Humour, Incongruity and the Postmodern Jukebox

I was introduced to the work of Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox a while back via facebook, with their reworking of Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’.  Like most people who find this kind of stuff doing the rounds, I quickly got sucked into discovering video after video of Bradlee’s exceptionally well-executed covers project.

Now, as a musician, I’m a big fan of anyone who’s able to play with stylistic boundaries like this – it takes real critical musicality to “unravel” the interwoven elements of the original musical material, and great creativity to reappoint those elements (or some of them) in a new style/form.  But I’m writing this while wearing the hat labelled “Music and Comedy Module Tutor”… PMJ’s oeuvre is (obviously) effective because it highlights an incongruity between the expected stylistic traits and contexts of each pop song covered, and the stylistic/contextual filter through which the material is now presented to their audience. And unpicking those kinds of incongruities in music-based comedy is something I do a lot with my students, as a way of (a) understanding what makes us laugh in such instances, (b) evaluating the incongruity theory of humour, and (c) exploring what the incongruities we uncover can tell us about the cultural associations we construct or experience between musical material and (e.g.) genre, class, and meaning.

Incongruity has been around as an explanation for humour for quite a while (some point to philosopher James Beattie as advocating the theory in 1776).  Various sub-forms of the theory abound (incongruity-resolution, semantic script theory, etc.). The deliberate juxtaposition of incongruous material is certainly one of the most common tropes in music-based comedy.  Perhaps the clearest example of such a process is I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’s classic game One Song to the Tune of Another.  Indeed, the principle of the game (that is to say, the humour-generating formula) is so simple that elaborately explaining it becomes a joke in itself.  Of course, there’s more than one way to invoke incongruity in musical humour – I’d suggest that there are three different types:

  1. textual incongruity: where incongruous texts are juxtaposed (“text” here means any discrete creative material, whether that be words, melodies, etc.) – as with ISIHAC’s aforementioned game.
  2. contextual incongruity: where a particular music is made (performed or heard) in a context that is incongruous either with that music, or with the presence of music altogether. Consider, as an example, the phenomenon of the Flashmob
  3. procedural incongruity: where music is made in ways that are incongruous with our expectations. Michel Lauziere is an expert in this kind of work.

Contextual or procedural incongruity? Terry Jones carefully obscures his organ… (image @ http://www.joblo.com)

One of the big problems with the Incongruity Theory of Humour as an explanation for what makes people laugh is the fact that, in so many cases, the combination of incongruous elements is not found to be humorous, but achieves one or more other artistic effects. In the musical world this is certainly the case: the pathos of Gary Jules’ version of Mad World is a nice example. And If there’s a Venn diagram covering incongruity-based musical events, with Jules appearing in the “not funny for the majority of the intended audience” portion, and Monty Python’s rendition of Oliver Cromwell’s biography to the tune of Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise (op. 53) appearing in the “funny for the majority of the intended audience” portion, then there is also an enormous central portion labelled “funny to some, not to others, artists intentions unclear”… Certainly, trying to draw the line between “enjoyable” and “comedy” is a particularly difficult challenge for anyone trying to identify a field of study called “music-based humour”. And all this is, of course, dynamic. When my uncle bought me a copy of Paul Anka’s album Rock Swings, he was (at least partly) revelling in the amusement of hearing rock tracks arranged in the style of big band jazz – as did I upon a first hearing. Many years later, I’m still listening to that album because the tracks are exemplary of a milieu which I enjoy listening to (and performing) – big band jazz – and the songs are, well, just songs.

Which brings us neatly back to PMJ’s “All About That Bass” (and other covers)… If I’m going to talk about that song in terms of incongruity theory, does that mean I’m assuming that PMJ’s work is (or else is meant to be) humorous?  To do so would seem problematically simplistic. Certainly, given the reactions it receives on social media, it’s clear that large numbers of people find some amount of humour in the combination of (in this case) an extremely popular “mainstream” track and an “All That Jazz” style 1940s dance-hall delivery. But for many it’s impossible not to be simultaneously (or overwhelming) impressed by the technical skill involved in the reworking and subsequent performance. So this example is another reminder that incongruity can be the root of humour in certain cases, but does not guarantee the presence of humour in all cases, and it points to the role of the individual (or cultural grouping) in the perception of humour.

But since there does seem to be an immediate “amusement-response” to the video (there are more than a few “LOL”s out there) we can think about the incongruity in this instance as to some extent a source of humour. But what are the specifics of that incongruity? In truth, the reason why I was drawn to think more carefully about this particular number was actually due to the relative lack of incongruity being invoked! That is to say, the musical “distance” between the original soundscape and the new “filter” is notably small. The chord sequence (of Trainor’s original) was already screaming 40’s music hall… Have a listen to Edith Piaf’s ‘Mon Manege a Moi‘ (as well as the chords, compare Piaf’s vocal melody at 2.24 of this video with Trainor’s “My momma, she told me…” etc.). Certainly, compared with the less obvious juxtaposition in (e.g.) the Baseballs’ versions of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” or the Pussy Cat Doll’s “Don’t Cha”, the musical chasm traversed is not a substantial one. The traces of historical popular music inherent in Trainor’s original of ‘All About That Bass’ (including a few visual references to the 60s in the video) are a good reminder that incongruity has become such a common artistic feature in mainstream music-making that it’s presence – whether in the form of implicit influence or a chin-scratching fusion project – is sometimes completely unworthy of any real attention (let alone a giggle). Yet the musical incongruity in PMJ’s work is notable, and drowns out other – arguably more straight-forward – juxtapositions (I doubt, for instance, that many people have consciously laughed at the irony of an exceptionally svelte vocalist singing a song that roundly critiques the standardising of the “size 2” body image…!).

Of course, PMJ have hit the nail on the head by citing postmodernism in their name.  Style is routinely dislocated from context without the presence of humorous intent. In a world where we are now so comfortable with the breaking down of perceptual boundaries between text and context, content and form, product and process, etc., it seems hard to comprehend the ongoing effectiveness of incongruity-based music comedy in popular culture… Fielding and Barratt of The Mighty Boosh (themselves no strangers to musical juxtaposition for comic effect), even went so far as to critique chronological incongruity as a signature of “bad music” by concluding the Eels song with the commentary “Elements of the past and the future combining to make something not quite as good as either”.  Yet musical incongruity continues to hold comedic value, with social media alerting us to new versions of the formula almost daily. Understanding how it works (when it works) is arguably more of a challenge now than ever, and the fact that it still works at all points to the intricacy of the processes we go through when we “decode” the outputs of artists like Bradlee and his Postmodern Jukebox….