Ween have spent the last 20-plus years in a state of constant flux, winding their genre-bending way through the entire history of rock with equal parts aplomb and parody. Their mission statement was most vividly articulated in their song, “Even If You Don’t” (2000), as “rooting through the garbage for treasures in the trash pile”; or, more obliquely in “You Fucked Up” (1990), the opening song of their debut record, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, which offers the concise mantra: “You fucked up/ You bitch/ You really fucked up/ You fucked up/ You fuckin’ Nazi whore/ You dicked me over/ But now you’ll pay/ You fucked up.” Need they say more? In that particular song, they did not.
Blessed with the musical skills to be a more-than-accomplished band of any rock genre, Ween chose to be serial (and surreal) comedians committed to deconstructing any form, style, or motif that crossed their path. Since establishing their identity in the early ‘90s as postmodern indie-Zappas, Gene and Dean Ween (Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, respectively) have excavated the deep, dark crevices of our collective rock memories in order to parade, celebrate, then (reverently) ridicule the formulas and clichés that reside in rock’s foundations. It is fitting (and most challenging) that they have mostly gravitated to the art-conscious sub-genres of classic rock, deconstructing the magic to reveal often predictable templates, essentially uncovering the “sic” side of “clas-sic”.
Ween wield the humor tools of parody and irony in apparently simple but often complex ways. Unlike Weird Al Yankovic, to whom the band are often compared, Ween prioritize the search for musical excellence over the pay-off joke. What makes their songs worthy of repeat listening is that the band always maintains a “critical” creative distance and distinction from the music they are referencing. Theirs is an affectionate parody that shows love for its root sources; it seeks neither to be (just) dismissive nor condemnatory.
Their deconstructive inclinations add further depth to the comedic scope of their playing, as a trippy vocal alteration or a spazzed-out psychedelic guitar solo, in their hands, are not just exercises in whimsical humor, but parodies of those who would employ such techniques in the name of whimsy or experimental originality. Ween cleverly convey the postmodern reality that there is really nothing new under the rock sun that is not a creative re-configuration of what has come before.
Their most immediate antecedents are from the nerdy backwaters of ‘80s indie rock, where bands like King Missile, Camper Van Beethoven, and Guided by Voices resided. Like Guided by Voices, we laugh at the genre-infatuations and the nostalgic referencing, but we are also laughing at the enthusiastic passion being injected into the re-creative process. If they were not so skilled at what they do, they would not be so amusing. Indeed, it might be argued that Ween’s (and Guided by Voices’) pastiche-songs are often superior to their original source inspirations, and that their versions are good despite and beyond their comic quotients.
Like their indie rock colleagues, Ween’s humor is limited by the scope of their audience’s rock-education antenna. It relies on our capacities to both spot the references and to appreciate the nuances that differentiate the humorist from the copy-cat. To facilitate this in-house connection—the collective consciousness of the joke—Ween invariably embrace styles and genres that are already excessive and bombastic, and thus, ripe for parody. Psychedelia, heavy metal, and Prince-style funk are already inherently humorous; they merely need tipping to shed their full comic fruits.
Although Ween have generally leaned more towards playing with genres than with specific artists, Prince has been a consistent go-to source for their brand of provocative parody. The band’s insatiable appetite for porn-bred sexuality and saucy tit-bits has made the like-minded Prince ripe for the picking (on). “L.M.L.Y.P” (1990) (an acronym for “Let Me Lick Your Pussy”) and “Monique the Funk” (2005) are Ween-style affectionate parodies that both showcase the band’s musical and vocal reaches, while playing to the camp dirty minds of Prince’s established oeuvre.
Shock-humor abounds across Ween’s work, and dumb infantilism is worn as a badge of honor. Unlike contemporary pop-punks, though, who use toilet humor and naughty words to upset parents, Ween’s offensive language is self-consciously over-the-top, exaggerated to the point that it is clearly a parody of those very pop-punks and their ilk. With songs like “Waving My Dick in the Wind” (1997), “Put The Coke On My Dick” (1999), and “Big Fat Fuck” (1999), Ween enter the comedic territory of those masters of juvenile joking, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame. United by their unending desire to piss-take and piss off, it is not surprising that Ween and the South Park boys have sometimes collaborated on each other’s projects. As with Parker and Stone, to dismiss Ween’s dumb humor as just juvenile provocation is to miss the other end of their jokes.
