Music, Humor, and Politics

by Mark English

P.D.Q. Bach was the youngest and oddest of J.S. Bach’s many children. His best known work is probably the dramatic oratorio, Oedipus Tex, featuring the “O.K. Chorale.” Another of his works is the Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons. Peter Schickele, Professor of Musicology and Musical Pathology at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, who rediscovered P.D.Q. Bach, also invented a range of unusual instruments to perform his works, like the “dill piccolo” for playing sour notes and the “tromboon” (“a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, having all the disadvantages of both”). He also invented the proctophone, a latex glove attached to a mouthpiece (and “the less said about it, the better”). “The überklavier, or super piano – with a 15 octave keyboard ranging from sounds that only dogs can hear to sounds that only whales can make – was invented in 1797 by Klarck Känt, a Munich piano maker…” [1] P.D.Q. Bach wrote a work for this instrument (The Trance and Dental Etudes).

Peter Schickele was one of a string of 20th-century musicians/composers/performers who made a living out of making (or trying to make) music funny. Maybe you really have to know the language to appreciate it, but I’ve never been attracted to musical parodies. For me they fall as flat as Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. It got to the end and I was still waiting for the surprise.

Musical jokes and novelties remind me of slapstick or physical comedy. It has its place; it can be done well. But it’s not really something I am drawn to.

The only piece I can think of that is even remotely related to this sort of thing and which I like is Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But this is a serious work which just happens to incorporate cryptic musical references to the composer’s friends. As Elgar put it himself in a program note: “This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness…” I sympathize with Elgar here, being prone to a similar pattern of thinking – though in my case the seriousness is usually just a way station on the road to something darker.

Songs can be funny, yes. But it’s the words that are funny. Like many of Dave Frishberg’s lyrics: “I’m hip” for example: “I’m hip, I’m no square, I’m alert, I’m awake, I’m aware… I dig, I’m in step. When it was hip to be hep, I was hep… I’m too much, I’m a gas, I am anything but middle class…”

Perhaps an even a better song by Frishberg is “Peel me a grape”: “Pop me a cork, French me a fry, crack me a nut… keep standing by… Show me you love me, kid glove me… Never out-think me, just mink me; polar bear rug me, don’t bug me”, with the chorus, “I’m getting hungry, peel me a grape.” Dated and contentious in certain ways – and yet, I think this woman still exists. I know she does.

I want to change gear here and move into slightly different territory, which may be contentious in an entirely different kind of way. I’m not tall but console myself that I would be well above average height … if I were a woman. Perhaps one of the reasons I was once attracted to Formula One racing (which I talked about recently) was that the drivers generally – and unlike most professional sportsmen – are not on the tall side. (Taller drivers have a lot of trouble keeping their weight to acceptable levels.) All this is by way of introduction to a song by Randy Newman which is not about motor racing but it is about height. There are not many songs about height, when you come to think about it.

The song, “Short people,” is interesting for a number of reasons. [2]  First of all, it would never have been released in the current super-sensitive climate. Though some say it’s a satire, I think it’s just meant to be silly, funny and provocative. The most clearly satirical bit is a soppy, mock-sympathetic interlude which goes against most of what the song is saying and is a parody of sentimental, consciousness-raising songs (“Short people are just the same as you and I…”). The bulk of the song I would characterize as deliberately provocative and mischievous. Short people have “no reason to live.” You’ve got to pick them up to say “hello.” “They’ve got little hands, little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies. They’ve got little noses, tiny little teeth, they wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet… They’ve got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds. They’re gonna get you every time.” Call it satire if you like. I wouldn’t.

Funny and nasty often go together, but Bob Dylan sometimes did the nasty without the funny. From “Positively 4th Street”: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes and just for that one moment I could be you. Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes – you’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Dylan’s universe is a very different one from that of the older tradition of songwriting. His wittiness, his particular poetry, has a very different character.

