Musical JOKES Get Serious - When a QUIRKY IDEA Becomes the NEXT BIG THING


Welcome to WEEK 213 of MUSIC is Not a GENRE (Video Episode #39) Musical JOKES Get Serious

When a QUIRKY IDEA Becomes the NEXT BIG THING

M.U. – The Best of Jethro Tull (1976) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.U._%E2%80%93_The_Best_of_Jethro_Tull

Back a few months ago, I did a whole podcast on how music & comedy are interlinked on multiple levels. Timing. Phrasing. Using conventional forms & ideas to do unconventional things. Another dozen commonalities. But the one that applies the most this week is crossing lines – turning one thing into another – busting through a narrow idea of what a work is supposed to be.

Jethro Tull is not a band you’d immediately associate with irreverence or bucking convention. That’s because they’re seen as “classic” now, and deliver a certain flavor of prog rock that is often lumped together with other kinds as over-serious. But stop and think for a sec. If you know their music, one main thing probably comes to mind: flute. NOW name another band where the flute player is considered the front person. Up until the amazing Lizzo, I don’t think I could name any other artist. So right there, not only is that upending convention, it’s kinda funny. The musicianship itself is/was incredible and nothing to laugh at, but the concept of a hard rocking band putting flute front and center is silly. And it worked. It worked like crazy.

THEN consider “Thick as a Brick”. For some, this was the height of prog rock indulgence: a nearly 45-minute song with movements and variations and self-serious lyrics. Thing is, it was all meant as a joke. Ian Anderson intended it to be a parody of the concept album form. And then a single-length snippet goes and becomes a hit. And other artists embrace long-form composition in more serious ways.

This is one example – not even the most quintessential – of how something that starts out as a joke eventually (and often quickly) becomes adopted as a serious change in the music world. Even a sea change. Examples of this run through all of music history. A vocal delivery meant to mimic or mock becomes THE way to sing if you’re doing a certain style. A keyboard part that sounds weird or wonky or flat-out wacky becomes THE sound in most future production of that style. A rhythm or drum part meant to bust up the form of a song becomes THE NEW FORM of those kinds of songs from then on.

Why does this happen? And why is this essential for musical development? People are always looking for something new. ALL people – artists, industry biz peeps, fans. And they like to be taken by surprise. When pop music or one particular style becomes too codified – too ossified, it needs breaking up. And though there are artists who understand the flow of musical development enough to consciously inject that change from a well-thought, theoretical position, most of the sea changes come from those artists who want and NEED to bust up what was, what has been. It’s the “middle finger with a smile” approach to change. Like, “I dare you take this seriously.” And almost every time, sooner or later, we do. Jazz. Rock. Punk. Hip-hop. Electronic music. All of these started as toss-offs, as taking a pre-existing style and messing with it. We all know how ALL of those turned out.

This happens on a more micro level too. A single artist’s career can change overnight when they decide to throw caution to the wind and try something silly or rebellious or just out of their wheelhouse – assumed or otherwise. Think of David Bowie or Prince, even Madonna or Beyonce, and you’ll get how major changes for an artist become the new normal. I pushed forward like this in my own career & musical development MANY TIMES, adding elements to my music I’d never tried before, or completely switching up my production style. You can hear this big time in these two songs, done a year apart:

“Standin’ There” 1995 - https://soundcloud.com/recarea/1-standin-there

“Your Sweetness” 1996 (2020 video) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHg6PPDopV4

Do you remember any musical changes – small or large – that you initially took as a novelty or joke, which went on to become a whole new thing? Or when an artist you love made a change that set them off on a whole new career? Do you like Jethro Tull at all? Quick shout-out to my cousin Jim Castelli for sparking this week’s podcast. Discuss dammit!

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© 2018 by Nick DeMatteo

New York, NY