Collapsed laughing: how the gap between music and comedy has disappeared | Music

Some of my favourite music of this year was made by a comedian, and some of my favourite comedy by musicians. The comedian is Bo Burnham, whose Netflix standup special Inside was built around a series of songs satirising online life that were nuanced and sophisticated enough to completely transcend their comedy context. The accompanying album reached No 5 in the UK charts. The musicians are Dry Cleaning, a London post-punk outfit fronted by Florence Shaw, whose droll sprechgesang resembles left-field standup, her monologues filled with surrealism, sarcasm, offbeat observations and dialogue that brings to mind Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett. “I’m just sad about the collapse of heavy industry / I’ll be alright in a bit,” goes recent single Tony Speaks!.

These two examples are not outliers: it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell comedy-music and music-music apart. Earlier this month, spoof pirate radio crew Kurupt FM – the team behind the BBC sitcom People Just Do Nothing – released their debut album, The Greatest Hits (Part 1). They may be steeped in UK garage nostalgia but these songs are more than just punchlines – and many were made with serious collaborators (D Double E, Sir Spyro, Mist, Chase and Status). Plus, Kurupt FM have a background in music rather than comedy: they did actually do pirate radio for real initially, and Hugo Chegwin, who plays the credulous Beats, has worked as a songwriter for Sam Smith and Tinie Tempah. The crew also have a successful club night. The trend continues with Bad Boy Chiller Crew, the social media jokers who recently began making bassline, and are now a serious proposition – in both the big-time and not particularly funny senses.

Then you have the tranche of cutting-edge musicians whom people think are a joke. Jimothy Lacoste is a maker of arch, disarmingly DIY pop that you either “get” or you don’t: his sound, lyrics, matter-of-fact rapping and preppy dress sense are so amusing he resembles a comedy act – which he isn’t, and he has spoken of being “really offended” when somebody calls him a joke. When the hugely influential PC Music label rose to prominence, their strange and extremely artificial Eurodance-inspired pop baffled critics and the public alike: Fact declared them “pure, contemptuous parody”, while Vice conceded that “even if they’re an elaborate joke, PC Music dominated 2014”. The genre PC Music birthed, hyperpop, receives similar treatment (“it’s not a joke” is how 100 Gecs described their output to this newspaper).

Also not technically a joke, but obviously tongue-in-cheek are a new generation of rappers including Niko B and Lil Yachty. “I can see how it’s funny,” Yachty has said. “But it’s not a joke.” Lil Nas X, meme-maker turned popstar, has defended his clearly quite silly country-trap smash from similar accusations: “Just because Old Town Road has funny lines doesn’t mean it’s parody,” he tweeted in 2019.

Why is the line between comedy-music and music-music becoming so blurred? It’s important to note that the distinction hasn’t always been clear – in the UK, the two were once virtually interchangeable. Music hall, which was enormously popular between the mid-19th century and the first world war (vaudeville was the North American equivalent), was where standup comedy originated. It was also a major crucible for popular music: both existed in the same form, comic songs. By the 1960s, pop music and comedy were better delineated, but there was still a lot of overlap. The Beatles were a (mostly) serious band, Monty Python were a comedy troupe, but what about the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who collaborated with both but can’t really be categorised as either? Whatever they were, pre-stardom David Bowie existed in a similar realm. There was similar ambiguity in the US when Frank Zappa – no stranger to comedy himself – signed Alice Cooper to his label Straight in the late 1960s. “Some say Zappa initially saw Alice Cooper as a comedy act,” writes the critic Simon Reynolds. (Which wouldn’t necessarily have put him off; Cooper released Lenny Bruce records on his other label, Bizarre.)

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic in his prime. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex

In the decades that followed, there was less crossover. That’s not to say music lost its sense of humour: punk was funny, hip-hop was funny, 80s pop was funny, Britpop was funny – but nobody thought the Sex Pistols, De La Soul or Pulp were actually comedians. Even the majority of glam acts, including Slade, were taken seriously as musical propositions. By the same token, there was great joke-music – Weird Al, the Lonely Island, Flight of the Conchords – that was unambiguous in its comic intent. There was, of course, also plenty of novelty music, which claims to be both but really is neither.