I have been trying to steer clear of politics, but it keeps creeping in. As I have noted in a previous piece, rock and roll as a form of music can be seen as political even when the songs have no actual political content. [3]

Many older songs were not political (or at least considered political) when they were written, but have become so. Like “Peel me a grape,” which may be descriptive of a certain continuing reality but will probably offend many feminists. It will also anger animal rights advocates due to the references to mink coats and polar bear rugs. Frishberg certainly didn’t do things by halves.

Randy Newman’s “Short people” is clearly a very different kind of song. It was meant to provoke, as I said, but not in a political way. In today’s political climate it becomes political however. In fact, just about every damned thing becomes political in today’s social and political climate.

At any rate, “Short people” will certainly be confronting to many millennials and to the promoters of a culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings. In this respect, like the Frishberg pieces, it reflects a world that no longer exists.

With Bob Dylan, of course, the politics is often not only well and truly baked into his work but central to what he is saying. Sometimes this works well, sometimes not.

Take the case of the civil rights anthem “Hurricane,” a song that purports to be about the black middleweight boxer Rubin (“Hurricane”) Carter who was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars for a triple murder, which the songwriter was convinced he didn’t commit. Dylan has been widely accused of exercising “excessive poetic license” in writing this song, and even his biographer, Howard Sounes (a lifelong Dylan fan), expressed serious reservations in this regard. In fact, the song is virtually complete fiction. The character portrayed is nothing like Carter, and the story told has very few points of contact with the actual events it implicitly claims to represent. [4]

At a retrial – prompted in part by the song’s popularity – Carter was reconvicted. Some years later the conviction was controversially overturned by the Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. So much time having elapsed since the murders, authorities decided not to prosecute for a third time. [5]

Politics as a subject of discussion is naturally divisive. It’s supposed to be that way. If it weren’t, then we wouldn’t need actual politics and would be living in a Rousseauian or post-revolutionary Marxian paradise.

What’s more surprising is just how divisive musical discussion can be. Tastes differ not just along generational lines, but according to upbringing, personality and temperament. And this is quite apart from the politics which, as I say, has a tendency to creep into musical discussion even when you try – either out of courtesy or cowardice – to keep it out.



27 thoughts on “Music, Humor, and Politics

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  1. Interesting topic as usual Mark-

    I think humor works best when we take the set-up seriously, and then the punch line reveals what we took seriously to be false. Even better if it gives us a new way to look at the thing. I like Frishberg, but when it comes to musical humor my fav is Mose Allison.

  2. Very interesting subject I’d like to think more about. I would also like to ask your opinion of Victor Borge, one of my favorites since childhood, or the great Spike Jones.

    As to the politics – yes the relationship between politics and music is problematic, and worth a separate discussion. However, this might be blamed on the English, who started the tradition of the political fight song, as in the 17th Century’s “Diggers’ Song:”

    ‘Gainst lawyers and ‘gainst priests, stand up now, stand up now,
    ‘Gainst lawyers and ‘gainst Priests, stand up now.
    For tyrants are they both even flat against their oath,
    To grant us they are loath free meat and drink and cloth.
    Stand up now, Diggers all.

    Or perhaps blame Beethoven for “Wellington’s Victory?” (Not his best work, though….)

  3. I am a pretty big Borge fan myself, and my wife’s father was a Borscht Belt style performer, back in the 60’s and 70’s, who did a kind of musical comedy act that involved the piano, humorous songs, and jokes.

    And then, of course, there are the musical comedies. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”; “Little Shop of Horrors”; “Spamalot”; “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” All of them wonderful.

    So, I too wonder about the scope of Mark’s like/dislike of musical comedy. Is it that music and comedy don’t really mix? Or is it just that Mark has a poor sense of humor? Yes, I know, taste in comedy and music is subjective. But if it’s so subjective as to prohibit any sort of discussion or debate, then the interest in reading about it becomes unobvious.

  4. Though as his excellent “Zen Master” essay shows, Mark can be a top-notch humor writer himself, so I suspect his feelings about comedy and music will turn out to be more complex.

  5. Mark,

    I enjoyed, though I’m not quite sure we’re actually in a “current super-sensitive climate”, I’m still thinking on it.

