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A joke’s a very serious thing.
—Charles Churchill (1763)


Invariably underestimated and underappreciated, humor has long carried a heavy load and serious purpose. Since long before Charles Churchill uttered the above paradox, humor has both reflected upon and responded to our cultural mores and foibles. From Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Moliere to Swift, western civilization has exposed and expressed its desires and discontents through humor. Humor has sometimes served to restore and bind communities and sometimes to incite or insult. The latter form of humor has particularly come to the forefront in the U.S. in the post-1945 period, in the form of what Tony Hendra has termed “boomer humor”. Since trailblazing mid-‘50s comedic radicals such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, the targets of humor have dramatically shifted away from eccentrics and outsiders and towards those in establishment and authority; a paradigmatic realignment from the oppressed to the oppressors. In purpose, also, boomer humor has ushered in a methodology intent on provoking and disturbing audiences, rather than pleasing them or pandering. This contemporary strain of humor, which arises from both high and low culture, is habitually subversive in nature: it strives to attack and undermine cultural systems, states and their institutional arms. For their efforts, the more challenging boomer humorists have been censured or censored, and called “sick” by the establishment forces; but, ironically, it is the perceived sickness at the core of the social hegemony that has been the inspiration for the humor of comedic social critics like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.


It is no coincidence that the rise of radical humor from literary, artistic, and comedy club sources occurred simultaneously with the birth of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. The fragmentation of racial segregation and the emergence of an active and economically powerful youth demographic (the boomers) resulted in challenges to norms of social morality and artistic expression. Indeed, it was not long until the pre-rock wholesome humor of country music and the daring sexual innuendo of blues and swing were being synthesized into a rock and roll stew with its own manifestations of often incendiary humor.


In many ways, rock’s youth base and irreverent expression should lend the form to subversive humor. Yet, when we reflect upon its 50 year presence, we see that rock humor, as a method, has often sputtered and been sporadic, rarely establishing a momentum, continuum, or distinction. It has been most pronounced in times of social turmoil and perceived repression; one thinks of Country Joe McDonald scornfully singing “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at Woodstock during the dark days of the Vietnam War, or Frank Zappa and Jello Biafra satirically firing back at the P.M.R.C. “censors” in the Reagan ‘80s. Today, though, despite what Jon Stewart has termed the “Mess-o-potamia” of Iraq, the authoritarianism of the (Orwellian) Patriot Act, and the growing mono-theocracy of the government, there is little dissent—and even less subversive humor—to be found in the ranks of our rock and roll culture. Certainly, most of our prominent social critics—Michael Moore, Bill Maher, Chris Rock, Al Franken—use humor as their primary weapon against conformity; alas, curiously, recent rock writers, for the most part, are not carrying that baton.


This essay aims to scour rock’s archives in order to present a potted history of subversive rock humor—synthesized through 10 exponents of the form. This is not a top 10, but a selected 10—chosen to display the potential (of) types of humor within the rock form, and to show how humor functions distinctly within its contexts of time, place, and circumstance. These are not artists that merely use humor, but that are defined by their use of humor, and have consciously employed their methods to subversive ends. They are distinguished by their lack of common uniformity but a constancy of spirit, by a diversity of targets but a shared intent to provoke. Overall, I hope these disparate 10 acts suggest, from Chuck Berry to Eminem, that the need for subversive humor has never been greater, and that rock needs to react with its own insurgence: re-arming, re-loading, and then sending in the clowns.



Chuck Berry

1. Chuck Berry


Although he is apparently the least subversive of these humorists, one should not underestimate the range and effect of Chuck Berry’s gentle satire in the context of his time. When rock burst open the gates of the “tranquilized” mid-‘50s, it was Chuck Berry, more than anyone else, who was responsible for creating its early mythologies and establishing the fundamental imagery that was to symbolize the genre’s topics and demographics; and he did this by representing across gender lines. One of our more literate songwriters, Berry was first and foremost a storyteller. His songs encapsulated the minutiae of middle-class white teenage life during the mundane ‘50s, and spoke to the youth’s dreams as well as confinements. “School Day” and “Roll Over Beethoven” may superficially appear to be just cute celebrations of the burgeoning youth culture, but at their heart they decry the conservative confinement of the Eisenhower years, as well as the numbing suffocation of school, parents, and adult culture generally upon a demographic yearning for freedom, excitement, and empowerment. “Hail hail rock and roll! /Deliver me from the days of old,” explodes Berry’s teenage persona in “School Day”, and “Tell Tchaikovsky the news,” he proudly declares in “Roll Over Beethoven”. These songs are call-to-action manifestos for the power of rock and roll music as the gravitational point for the growing youth rebellion. They debunk the adult “common sense” of high art superiority, with its “what’s good for you” attitude, at the same time as reaching and amassing large youth audiences, and circumventing the censors. Berry’s generation gap anthems have a pre-political consciousness and echo other contemporary critiques, such as Rebel Without a Cause and the early Beat writings. Moreover, his songs are delivered via disarming Holden Caulfield-esque narrators, evincing believable and credible perspectives for alienated youth. The fact that these vivid cultural songscapes of Middle America came from the pen of a 30-something black ex-convict only underscores the brilliance of Berry’s achievement; not to mention the irony of its popularity in 1950s America.


