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Serious Art: Towards a Unification of Haha and Hoohoo

Christian Marclay Dragging a Feedback Guitar Behind a Truck.

Christian Marclay Dragging a Feedback Guitar Behind a Truck.

Serious Art

Towards a Unification of Haha and Hoohoo

by Mat Blackwell

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I once went to a noise festival-type thing—an all-day many-acts-in-many-rooms affair. It was the kind where you need to keep frantically checking the printed out timetable list to be able to properly navigate; the kind where you have to carefully manage your smoke breaks to make sure you don’t end up missing the few acts you’ve heard of that you actually wanted to see.  It was during one of these fortuitous breaks that I caught up with a few folk in the bar room, not close friends exactly, but the usual music crew—the same people who go to free-jazz gigs, earsplitting noise gigs, weird black metal gigs, experimental music gigs, etc.[1]  I was busily attempting to suck down some sort of beer before the break was over, while simultaneously attending to my required social responsibilities, and so was half-heartedly engaging in mild conversation with these music-appreciation-based semi-friends.  The topic had touched briefly on what I did for a living, and I mentioned that I was a comedy writer.[2]  To which one of my associates responded, sourly, ‘Man, I hate comedians’.  The ring of beer-quaffing quasi-friends nodded and grunted in universal agreement.  I gulped down the remainder of my drink in lieu of any intelligent response, and then break-time was over. We all rushed to whatever act of bastard noise was next in line to assault our sensibilities, but the statement remained in my mind, and the issue lay unresolved for many years.

It was not just the blanket certainty of the statement—all comedians? Actual hate? Really?—that irked me, nor that my livelihood had been so thoroughly impugned.  It was that we’d just collectively watched grown adults make music with squeaky toys and laptops, scream incoherently into miked-up plates of glass, and jab each other with buzzing live guitar leads.[3]  It had never really occurred to me that you could like this kind of wacky music and not like comedy.  I had assumed that people who dug experimental music were, in part, enjoying it because it was funny, in both senses of the word: that is, ‘funny haha’ and ‘funny hoohoo’.[4]  Yet, time and time again, I see the kinds of people who dig the ‘funny hoohoo’, unselfconsciously deriding the ‘funny haha’, as though it is in some way different, worse, or less worthy of appreciation.  As the years dragged on, the more I analysed my own feelings towards extreme, experimental, or unpopular musical forms, the more indignant I became, and the more certain I was that the ‘haha’ and the ‘hoohoo’ belonged together; indeed, that they were not only inseparable, but deeply intertwined, both in resultant effect and causative mission statement.  So, while this essay is, in part, a belated response to a conversational tidbit many years gone, it is also a decisive argument to be used in the conversations yet to come—because come they will.

Serious Art

In a way, it is no surprise that we are culturally susceptible to schisming our art into that which makes us laugh (or should), and that which doesn’t (or shouldn’t).  When we wander through a record shop,[5] we don’t see a section dedicated to ‘sad music’.  There’s no section dedicated to ‘spite’, or ‘ennui’.  There’s no genre compartment for ‘angry’, ‘bitter’, or ‘strangely whimsical’; yet, there it is—the ‘comedy’ section.  Why is this emotion the only one that needs to be separated out?  Why is laughter seen as so antithetical to the other range of human feelings expressible in art, so exiled and isolated?  Or, examined from the other direction: why is generic Art so humourless?

I can’t speak for other cultures, but certainly in Australia, there is an innate distrust of art, artiness, artists, and art-appreciation.[6]  Not all art, sure—I don’t think there’d be many Aussies who have much of a problem with the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa, at least conceptually—but in general, I think that there’s a pretty simple line graph which can be drawn which indicates the less traditional the artform, the greater the community’s distrust.  That is to say, we accept that back in the olden days, people painted, and that was okay—but Modern Art not only perplexes, it is highly suspect as proper Art at all.  And it really is a form of suspicion, rather than just simply not liking it; as a culture, we find it easier to deny that something is even art, than to say that it is art, but we don’t like it.[7]  There’s a real sense that the community is scared of being tricked, somehow, into thinking something is Proper Art, when it’s not.  It’s a palpable sense of confusion and wariness, as though there is something very important at stake; as though Art somehow matters a lot, but, as a whole, we’re not really sure why.