    “But it’s the words…”

    Yes, the words. Two other songs came to mind, Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons In The Park, and more political for me but probably less funny too, Alan Price’s Poor People.

    Poisoning Pigeons

    Poor People

  6. Mark’s comments about Peter Schickele got my back up! I recall listening to Schickele Mix where he demonstrates the Modernist use of ostinato, then after a few minutes starts singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” over the top which of course worked perfectly (I guess also a historical allusion to Mozart).

    It also made me think more about “pure” musical humour, as opposed to that that works because of cultural associations or lyrics.,%20Haydn,%20Sterne%20and%20Musical%20Irony.pdf

    To Haydn’s contemporaneous critics, the effect of “witty” and “humorous” devices was more than merely local. Within a broader aesthetic context, these techniques were perceived to undermine the traditional premise of aesthetic illusion, thereby creating a sense of ironic distance between the work and the listener.

    I think this gets to the heart of it. The main pure effect possible is the doubling or undercutting of emotional states provided by eg playing sad music quickly, or changing key. While David Byrne does the gloomy lyrics over upbeat tunes, he does have a less-than-upbeat vocal quality too. Similarly, if I think about “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”, the irony involves the lyrics, but also the emotional tone of the speakers sampled eg “The Jezebel Spirit”).

  7. Seth

    “I like Frishberg, but when it comes to musical humor my fav is Mose Allison.”

    Not familiar with but just listened to some Mose Allison. Interesting that I like it straight off. No need to work at it. (We discussed this on another thread.) Though maybe I (and most of us) are already sufficiently familiar with his musical language (blues, etc.). In terms of the lyrics, his laconic style and manner of delivery is unique. Very cool.

  8. ejwinner

    I am familiar with some of Victor Borge’s work. What I have seen/heard is great. But it was verbal humor mainly. Doesn’t he keep getting distracted away from the music? And I suspect this is what most people want: funny talk.

    Music and humor – and music and politics – can be approached in many different ways of course. One approach that comes to mind would focus on the Jewish-American tradition, which (surprisingly perhaps) is not all that political as a rule. I’m thinking of all those comedians (and musicians) I grew up listening to or watching on TV. Many were British, but many were American who honed their skills in the Borscht Belt.

    On the whole, music played very much a subsidiary role in my experience. The ‘comic song’, for example, was in decline. It’s high-point in terms of popularity seems to have been mid-century or earlier. And successful examples that occurred later were often satirical send ups of other kinds of song. (Like the sentimental section of ‘Short people’ or ‘Always look on the bright side of life/death’.)

  9. Dan

    Sometimes I think we are fated to clash. I remember criticizing surprise parties in a comment once, and you came in and revealed that you had just organized one for your mother’s birthday (I think it was). And now I (appear to) disparage a certain strand of 20th-century humor and it turns out that your father-in-law was part of it! Sorry about that. Perhaps we should stick to safe topics like rock and roll, religion or the scope and nature of philosophy. 🙂

    “So, I too wonder about the scope of Mark’s like/dislike of musical comedy. Is it that music and comedy don’t really mix? Or is it just that Mark has a poor sense of humor?”

    Well musical comedy as a genre is not something I talked about. But I have to say I tend to prefer a good (non-musical) romantic comedy which I can usually more easily ‘believe’ (or half-believe).

    ‘As Good as It Gets’ I could *totally* believe. I loved the restaurant scene (the ‘house dress’ line) and the way Jack Nicholson lined up all those cds for the drive south (or wherever it was).

    But I recognize the virtues of other forms and have enjoyed (and ‘believed’) musical comedies also.

  10. David

    Sorry I got your back up (as I obviously did Dan Kaufman’s also), but it just goes to show, as I said in the piece, how (surprisingly) fraught these sorts of topics can be.

    I guess I was exaggerating a bit there but I was really just noting that my own sense of humor is biased towards language-based (and so more culture-specific) humor. And, as I hinted, my own lack of technical musical knowledge and training may be playing into this. I always saw purely musical humor as primarily a ‘musician’s’ thing.

