Tag Archives: Humor

The signifyin(g) rabbit

Bugs Bunny has been recuperated as a queer cultural icon, a parodic diva whose campy excesses and canny games are profoundly though tacitly indebted to the African American rhetorical tradition of signifyin(g).

Interrogation of Bugs Bunny’s characteristic strategies of trickstering demonstrates the connections, both theoretical and material, between the queer camp of gender bending and the slippery strategies of resistance, the semiotic play of signifying as back-talk.

The rabbit of Seville (1950, directed by Chuck Jones and scored by Carl Stalling) presents specific situations of parody and allusion, illustrating the ways in which transvestic performance, inflected through camp, participates in a highly queer mode of phallic divestiture.

This according to “The signifying rabbit” by Eric Savoy (Narrative 2 [May 1995] 188–209; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1996-12504).

Below, excerpts from the cartoon classic in question, with live accompaniment!

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Filed under Humor, Opera

Moroccan insult contests

Marrakech

A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.

The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.

“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.

The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.

This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-5436).

Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.

Related article: 50 best literary insults

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Humor

Prokof’ev’s bad dog

In 1917 Sergej Sergeevič Prokof’ev briefly returned to one of his childhood interests: writing fiction.

He considered what this pursuit entailed. “My style caused me concern,” he wrote. “Did it have individuality or was it awkward?”

Ultimately he concluded, “If there’s an idea, then the style will be subservient to the idea. If I have an idea, that means I’m an author.”

One of his short stories, Пудель: Мерзкая собака (The poodle: A bad dog) was published in an English translation by Three oranges (3 [May 2002] pp. 6–9; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-9136. The full text is here). A surprise twist at the end is a wry nod to the composer’s interest in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Below, Prokof’ev’s good dog.

Related articles:

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Humor, Literature

Shine and the Titanic

Religious African Americans saw the sinking of the Titanic as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs, as a divine overriding of the advantages conferred by wealth and mastery of technology.

Their secular songs about the disaster either nihilistically stress the fact that terrible things can happen at any time and when they are least expected, or take up the trickster theme. This latter type, which implies that blacks can survive in the white man’s world even when whites do not, often features Shine, a trickster figure created by blacks for blacks.

Shine—a derogatory form of address invented by whites—is the first to warn the captain of the ship of impending disaster, but is ignored. As the ship is sinking, desperate white women offer him sex or money if he will save them, but he determines to abandon ship at once and save himself—a mocking comment on the white supremacist fantasy of the black man always ready to ravish white women.

This according to “The Titanic: A case study of religious and secular attitudes in African American song” by Chris Smith, an essay included in Saints and sinners: Religion, blues and (d)evil in African-American music and literature (Liège: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie, 1996, pp. 213–27).

Today is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.

Related article: The Britannic organ (sister ship of the Titanic)

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Filed under Black studies, Humor

Modulations and caterpillars

A fragment of Pherecrates’s comedy Chiron, as quoted in Plutarch’s Peri mousikēs, provides insights into aesthetic controversies in ancient Greece.

The scene depicts Dame Music as she recounts to Dame Justice the torments she has undergone at the hands of certain musicians of the time: Melanippides seized, debased, and weakened her with 12 tones; Cinesias ruined her with badly composed modulations; Phrynis bent, twisted, and completely destroyed her by sounding all 12 tones on the kithara; and, most egregiously of all, Timotheus, with his shrill dissonances and sinfully high-pitched and piercing notes and whistles, crammed her with modulations just as a cabbage-head is crammed with caterpillars, depriving her of all decency with his 12 tones.

This according to “Studies in musical terminology in 5th-century literature” by Ingemar Düring, an essay included in Eranos Löfstedtianus: Opuscula philologica Einaro Löfstedt A.D. XVII kal. iul. anno MCMXLV dedicata (Uppsala : Eranos Förlag, 1945; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1945-34).

More posts about ancient Greece are here.

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Filed under Antiquity, Curiosities, Humor, Literature, Theory

Music theory with attitude

Although the notion that Musicae rudimenta was written by Nicolaus Faber has persisted for centuries, internal evidence points conclusively to the Bavarian historian and philologist Johannes Aventinus (Johann Turmair or Thurmayr, 1477–1534) as its author. One of the first music treatises to use German as well as Latin, it borrows heavily from other sources, usually with due citations.

The author’s unequivocal style is striking: for example, the table of contents lists Chapter 1 as “The origins of music, a subject about which the barbarians err disgracefully, not to say ignorantly”, while other entries include such observations as “I am embarrassed to report what empty, fatuous things some writers have to say on this topic” and “In this matter, the run-of-the-mill singers are like night owls in the sunlight—blind!”