2. Little Richard


A contemporary of Berry, Little Richard was also a black man writing for a white youth demographic. However, Richard was also gay, exploring a camp style so alien to the mainstream culture that observers were not sure whether it was threatening or not. Where Chuck Berry poked fun at the cultural panorama of rock and roll’s world, Richard exploded its parameters, inciting madness and mayhem in the pent-up young baby boomers. Unlike the wittily literate Berry, Richard by-passed conventional language, creating his own below-the-belt lexicon of onomatopoeia. He introduced himself to the world with “Awop bop a loo mop a lop bam boom” on the explosive 1955 debut single, “Tutti Frutti”. With the vocal delivery of a wild man possessed, and attired in exquisite pompadour camp, Little Richard constituted a shock to the system. As middle-class parents strove to normalize and sanitize their increasingly restless teens, Richard was the Pied Piper of decadence. His semiotics of subversion resided in the theatre of the grotesque, in providing a carnival-style utopian dance for the (Imaginary) excluded and socially repressed. As with Chuck Berry, Little Richard’s subversion was non-prescriptive and pre-political in nature: a symbolic suggestion that life possibilities and modes of expression existed beyond the prison gates of the official adult culture. Little Richard’s liberationist gestures and hilarity in excess would subsequently be inherited by up-starts such as James Brown, George Clinton, Prince, and Andre 2000.


3. The Kinks


Often playing second fiddle to more celebrated 1st wave British Invasion acts like the Beatles, Stones and Who, The Kinks have emerged posthumously as one of the most influential acts in contemporary British rock. Their postmodern aura is framed by a tongue-in-cheek self-referencing that has attracted the scrutiny of many post-1980 independent rock acts. XTC, Blur, and Pulp are among many who can be considered post-Kinks humorists. There is a wry, almost-smug intellectual humor in the casual vocal inflections of singer-songwriter, Ray Davies, and in the self-consciousness of his lyrical details. Beyond Chuck Berry’s descriptive realism, The Kinks wink at rock’s artifice and go-to mythologies, indicating a knowingness of the music’s artistic coming-of-age.


Like most great humorists, The Kinks had, besides wit and wisdom, the skills of actors and fantasists. The worlds of their songs have an imaginary scope that is vivid and revealing, but it is the narrative personas that elicit the pointed irony and the larger sardonic insight. “David Watts” and “A Well-Respected Man” see singer-songwriter Ray Davies donning his flat cap and describing, deadpan, the seemingly perfect lives of his social superiors. However, like Edward Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory, these ideals are not always as perfect as they might superficially appear. As with Chuck Berry, the subversive effects are subtle, functioning through rhetoric, irony and delivery rather than polemical tracts. In his gentle parodies of social class types, Ray Davies challenges the hypocrisy that sustains the divisive British class system, whilst simultaneously unveiling the human sadness, alienation and conformity that reside, as a consequence, at the social core. In “Sunny Afternoon” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” the raw nerves of violence and pretension are exposed. In “Victoria”, Davies’ apparent celebration of upper-class traditions in nineteenth century England is undercut by laconic interruptions; the opening line is, “Long ago, life was clean/Sex was bad and obscene”. This tradition of social class humor is rooted in an Edwardian music-hall comedy that periodically re-surfaces in the best of modern British comedy, including the Carry-On films, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and The Royal Family.


