The Song Remains Inane

Washington City Paper | January 6, 2006
The small things disappear first, and in their absence the future is revealed. You’re downlohe small things disappear first, and in their absence the future is revealed. You’re downloading yesterday’s My Name Is Earl onto your U2-branded iPod, say, when suddenly your digital reverie is interrupted by a realization: Something’s missing.

Where in this always-on, P2P, wirelessly instant-messaged existence is that great Harry Potter parody song? Or even a lousy one? Where, come to think of it, are the musical mockeries of Mariah, Fiddy, and Jeezy? Did we all forget to add “novelty tunes” to the RSS feed? That Chronic—WHUT?!—cles of Narnia video might do, if it had as much fun with Aslan as it does with the idea of white guys rapping. And you can’t exactly hear it on the radio.

The Eagles warned us of the dangers of “everything, all the time,” only to be castigated by Mojo Nixon in “Don Henley Must Die.” But the Eagles are back together, smugly raking in millions on the oldies circuit. And Nixon? Well, even Deborah Gibson wouldn’t bear the guy’s two-headed love child these days. Pop culture keeps coming at us at 52x speed, with only “Weird Al” Yankovic still tilting at its windmills. And if ever a culture deserved to feel the polyphonic sting of a fine-tuned accordion—or to share a gentle laugh with anthropomorphic chipmunks—it is America 2005 Inc.

Yet what should be a golden age of novelty songs is lackluster indeed. There was a golden age, roughly the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s chronicled in a book wisely titled The Golden Age of Novelty Songs. While charting the history of wacky records, author Steve Otfinoski posits that “In the last sixty years there have been only four masters of the form: Spike Jones in the ’40s, Stan Freberg in the ’50s, Allan Sherman in the ’60s, and Weird Al Yankovic in the ’80s.” The author notably dismisses the ’70s, snidely saying that the decade “was its own parody.” Tell that to Ray Stevens (“The Streak,” 1974), C.W. McCall (“Convoy,” 1975), and Steve Martin (“King Tut,” 1978).

Still, he has a point. Otfinoski’s claim that novelty’s heyday has passed is undeniable, regardless of when the genre first faltered. The fact that nobody approached for this article could agree on either when or what the last big novelty hit was is telling. And that was going by a pretty loose definition of “novelty hit”: an intentionally humorous and/or strange song that sells a boatload because it captures or critiques a moment in popular culture—or because, bizarrely, it becomes its own moment in popular culture. “Pac-Man Fever” (1982, No. 9 on the Billboard chart) is a good example; so is “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” (1966, No. 3). Jimmy Buffett’s parodying himself in a duet with Alan Jackson (on 2003’s country No. 1 “Five O’Clock Somewhere”) isn’t novelty; it’s clever cross-promotion.

Some cite Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” which reached No. 13 in 2000, as an example of a recent novelty hit, and it might be: Its tongue was at least somewhat in cheek, and its mind was in another dimension. But other candidates come up short. As Patrick Milligan , an executive with novelty purveyor Rhino Records, told Grammy magazine last year, “I don’t think…‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ was meant to be a novelty song, but it kind of became one because people thought it was funny or kooky.”

Next week, Rhino is releasing something called TBS Tunes: Fun Tracks Wisecracks, a compilation from television’s “very funny” network. Included are such not-quite-novelty hits as Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio” and Devo’s “Whip It.” Humorous, yes. Weird, sure. But earnest, too, and momentarily pop-cultural mostly by virtue of their videos. In other words: Where have all the purple people eaters gone?

The godfather of novelty tunes is unquestionably Dr. Demento, whose syndicated radio program of “mad music and crazy comedy” has aired for more than 30 years. Having written the introduction to Golden Age, the Lakewood, Calif., resident also known as Barry Hansen concurs with Otfinoski, suggesting that the novelty record’s disappearance may have started “back in the late ’60s, when rock started to get more serious and the emphasis came to be on albums instead of singles.”

