Monday, May 9, 2016

Why Pop Music Can't Be Humorous

Now I know what you are going to say, what about Weird Al Yankovic?

Well, sure, but the reason it is so easy for him to do satires of pop music is because pop music itself has no sense of humour and that is baked in its genes. Pop music, in recent decades at least, presents itself, or poses as, the melodramatic expression of the pain of the artist over lost love, or lost socks or whatever. It is often angry because that is also part of the mix. Pop music, "serious" pop music at least, is part of the progressive meme. It is for and about young people who are progressive, which means they are all caught up in their love-related melodramas, but angry about racism, sexism, speciesism and the difficulty of getting a decent latte in Boise, Idaho.

The roots of pop music are in the blues, which is pretty good at sardonic ("If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.") but not good at humour per se. Pop music, or rather the artists who produce it, take themselves terribly seriously. After all, they are a major cultural industry and are worth millions or billions of dollars. Nothing funny about that. They do not look at themselves and chuckle; they look at themselves and think, "hey, I'm a star!"

The music that really is humorous is Classical music. No, really!! By Classical music in this context I mean music of the Classical Era, from 1750 to about 1820 or so. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Well, mostly Haydn. The reason is that Classical Era music has humour baked in its genes. The Classical style is based on opera buffa, comic opera, with its bumptious, bouncing accompaniments and jocular, festive themes. It's all funny. This is why, whereas a lot of Baroque music is in minor keys (Baroque music, except for that one piece by Marin Marais about a gall-bladder operation, isn't terribly funny), very little Classical Era music is. Out of some fifty symphonies by Mozart only two are in minor keys.

One of Haydn's quartets is even nicknamed "The Joke" because at the end of the last movement he does everything he can to fool the audience into clapping early:

Some of his jokes are for the musicians only, but others are for everyone. Just as a test, I played the last movement of Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony (No. 92) for a friend the other day. She has no particular knowledge of nor interest in Classical music, but she laughed all the way through. This music is so funny it is actually giddy:


Jeph said...

You've got a point here. I'm racking my brain for funny pop stars... all I'm coming up with is The Waitresses and Alien Sex Fiend. Pop stars are trading in "coolness" and I think the relationship of cool to humor is an uneasy one, so it tends to manifest in the broad buffoonish Weird Al style, or in a sort of grim sarcasm.

It takes a bit of coaching and familiarity to hear the humor in classical music, though. Minuets usually bore me a bit, but we did the #103 recently, and the conductor took a little time to explain to us and the audience how very silly the minuet is: it's weird cuckoo motive echoing around the orchestra with slippery modulations to distant keys. Once you know what to listen for, you can hear it everywhere.

Here's a question that nags at me sometimes. Is it harder to be funny in a minor key? Is it harder to express depth of emotion in a major key?

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, and I don't even know those two you mention!

Haydn has written some of the funniest minuets ever. Have a listen to the "alla zingarese" from op. 20 no. 4 in D major. The way he is constantly twisting the meter around I imagine most quartets just collapsing in laughter the first time they try and play it.

I think that some composers can make the minor mode sound funny, can't think of an example offhand. But Beethoven was a master at expressing deep emotion in major keys. Some of his slow movements in C major are just stunning.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I can recall anything funny in a minor key, but dissonance can certainly be funny. Think the end of Ives' Second Symphony, or the second movement of his Piano Trio, 'This Scherzo is a Joke'. Ligeti similarly.

I'm curious, is the natural conclusion of your argument that pop music is therefore more pretentious than classical?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, great examples! There are probably some others in Shostakovich.

I often like to lead my readers in a certain direction, but hold back from stating a firm conclusion. I think it would be an interesting exercise to examine the progress of pop music over the last 100 years. It started out as a very modest trend that was amplified enormously by the growth of the recording industry. All prominent musicians benefitted from the commoditisation of performances. Caruso could only sing one concert a day, but his recordings could sell in the thousands per day. Then Elvis and the Beatles came along and they sold a billion records each. Suddenly pop music was a Big Business. This has just become more pronounced as time goes on. It is a bit like any other business, I think. When the monetary stakes are high, it is less about the art form as such or even the individual vision of the artist and it is more and more about sales. As an artist grows from making a 1000 sales to making 10,000 sales to a million sales, he becomes the CEO or figurehead of a whole industry with dozens or perhaps hundreds of employees, all of whom depend on those sales. It is now a Big Business. Big Businesses cannot afford humour at their expense. It might hurt sales.

This, in a nutshell, is why as pop music became more of an industry and less of an art form, it became less interesting.

Anonymous said...

This is testing my limited music history, but surely big classical commissions were no different? Mozart was offered lots of money for his Requiem, was he not, but this didn't make it any less of an artistic project

Or I'm missing the point. Is your emphasis not on the money but on the mass appeal that's now neccesary in pop music?

On Shostakovich: I find the first movement of his last symphony really quite funny, like an excited child at the playground.

Bryan Townsend said...

According to Friedrich Rochlitz, who interviewed Mozart's widow five years after his death, the amount of the commission for the Requiem was 100 ducats. Assuming these are gold ducats, you can buy a gold ducat coin from the Austrian mint today for $138 US. That would make the commission, even at today's gold prices, $13,800. Frankly, it ain't much! But considering that the ducat was only worth about $2 in 1913, the commission was probably a lot less, even figuring in the difference in buying power. Compare this to a successful pop artist of today like Beyoncé. According to, she makes over $50 million dollars a year, or a million a week!

When you are talking about a $15,000 commission, while the money is nice, that has rather a different kind of influence on what you do than when it is $50 million a year. I think this explains why a lot of pop music is simple melodrama, or inauthentic emotional posturing. That seems to sell pretty well.

The last movement of Shostakovich 15 is the one that keeps quoting the Rossini theme, right? Yes, that is pretty hilarious.

Bryan Townsend said...

I meant, the first movement of Shostakovich 15! The last movement has several non-humorous quotes.

Anonymous said...

Yep, that's the one. Okay, safe to say you've persuaded me. I'm quite amazed that it was so little. Quickly looking up Beethoven's profits from the Congress of Vienna -- surely it must have been substantial, I thought -- and it looks to be nearly as measly.

Bryan Townsend said...

Haydn did very well in terms of his earnings as a composer, but it was probably no more than a typical middle-class income of today. Until very recently, no artists, not even painters, made very much money. The really large amounts going to artists are pretty much a late-20th century and early 21st century phenomenon. It seems very established, but one wonders if it could melt away equally as fast?

David Wentzell said...

For humour in a pop group try Barenaked Ladies. Think "If I had a million dollars ".

Bryan Townsend said...

And they're from Vancouver! If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you a nice K car!!