4. Randy Newman


If The Kinks dabbled with narrative masks to convey their incisive satire, Randy Newman has proven to be the master of this technique over his 30-plus year career. His narrators are invariably distinct, specific, and shocking. In “God’s Song,” the second narrator is God, looking down with scorn upon his deluded believers, as he rains cruelty and mayhem upon them at will: “I take from you your children and you say ‘How blessed are we?’/You all must be crazy to put your faith in me/That’s why I love mankind”. In “Suzanne”, Newman pursues similarly edgy humor through the narrative point-of-view of a rapist, who muses through a disturbing interior monologue. This is humor black and bleak, challenging and disturbing. In “Rednecks”, we see Newman further walk the tightrope of interpretive ambiguity, as he creates a striking persona: a 1960’s deep-South working-class racist. However, here Newman does not settle for the obvious satirical target at hand (the narrator and his “type”); instead, he has the character expose the hypocrisy of Northern racism, as played out on an episode of the Dick Cavett Show. Such social commentary intellectually challenges the smug presumptions of the culture, and more importantly, the listener.


As Lenny Bruce and Andrew Dice Clay discovered the hard way, this method of grotesque satire is potentially dangerous because it relies upon the recipients’ ability to recognize the unreliable narrator and to not take his/her statements literally. Indeed, even when Newman’s satire has been at its most transparent, audiences have often misconstrued his intents. A barrage of complaints reached radio stations that played his 1972 hit, “Short People”, which, amongst other faux abuses, announces in its opening line, “Short people got no reason to live”. Another of his popular songs, “Political Science”, has been enjoying a second life thanks to the ambitions of Bush and his adventurous foreign policy. Again, though, many have not unmasked the narrator: a Toby Keith-type nationalist who advocates global domination and destruction as the appropriate response to former allies increasingly disenchanted with U.S. militarism. The lyrics, though initially penned in the context of the expansion of the Vietnam War in 1972, have a certain contemporary resonance: “No one likes us/I don’t know why/We may not be perfect/but heaven knows we try/But all around us even our old friends put us down/Let’s drop the big one and see what happens”. Newman’s is the type of humor that depends upon the participatory engagement of its audience in order to perceive the subversive critiques that lie within; for those who understand his caricatures, and appreciate the revelations to be revealed through his role-playing, Randy Newman serves as one of our most subversive humorists, one biting into the heart of our social and moral blind-spots. In the rock context, he is the Jonathan Swift of our times.


5. X-Ray Spex


No genre of rock music has employed the techniques of humor more comprehensively, or more subversively, than punk. Indeed, its pervasive snarling sarcasm and grotesque cynicism play themselves out in music style, lyrics, and (most expressively) vocal delivery. Punk humor derives humor from its critical stance as the alienated “other” unwilling to submit to the forces of suppression. It is not surprising, therefore, that women found such creative space within punk rock and punk humor. To unprecedented proportions, punk ushered in female bands (not just singers), female journalists, female managers, and a visibly demonstrative female fan base. From its primary outbursts (1976-78), to the post-punk feminist wave (1978-83), to the more recent Riot Grrrl revival (1988-93), women have found punk to be a vehicle for empowerment, community, unfettered expression, and subversive humor. One of the first and funniest of the punk feminist acts was X-Ray Spex. Fronted by a Somali-English singer attired in a bricolage of clothing styles colliding with colors, the braces-wearing, portly Poly Styrene represented the ironic antithesis of the standard female pin-up pop/rock icon. Moreover, her semiotics of style was underscored through provocative lyrics that questioned, cajoled, and parodied the all-pervasive consumer culture (with its effects of conformity and sterility). Spex’ methods were rooted in parody and the grotesque. Their lyrical visions were futuristic, fantasy prophesies of a mediated world consumed by mind-numbing materialism. In “The Day the World Turned Dayglo”, Poly envisions: “I drove my polypropylene car on wheels of sponge/Then pulled into a Wimpy bar to have a rubber bun”. Such dystopian wit bears the critical hallmarks of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, as well as H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. Elsewhere, X-Ray Spex use pithy Situationist slogans and song titles to articulate their punk-minimalist parodies: “I-Am-A-Cliché”, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”, “I Am a Poseur”, “Germ Free Adolescents”, “Art-I-Ficial”, “Plastic Bag”, “Genetic Engineering”, “Identity”. The innocent rants of X-Ray Spex have much in common with the self-conscious cartoon-angst of The Ramones; both bands create mocking satire through primal punk aesthetics.