Therefore, if we are people unfortunate enough to be cursed with whatever terrible illness it is that makes us end up creating art, we’re already defensive.  So ingrained is this feeling that art isn’t really valuable at all—unless it’s Proper Art (in which case it’s suddenly very valuable indeed)—that we’re already trying to distance ourselves from whatever it might be that makes Art not really Proper.  We’re trying to prove that we’re not just goofing off, mucking around, being silly, or doing something my six year-old daughter could do; we’re trying to prove that our art is actually Serious Art.

And there’s your schism right there.  If Serious Art is the good stuff, then clearly anything that is not Serious is the bad stuff.[8]  Anything that makes us laugh, that is deliberately playful, that is light of spirit, or that is silly, wacky, or a little bit dumb, is the direct opposite of Proper Art.  Not only is this pretty clear and obvious once seen, but the effect on those of us who make non-traditional forms of art is similarly obvious: the more out-there and non-traditional your artform, the harder you’d better defend yourself against mirth.  Because the instant you’re making art that makes people laugh, you’re not an Artist anymore: you’re a Comedian.

(And, man, I hate comedians.)

Faxed Head

Faxed Head

Boundaries

If you ever want to see a bunch of Melbournians standing around looking either bored or sternly focused, go to an experimental music festival.  Never will you see a greater po-faced bunch of unsmilers in your life; the Serious Art is so thick you can cut it with a Stockhausen record (original pressing).  And it’s not just the audience that radiate solemnity:  the performers themselves are the very picture of seriousness.  Indeed, you’ll see every expression ranging from blank concentration all the way to full-bore full-body hernia-inducing physical rage, but to see a smile is rare indeed, even when what the performer is doing is patently silly.[9]  We have become so scared of not being taken seriously that our art has become limited to expressing only a certain range of emotions, and engendering only a certain range of responses.  Instead of expanding our worlds, our scared-of-comedy artforms run the risk of limiting them.  Instead of pushing boundaries, our fear-based artforms are reinforcing them.

Which is what experimental music (at the very least)[10] should be about, surely: pushing boundaries.  Shouldn’t it?  Maybe we should sort out our definitions.

Some Definitions, Maybe

Because of the ever-evolving nature of reality itself, definitions are by their very nature inaccurate.[11]  Not only are the subjects of the definition going to change, but even the words used to create the definition are prone to meaning-shift and transience.  However, they can still be useful context-markers, even given the vagueness and blurriness that arises when it comes to the topic at hand.

So, for the sake of the current argument, I’m defining this boundary-pushing tendency as the central tenet of any music which claims to be at all ‘experimental’.  In my highly-limited lazy quasi-research, I discovered this Wikipedia definition which kind of says what I’m aiming for:

‘…the term “experimental” is used in conjunction with genre names to describe music within specific genres that pushes against their boundaries or definitions, or else whose approach is a hybrid of disparate styles, or incorporates unorthodox, new, distinctly unique ingredients’.[12]

Looking down the Wikipage to the bit where it says ‘common elements’ of experimental music, we see a nice long list, including (but not limited to): extended techniques (‘Any of a number of methods of performing with voice or a musical instrument that are unique, innovative, and sometimes regarded as improper’), using non-traditional sound-sources (‘such as trash cans, telephone ringers, or doors slamming’), playing with ‘deliberate disregard for the ordinary musical controls (pitch, duration, volume)’, creating your own instruments (‘for enhancing the timbre of compositions’), and removing the ‘perceived barriers of traditional concert settings’ with ‘performers scattered among the audience; audience on stage; events designed to encourage (or compel) audience participation; anticonic [sic] activities (piano burning; attacking a guitar with an axe; threatening the audience; nudity; etc.)’[13]

It’s about pushing boundaries, clearly.[14]  Any artist/musician who has as part of their intent the pushing of any boundaries at all—and I would argue that only the most rigidly conservative of mainstream musicians doesn’t—is at least tenuously interested in experimentation.  Even unquestionably drivetime-friendly stalwarts like The Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who[15] were experimentalists; most music that offers anything interesting[16] is experimental, pushing boundaries, to some small extent.  And, of course, the greater the experimentation, the further from mainstream music we stray.  None of this is particularly ground-breaking theory.  I don’t think this is a challenging definition for anyone: let’s accept this, or something like it, and move on.

