Music you laugh at or music you laugh with?

by Divya Gunasekaran | 11/30/07 2:17am

Sometimes when you listen to music, you've just got to laugh.

Like when Britney Spears declares, "It's Britney, bitch" in the opening line of her latest hit "Gimme More," it's impossible not to crack a smile. Oh, Britney, you know you have no right to talk like that.

Or when Good Charlotte performs as if they're the voice of our generation, it's just downright laughable.

Or when Paris Hilton sings. Enough said.

However, those are instances of unintentional humor. Other artists make a point of evoking laughs through their music. Music is a great medium for messages of all kinds, comedy included, which is one of the reasons why more and more comedians use music in their acts (the other reason being that it's the closest they'll come to achieving their pubescent dreams of becoming rock stars, a dream I will probably never let go of). Yet, there's a thin line dividing musicians and comedians with some performers nimbly jumping back and forth between the divide. So what makes one song just a bit in a comedy act and another song a work of music with humor in it?

The difference between musically-inclined comedians and sharp-tongued artists doesn't seem to have much to do with music. Both types of performers make their own original compositions and typically play the instruments themselves. The disparity in musical ability appears negligible in many instances.

The real difference lies in the intent behind the music. I think Dick Valentine, Electric Six's lead singer, said it best when talking about his own humorous songs: "These are the songs that we naturally gravitate towards."

While comedians set jokes to music and aim first and foremost for the funny bone, music artists just create pieces that naturally come to them; luckily for us, these pieces happen to be delightfully amusing.

When I first listened to Tenacious D, I thought they were a funny gag rather than a witty musical duo. Then I learned that they were the greatest band on earth and the creators of the best song in the world (if only they could remember it), and I saw them in a new light -- as ingenious artists with a knack for writing songs about absurd subjects with uproariously funny lyrics. The change in my perception of the band was brought on by an understanding of the duo and their music. Sure, their songs are funny, but they aren't just fodder for punch lines. Critics may not consider their songs as legitimate pieces of music, but I don't think that comical song subjects should disqualify them as musicians. I'd take a clever song referencing Satan, poop or mushrooms over a lovesick ballad saturated with sentimental cliches any day. It's clear that Jack Black and Kyle Gass were born to rock, and rock they do.

On the other hand, an artist like Weird Al Yankovic falls more in the category of comedian. Although Weird Al also creates original songs in addition to parodies of popular songs, some of which I prefer to the originals (am I the only one who relates more to "Amish Paradise" than Coolio's original "Gangsta's Paradise"?), he clearly uses music to make people laugh. His pairing of parodies with different costumes and amusing video clips in his live performances emphasize comedy rather than music.

Whether it's Tenacious D or Weird Al, I'm grateful for the humor in music. The difference may not be great, but it's there and worth addressing. It brings up the larger question of what qualifies as music ... but we'll save that one for a rainy day.