Dead Kennedys

6. Dead Kennedys


Across the Atlantic, at around the same time, a band was storming out of San Francisco’s burgeoning punk scene with a package of subversive three-minute time-bombs set to send explosive shock waves across the U.S. and UK punk scenes. Dead Kennedys had much in common with X-Ray Spex: besides the punk-guitar assault, both were lyrical fantasists, exposing the realities of the now by projecting the horrors of the what-could-be. The realities they saw were hypocrisy, inertia, oppression, and self-delusion. But whereas Poly Styrene adopted the persona of an innocent victim raging in reaction, Jello Biafra, the Kennedys’ singer-songwriter front-man, downloaded Johnny Rotten’s sarcastic sneer, taunting with the demonic authority of a rebel with nothing to lose. Furthermore, like Randy Newman, the Dead Kennedys selected often unlikely targets for their satirical assaults, and pushed the narrative drama into dangerously shocking terrain. Besides the gallows humor of their moniker, the first three singles released by the band,“California Uber Alles”, Holidays in Cambodia”, and “Kill the Poor”, are among the most “hysterical” (in titles and content) songs to emerge from the punk movement. In the first, Biafra foresees an authoritarian future, not from the right wing, but in a Frankenstein’s monster created from cult-like hippies manifesting their intrinsic fascist leanings. Then-California Governor, Jerry Brown, is singled out as the Jim Jones-like figurehead, wielding his own methods of Kool Aid appeal: “Mellow out or you will pay…/Now it is 1984/Knock knock at your front door/It’s the suede-denim secret police”.


Biafra digs deeper into his black book of enemies with “Holidays in Cambodia”. Here, the satirical targets in the fantasy are young Yuppies (before the term was in vogue) and liberals who claim to be “down” with the African-American underclass. To test their credibility, Biafra sends them, Vonnegut-style, on an excursion to Cambodia at the height of the Pol Pot regime. White pretensions of cultural slumming, as well as the class/race chasm within and beyond the U.S., are hereby brought under the interrogative harsh light of reality by the Dead Kennedys’ mordant satire. “Kill the Poor” further exposes the inequities of the richest country in the world. Here, Biafra rewrites Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, proclaiming: “Jobless millions whisked away/At last we have more room to play/All systems go to kill the poor tonight.”


Beyond their catalogue of satirical expositions in punk rock music, the Dead Kennedys have also been perennial pranksters; at one 1984 gig, the band hit the stage wearing KKK masks, which they later removed to reveal Ronald Reagan masks. Since the D.K. days, Jello Biafra has taken his attack-humor act solo, conducting a two-decade old war with censors, ideologues, and political opportunists (such as the P.M.R.C. and Moral Majority) on the speech circuit. For those in tune with his brand of satire, and in sync with its moral and social motivations, Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys are national treasures.


7. The Macc Lads


Those who think that the Dead Kennedys pushed satire to the far extremities of taste and acceptability have yet to hear The Macc Lads. Operating out of the non-descript Manchester suburb of Macclesfield, the Macc Lads were (and remain), “The rudest crudest lewdest drunkest band in Christendom”, according to their web site. Working well beneath the official radars in 1980s Britain, the band terrorized unsuspecting listeners with a barrage of what might be the most offensive songs and guiltiest pleasures ever put to vinyl. Like Randy Newman, The Macc Lads’ comic stock-in-trade is the narrative mask; unlike Newman, theirs is a consistent persona, one that abuses its way consistently over nearly a dozen albums. Essentially, their speaker is a very English “type” in extremus: the bigoted, boozing, foul-mouthed Northern working-class slob whose life revolves around, as their most notorious album title informs us, “Beer Sex Chips and Gravy”. Not surprisingly, this caricature also has a thing or two to say about foreign policy (on both sides of the pond).


“Buenos Aires” was originally written in the wake of the Falklands War and somewhat reflected Prime Minister Thatcher’s “muscular” approach, as seen through a Lads-eye-view: “After a scrap with the English navy they’ll ask for the recipe for chips ‘n’ gravy /Ay up, the Lads are on their way/With their bayonets and their Tommy guns/And their bellies full of Boddingtons”. The Sun newspaper apparently missed the irony of The Lads’ “political science” and began plans to ship multiple copies of the song down to the fighting British forces, thus revealing that sometimes parody does not outflank its subject’s demographic. This song enjoyed a later life, too, revived for 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, with a few words and references altered, but the sentiment intact. The outer reaches of the Macc Lads’ caricature-humor can be found in their Band Aid parody, “Feed Your Face”. Excruciatingly offensive in point-of-view and content, the song features a typical Macc Lad watching Live Aid and mouthing reactions not quite in unison with the consensus sympathies of the day: “These foreigners need sorting out/They’ve always got either droughts or flooding/We’d make a killing if we opened a chippy”. Ironically inverting Saint Bob Geldof’s sentiments, the chorus rings out: “Feed your face/Don’t give them a second thought”. As the above Sun example suggests, ironic humor always faces the danger of (mis)interpretation, of audiences not seeing (or not wishing to see) behind the narrating caricature.


