Sunday, November 2, 2008

Silly Songs: Masochism Tango

Tom Lehrer: Masochism Tango


Mathematician Tom Lehrer made a name for himself in the heady comedy days of the fifties and sixties with a series of geeky, pithy songs and parodies which skewered the political and scientific worlds; it is perhaps not too bold a statement to suggest that he was the Weird Al of his day, albeit within the trappings of a suit-and-tie cultural mold and perhaps a slightly more academic bent to his songs, but I would even go so far as to suggest that he manages to transcend the temptation of so many satirist who have come to the scene since, to wit: where Weird Al and others cannot help but repeat the chorus, leaving mild humor in place of rapid-fire hilarity, Lehrer generally manages to keep the laughs coming, shortening his songs as necessary to create the perfect legacy of quick-paced gems.

Lehrer's songs, which run the gamut from religious skewering (The Vatican Rag) to silly songs about Silent E written for early children's show The Electric Company, aren't just lyrically funny; it's his mocking delivery that makes the difference between just plain humorous and absolutely hilarious. His comic timing is sublime; his rhymes are perfect, holding off until the last possible second before dropping the lyrical bomb that prompts the laugh at the end of each couplet; his tone is wry and nasal, and just restrained enough to maximize the timing while making it clear just how much fun we are all having. And Lehrer knows how to use familiar song genres to make the most of his subject, creating just enough of a familiar visual through the use of fast-paced rags and musical numbers; in this case, for example, the tango becomes the perfect carrier for pleasurable cruelty.

Though he managed to extend his interest in his own career somewhat through a residency as composer and singer with the American incarnation of That Was The Week That Was, citing boredom with touring and the demand that he play the same songs over and over again, Lehrer gave up his career as a songwriter and performer on the cusp of the sixties cultural revolution; he subsequently declared political satire obsolete when Kissinger won the Nobel Prize in 1973, and remained an active mathematician in the world of Ivy League academia until his retirement in 2001, albeit one known for occasionally performing topically relevant songs about mathematics as part of his frequent lectures.

And it's easy to see why his legacy continues to this day, despite less than two decades as a performer. Check out the body language and confidence in this performance of the very same song as posted above:

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