Demento notes that morning radio shows now make up topical parody songs, but “there is generally little attempt to try to sell those things commercially. Somebody might make up a new song about Sylvester Stallone making another Rocky movie, to pick something out of the news, and maybe it will get played on Howard Stern and Bob & Tom a few times, but then it will be forgotten. Maybe deservedly. But in other times, that would have been a record that might have had a chance to sell some copies.”

“Most stations,” he adds, “seemed to come to the conclusion sometime around, oh, the mid-’80s, that novelty songs—even the real good ones—should only be played in the morning.” A representative of Billboard, who wished to remain anonymous, explains the ramifications: “In the ’80s, stations would have to tell us what their most played records were. There was no automatic tracking like there is now. So if a song was played as a one-off on a morning show even two or three times, the program director…wouldn’t count that their station was playing it.” According to another anonymous ratings-industry type, “If DJs take it upon themselves to do ‘Mr. Jaws Part 4,’ we’re not gonna know what that is unless they’ve sent that to us. Most of the time, those things are unique to the particular radio station.”

Since 1991, all commercially released songs have been “tagged” electronically by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems. Its parent company, the Netherlands-based VNU, also owns Billboard. But better playlist tracking hasn’t helped novelty songs boost their numbers. Says the Billboard source: “Even if they were registered, counted up against songs that were being played five to 10 times a day, they wouldn’t amount to much anyway.”

Of course, people continue to make novelty music. Arlington a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook even managed to score what today might constitute a novelty “hit” with its rude 2002 anthem “Enormous Penis.” The song was picked up by the Bob & Tom Show, which broadcasts out of Indianapolis and is syndicated in the South and Midwest. Demento also took note. And then…that was it, though the group could count on even this small notoriety to get bookings.

“In its own way,” says “Penis” author Paul Sabourin, “it sustained the last two years of Da Vinci’s existence.” Sabourin and fellow Notebooker Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo now perform as the “satirical/comedy acoustic duo” Paul and Storm. They have continued their novelty success with Demento Funny Five hits such as “Epithets” and “Opening Band.”

But the world Paul and Storm find themselves touring offers fewer opportunities than Allan Sherman had in the ’60s, when the portly parodist could sing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” on a different television show each week for a month. Even in the ’80s, “Weird Al” had the national platform of MTV, which approximated “music television” most of the time.

Demento notes that when “The Chipmunk Song” was released, in 1958, “Bam! Seven million copies out the door. That got played everywhere on the radio, and the whole nation experienced that at once, for better or for worse.” By the late ’70s, he notes, “ ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ took, oh, a decade. It took at least 10 years to make the impact that it did.” Today, “there’s so many more channels of input for people,” says Sabourin. “It’s tougher for anything to get traction. I mean, a successful television show isn’t what it used to be 20 years ago. Because instead of three networks, PBS, and some fuzzy UHF channels, we have 100 to 500 channels.…And now radio has become so corporatized that it’s no longer about what would be cool or interesting, it’s all about the bottom line.

“And the novelty song,” he adds, “is not much about the bottom line. There’s certainly a very strong core of fan base for novelty songs, but it is very highly specialized. Or as Spinal Tap would say, its appeal has become more selective.”

Just how selective is exemplified by Meatus Murder, a one-man band from New York that recently released its first album, More Songs About Balling and Food. The band name references the Smiths, the album title Talking Heads. The cover art parodies Belle and Sebastian. The songs take on B&S as well as such music-nerd touchstones as Wire and Orange Juice. It was probably inevitable that Balling and Food found its way onto one of Pitchfork’s hipster-authored best-of-2005 lists, but that’s not exactly the Hot 100—or even the Hot 1,000.

It’s also probably inevitable that an indie geek would feel compelled to make fun of music only he and his friends care about—after all, that’s what fanboys do. The act reinforces one’s status as an insider, even among other insiders. Demento’s own show charts this impulse. Originally, in addition to legitimate novelty hits, its play list included old 78s and obscurities from Demento’s huge collection. After a college kid named Yankovic sent in a homemade tape in 1976, got it played, and repeated this process until he had a record contract, the show became increasingly fanboy-generated. Now, laptop jockeys such as Whimsical Will and the Great Luke Ski chop up their iTunes and TiVo downloads in their bedrooms and remix them into wacky raps along the lines of “Hey Phantom Menace!” and “Stealing Like a Hobbit.” Today, says Demento, his younger listeners “seem to love these generally hiphoppy parodies based on movies and TV shows.”