The Macc Lads share the same aesthetic territory as punk band, Fear, and poet, Charles Bukowski. This is parodist punk terrain, where authorial position is less certain, and topics are more explosive. Here, the subversive nature of the humor functions, not only to comment upon topic and perspective, but also to tweak the P.C. sensibilities of liberalism, with its implicit protective patronage of social acceptability.



Madness

8. Madness


Despite its innate humor, British punk rock was serious, if not dour, in its intents and purposes. By 1979, the rock public was ready for a little light relief from the dystopian visions of the preceding years. The ska revival movement appeared to offer such relief, with its slapstick antics, up-beat dance music, and celebratory nostalgia. In their lyrics, though, it was soon apparent that the ska bands used humor of a different hue. While The Specials wittily observed the stultifying entrapment of traditional families and conventional jobs in “Too Much Too Young” and “Rat Race”, The Beat had Britain dancing to their youth-resistance anthem to the P.M., “Stand Down Margaret”. Even Madness, whose early output was innocuously escapist in its “heavy heavy monster sound” and “nutty boy” style, soon were venturing into social commentary.


Whilst never abandoning their cheeky-cockney pub warmth and music-hall theatricality, mid-period Madness saw a sharpening of their satirical swords. There is a touching sadness and Kinks-like loneliness pervading “Grey Day”, a song of modern alienation couched within a self-consciously foreboding slow ska groove. Their maturing musical talents enable the song to be both a comment upon despair and upon the clichés of songwriting about despair. The plight of the working man is further explored in “Cardiac Arrest”. Here, the song rhythms echo the soon-to-be-ceased heart beat of the central character. Madness pay homage to P.M. Thatcher (a popular target of the times) in “Blue Skinned Beast” with their characteristic paradox of simultaneous light and dark humor: “Three cheers for the blue skinned beast-hip hip”. Coming from the-then most popular group in the UK, this was rebel-humor both accessible and provocative. Sometimes critically marginalized by their Benny Hill gestures and fun-loving charisma, Madness showed great maturity over the course of their five years at the top of British pop music, and it is their visceral humanism and quiet subversion that can be seen to live on through subsequent Britpop artists like Blur, Supergrass, and The Ordinary Boys.


9. The Smiths


If Madness served to raise spirits in the wake of punk’s dark rage, so The Smiths cracked through Manchester’s grey skies to challenge the reign/rain of Factory Records and their dour ilk. However, the dramatic entrance of The Smiths on the music scene, served as ironic foreshadowing. Though initial perceptions were of a band with witty repartee, cheeky wordplay, and bright guitars, soon The Smiths were to be crowned the kings of introspective misery. This is not to preclude the fact that they may also be the most literate and intrinsically humorous band in the history of rock music. Fronted by ex-journalist/writer/maverick, Morrissey, The Smiths immediately established themselves, in 1982, as critics’ darlings and discerning fans’ favorites with their lyrical daring-do provocations. Two early songs, “Handsome Devil” and “Reel Around the Fountain”, stirred up the moral outrage of the conservative media with their ambiguous lyrics that appeared to flirt with pedophilic themes. Whatever the merits of the charges, the band had clearly learned their Malcolm McLaren playbook vis-à-vis media manipulation. Morrissey further consolidated national outrage when he opined in an interview: “The only thing that can possibly save English culture is Margaret Thatcher’s assassin.”


Armed with the shocking camp wit of Oscar Wilde and the anti-establishment scorn of Johnny Rotten, Morrissey proceeded to declare war on multiple arms of the state. Brazenly biting the hand that feeds, he assaulted the UK’s major music outlet, BBC Radio One, in “Panic”, charging, “The music that they constantly play says nothing to me about my life”. The song concludes with the mantra, “Hang the DJ” repeated ad nauseam. “The Queen is Dead” oscillates between music-hall comedy, absurdist anecdotes, and pointed cultural critique; its message echoes the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”: the royal family is an undemocratic irrelevancy blindly overseeing a decaying culture. Aside from their social satire, The Smiths were at their most effectively subversive when deconstructing rock’s perennial themes of love and romance. In “Cemetery Gates”, Morrissey undercuts romantic clichés and punctures stereotypical imagery through a series of incongruous paradoxical images: “A dreaded sunny day so let’s go where we’re happy/I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates”. Immanuel Kant and Herbert Spencer have both theorized on the incongruity of humor, seeing laughter as being expended through the nervous energy created by the shift between disparate thoughts. Morrissey employs this technique in order to debunk rock’s false ideology of mythic romance. In “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, the incongruous juxtapositions are mournful and funny: “Two lovers entwined pass me by/And heaven knows I’m miserable now/I was looking for a job and then I found a job/And heaven knows I’m miserable now”. A master wordsmith with subversion always on his mind, Morrissey has continued to blaze trails for rock literacy since the demise of The Smiths in 1987. His most recent solo album, You Are the Quarry, may include his finest lyrical achievements to date; it features songs that strike to the heart of our national and personal insecurities with a precision of wit and candor so distinct to their author.