  11. Marc

    Tom Lehrer I love also. That song about STDs, ‘I got it from Agnes’ (or Sally in earlier versions) I especially like. (Pre-AIDS, of course.) The pigeon song is great. Thanks.

    Early Lindsay Anderson is a bit radical for me. I found his earlier movie ‘if…’ interesting, but the politics is not my politics. Actually one of my all-time favorite movies was directed by him: ‘In Celebration’ (based on a play by David Storey).

  12. Mark: Not at all. I should have used an emoticon. I was not being entirely serious.

    I like the essay very much. Indeed, I’ve liked this entire recent cluster of essays quite a bit, including the one about rock and roll. Disagreement and even aggravation with a thesis does not mean I do not enjoy the actual piece itself.

    As for Borge, yes, some of it is verbal, but what’s amazing is that some of it is *purely* musical — i.e. not funny because of song lyrics, but because of the way he plays the music itself. In the clip above, he begins playing something that is brisk but off-sounding in some way, when suddenly, he turns the sheet music upside down and begins playing again, and you realize that it was the William Tell Overture.

    Yes, my father-in law was a Borscht Belt style musical comic performer. You mention this style in one of your answers above, but I couldn’t tell whether you liked it or not.

  13. “Yes, my father-in law was a Borscht Belt style musical comic performer. You mention this style in one of your answers above, but I couldn’t tell whether you liked it or not.”

    My own comic tastes were largely defined by American performers (and writers and directors), many of whom I see in a list (‘Comedic legacy’) incorporated into the Wikipedia article on the Borscht Belt.

  14. Hi Mark, first, apologies for not replying to your earlier piece on sports commentators. I’ve been out with an illness and some other issues. I did read it and it put that subject in a light I hadn’t considered before.

    This was also well done. When I was young I reacted pretty badly to the Randy Newman song because, at the time, I was short and got picked on for it. As in people actually sang the song to pick on me. I grew out of that. I suppose I don’t mind offensive songs, even that one, but artists should consider someone will take something like that and use it.

    While it might get made today, I wouldn’t expect it to get the airplay it did back then.

    Musical comedy is tough to get right. Then again comedy is tough to get right.

    To the list of musicals that Dan gave, I’d have to add: Spinal Tap, Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Producers, South Park (Bigger, Longer, Uncut), and Cannibal the Musical wasn’t too bad either.

    Outside of musicals. one of the earliest comedy songs I liked was from Martin Mull:

    But these days there are some people I think are pretty good (at their craft) and press some boundaries… Flight of the Conchords, The Lonely Island (esp. the dick in a box trilogy with Justin Timberlake), Steel Panther

    And maybe something should be said that rap/hiphop are genres that have been very accepting of offensive (mean or other) but very comedic songs… of many that are upfront with this I was surprised to come to appreciate R Kelly (things like Cookie and his Trapped in the Closet hiphoppera)

    One of the consistently better strict music comedians (with a edgy viewpoint you might like) is Tim Minchin:
    (showing piano skills)
    (mixing talking with the music)
    (this one is where he swaps to a 9minute beat poem… to skewer anti-science-y types)

    Oh wait, I forgot the best rock group ever… Tenacious D

  15. Dan,

    “When have we ever been even close to as sensitive as we are now? Trigger warnings? Puppy rooms? Halloween costumes?”

    I understand with your work you’re exposed to more of that than I am, and I’m aware of a lot of it through various media, but at the same time I’ve also seen a lot that seems to support the idea that we’re living in a culture of under-sensitivity.

    But as I said, I’m still thinking on it and unsure about my position.

  16. ” I think we are both: hyper-sensitive and super-callous.”

    I agree and I think that when dichotomies present this way it is a sign of basic dysfunction. It reflects an inability to see what meaningfully connects the ends of any spectrum. Hypersensitivity to one framework projects as insensitivity to all others.

