Sunday, November 22, 2009

Comedy and musicality aren’t mutually exclusive

There have been several bands in recent years that have managed to combine solid musicianship with some comedy. Though rock musicians have famously taken their art very seriously, fans of the music are often interested in simply being entertained. It’s a dichotomy that begs the question: why don’t more bands have more fun?

The “fun” bands exist on a sliding scale from actual musical entity to joke band. Spinal Tap is the most famous example of a fake band, though it has released several studio albums. Tenacious D and The Lonely Island are bands formed by comedians that play real music. Steel Panther and The Darkness pay homage to a musical style even while poking fun at it.

Just because these bands are sometimes making music with their tongues in their cheeks doesn’t mean they can’t write a solid hook. Tenacious D and The Darkness had songs played on modern rock stations. Steel Panther is the newest “joke” band to release an album of original music, and there’s an argument to be made for the band being better than the groups it’s aping.

The reason why a band like Steel Panther can actually be better than its hair metal predecessors: while bands like White Lion and Mötley Crüe were seriously intent on doing smack and banging groupies, it’s clear the Panther knows how much fun the whole thing is.

Chuck Klosterman wrote the book on hair metal, literally. His Fargo Rock City (Scribner, 2001) is the quintessential tome on hair metal fandom, written from the perspective of a music fan who grew up in the mid-‘80s. Klosterman went on to be a talented writer and pop culture guru, so his growth couldn’t have been stunted too badly by a diet steady diet of KISS albums and Shout at the Devil.

But Klosterman’s outlook on hair metal hasn’t changed from the one he had as a young boy in rural North Dakota. He loved Ratt and Poison because they seemed like badasses, hard-living rebels who may or may not have worshipped Satan. History, meanwhile, remembers the same bands for their buffoonery and questionable fashion choices.

Hilarity can be badass, and it’s certainly more entertaining than watching a band that clearly treats its music as work. Who wants to watch another day at the office? That’s what it is for career musicians, after all. But Steel Panther understands the inherent absurdity of the music it plays. There’s no pressure to create musical works of art or even appease music critics. They’re entertainers, and they’re funny.

Most of all, the band writes and plays original songs that are hummable, with good hooks and catchy choruses. Isn’t that the point of pop music?

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