So what is comedy?

The mighty and ever-reliable Wikipedia lists these different forms of comedy:

Satire uses ‘ironic comedy to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous or corrupt’;  Parody ‘subverts popular genres and forms…to critique those forms from within’; Screwball comedy ‘derives its humor [sic] largely from bizarre, surprising (and improbable) situations or characters’; Black comedy ‘makes light of so-called dark or evil elements in human nature’; scatological humour, sexual humour, and race humour create comedy ‘by violating social conventions or taboos’.[18]

I mean, we all already knew that.  If we look at what these different forms of comedy have in common, it’s the exposing of what shouldn’t be exposed (the ridiculousness of social institutions, the dark and evil, the taboo) and the crossing of boundaries that are meant to remain uncrossed (the bizarre, the sick, the personal).  So, when we look at the way comedy works—by pushing boundaries and delivering the unexpected—and we compare that to how experimental music/art is defined—by being something that pushes boundaries and delivers the unexpected—we can see the two are not so distinct as we may have previously thought.  Indeed, they’re looking pretty damn similar.

And yet, of course, there are differences.  To my thinking, it seems that the differences are essentially purpose-based ones, differences in intent rather than result.  To wit[19]: comedy’s main intent is to make one laugh, by means of pushing boundaries and delivering the unexpected; experimental art’s main intent is to push boundaries and deliver the unexpected, but laughter is only one of many possible reactions.  With comedy, laughter is the goal, but with boundary-pushing art, the goal is the pushing of the boundaries itself.  Comedy strives for the ‘haha’; experimental art craves the ‘hoohoo’.  But, despite their differences of intent, both are often united in the result: an audience laughing at things that are out of the ordinary (or, in the case of Melbournian chin-strokers, not letting themselves laugh out of fear that it will undermine their carefully-crafted aloof coolness).  But of course, this is the critical distinction: when laughter occurs, is it as the result of success or failure?

Playing squeaky toys and screaming into a plate of glass isn’t necessarily funny, but laughter isn’t out of the question, as far as predictable audience reactions go.  After all, if you’re going to go beyond the realms of the normal, you’re going to run the risk of someone laughing at you, because, as we’ve determined, this is kind of what makes something funny.  But, because of this ingrained feeling that Art needs to be Serious, we’re scared of this audiential merriment (as is the audience themselves).  To many of us in the genre-pushing music game, spectator-based mirth is a failure.

Of course, to the comedian, audiential merriment is the sole measure of success.  So it occurs to me that perhaps the mistake we’ve made (as experimental artists/musicians) is to confuse two kinds of laughter.

We’ve (maybe) mistaken being laughed with, with being laughed at.

Satanicpornocultshop

Satanicpornocultshop

Triumphant, Powerful

Even a toddler knows that when something unexpected happens (as long as it’s not threatening), you laugh.  So an environment that thrives on the unexpected is doomed to restriction and/or cognitive dissonance if it refuses to allow laughter as an acceptable option.

Our ingrained cultural fear of not being taken ‘seriously’ means that we are taking the natural, normal laughter of someone encountering the unexpected, and taking it as a sign of failure, rather than a sign of success—as a sign of human-to-human emotional connection.  Because that’s all it is.  Laughter is just a natural, normal reaction to having our expectations blown, reality dissected, and our worldview turned on its head.  And to make someone laugh—to force them to experience that chakra-shaking widened worldview of crumbled rigidity—is a wonderful thing to do.[20]  If we see that laughter as someone laughing at us, it prises open learned childhood wounds and tips in the table-salt.  But if we see that laughter as someone merely coming along with our ride—hand in hand with us as we dive off the precipice of the well-known and into the abyss of uncertainty—then it can be a very empowering experience.  We’re doing something ‘funny’—playing our burning instrument with an axe, for instance, stark raving naked, to a backing tape of telephone rings and door slams—and the audience laughs, and all is right with the world.  When the audience is laughing with us rather than at us, suddenly, with one ninja-move of the mind, we have transcended the fear and have emerged as victors, triumphant, powerful.[21]

And the ‘haha’ and the ‘hoohoo’ are as One.[22]

