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by Philip Sherburne

May 10, 2011

Comic Electronica

by Philip Sherburne  |  May 10, 2011

Sprockets aside, comedy and electronic music don't initially seem like they have much in common. But there's actually a whole spectrum of the electronic genre that's shot through with humor, whether it's the goofball antics of Crazy Frog or the political absurdism of Negativland. Between those poles lie the rave-rappers Die Antwoord, South Africa's answer to Borat; the stone-faced conceptualist Felix Kubin; and even that chopped-and-screwed version of the Olsen twins' "P.I.Z.Z.A.," a YouTube sensation.

Electronic processing has long played a part in novelty records just think of the Chipmunks' sped-up voices. Maybe it's not a coincidence that Raymond Scott started out writing big-band jazz for Warner Brothers cartoons before he began developing his own outlandish electronic gizmos. The music he produced out of his Manhattan Research, Inc. laboratories from commercial jingles to a series of ambient lullabies for babies was no joke, but his otherwordly pings and swoops showed the color and movement of animation. Scott wasn't the only early electronic musician whose tastes veered toward the cartoonish. With their Moogs and their Ondiolines, Perrey & Kingsley crafted exotica that wouldn't have sounded out of place on George Jetson's futuristic hi-fi. For that matter, a number of cartoons and comedy shows have adopted the duo's songs as theme music.

Bruce Haack, another electronic-music pioneer with a mad-scientist streak, turned his efforts toward children's music, a genre that overlaps with comedy. His 1969 album The Electric Lucifer, on the other hand, couldn't have been much further from children's music if it tried. It wasn't comedy either, but "Word Game" is nevertheless likely to elicit plenty of nervous laughter. Like they used to say: far out, man.

A cartoon aesthetic runs through plenty of contemporary experimental electronica, too, whether it's Dan Deacon's cackling "Woody Woodpecker" or Otto Von Schirach's B-movie-themed "Zombie Halloween." Even more common is a kind of absurdist parody, a genre that comes naturally to a generation raised on Saturday Night Live: consider the bizarre hip-hop of Providence, R.I.'s Hawd Gankstuh Rappuh Emsees Wid Ghatz, or Kid606's "Mr. Wobble's Nightmare," an over-the-top tribute to the breakbeat anthem "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare," which was itself a riff on the mass media's fear-mongering reaction to rave culture. Jason Forrest takes the satiric impulse to extremes in his alias (DJ Donna Summer), his manic stage presence and especially his music, which welds blistering breakcore to a twisted sense of humor: witness his gabber version of "Chicken Dance," a Swiss accordion hit from the '50s.

Performance can be a big part of the comedic impulse in electronic music: I'm reminded of a 2002 set at Montreal's MUTEK festival. Felix Kubin, a wry and inscrutable conceptualist, played blippy analog keyboards while covered head to toe in silver spandex; Nova Huta, an aficionado of Cold War camp, came down from the stage to bonk listeners on their heads with an inflatable baseball bat. The song was called "Politics"; the bat was printed with the stars and stripes. (Maybe you had to be there, but seriously: it was brilliant.)

Sometimes the gags are one-liners smuggled inside songs that aren't otherwise trying to be funny. Uwe Schmidt, the German-Chilean musician behind the Señor Coconut project, would swear up and down that there's nothing ironic about his salsa and merengue covers of Kraftwerk, but that's not to say they don't display a sly, cross-cultural sense of humor. Likewise, the Japanese singer MU's shrieking "Paris Hilton" funnels psychotic wit into ragingly funky acid house, much the way Peaches turns dirty jokes into hip-shaking electro. (She's hardly alone in this: while her veil of irony belongs to the electroclash decade, her raunch-rap has precedents in foul-mouthed types like Blowfly and 2 Live Crew, as well as XXX-obsessed genres like ghetto tech and juke. See also the Detroit Grand Pubahs' lovably raunchy " Sandwiches.")

A lot of the music I've highlighted is ultimately less funny- ha-ha than funny- uh-oh. (The playlist closes out with Winx' "Don't Laugh," whose rhythmic snickering surely sounded positively evil to plenty of the acid-tripping ravers who were its intended audience back in the early '90s.) But I wanted to single out one example of arty pop that doubles as deadpan comedy of the highest order: Gonzales' "I Am Europe." The song is part of his album Ivory Tower, the soundtrack to a feature film which Gonzales also wrote and directed about a Canadian chess champion who comes to Europe and invents a new style he calls "jazz chess."

You could write an entire dissertation on Gonzales' comedic tendencies. Upon leaving Canada for Berlin in the late '90s, the piano prodigy and erstwhile composer of musicals refashioned himself as Chilly Gonzales, a kind of Neil Hamburger of the rap game. "I still remember when it first occurred to me," he rapped. "F*ck it, I'm gonna move to Germany/ I don't speak German, screw it/ But hey! I'm Jewish/ And I need a new press angle and that should do it." (Gonzales also was a member of The Puppetmastaz, a hip-hop group fronted by — yeah, you guessed it — puppets. More recently, the self-professed "Original Prankster" set a Guinness world record for the longest solo piano performance: 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds.)

"I Am Europe" is the kind of song you might expect from Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, if they wrote music. Over chugging pianos that emphasize the film's debt to Rocky, Gonzales intones a series of charged non-sequiturs:

I'm a dogsh*t ashtray
I'm a shrugging mustache wearing a Speedo tuxedo
I'm a movie with no plot written in the backseat of a piss-powered taxi
I'm an imperial armpit, sweating Chianti
I'm a toilet with no seat, flushing tradition down
I'm socialist lingerie
I'm diplomatic techno
I'm gay pastry and racist cappuccino
I'm an army on holiday in a guillotine museum
I'm a painting made of hair on a nudist beach, eating McDonald's
I'm a novel far too long
I'm a sentimental song
I'm a yellow tooth waltzing with wraparound shades on
Who am I? I am Europe!

My girlfriend, who is Spanish, hates the song. She thinks it's making fun of Europe. But I read it a different way. I'm also an expat living in Berlin, and to me, it scans as a parody of North American jingoism — riffing, Stephen Colbert-style, on the corn-fed jokers who order "freedom fries" with a straight face, or decry the denizens of "Old Europe" as cheese-eating effeminates with Mentos breath. Whatever the case, it's brilliant. Pluck Tom DeLay out of Dancing with the Stars, drop him into the Eurovision Song Contest to perform Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," and commission Woody Allen to direct the episode — that's what "I Am Europe" sounds like to me.

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