Column: [Can't Make A Living] – The Joker: Subversion in Music
There’s something freaky about the Joker. Not necessarily the character from the Batman franchise, but the actual playing card. You know that image has been in our collective consciousness for a very long time. He’s in Shakespeare (King Lear), countless songs, poems and countless creepy medieval woodcut prints.
It’s unsettling – the way he smirks at us, knowingly.
Carl Jung declared the Trickster (or the Fox, Jester, Clown, Fool, Joker or whatever you want to call him) an archetype found throughout human culture. He is both stupid and observant, foolish but wise – a rebel.
“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it’s so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe…I say there’s more stupidity than hydrogen and that that is the basic building block of the universe.”
When he wasn’t composing instrumental music, Zappa spent his entire 30+ year career pointing this out. He satirized everything and everyone from the music business (“We’re Only In it For the Money”), to the hippie movement (“Absolutely Free” / “Oh No!” ), sex (“Stevie’s Spanking”), to political correctness and racism (“You Are What You Is” / “Jewish Princess”), to misogynists (“Lonesome Cowboy Burt”), to not eating your vegetables (“Call Any Vegetable”). I can name more songs and quote lyrics but there are just too many to choose from (62 albums worth).
He was highly opinionated, outspoken and “progressive” in his views. This got Frank into a lot of hot water with music critics, radio programmers, Republicans (sometimes Democrats) and a certain “committees of concern” in the mid 80s (but mostly Republicans).
To me, Zappa’s output is a shining example of how subversion works in Art. FRANK ZAPPA was a card – the wise fool. The protagonists/antagonists of his songs were often confused for the man himself – this is a common mistake in our line of work.
If Art functions as a cultural “Distant Early Warning System” as our old friend Marshall McLuhan suggested, then it ought to: A) Have a “receiver” or audience (see my previous 5-part installment) and B) some kind of comment or message or meaning.
When John Lennon sat down to write “Imagine”, he was doing more than simply composing a pretty tune – he was warning us about what he perceived as major societal fallacies (fallacies he himself was guilty of) and talking about values. The meaning doesn’t always need to be so direct; Lennon was doing the same with “I am the Walrus” (if less literally). In the song, “Getting Better” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) the line “I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved,” always sent a chill down my spine – mostly for its context within a overtly jaunty pop song.
In the mid-1980s Zappa got caught up in a war against the PMRC (a “concerned parents” group strife with moral panic over modern music, mostly hair metal). Zappa even testified in congress against the PMRC, staunchly defending his and other artists’ First Amendment (free speech) rights. Zappa did this because, although he was not a fan of the music the PMRC was focused on, he believed that a free society requires its artists the freedom to say anything. I agree.
Subversion is not the only way to inject meaning into your Art or music, but it is the most important type of meaning to me. Art devoid of subversion (to paraphrase Zappa) is like watching a film where the good guys do nothing but sit around eating cottage cheese – it’s boring! In his book Trickster Makes this World, Lewis Hyde argues that the artist occupies a unique space between truth and lies or reality and imagination and is at heart a Trickster, fooling us with his/her beautiful lies into seeing the world a different way. That explains a lot.
Subversion doesn’t always need to be about society or politics, it doesn’t have to come in the form of satire, it doesn’t even have to be literal – it can be about a medium itself, by breaking the established “norms” of that medium.
Like the impressionists, cubists, dadaists, and abstract expressionists did with the visual arts, musicians like FRANK ZAPPA, SONIC YOUTH, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and (yes) even THE BEATLES imbue their work with meaning on many levels. For me, subversion as a type of meaning in music is a big reason why I continue forward, and grow as a musician. This is a personal preference.
As you may have guessed, this has been another episode of the Big Why (call it Part 6, if you will). My next installment will be the last piece on this broad topic (for now). I’ve been saving it for last, because it seems to be the most common reason why people decide to make indie music: because it’s part of them and they love doing it.