The subject "Does Humor Belong in Music?" (as jk at least will recognize as the title of a 1986 Frank Zappa album) has been bubbling in my head for a few days, especially as we discussed the grunge of the '90s and its reputation as causing a somewhat joyless time in music.
Humor in (big-tent) rock music is interesting and a little bit controversial. Its use can lead to the artist being seen as a novelty act, rather than as artists to be taken seriously. Of course some artists, such as Weird Al Yankovic, literally made careers with humor, serving as much as comedians as musicians (and in his case brilliant in both roles). Spinal Tap and the Rutles were parody acts. Zappa's implicit answer was, of course, yes: he always put everything into his music, including plenty of humor of all types, from sarcasm to toilet humor.
Elsewhere the humor isn't quite so explicit. kds and I have discussed in the past that one mistake we think critics and fans make about (especially) '80s hard rock and heavy metal is missing its tongue-in-cheek, humorous aspects and instead taking it dead seriously at face value.
All this is to introduce the broad topic of humor in popular music. Do with it as you will.
You already touched on it, but that was a big part of the 1980s glam / hair metal scene. The songs were often silly, the music videos even sillier (usually on purpose).
Heavy metal is often looked at as a dark form of music, but there's plenty of humor. Metallica's Frayed Ends of Sanity begins with the famous Winkie Army chant from The Wizard of Oz. Anthrax released a spoofy rap thrash mash up called I'm the Man.
While not metal, Alice Cooper's brand of macabre shock rock influenced the genre, but it was always very tongue in cheek. Later on, Alice responded to comparisons with Marilyn Manson, saying "where's the humor?"
Queen were often quite cheeky. The one example that comes immediately to mind is the ending of the Live Aid / MLK inspired One Vision ("Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie fried chicken!!!).
Plenty of others that I can't really think of right now, but I think this is a good topic.
I'm having a real hard time putting my thoughts into words, but here's my attempt.
I have mixed feelings about this. While I think humor may belong in music, more often than not it doesn't. It's not an easy thing to translate into music while being funny and leaving no doubt it's there on purpose, and if these 80s hard rock and metal artists were to be used an example, it'd be clear MOST failed at doing this. But the thing is, I would NEVER use them as an example for humor in music for the one reason: I don't think that's what most were aiming for. I don't feel like humor was consciously being employed there, and all the fun, mostly meaningless songs will just look bad in trying to make like it was. Of course this is only my opinion, and does not apply to every one of these musicians/bands.
That means I disagree with both the critics, who keep looking for meaning even in the cases music doesn't need one, and the fans, who keep coming up with explanations and, as if it was necessary, excuses to why the music shouldn't always be taken serious. It's OK for music to just be about what it's singing about: party, girls, RnR etc. It usually doesn't appeal to critics but there's not much we can do about it.
I might have stretched a bit off topic, so going back. Few musicians can pull it off like Zappa for example, who could (and did) release many albums filled with humor and comedy all the way through. It takes a very clever writer for a song to come across as humorous and genuinely comedic. Especially so consistently. But I tend to prefer it on smaller doses, like The Who did. A Quick One and Sell Out are prime examples of it happenning on a couple or more tracks, being nice moments but leaving space for other kinds of songs.
edit: But mind you, even The Who failed at it many times. By Numbers' got some atrocious attempts at humor and mostly fails.
I have to respectfully disagree on your assessment of the 80s hair / glam movement. Granted, there might've been a couple bands here and there that weren't aiming to be funny, maybe Dokken whose videos probably weren't funny on purpose. But, bands like Twisted Sister, Poison, Warrant, etc were definitely in on it.
That is where it's always key to avoid overgeneralizing. What's unintentionally funny are bands who might have truly thought it was serious business to wear leather, metal spikes and studs, makeup, and sing about dragons and hell and girls and whatever. I mean, that's quite possibly a joke on them if they basically reenacted Spinal Tap without themselves seeing the humor. I'm sure there's plenty of that.
And there is a similar amount of unintentional humor in anyone trying to take some image seriously, whether it's Americana or gangsta rap.
But as kds said, at least the kinds of bands we've discussed when we were talking about it are the ones who actually did see the humor. It's not to say it was entirely a joke, either. It's just to say it wasn't presented as life-or-death, "this is important" kind of music. Where do fun and humor meet? I don't know, different places, I guess. But there can be humor without it being a joke.
I think that some of the later metal bands saw the humor in the ridiculousness of singing about demons and wizards, and at the same time pay tribute to the Dios and Priests of the world, while also taking the piss a bit.
One much band, who just happen to my favorite band of the last two decades are Ghost. They wear costumes, and write songs about Satan, death, zombies, etc, but it's really all a big piss take, particularly in concert.
On another end of the spectrum, The Darkness were so over the top that when they broke in the US in 2004, many people actually thought they were a joke band. I guess I can see their point, considering their debut album closes with a power ballad about masturbation.
And, I think part of the reason Ghost and The Darkness were each very divisive bands is that some fans / critics don't like the music they love being made fun of, and other fans / critics just have sticks up their ass.
Priest is another example of a band I think was having fun. Watching Rob Halford in the early '80s...it was like Freddie Mercury level campness, though in different ways.
Priest definitely didn't take themselves very seriously, so that was a bad example on my part.
Although, the lone exception was their two disc 2008 concept album - Nostradamus. After reading the takes on the album from KK Downing and Rob Halford, I feel like the band thought this was going to be some grand artistic moment, but it pretty much wound up being Priest's answer to Music From the Elder.