The principle subversive factor to Ween’s irreverent humor is the jolting incongruity between the band’s music and messages. Our ordered expectations are disturbed and undermined by the arrival of the unexpected (in Ween’s case the inappropriate); our cognitive response to the “shock” is to laugh or find humor. Ween are the current kings of incongruity because they reverently present their music (like a straight man), then disrupt the established mood with unrelated or clashing lyrical outbursts. This Jeckyl and Hyde form of rock schizophrenia is the band’s own formula to undermining the formulas that they are deconstructing.
One of the band’s most well-known examples of genre sabotage in the name of incongruity humor is “Piss Up a Rope” from 12 Golden Country Greats (1996) (an album that contains only 10 songs!). Like the rest of this record, “Rope” has an authentic honky-tonk sound and instrumentation (courtesy of Nashville session pro-players). It even draws from the standard repertoire of country song imagery, though in Ween’s hands these clichés are warped and perverted, re-constituted into a hilariously offensive track that alludes to, while disrupting, the conventions of the country complaint song.
The following couplet is illustrative: “You ride my ass like a horse and a saddle/ Now you’re up shit creek with a turd for a paddle”. Similarly, “Baby Bitch”, from Chocolate and Cheese (1994), sets the music and lyrics in incongruous opposition. Here, a gentle Elizabethan courtly ballad serves as the backdrop for a woeful narrative tale that unexpectedly tail-spins into this chorus: “Baby, baby, baby bitch/ Fuck you, you stinkin’ ass ho.” These lines are delivered in flow, with the same deadpan seriousness as the succeeding verse lines, “Most beauty I’ve seen/ You came from a dream.” Meanwhile, seemingly unaffected, the acoustic guitars continue to strum on majestically in the background.
The Chocolate and Cheese album also plays host to two disturbingly funny examples of rock pastiche that, again, use incongruity as their subversive vehicle. “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” and “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?” tap into the Lassie-like sentimental melodramas that populated mainstream popular music during the mid-‘70s; Paper Lace’s “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” (1974) is but one example of the type that comes to mind. Ween’s contributions to the form showcase their “sick” humor both literally and metaphorically.
Against a soft but ominous guitar motif, “Spinal Meningitis” uses voice-alteration technology to create a child speaker who describes the pain and fears he is experiencing from his disease. “Am I gonna see God, Mommy?” asks the ailing youth, tugging at the heartstrings of listeners. Then, an omniscient narrator intervenes, providing the pseudo blues/gospel chorus lines, “Smile on mighty Jesus/ Spinal meningitis got me down”. The rock-speak “got me down”, coupled with the bizarre choice of the sickness, draw us to and accentuate the sentimentality of the attendant religious clichés, as well as to the emotional manipulations of such traditions.
“Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?” is the comedic inverse of Elvis Presley’s “Old Shep” tear-jerker. Here, another innocent child cries out for help, this time on behalf of his pony, who is sick, “cryin’ like a baby”, and has “coughed up snot in the driveway”. Sufficiently lured into the emotional trap, listeners are jolted into crying tears of laughter rather than sadness when the narrator incongruously interjects, “I think his lung’s fucked up”. The kind of sick, vindictive humor required to come up with such absurd juxtapositions and deconstructions is rare indeed—both within and beyond the rock world.
With each new album a smorgasbord of styles and genres, Ween continue Frank Zappa’s legacy of bringing bemusement to the forms and formulas of rock “types”. Like Zappa, Gene and Dean are often criticized for the contemptuous smirk they bring to their parodies. Conversely, and like Zappa, too, they have been applauded as reverential of rock’s past and for prioritizing musical excellence over cheap wit. Resolutely committed to their craft and craftiness, Ween—again, like the South Park team—have stayed true to their chosen independent cause when opportunities could have afforded them greater remuneration. (Remember: this is the band that at the peak of their popularity did an entire album of traditional country & western songs [not alt-country!] for a largely urban, indie-rock audience).
A cult band now as they were when they started, history will surely register Ween as one of the most authentic practitioners of the art of inauthenticity. Their doggedly ironic diss-position, pushing at the outer edges of comedy, is something the late, great Frank Zappa would surely have applauded.The above essay is an excerpt from Subversive Rock Humorists, a forthcoming book from PopMatters about artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.