Every now and then, a musician would stray into the liminal space between the two art forms – they weren’t comedians but they seemed like a joke. How did they get there? The answer is usually that they had a complicated relationship with their genre. Take the Darkness, who comically amped-up the ridiculous melodrama of glam-metal – a style they were also genuinely committed to. The goofy shtick of Madness, meanwhile, wasn’t the band taking the mickey out of ska but rather a way to tacitly acknowledge a lack of authenticity. They were the funniest two-tone band; they were also the whitest. There was plenty of out-and-out rap parody in the 1980s, but Beastie Boys weren’t laughing at hip-hop. They were more explicit in their mockery of rock, however. But their humour was an admission that there was something inherently irreverent about middle-class Jews rapping. The more incongruous the artist and the genre are – white middle-class British rap (the Streets); white Welsh rap (Goldie Lookin Chain) – the more likely they are to be considered a joke. Of course, these acts were all deliberately trying to be funny in a straightforward sense, but their comedy was inextricably tied to the fact that they all held genre at an ironic distance because they were outsiders in terms of time, place or race.

The reason so much cutting-edge music currently seems like a joke is because it, too, has an irreverent approach to genre. The internet contributed to the collapse of stylistic tribes – it is easy to chop and change on a whim when you don’t have to invest money or time in a specific scene – meaning people stopped taking genre so seriously. Streaming also steamrollered genre divides, with playlists tending to mix styles together.

These days, a pick’n’mix attitude to genre is ubiquitous, meaning even when the music in question has no obvious comic dimension, the impression of parody remains. On Sour, Olivia Rodrigo switches between pop-punk, folk, power balladry, grunge and bedroom pop. The 1975’s last album took in ragga, screamo, trip-hop, R&B and Madchester. Trying on an array of genres means holding all of them at a certain remove, giving the music a postmodern sheen that can be indistinguishable from irony. When this genre-fickleness is combined with humorous lyrics (the Rhythm Method, for instance, who combine excessive punning with two-step, lovers’ rock, pub rock and many more), it gets confusingly close to the kind of subtle pastiche a musical comedian such as Bo Burnham practises on Inside, which features acoustic indie, 80s synthpop and sleazy R&B, among other styles.

There’s also a sense in which music has stopped evolving in a linear way. In order to create something new, you must mix and match genres from the past into new combinations (emo-trap), or take on established styles from unexpected angles (Jimothy Lacoste making rap that’s homemade, wholesome and a bit wooden; Lil Nas X, a Black, queer artist, merging hip-hop with the very straight, white world of country). Another way to push things forward while looking backwards is to reclaim unloved styles from the past and give them a new context. PC Music played with the associations people had with critically derided genres such as Eurodance and bubblegum pop by making them challenging and clever, subverting expectation in an almost prank-like way. The label’s founder, AG Cook, applies this rule to other genres: last year he released an amusingly inane (but also brilliant) song called Oh Yeah that was inspired by Shania Twain’s 90s pop-rock. Rina Sawayama abides by the same principle, taking her nu-metal and hair metal influences with a large pinch of salt, while 100 Gecs incorporate chipmunk vocals and nu-metal in a way that recognises their intrinsic silliness while dragging them into the zeitgeist.

Annie Murphy debuts A Little Bit Alexis in Schitt’s Creek.
Annie Murphy debuts A Little Bit Alexis in Schitt’s Creek. Photograph: POP TV

There comes a point where this trick – reclaiming uncool musical styles in the name of subversion and novelty – completely converges with comedic parody. Slayyyter, a hyperpop singer, has cited Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton as inspirations – the exact same part-time pop stars Annie Murphy looked to when crafting a comic song to illustrate her ex-socialite character Alexis’s short-lived music career on Schitt’s Creek. Murphy said she wanted A Little Bit Alexis to be both “spoofy” and a “fucking banger of a song that people would actually put on to pre-drink to and, you know, dance to at the club”. (People did, especially in gay clubs, and the song reached No 28 in the charts in the show’s native Canada.) Both Slayyyter and Murphy wanted to make genuinely good music. They were also both riffing to a certain extent on the perceived crappiness of a certain strain of pop. When a cutting-edge musician and a comedy writer essentially have the same intention, things get confusing.