Nor does he spare himself, noting of his second chapter that “Most of the things here are quoted from others and are not very important, being pedantic and technical.” His preface concludes: “Look me over and buy me, the price is so low. Believe me, you won’t regret it.”

This according to “Musicae rudimenta: Augsburg, 1556” by T. Herman Keahey in Paul A. Pisk: Essays in his honor (Austin: University of Texas, 1966).

Above, an illustration from the treatise.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Musicologists, Renaissance, Theory

Lilliput in Greece

In 1975, during the transition in Greece from military dictatorship to democracy, the composer Manos Chatzidakis was appointed director of the Third Program of Ellīnikī Radiofonīa and asked the choreographer and director Reggina Kapetanaki to help him create an educational radio show for small children.

The result of this collaboration was Edō Lilipoupolī (“Here is Lilliput”), set in an imaginary world loosely based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels. The show’s locations and characters could often be identified by older listeners as satirical references to Greek places and people, and songs composed for it became popular vehicles of political commentary. Sometimes the satire bit too deeply for the government, which accused the creators of producing Communist propaganda, but Chatzidakis, thanks to his personal prestige, was generally able to protect them. The program ran until 1980.

This according to “Children’s songs as socio-political comment in the Greek radio show Edō Lilipoupoli” by Aikaterinī Giampoura, an essay included in Radio art and music: Culture, aesthetics, politics (Lanham: Lexington Books 2020, 235–54).

Below, an album compiled from various episodes.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Mass media, Pedagogy, Politics

Rita Moreno, EGOT

In 1977 Rita Moreno became the third person in history to achieve what has been called the “grand slam” of show business—a winner of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards, or EGOT.

The clincher was her Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program for an appearance on The Muppet show. In a 2021 interview, she recalled the experience.

“They had a studio two streets from us on Broadway. I saw [Jim Henson] at a restaurant one day, and I literally got on my knees. I said, ‘I beg you to let me do some little-girl Muppet voices.’ And I did. I would say, ‘You don’t have to pay me.’ And he said, ‘No, I do. This is a union shop. We have to pay you.’ And then, a number of years later, I went to England to do The Muppet show.”

“You [have to avoid] looking at the Muppeteer, which a lot of people do because it’s a natural instinct to look at the person who’s doing the voice. But I love comedy. This was my idea, by the way: ‘What if I’m trying to be really sexy?’ We had me in a great gown and a long wig, and I looked absolutely smashing. Animal’s last line, after I smash him with the cymbals is ‘That’s my kind of woman!’ And most people don’t hear that because they’re laughing.”

Quoted in “Rita Moreno has time only for the truth” by Michael Schulman (The New Yorker, 17 June 2021 [online]; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2021-10493).

Today is Rita Moreno’s 90th birthday! Above and below, the historic performance.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Popular music

Doctor Love’s diagnoses

The Zimbabwean singer-songwriter Paul Matavire was widely celebrated for his witty but sharply pointed songs addressing themes of intimacy, romance, and social relations, earning him the nickname Doctor Love.

Matavire’s well-calculated social commentary, disseminated through sungura music, continues to hold a special place of reverence in Zimbabwe, even long after his death. His songs are unique in the ways that he used humor to drive his concerns home.

For example, in Akanaka akarara (A person is only good when asleep) Matavire code-switches between Shona and English phrases and expressions, joking that his wife may be possessed by spirits, and maintaining that he is not asking her to cook sadza for him—he just wants money for beer to treat his hangover. Using intrinsic Shona linguistic structures, the song satirizes the foibles of both men and women as they grapple with tensions between traditional and modern gender roles.

This according to “Tracing humour in Paul Matavire’s selected songs” by Umali Saidi (Muziki: Journal of music research in Africa XII/1 [May 2015] 53–61; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-6205).

Today would have been Doctor Love’s 60th birthday! Below, his recording of Akanaka akarara.

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Filed under Humor, Performers, Popular music

Improv Everywhere!

The improvisation collective Improv Everywhere specializes in staging public-space interventions, which they refer to as pranks or missions.

By enlisting pedestrians in discrete one-time events that challenge protocols of public contact and that expand our understanding of public flexibility and empathy, Improv Everywhere offers an antidote to mainstream, hegemonic formulations of spectacle, virtuosity, and generalized expectations concerning the purpose of performance.

The group’s integration of trained and untrained performers (whom they refer to as agents), the kinds of space and sociality that they create, and the connections between their live and web presences reveal noteworthy contemporary understandings of intimacy and the social fabric.

This according to “Why not Improv Everywhere?” by Susan Leigh Foster, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of dance and theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 196–212; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-23390).

Above and below, Conduct us, a collaboration with the designer Ilya Smelansky and New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Performance practice