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Schopenhauer’s incongruity theory, when extended by Scruton’s notion of a congruity-incongruity dialectic present in satire, provides a useful model for understanding the humor in the three Spinal Tap numbers examined here. Most important to this study, however, is the fact that the incongruity theory can be combined with theories of style to explain incongruity both between styles and within a single style. [39] The discussion of the incongruities in these three Spinal Tap songs might suggest, however, that an amused response arises from a sense of superiority: we laugh at the band’s inadequacy. Again, Roger Scruton’s remarks are useful: he distinguishes between sarcasm and irony. The former is a “laughing at” action that entails rejection. Irony is, on the other hand, a “laughing at” action without rejection; it is kinder and entails a certain aspect of laughing at ourselves. In ironic humor, the character becomes more endearing through his or her inadequacies; irony is involved in a mental act Scruton calls “attentive demolition.” The Spinal Tap songs, and the film generally, evoke this ironic response. [40]
Spinal Tap, with their endearing inability to ever get anything quite right, is not the ultimate target of the musical humor in This is Spinal Tap, however. The dialect of congruity / incongruity in the songs that triggers the humor also forces a reconsideration of the model; in the moments that the listener hears this, not only does “Cups and Cakes” seem silly, but the whole British invasion itself seems silly. The Spinal Tap group, as well as the songs they play, serves as a kind of “lens” through which one views the model style. The richness of the humor in these numbers arises not simply because the tunes themselves are funny, nor because they are performed in a funny way, but because they also provide a humorous perspective, through clever distortion, on the models. This is not to claim that one emerges from this experience convinced that the music of groups like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones is foolish; after all, one’s experience of a parody of something need not forever strip it of the possibility of subsequent serious consideration. Instead, the full humorous effect of each Spinal Tap number relies on the listener’s ability to identify references within a rich network of intertextuality. [41]
The relationship between the kind of amused responses discussed above and the more serious, aesthetic response requires further exploration. As Scruton, Morreall and others have suggested, these two modes of contemplation can share the quality of disinterestedness. In fact, the act of “distancing” oneself from the model, both specific and general, plays a crucial role in eliciting the amused responses described above. But the stylistic competency that allows one to identify intertextual references need not only elicit an amused response; the detection of stylistic incongruities is crucial to the aesthetic response in music generally. Though an examination of how the amused response differs from the more serious aesthetic one is beyond the scope of this study, it seems clear that the respective response mechanisms are highly similar. [42]
The “Flower People” example is suggestive in a second, related way: if issues of authenticity can arouse an amused response, they can also arouse an aesthetic one. In fact, it is fairly evident that many serious rock fans demand authenticity from the musicians they follow and that many musicians stake their reputations on a defiance to sell out; Eric Clapton’s departure from the Yardbirds is the classic example. [43] Many rock listeners develop very advanced stylistic competencies and in listening to a rock song weigh every stylistic incongruity against a complex (though often tacit) model. The listener accepts incongruities that are judged to be innovative and rejects others that are judged to be corruptive or derivative. By this process the listener comes to an aesthetic evaluation of the music. This again suggests that the mechanisms that produce humor are very like those that produce aesthetic appreciation.
While this study has focused primarily on the ways in which humor can be created through specifically musical means, it is clear that the musical humor in each tune interacts with other contexts that are not specifically musical but nevertheless participate in eliciting an amused response. Thus the musical means that create humor in these songs can only be isolated from the larger context of the film itself provisionally; humor is created in the film in many ways and music plays only one part — albeit a crucial one — in the overall effect. Despite the fact that the musical text itself is situated among other contexts in the film — and even on the soundtrack LP — it is clear that there are specifically musical means of eliciting an amused response in each song examined above. Just as the musical context is situated within the larger context of the film itself, however, so too is each specific Spinal Tap song situated within a larger body of musical works. The musical humor arises from setting each Spinal Tap number against the appropriate musical repertory, and it is the song’s position within this network of other songs that gives it its significance and allows it to achieve its effect. The source of the humor then is ultimately relational, and it lies not so much in the song itself, but rather in the relationship between the specific song and a large number of other songs like it.


[39] . For an examination of incongruity within the style of one specific group, see John Covach, “The Rutles and the Use of Specific Models in Musical Satire,” Indiana Theory Review 11 (1991): 119-44.
[40] . Scruton, “Laughter,” 167-69. Scruton contends that “devaluation” is an important aspect of ironic response:
Irony devalues without rejecting: it is, in that sense, “kind.” For example, Joyce’s ironic comparison of Bloom with the wily Odysseus de-values the former only to insert him more fully into our affections. His shortcomings are part of this pathos, since they reflect a condition that is also ours. Irony of this kind causes us to laugh at its object only by laughing at ourselves. It thus forces upon us a perception of our kinship. (168)
[41] . For a discussion of intertextuality in music, see Robert S. Hatten, “The Place of Intertextuality in Music Studies,” American Journal of Semiotics 3/4 (1985): 69-82. Hatten also uses style theory to explain intertextual references in music, and he provides a number of examples. In the same issue, see Thais E. Morgan, “Is There an Intertext in This Text?: Literary and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Intertextuality” (1-40), for an extremely helpful survey. The issue of intertextuality and style theory is discussed further in Covach, “The Rutles.”
[42] . Two complementary kinds of instance suggest that these two mechanisms are highly similar:
1) a listener whose stylistic competency is insufficiently developed will not detect the incongruities in a parody, and may respond to the piece aesthetically;
2) a listener whose stylistic competency is insufficiently developed will mistakenly identify incongruities, perhaps mistaking a serious work for a parody.
In the first instance, I have often noted that listeners unfamiliar with popular music find the Spinal Tap songs to be typical stylistically, even judging them to be boring or uninventive. In the second instance, one could easily lead a group of listeners generally unfamiliar with twentieth-century music into believing that an acknowledged masterwork such as Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is a parody. This kind of interpretive mix-up surely hinges on the stylistic competencies involved.
[43] . Ward, Stokes, and Tucker, Rock of Ages, 282-83; Gillett, The Sound of the City, 278-9. The reader is reminded that I am concerned here with authenticity as it is perceived in specifically musical terms.

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