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The Merits of Musical Comedy: In Praise of Tom Lehrer and the Masochism Tango

I am a huge fan of comic song, and in particular those of Tom Lehrer. Although popular in his time, he is no longer a household name. But I think his songs still have the power to amuse today, and the political satire of some of his sings remains biting. What interests me most about his songs (and comic songs in general) is the relationship between the music and the words and the role that music plays in the “joke”? Indeed, how can the seemingly abstract language of music emphasise, add to, and in some case even create a sense of comedy? To my mind, music functions in comic song as more than a pleasant musical accompaniment to the text, and actually provides a narrative context for the joke, a frame or point of reference by which the listener understands the joke.

Tom Lehrer’s Masochism Tango provides a simple and clear example of this technique. The piano introduction provides the context and tone for the song: the 4/4 tempo, accent on fourth beat, and Spanish rhythms immediately set the Tango tone and we are led to expect a heavily romantic romance. However, as Lehrer begins to sing it becomes clear that this is not any normal tango, but a specific type of tango.

I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
Like nobody else,
As we dance to the masochism tango.

As the tango progresses the lyrics take on an increasingly masochistic and macabre tone, thwarting our expectations of the Spanish love song and presenting a rather more niche view of romance.

A sense of comedy is also created through the rhyming structure of the lyrics, which I believe is accentuated by the song’s musical phrases. In the tango the music serves to emphasise, and perhaps even over-emphasise, the rhyme structure. Indeed, the music leads us to expect more than a second line that completes the first. And in Tom Lehrer’s tango it is the second line that provides the musical joke. While the first line appears to confirm to what we might normally expect of a Tango, the second thwarts our expectations:

Say our love be a flame, not an ember,
Say it’s me that you want to dismember.

There is much more that can be said about this song and on how music can function as comedy, but hopefully this brief example provides some food for thought. So, next time you sit down to listen to Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park or Victoria Wood’s Let’s Do it it may be worth trying to think not just why the lyrics prove amusing, but how the music functions as part of the joke, how it sets the scene, provides a context, and heightens the meaning and comic effect of the text.

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