we don’t want to give humorous music the same merit we give to “serious” music. Or maybe our parochial definitions make us want to separate “comedy” and “music” as separate and distinct art forms. I’m not sure, but I would argue that funny music is still music, and worthy of the same artistic consideration.
In Wim Wenders’ classic 1987 film, Wings of Desire, Peter Falk tries to explain to the angel, Bruno Ganz, the simple joys of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. If smoking is laughing and drinking coffee is listening to music, then Falk’s sums it up perfectly for me:
“To smoke and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.” -- Eryc Eyl