And the Jester Sang for the King and Queen
Bex Schwartz

            Where's my fool, ho? I think the world's asleep. - King Lear: Act I, Scene v

When the world is awash in confusion, it sometimes takes a Fool to make sense of it all. A Fool, or a jester, or a stand-up comedian, or a novelty songwriter, uses the guise of humor to cloak his slings and arrows of outrageous mockery. Take King Lear, for example - as any high school student learns, the King's attendants flatter and dissemble, and only the Fool has the balls to speak the truth. Funny songs - parodies, novelty songs, silly jingles - present the truth. "It's funny if it's true" is a cliche, but in most cases it's correct. Funny songwriters, from Randy Newman to Tom Lehrer to Weird Al Yankovic, skewer society's sacred cows by saying the things that everyone else is afraid to say. The truth hurts, but it's more fun to laugh than to cry.

I was raised to appreciate a funny song. The car rides of my formative years were filled with Allen Sherman and Tom Lehrer, Steven Wright and Monty Python albums, "King Tut" and "Chick-a-Boom."* At age eight, my parents took me to Great Adventure to see my very first concert - my two favorite acts - Weird Al Yankovic and the Monkees. My dad knelt down to look me and my little brother in the eyes: "This is a very special concert," he said, "This is only for our family." I believed him. We knew good music, and good music made us laugh.

What is it that makes parodies, funny songs - what people call 'novelty' songs - worthwhile? The attitude. Real songs don't make fun of anything, but funny songs do. Sure, parodists don't write brilliant new melodies, but I love the way they make fun of everything popular. In fourth grade, I was ostracized because I liked the Beatles, because all the girls in my fourth grade class were obsessed with Tiffany. Then Weird Al came out with "I Think I'm a Clone Now," and I didn't care that I was eating lunch by myself - those girls were all gaga over a stupid song that Weird Al had turned into a funny (and, come to think of it, prescient) exploration of the implications of human cloning. Weird Al implicitly suggested "this song is stupid." The stupid girls in my class liked Tiffany; Weird Al gave me the critical perspective to realize they were listening to crap. Anyway, I liked the idea of being a clone better than I liked the idea of being alone with a boy - I thought Al was speaking to me.

The power to mock sometimes has more serious political relevance. When I was a kid, my dad would play songs by folkies like Tom Paxton and Josh White and Phil Ochs. I was singing along to tongue-in-cheek attacks on the status quo like Paxton's "What Did You Learn In School Today?" and Pete Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" as a tot. At age six I was gleefully singing along with Ochs' "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and by age ten I'd joined the Alice's Restaurant revolution. Of course, my parents had to explain all the references like Medger Evers and the D.A.R. and the Group W Bench, but I had a pretty good idea of what was going on just from the tone of mockery. I understood why all those civil rights activists used such funny lyrics - they were making fun of all the stupid people who didn't understand how wrong they were.

I finally started listening to "popular" music somewhere around eighth grade. I abandoned my favorite parodies for the Top 40 mundanity of the radio station Z-100, trying desperately to figure out why my peers liked the crap they showed on MTV. By ninth grade, the "alternative nation" was making it big and everyone was listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the Breeders and the Smashing Pumpkins. For the first time in my life, I liked the same music that everyone else was listening to and I was slightly startled to find myself in such a position. I loved Nirvana, I wore flannel shirts, I dyed my hair purple - I stopped shorting of moving to Seattle, but I was digging the grunge. I didn't realize the absurdity of the existence of a popular "underground;" I thought that grunge was a rebellion against Top 40, didn't realize that when everyone aspires to being a grungy non-conformer it's really just another form of conformity. Finally, Weird Al released "Off the Deep End" with his smash hit, "Smells Like Nirvana" and I realized the ludicrousness of it all.

"Smells Like Nirvana," broke through the murk of my early-adolescent musical confusion. I, and all of my friends, had heralded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as our anthem because the song was presented to us as such. Nirvana was on the cover of Rolling Stone and they'd written the theme song of disaffected youth; if we were to be cool and hip, then we had to be disaffected and therefore the song was for us. However, Weird Al's parody showed that the song itself was downright silly - his lyric "It's hard to bargle nargle zowth with all these marbles in my mouth" makes nearly as much sense as the original words, and his video showed us not to take the youth-rebellion-thing too seriously. Nirvana gave us anarchist cheerleaders; Weird Al gave them hairy underarms and stuck Dick Van Patten in the background for good measure. Grunge was great, but someone had to point out how ridiculous the mass-marketed "rebellion" was it took a parodist, not a theorist or academic, to show the truth.

* "Chick-a-Boom" is my mother's all-time favorite song in the entire world. If there's anyone out there in the same circumstance, we've got to talk. We have much to discuss.

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April 2002

jay's head