10. Eminem


Like so many rap artists that have preceded him, Eminem has both capitalized upon, and been condemned for, a lyrical output that has often affronted and offended. Some have criticized his outbursts of (apparent) homophobia, sexism, and salty language, whilst others have defended him either on the grounds of First Amendment rights, or on the premise that the lyrics cannot be taken at face value. The latter defense suggests that the artist does not mean what he says, that he is performing through a persona that reflects a, rather than his, point-of-view. This is the same controversy that we have seen afflicting the artistry of Randy Newman, the Dead Kennedys, and The Macc Lads. Like these artists, Eminem clearly enjoys the consequences of his irritation, of ruffling the feathers of smugly-satisfied moral (and speech) arbiters. Here, though, the defense might make another point: the history of rap music has fore fronted, as its most consistent sub-genre, the “boast rap”. From the Sugarhill Gang to 50 Cent, the exaggerated-ego MC has driven the narrative of rap content. Such lyrics have run the gamut from street self-aggrandizement to vicious put-downs to tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation. All of these can be seen to be in evidence in the skillful verbal gymnastics of rap’s finest white practitioner. Eminem’s raps are subversive, not only because they implicitly remind us to heed Ice T’s paradoxical warning, “Freedom of speech/Just watch what you say”, but they also provide a frustrated youth culture with an outlet of relief. Freud saw humor as our permission to vent the repressed. Thus, in a society that disallows certain natural urges and censors particular means of expression, Eminem serves as our Id, emitting the raw materials repressed in the collective unconscious. Eminem’s saucy wordplay, puns, and put-downs are the dirty jokes we want to, but dare not, say at the dinner table. They symbolically represent our desire to resist repression: personal, social, and cultural.


Recently, Eminem has taken his irreverence into a more political arena, targeting the Bush administration with his stylistic vitriol and (youth) populist skits. Many will no doubt welcome his lyrical mockery aimed at a more worthy adversary than the already put-upon gay and female constituencies. In his recent “Mosh” single, he calls on his not inconsiderable youth support to “disarm this weapon of mass destruction that we call a president”. Earlier in the song he pours scorn on the “psychological” warfare of the Bush camp against the American people, ironically thrusting his own psychological counter-jab: “Strap him with an AK-47, let him go/Fight his own war, let him impress daddy that way”. One senses in Eminem’s recent work an increased cognizance of his earned power and potential, re-constituted to serve the subversive purposes that his intelligence and sharp humor are undoubtedly built for.


Despite the conspicuous absence of subversive rock humorists in recent years, there appear to be indicators suggesting that the alternative youth culture is no longer willing to sit idly by as American democracy morphs into an Orwellian nightmare of fear, silence, and obedience. In the midst of two wars, untold human and financial cost, and the big chill of the Patriot Act, popular artists such as Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Green Day are stepping up to express America’s oldest and most important practice: dissent. In their work, as in that of contemporaries Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, and Bill Maher, we witness the significance of humor as a necessary weapon of resistance. Indeed, it may be the only tool that can “relieve” and revitalize a culture under paranoiac siege and back-door authoritarianism. In reflecting upon the subversive rock humorists that have played such significant counter-hegemonic roles in the last 50 years, contemporary artists can find valuable templates to reconstitute and apply to the hypocrisies, delusions, and oppressions of the present day.

Born in Manchester and raised east of London, Iain Ellis spent his formative years playing, performing, and consuming a heavy diet of punk rock music and football. In 1986, the young man went west to find his dreams in Bowling Green, Ohio. Instead, he picked up a PhD in American Culture Studies, writing his dissertation on 1980s American Punk Culture. In 2000, he traveled further west, settling in Lawrence, Kansas, where he currently teaches English at the University of Kansas and performs in his band The Leotards. You may also enjoy his books, Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists and Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor.


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