Of all the would-be “Weird Al”s, probably the most successful in terms of Demento airplay is Luke Sienkowski, aka the Great Luke Ski, who’s made it on the show 101 times since 2002. Sienkowski has also created an audio manifesto, the 15-minute MP3 “History of Dementia.” Sampling pretty much every significant novelty number since Spike Jones’ “Der Führer’s Face,” the piece ends with a cavalcade of dozens of novelty hits that might have been: “Bulbous Bouffant,” “Carrot Juice Is Murder,” “The Devil Went to Jamaica,” “Nobody Loves the Company Band,” “Viagra in the Water,” and, of course, “Enormous Penis.”

The professorial narrator intones, “With nowhere left to be heard, the comedians retreated, never to be heard among the mass populace again.” Then he reverses course and calls for an uprising: “Are you ready for the Dementia Revolution?”

Hmmm, lemme check with Clear Channel.

Yes, it’s easy to blame Clear Channel, to say that the conglomerate that claims title to our airwaves is in some part merely giving an uncurious public what it keeps on buying. But take a look at television, where the parodic Daily Show goes as deep inside as any inside-the-Beltway shoutfest. During the most recent presidential election, it drew more 18-to-34-year-old viewers than its non-fake-news counterparts.

In a culture that so willingly embraces pop-cultural comedy, why no love for Steve Goodie’s “Walk on the Wonka Side”? Again, look at television: Before he was booted off of American Idol, off-key warbler William Hung enjoyed almost 10 times as many viewers as Jon Stewart. And common to our attraction to both—and, indeed, to most of today’s nonfictional TV—is a love for irony-draped sneering. The “Curly Shuffle” was silly. Hung singing “Rocket Man” was just sad. But it’s the latter who got his sudden-death-overtime 15 minutes of fame on Fox while the Great Luke Ski has had to content himself with posting rants on his personal Web site.

The loss of the novelty song that everyone can simply, unironically love is but one more example of the vanishing common ground in our common culture. Even if much of that commonality was in fact illusory, it was still a worthy goal—e pluribus unum and all that. Today, separated into our various niches and special-interest groups, everybody’s laughing at; few are laughing with. An intentionally stupid novelty ditty could be a real uniter, even if we all agree to hate it passionately.

Of course, a united culture is something that would please the execs over at Clear Channel, too. And the soulless suits who run the declining music industry—not to mention the diversity-hating neocons The Daily Show sends up. But good comedy—the kind that’s about more than just laughing at—does a society the service of keeping it honest, of deflating its self-importance and revealing its hypocrisy. When it comes to e pluribus unum, comedy might even be essential. Nineteenth-century British novelist George Meredith called it “the ultimate civiliser,” a force for “correcting…the vestiges of rawness and grossness yet to be found among us.” If we can’t laugh at ourselves, he might suggest today, the terrorists, neocons, and fanboys have won.

But our fragmented, irony-infused culture is skeptical of any force that goes about correcting things on a large scale—no matter how gross the correctee. “If I can meta-analyze on why there hasn’t been a great novelty song on Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter,” DiCostanzo says, “it doesn’t feel like people would accept it. ‘Weird Al’ did a great parody when [the first sequel to] Star Wars came out, and it’s almost like, well, you know, people aren’t really celebrating these things. They’re acknowledging that they’re big. But [they don’t] reach everybody the same way.”

So we’re left with…bigness. If we don’t like it, we can always retreat to the smallnesses of our pigeonholes, unreachable even to “Weird Al.” “Really,” DiCostanzo says, “the only experience that Americans share anymore is Sept. 11—and we’re not ready to write a novelty song about that.”

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