There's one major artist that I can't believe I forgot to mention. In fact, the humorous nature of some of his most well known songs is why he's sometimes treated more like a novelty artist rather than a talented singer / songwriter.
I'm speaking of one Jimmy Buffett. He scored a major hit with Margaritaville, and many years later guested on Alan Jackson's ode to day drinking - It's Five O Clock Somewhere. In between, songs such as Cheeseburger in Paradise, Fins, Why Don't We Get Drunk, Fruitcakes, Coconut Telegraph, Bank of Bad Habits, all the way up to Cussin' Island from his 2020 album, Buffett's catalog is full of funny fables showing an offbeat sense of humor that fans find enduring while non fans might find off putting (I'm in the former, I used to be the latter).
Speaking of senses of humor and being a little over the top (without taking it TOO seriously), here is a clip from a famous mid-80s Freddie Mercury interview about the costumes of the early years. The video should be cued up properly, but if you have any issues, the relevant part begins around 3:23 and carries on for 45 seconds or so.
The gist of it? "If I had the long hair and painted nails now, I'd look ridiculous! Of course, I looked ridiculous, then, too ... but it worked!"
I can take some (but by no means all) of Zappa's humour, even some of what might be construed as sexist (e.g., "Dinah Moe Hum"). But Beefheart's is much more up my street -- it's more subtle and his wordplay more evocative.
I usually don't like the Zappa music that's self-consciously comedy (dirty or otherwise), and almost always think he piles it on too thick. But I do find VERY funny the "audio verite" of his hometown friends Ronnie and Kenny, or the "from the piano" dialogue. Zappa being Zappa, snippets of these can be found all over the place, from Lumpy Gravy to Civilization Phaze III.
Both are found prominently on my favorite Zappa album, which is also probably the funniest Zappa album, We're Only In It For The Money. Zappa's twin take-downs of both normie American culture and hippie counterculture at the same time is wonderful, a set of perspectives that show how unique Frank was. "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" "Let's Make the Water Turn Black," "The Idiot Bastard Son," "Harry, You're a Beast" ... very funny, one and all.
Beefheart's humor is from a whole other perspective ... or universe! I've always been delighted at the opening line of "Kandy Korn," like an offbeat television jingle: "Well they look so good, I wanna eat 'em!" To its simple melody, it's so silly.
Kapitan: Yes, let's keep it going. If you're not sure which years we've covered, check the first post of the thread: I've edited it to list each year we've touched upon.
Sept 22, 2021 13:10:08 GMT
jk: If no one jumps in soon, I'll go for 1997, which is 13 years back from 2010. Fact is, we haven't had a '90s year yet.
Sept 22, 2021 13:46:32 GMT
Kapitan: No, but we do have a whole '90s thread that covered a lot of that territory. (In fact, that's what inspired the idea, to some extent)
Sept 22, 2021 13:52:28 GMT
Kapitan: Not that I'm opposed to a '90s year, mind you
Sept 22, 2021 13:52:58 GMT
jk: I see where you're coming from, Cap'n. I even did a double-take when looking through 1997 albums and songs (these look familiar!). My next suggestion is that we go back 13 years from 1972 to 1959.
Sept 22, 2021 17:04:34 GMT
jk: OK, it's one of the "doldrum years" but it was crammed full of goodies that even register with folks who weren't born for another 20 years. Of course, if anyone has a better idea, I'm all for it.
Sept 22, 2021 17:05:59 GMT
Kapitan: That would make sense; we also haven't really touched the early to mid 80s, which I'm sure people (mostly) recall. And of course EVERY year in the '60s seems loaded...
Sept 22, 2021 17:06:53 GMT
jk: Yes, the early-ish '80s also came to mind. But let's see who else joins in...
Sept 22, 2021 17:08:04 GMT
Kapitan: So far we've had me, jk, kds, and carllove choosing years. Would love to expand that circle.
Sept 22, 2021 17:13:20 GMT
Kapitan: Which, I guess with four of us so far, is more a square.
Sept 22, 2021 17:13:38 GMT
jk: Ha, yes. Sheriff? B.E.? sockit? The Kid?... We'll see.
Sept 22, 2021 17:16:41 GMT
The Cincinnati Kid: I might come up with something. I love those kind of threads, but am terrible in participating. I still haven't posted anything for 2010.
Sept 22, 2021 19:26:41 GMT
lonelysummer: 1959 is a doldrums year? Hmm....
Sept 22, 2021 19:44:28 GMT
jk: That's what they say... you know, that period from *cough* "the day the music died" to the arrival of the British Invasion. Like you, I couldn't agree less with that notion, hence the inverted commas!
Sept 22, 2021 19:52:30 GMT
Kapitan: I assume he means the stereotype that between early rock and roll and the British Invasion, nothing happened. But that it was in quotes (plus his actual comments) make me think it was an ironic usage.
Sept 22, 2021 19:52:54 GMT
Kapitan: Whoops, near-simultaneous post. But it confirms my suspicion.
Sept 22, 2021 19:53:21 GMT
jk: Great minds and all that!
Sept 22, 2021 19:53:34 GMT
sockit: I would like to showcase the year 1983. That's the year I graduated high school and I was all in on what was current.
Sept 23, 2021 0:07:54 GMT
carllove: I was in College then. Sounds like a good year! Go for it! It’s a group effort!
Sept 23, 2021 4:31:48 GMT
carllove: BTW - I’d be down for 90’s years. I like the years being broken out. Meanwhile we can move to 1983 with sockit’s help. 1972 has ended its interest.
Sept 23, 2021 4:34:56 GMT