December 11, 2009

Ray Stevens: What Makes the Novelty Song?

The age-old question rears it's head again in this blog entry. "What makes the novelty song?". It depends on who you ask. Naturally you have to ask someone who has a fondness and a respect for the novelty song. In recent times the "novelty song" has lost a lot of it's true meaning. If this were 1950 and radio played the kinds of songs that are on mainstream Top-40 pop stations right now almost everything would be viewed as a novelty song because of how light and less-than-serious the material sounds. There's a lot of bells, whistles, and sound effects and not much else. However, in the opinion of today's music consumers, the modern-day pop song is as serious as brain surgery. Whatever happened, though, to the idea that a "novelty song" evoked some sort of humor or some sort of off-the-wall spin on life? Even more crucial, though, is when did the idea that "novelty songs" are in the same category as the skunk is in the animal kingdom? When did it become, quote, "embarrassing" to enjoy comedy songs? When did it become a source of shame if one likes comedy songs? Is it musical snobbery? A music elitist mentality? All of this leads up to this often repeated line...I'm not quoting from anyone specifically but here it is...

"As a rule, I'm not a big fan of comedy and novelty songs..."

I'm always curious what a line like this means since everyone has a different opinion. What does "As a rule, I'm not a big fan..." mean? What rule? Who set this rule? Is there some rule out there I'm not aware of that says that people aren't to like humorous recordings or some rule that people aren't to admit they like comedy songs?

Without any question, Ray Stevens is the most successful artist associated with the novelty song genre. There have been novelty artist's who've came and went and had a big splash for a couple of years and often get the "#1 novelty artist" nick-name from those who appreciate comedy songs and recordings. However, none in my opinion have remained as consistent as Ray Stevens. In second place for me is Weird Al Yankovic. Some would place Weird Al at #1 over Ray Stevens but in a lot of cases this is simply due to age and material preference. If someone's rabid for song parodies then Weird Al will be "#1" in the minds of novelty song fans. If someone loves listening to goofy songs or has a broader taste in humor, then Ray Stevens is your kind of comedian. Ray loves to feature a lot of music on his songs...depending on a song's lyrics he chooses which instruments to feature in a song. This particular talent may sound like something not so special to a lot of people but when you think about it, it's a genius at work. The next time you listen to a Ray Stevens song, especially anything from 1968 onward, listen to the music you hear. After repeated listening to a lot of Ray Stevens material you begin to associate a certain sound with whatever song he's singing. Whenever I hear his version of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down", a serious song about a man with a hangover, I have the arrangement in my mind and have memorized it so well that if I hear him sing the song with a different arrangement and different instrumentation it would feel like a completely different song to me. It's just one of Ray's talents that sometimes goes overlooked because music buyers concentrate on the finished project and not on all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

Also, there's this urban legend that people "stoop to comedy singing" if they have less than stellar singing voices. This can be true...but in Ray Stevens' case it's the opposite. Ray is known as a comedy singer and his comical music videos reinforce that reputation but let's not forget the numerous love ballads and legitimate serious recordings he's written and or performed during the last 50 some years. Roger Miller comes to mind as being on par with Ray when it comes to mixing the silly, goofy, and satirical and the seriousness of other topics that come with relationships.

Moving on...

I think puns are witty and creative by the way. Also, there's nothing to be ashamed of in liking "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" while at the same time liking the more serious Christmas songs of Bing Crosby, for example. I can tolerate both extremes so I'm an example of someone that can easily listen to an album of Bing Crosby and if I choose to I can listen to an album of nutty novelty songs all in the same day. Some feel they have to only like or appreciate one thing or one music style and nothing some extent this is okay because there are some very bad and horrific material routinely exposed to children who in return grow up with a sensitivity and, gasp, an actual appreciation for rappers who glorify beating their wives or girlfriends and these aimless and hopeless kids think wearing 40 tons of jewelery and speaking in half-sentences is the epitome of being cool. In that scenario I'm all for parents steering their children clear of that stuff...but that's an entirely different argument for a different day.

I'm probably in the minority but in my mind I like to think that there are some out there like myself who appreciate the goofy songs as well as the traditional music. It breaks up the monotony of everyone's ultra-seriousness plus it allows for laughter when listening to music. I'm always wondering why, in fact, people are so dead serious when it comes to music. It's funny, in a way, because the people come off as being humorless but they swear they have a sense of humor. I've seen web-sites where commentators and bloggers say that puns make them cringe if they hear one. As I mentioned in the above paragraph I think puns are witty and creative.

So, what makes the novelty song? In my opinion you need to have a subject matter that's either currently popular or something that the public at large is familiar with and there needs to be an underlying tone of humor within the song. The subject matter could be anything from a remote control to a car. I think reality shows are one of the biggest scams in generating viewers but you'd be surprised by how serious people take those kinds of shows and how wrapped up people get watching so and so being kicked out of a house or off an island or off a talent show. This is why, I feel, comedians today when and if they attack reality shows, they don't get a mainstream outlet because the mainstream takes those shows seriously.

The same is true for music...when it comes to the public perception of what's serious and what's not. When a song strays from what is considered normal then it's given the novelty moniker even though there perhaps wouldn't be anything "funny" within the entire song...just the odd or strange production value would give it a novelty tag. This is why I said if it were 1950 nearly everything on Top-40 pop radio now would be deemed a novelty song because everything sounds bizarre but yet if you played nothing but 1950 pop music on the radio now the music listeners would consider those songs bizarre and strange by comparison.

Glancing at the Hot 100 now you'll see people and groups by the names of Black Eyed Peas, Kesha, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Snoop Dog, Akon, and others. Now, 95% of those acts put on a "show" least I assume they do. It's much like wrestling...where everyone knows it's fake but people who watch are still drawn into it. I put Top-40 pop music of today and the last 20+ years into that same category. The acts put on a show, some critics say a freak show, and yet the music buyers eat it up. Some consumers I think actually believe in all the staged hysterics and goings-on when it comes to rock and pop personalities of today. The stupidity and antics that take place today in pop and rock music is heralded as awesome and cool by those who are taken in by the theatrics and the overt showiness of it.

1 comment:

  1. AC honestly you are a wonder, you are so informative about the good Doctor Ray Stevens, if it weren't for him and the pleasure he gives us with laughter, wit and wisdom the world would be missing out on a great not only entertainer but a wonderful human being.



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