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1. It always seems to be the same people. My guess is that there exists a torus-shaped band of musical appreciation that orbits the mainstream, and that, as long as it’s not too far coreward (where direct centre is the most accessible pop song possible), the specific genre is irrelevant.
2. At the time I was writing for ‘Good News Week’, and had previously written for ‘The Glass House’; both were quite popular shows loosely focused on taking the news of the day and turning it into comedy. For those non-Australian readers, something like Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ or the British ‘Have I Got News For You’ (off which I think the idea was originally ripped… I mean ‘inspired’).
3. To be totally honest, I can’t remember exactly what we’d just seen. It was a long time ago, and, like I’ve already mentioned, it was one of those events with a gajillion acts playing in a variety of different rooms on different levels, sometimes simultaneously, with a complex and overlapping timetable that was best suited to mathematicians and may have actually required some sort of sextant or protractor or slide-rule or something to properly understand, and, besides, I was no doubt a bit sozzled from not only the rushed beer breaks but also the carefully-organised better-too-much-than-not-enough smoking breaks, if you catch my drift. Point is, regardless of the actual specific details of the acts we’d just seen, we’d just seen a bunch of people make a lot of strange sounds in a variety of non-traditional ways, many of whom I’d thought were pretty ‘funny’.
4. The word ‘funny’ has two meanings, generally: 1) funny = comical, generating laughter (haha); 2) funny = weird, strange, unusual (hoohoo). This very useful ‘haha vs. hoohoo’ clarification was developed in partnership with Ms. Nalin Arileo, to whom I’m eternally grateful.
5. I’m assuming that at least some people out there still do this kind of thing. I may very well be wrong. In which case, substitute the words ‘wander through a record shop’ with ‘scroll through iTunes’ or whatever is appropriate.
6. And I don’t think Australia is alone here: while it seems the case that European countries seem to have more general tolerance (or even full-blown support) for the arts, I’ve definitely seen British and American newspaper reports deriding some new-fangled form of art in terms I’m very familiar with.
7. This attitude is still widely held: just look at any Merzbow YouTube clip (etc.), and there will be many, many comments along the lines of ‘this isn’t even music, it’s just noise’ (etc). And with it, this element of dark suspicion, revealing itself in comments along the lines of ‘and anyone who’s been fooled into thinking this is music is a fucking idiot’ (etc.)
8. For example, the pinnacle of non-serious music is the Novelty Song. There is no other form of art that is so vehemently maligned, surely.
9. One of the members of my old band BadCopBadCop once told me how much she hated comedy in music, and yet she played her bass with a hacksaw, and shouted into the strings through a children’s voice-changing toy megaphone. Oh, and we named our songs after our pets.
10. I’m kind of focusing on the term ‘experimental music’ here, but honestly, it’s far from the only musical subculture to embrace the po-faced fear of the haha; this is a wide-spread polycultural epidemic of cross-genre gravity.
11. There, I said it.
12. Wikipedia, Experimental Music entry.
13. Ibid
14. Of course, as mentioned earlier, this definition is a slippery one, because boundaries shift: what is shocking and/or progressive in one generation (or one year) is base-level normal in the next. Thus the eternal battle between the old and new continues.
15. Etc.
16. Indeed, that’s almost sort of the definition of ‘interesting’.
17. —
18. Wikipedia, Comedy entry. (I know, I’m the Research Master, baby.)
19. I’ve never said ‘to wit’ before. I think I like it. It feels good.
20. Totally subjective judgment on my part there. Take it or leave it.
21. Of course, I’m not arguing here that all forms of music should be funny haha. I’m perfectly happy for music to also be sad, or serious, or depressing, or angry, or confused, or triumphant, or plain old heartbroken. All I’m arguing, really, is that we, as creators, not be scared of laughter, or of being branded ‘funny’, if we’re making music that pushes boundaries and exposes the hidden. It’s okay. Making people smile is actually okay. That’s all.
22. This is nothing revelatory to the many practitioners of non-deadpan artistic/musical forms. I am not the first person to have wanted to heal the haha/hoohoo schism; maybe the first to have so brilliantly articulated it, but probably not that either. Indeed, there are many people making boundary-pushing sounds who are not scared of being laughed at, or even value that laughter as a genuine human-to-human connection (or just don’t give a flying fuck). However, a comprehensive illustrative list of everyone from Anal Cunt to Frank Zappa is probably not necessary, nor desirable, for the limited purposes of this essay.

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