First of all, thanks to everyone who read, commented, and liked my post on civil Christian discourse over the weekend. It was by far the most views we’ve ever had for an article here on the Philistine (not that that bar is super high) and even went mini-viral (by our standards, at least) on Facebook. I was touched not so much by the number but by the positive responses of people who read it. That being said, all this high minded philosophizing has left me a bit sapped. Thankfully David stepped in to lighten the tone a bit with his piece on secondhand board games, which I dare say is the funniest thing ever to grace the pages of this site. Seriously, go read it right now. I thought I would give myself a break from the heavy hitting and do something a little more fun. I do eventually want to complete my trilogy on the state of Christian social commentary today with a case study on the hyper-masculinity trend, but that will have to wait for another day. For now, a Shoulda Been Classic on a truly neglected genius.
Like any red-blooded yet nerdy American boy raised in the 80s/90s, I’ve always had a thing for “Weird Al” Yankovic. Sure, sometimes his songs get a little hoaky and at times even the formula seems a bit stale (pop song of the moment + random musings on unrelated silly subject), but Al is a sure craftsman of infectious pop, and his best songs reach dizzying heights of silly transcendence. He also possesses a level of obsession that appeals to nerds: his exacting quest to get the little details right, both in the songs he copies and the music videos which ape their brand name counterparts (one famous “Weird Al” anecdote: in making the video for “Eat It”, he hired the same street gang MJ used for the “Beat It” video). Plus, the man can write seemingly endless odes to various foods – always a plus.
Many people seem to think “Weird Al” a singularity in the history of music: a parodist who aped popular trends for comic effect. In reality, though, pop music has always had room for court jesters, there to keep the massive egos of rockstars in check. Most up until “Weird Al” have simply fallen through the cracks. Even those whose names endure are usually known for one or two signature songs (see Alan “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda” Sherman). Think about the utter disposability of most pop music (and to be fair, most music generally); so many songs are written and recorded each year that, inevitably, the cultural memory bank fills up its servers and many get left behind. The race to be remembered is even harder for comedy songs, which seem even more lightweight than typical pop fare. Also, most comedy parody songs are not very good. (I will continue to post this clip until each and every one of you has seen every episode of Newsradio ever).
Of all the singer/comedians to fall through the cracks, the one that most deserves rescuing is Tom Lehrer. Oh, you still here his name bandied about here and there, but the man has nowhere near the acclaim he deserves. If people know him at all, their recognition usually centers on his most famous song, “The Elements”, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” which lists all the elements of the periodic table (at least those discovered when Lehrer wrote the song). While “The Elements” is good fun, it hardly provides a good view into the career of one of the sharpest musical satirists to ever live. First off, the song doesn’t contain much comedy beyond the silliness of a man scrambling to fit all this syllables into a crammed space. Second, the song uses the tune of an existing song, an unusual move for Lehrer. One of his distinctives is that he mostly stuck to style parodies and not direct rip offs.
Still, “The Elements” gives one key insight into Lehrer’s world: the connection with Gilbert and Sullivan. What makes Lehrer seem much fresher than his more recent counterparts is his sharp satirical edge, a characteristic he shares with the Victorian operettists. He does not simply marry common styles to silly lyrics, he explores the seedy underbelly of seemingly wholesome styles of music. Most of Lehrer’s best songs take a familiar genre of comfort music (at least, familiar in the 1950s) and turn it on its head, to sarcastic and often dark ends. Lehrer was not just out to write silly songs; he wanted to prod the sleeping dragon of squeaky clean, Eisenhower era America. Take his song “My Home Town”, written in the style of ballads meant to praise the wonders of small town life in America. The song starts off relatively normal, but Lehrer peels back layer after layer of hypocrisy and filth which often did lie beneath the virtuous facade.
No topic was too hot for Lehrer to handle. He wrote several carefree songs about the threat of nuclear war and one mocking that national treasure, the Boy Scouts. He even tackled the very prickly subject of race with one of his finest songs, I Wanna Go Back to Dixie.
Again Lehrer’s genius method asserts itself: he sings a paean to the many wonders of the South, most of which are perfectly legitimate. Then, when you are getting comfortable, he blindsides you with something completely inappropriate (my favorite example is the first: “Old times there are not forgotten/whuppin’ slaves and selling cotton”). If Lehrer takes aim at a consistent target, it is the nostalgia which threatens to overwhelm the narrative of the past (or glorified present). Being a Harvard man (and a mathematician and, let’s face it, a bit of a poindexter), Lehrer was quick to point out the absurdity of the fable of the simple country life. His morbid take on folk songs, “The Irish Ballad” provides the stark narrative of a girl who murders her whole family, set to a rollicking Irish tune and complete with nonsensical chorus. It is a hilarious, spot on takedown of the glorification of simple folk by pretentious rich white people (Tom Lehrer, the original anti-hipster).
Lehrer’s take on the popular love song takes up a whole subsection of his catalog, and provides some of his best work. He seems especially dismissive of the maudlin ballads in which lovers pledge endless devotion to each other. He takes this song style down a few notches with the uproarious “When You Are Old And Gray”, which attempts to provide a more honest love song.
Things get truly strange, though, with “I Hold Your Hand in Mine”, perhaps the most twisted (and one of the mostly darkly comic) of all Lehrer’s songs. Not much to say without spoiling it, so enjoy (and remember, Lehrer was writing in the 50s – talk about ahead of its time):
Thankfully Lehrer was not all savage satire or dark weirdness. He also had plenty of silliness in his songwriting. One of his best silly songs (though still somewhat dark) is “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, a fun little ditty where the title just about says it all.
Like future fellow comedy nerd Yankovic, Lehrer also delved off into very specific, eggheady territory with a few of his songs. The best is his math ballad “Lobachevsky”,which extols the virtues of plagiarism and features one of the few Lehrer bravado singing moments (you’ll know it when you hear it).
Thanks to his razor wit (and his committment to avoid yolking himself to any particular songs) Lehrer feels as fresh today as ever. He will make you laugh, think, maybe even gasp. Isn’t that what good comedy does?
Tom Lehrer also wrote some songs in the 1970s for the kid’s show The Electric Company. They are pretty great. Here’s “Silent E”. (Take THAT, Schoolhouse Rock!).