    I think really insightful humor is one way to avoid falling into this trap. We need have enough humility to be able to make fun of our own righteousness.

  17. dbholmes


    “When I was young I reacted pretty badly to the Randy Newman song because, at the time, I was short and got picked on for it. As in people actually sang the song to pick on me. I grew out of that. I suppose I don’t mind offensive songs, even that one, but artists should consider someone will take something like that and use it.”

    It’s a moral question for the individual, I suppose. I would judge it along these (casuistical?) lines: if it’s funny/witty enough, it’s okay. I think this one passes that test. (And remember, the short people are not stupid: “they’re gonna get you every time.”)

    “… I wouldn’t expect it to get the airplay it did back then.”

    I’m sure it wouldn’t!!

    “To the list of musicals that Dan gave, I’d have to add: Spinal Tap, Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Producers, South Park (Bigger, Longer, Uncut), and Cannibal the Musical wasn’t too bad either.”

    It may take me some time to catch up on all these musicals, I’m afraid. 🙂 And some of the other stuff you mentioned.

    That Martin Mull piece is truly excellent: was not aware of it.

    “And maybe something should be said that rap/hiphop are genres that have been very accepting of offensive (mean or other) but very comedic songs…”

    You’re right, it’s often offensive. But I’m not drawn it. (Not my kind of offensive, I guess.)

    I had never listened to Tim Minchin. I see where he’s coming from: some funny bits, but I wouldn’t want to sit through too much of it. Or any comedian actually. Too much humor gets me down. 🙂


  18. I agree with the last three comments (marc, dan, and seth).

    The only difference I might have depends on what Seth means by “projects as insensitivity”. If it is simply “comes off as insensitive” then I would not completely agree. Hypersensitivity (to me) generates, or is generated by, insensitivity.

  19. I think we are on the same page DB. I think a hypersensitive response narrows focus to the perceived irritant/s which generally fit a pretty rigid preconceived framework. It is reflexive and self-feeding. It lessens the potential for any kind of real subtlety of perception. It is fragile, lacks elasticity and resilience. It cannot learn. It see’s itself as sensitive but it is largely insensitive.

  20. Hi Mark, glad you liked the piece by Mull. I have to admit on Minchin that I probably could not stand an entire concert… but I really like listening to a few songs here and there when I’m in the mood.

    I thought of another musical comedy “group” which I liked as a kid and that was the Muppets. Granted it is harder to like everything they did as an adult.

    There was of course the anti-muppet musical Meet the Feebles. If you have a very dark sense of humor then maybe it could be recommended. It was that movie that had me really worried when it was announced Peter Jackson was going to direct Lord of the Rings. I was like… the guy who made Meet the Feebles? This is a joke, right? A very offensive musical comedy.

  21. Seth,

    “… It see’s itself as sensitive but it is largely insensitive”

    Interesting, that’s true, like for hyper-vigilance.

    I was thinking between groups rather than within the same individuals, like maybe today there are some people who are becoming more sensitive while others are becoming less sensitive (as in rude, callous, or abusive), and if that’s true, there could be a common factor driving both and maybe the cause is less a matter of individual behaviors on one side or the other and more the result of fairly recent cultural changes.

  22. Hi marc l.

    I think it is the same phenomenon looked at from different vantage points. In the end it is individuals that display both hyper-sensitivity and hyper-callousness. I think people are more sensitive to some things and less sensitive to others, by the nature of having preferences, and yes by conforming to culture. When we become overly sensitive to any particular idea and react to it as an attack on the integrity of our identity then I think it tends to greatly lessen our capacity to entertain a different vantage point with any degree of charity. So we become insensitive to any ideas that might contradict that sore point idea. A culture that supports the echo chambers most of operate within fuels this phenomenon top-down. Being fueled in both bottom-up and top-down the phenomenon feeds itself through an escalating positive feedback mechanism.

    So I don’t think that some individuals are becoming more sensitive and others more callous. I think individuals are becoming overly sensitive to any idea that violates their world view due to an inability (insensitivity) to receive the idea other than directly through their own sore spots.

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