Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists
Second in an ongoing series of PopMatters' books, "Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists", by Iain Ellis, spotlights some seriously funny people in pop music.
** Co-published with Soft Skull Press as part of the PopMatters Books Series **
Iain Ellis talks with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck. Listen to the interview here: Humor as a Weapon
In Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists, music writer and professor Iain Ellis throws a spotlight on the history of humor as a weapon of anti-establishment rebellion by paying tribute to great rebel humorists in American rock history and investigating comedy and laughter as catalysts and expressive forces in these artists’ work. The performers who are the subject of Ellis’s study are not merely funny people -- they are those whose art exudes defiance and resistance, whether aimed at social structures and mores, political systems, aesthetic practices, or the music industry itself. In this study of rock’s impact on youth through the decades, Ellis proves that the most subversive rock humorists serve as the conscience of our culture. They chastise pretensions, satirize hypocrisy, and pour scorn on power, corruption, and lies.
Discussing the work of iconic figures as diverse as Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Beastie Boys, Missy Elliott, and Madonna, Ellis examines the nature of the rock humorist, asking why and in what ways each performer uses humor as a weapon of resistance. While their lyrics constitute Ellis’ primary field of analysis, his exploration moves into a discussion and interpretation of image, performance, product, and musical content.
Rock music has been the principle outlet of youth rebellion for over half a century, and though these rock rebels have been idolized and written about extensively, their humor—which has invariably been the bullet in the gun of subversive performers -- has never been the main focus. In Rebels Wit Attitude (PopMatters / Soft Skull Press; Trade Paper; December 2008; $15.95; 978-1-59376-206-3), Iain Ellis celebrates and scrutinizes the humor, asks what it consists of, how it manifests itself, what it targets, and what effect it has had on generations of fans.
About the Author
Iain Ellis’ writing and scholarly interests crystallized with the arrival of the punk rock movement in 1977, when he was 14 years old and living in London’s sleepy outer suburbs. Punk introduced him not only to the thrills that great rock music can instill, but also to political dissent, subversive humor, and a cultural awareness of the scope and possibilities of artistic expression. These burgeoning interests coalesced into a life engagement with Cultural Studies at universities in both the UK and the US, and Ellis wrote his American Studies Ph.D. dissertation on punk culture. He currently teaches in the English Department at the University of Kansas and writes regular columns on “Alternative Rock Cultures” and “Subversive Rock Humor” for PopMatters.
Praise for Rebels Wit Attitude
“A brainy, fun, and thought-provoking rollick through the last fifty years of music history. . . . What emerges is a greater understanding of the individual musicians and writers as more than enthralling entertainers and talented instrumentalists, but also as commentators on the ever-changing social and political landscape of the modern world.” -- ForeWord Magazine
“...Rebels is a comprehensive survey of subversive humor in American rock, devoting substantial attention to both the obvious and the not-so-obvious purveyors of the genre.” -- John S. Hall, King Missile
“A masterpiece of cultural criticism. Ellis does for rock music what Robert Hughes did for modern art—shows how the basic move is to subvert something. From Big Mama Thornton to Eminem, Ellis analyzes hundreds of performers, songs, and songwriters, showing how smart-ass humor grounded their appeal. If you’ve always wondered what Little Richard meant when he sang ‘A-wop-bop-alu-bop-a-wop-bam-boom,’ you need to read this book.” -- John Morreall, author of Taking Laughter Seriously, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, and Humor Works
“A fascinating exploration . . . aptly illustrates the rock musician’s dual role as both critic and entertainer, examining the power dynamics among artists, audiences, industries, and the culture at large.” -- Joanne Gilbert, author of Performing Marginality
Read excerpts from the book on the Talking Heads, Beastie Boys and Nirvana below...