This meta-ness and ironic distance doesn’t always present in an artist’s generic choices. Comedy-music is often defined by the idea that the artist is actually a comic character, yet serious bands such as Dry Cleaning and the Mercury-nominated Black Country, New Road use their deadpan sprechgesang to create a more subtle sincerity gap. “I’m trying to develop a weird character on stage,” Chris Bailey of Nottingham post-punkers Do Nothing told the Guardian. “An exaggerated version of myself, like Stewart Lee does.” Dry Cleaning’s Shaw, meanwhile, has likened her vocal style to a form of acting, a device that prevents the listener taking her lyrics at face value.

As music-music returns to a more self-aware, comically-minded realm, comedy-music has become more serious, which means the two are increasingly meeting in the middle. Comedy has become less silly across the board; the boundaries around it collapsing into politics, drama and pop. Standup has increasingly made room for serious points about race, mental health and politics (see: Hannah Gadsby, Nish Kumar, Richard Gadd). On television, the sitcom has been all but replaced by the sadcom, a format that embraces tragedy, identity politics and the generic language of drama.

It means comedy doesn’t have to be myopically focused on funniness to qualify as comedy any more. Burnham’s song That Funny Feeling is full of absurd images but its discussion of the cheapening, disorientating effect of internet culture’s inappropriate everything-ness (“Discount Etsy agitprop, [US crisp brand] Bugles’ take on race”) and related mental health issues is disturbing and profound. The song was recently covered by the singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers with a completely straight face – if it hadn’t been a famous song by a comedian, its origins would have not been remotely obvious.

The recent emphasis on believability in comedy, meanwhile, means joke-music needs to match the quality of actual music. Like Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, the team behind recent US comedy show Girl5Eva, about the reunion of a 00s girl group, didn’t want the band’s music to sound like a joke, they told Vulture. “There is nothing I’d like more than to think that people are really listening to the song,” said writer Jeff Richmond of the outfit’s calling card track, Famous 5Eva.

The internet makes it much easier to “really listen” to a comedy song. It has also blurred the line between comedy-music and music-music by putting them side by side. When Girls5Eva and Kurupt FM live in the same space as Dry Cleaning and Jimothy Lacoste, the difference between them is reduced even further. You can even remove a comedy song from its context and make it a normal(-ish) number, as Burnham did with his accompanying album. And Friday Night, from Tim Robinson’s sketch show I Think You Should Leave, is a hysterical punchline in situ and a ridiculously infectious standalone song that I have listened to a hundred times.

The internet has decimated categorisation in many ways; the tragic and the trivial converge on a social media timeline. Online humour drenches everything. TikTok dance crazes make straight-faced songs resemble novelty numbers. The extremely arch sensibility of weird Twitter is echoed in the extremely online sensibility of hyperpop. It’s a development that can seem grotesque (see the lyrics to That Funny Feeling), but it can also be enriching, with comedy evolving into something more than just a vehicle for laughter, and pop music becoming more sophisticated and self-aware than it has been in a long time.

Despite how insistent certain artists are that they are no joke, it’s hard to nail down any meaningful distinction between comedy-music and music-music. And why bother? When the quality of a comedy song reaches a certain level, the qualifier essentially disappears. In 2017, spoof MC Big Shaq ribbed rappers for their reluctance to remove their coats on Man’s Not Hot. It would become one of the biggest UK rap songs of all time, completely transcending its comedy roots. Three Lions was co-written and performed by Baddiel and Skinner, two of our most successful comics, but these days it’s taken so seriously as a cultural artefact it may as well be the national anthem (in a major football competition year, at least).

In the end, we now only care if a song is good or not. Irony, distance and genre demarcation in comedy and music are collapsing into a single grey area – one that is anything but dull.