I wrote this in march last year, on a bit of a bender with Lemon Demon. It may, i believe, be of interest to some of you who are interested in those liminals of irony and sincerity that has become such a big topic in meme culture as of late.
A modern phenomenon of music that fascinates me is the “penis music” classification. The meme went through several phases until it reached the state we know today, but the main points are the GIF of the end of Megamind, with characters dancing, and the song Rubber Band by Jackal Queenston (somewhat problematic fursona of Emma Essex, infamous for being drawn with Nazi symbology and officially retired in 2020). The music itself is lively, energetic, but the association with the furry community and the extensive use of cartoon sound effects give the song and the whole context of the meme a comedic character, which stimulated it’s viralulent spread. Initially associating the meme strictly with that individual song, several people began to expand the absurd term to other styles of music. Just search for playlists of “Penis music” on spotify, you will find artists like 100 gecs, Alice Gas, Charli XCX, Machine Girl and several others, generally associated with fast, experimental and sticky songs. Not exactly analogous to hyperpop, as artists like Death Grips sometimes appear, but also differing for the inclusion of older artists. Several people began to classify different eras of music as analogous to Penis Music. Caramelldansen by Caramella Girls, Vengabus by Vengaboys, The Ruler Of Everything by Tally Hall. Not coincidentally, Caramelldansen and The Ruler Of Everything both had ascents in similar memes, the first in the montage of depressing scenes with the music playing in the background, and the second being popular in comedic fancams for the funny pace at which its first verse goes along despite the existential and anxious lyrics.
But one of the favorite targets of this classification (or at least, the target that I find most interesting) is the pop and new wave of the 70s and 80s. Songs like Rasputin by Boney M, Whip It by Devo, Weird Science by Oingo Boingo, She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby, Girlfriend Is Better by Talking Heads, etc. I think I am so fascinated by this classification because it unifies an initially imperceptible energy in the music of the era, but that once it is perceived, it is impossible to miss, like the alien-detecting glasses in They Live. Many of these songs constantly walk a curious tightrope between a nervous breakdown and a comedy show. I think She Blinded Me With Science is one of the best examples.
A serious analysis of She Blinded Me With Science is difficult, as it seems like a song that resists seriousness at all times. In part, this is the power of Penis Music, I believe, to blur experimentalism with the most humiliating absurdity. After all, She Blinded Me With Science is a ridiculous song that treads away ridiculously. The song focuses on a scientist, in love with his assistant Miss Sakamoto, who can only express his passion (or his lust) in scientific terms. The interjections by British scientific personality Magnus Pyke of “SCIENCE” and “GOOD HEAVENS MISS SAKAMOTO, YOURE BEAUTIFUL”, the desperate and pleading vocals of Thomas Dolby, the cartoony synthesizers, the frequent hiccups and grunts in the background, everything in the music adds to a song that is not asked to be taken seriously. And yet, the song was made to complement an idea of a music video that Dolby had (according to him, the new wave of music videos was like “silent shorts with a soundtrack”), and the visuals are therefore integral to the context of She Blinded Me With Science. In the video, Dolby is admitted to a sanatorium for mad scientists, where several scientists operate absurd inventions and use scientific equipment wildly. The song is about a genuine mental breakdown, hidden behind the synthpop absurdity of the time (it's worth remembering that Thomas Dolby's solo album at the time, The Golden Age Of Wireless is a relatively serious album on technology, with songs like One Of Our Submarines and Europa & The Pirate Twins having a much more urgent vibe).
Another perfect example is Devo, who throughout their career has combined comic absurdism with subversive and disconcerting political messages. One of the theories about Whip It was that the song was about masturbation, with references to using a whip being read as phallic (an interpretation somewhat supported by the music video). The music is actually about violence, the American obsession with using violence for all your problems, but the hypnotic rhythms and sticky riffs wouldn't say that for you. But after that idea gets into your head, the fast drums and incessant synthesizers tell a much more anxious, dramatic mood (even more so with the extension of the chorus at the end, where they simply order the audience around, “Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead”). Songs like Too Much Paranoias and Praying Hands, through their bizarre sense of humor, send sharp messages about consumerism and organized religion, for example. Every time you try a comical interface with the music, the disturbing themes knock on the door, and when you let the seriousness in, the comedy looks at you from the window. One draws attention from the other, and thus reinforcing both.
This is one of my favorite things about the Zolo movement, a questionable genre often described as artists from the punk era inspired by Frank Zappa and similar artists. What is and what is not Zolo is debatable, since many people say that the genre doesn't even exist. But bands like XTC, Cardiacs, P-Model and Snakefinger reach an emotion that very few bands are willing to explore. It is pop through a Joker, a methodical, comedic and disconcerting anarchy. And I believe that the rise of the Penis Music classification (also a non-musical genre like Zolo) points to a desire for a return to this type of attitude.
The 00s and 10s were not without revivals from the 70s and 80s, but there is a considerable difference. Artists on the so-called synthwave scene like Kavinsky, Carpenter Brut or Perturbator, or mainstreams hits like Can't Feel My Face by The Weeknd, Get Lucky by Daft Punk or Run Away With Me by Carly Rae Jepsen look for the golden decades, the glory, and not necessarily the edges or cuts of the decade. And that is not a bad thing, I think that many of these artists are extremely competent in their method of revival, and at their best, they create new sounds based on the concept of a revival. But there is a notable lack of this ridiculous anxiety (and not ridiculous in the Lady Gaga way, where the unusual turns around and becomes cool. Again, I am a fan of Lady Gaga, but it is undeniable that her inspiration is much more Grace Jones’ endless bizarre cool and less Oingo Boingo cheesy and dorky vibes) that made the decades so interesting to me. In the words of Todd In The Shadows, “The weirdos of the '70s becoming the pop stars of the' 80s were the best thing of the decade”, referring to Gary Numan, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, etc.
Here comes penis music. When trying to bring back this idea that seriousness may not be serious, or that comedy may not be the only explicit goal of something that is still funny, I think it is a movement remarkable enough to be noticed. Much is said about the return to the genuine that artists like 100 Gecs represent, and I think that is an aspect of note
One of my favorite albums of the past decade is Lemon Demon's Spirit Phone. The album is a great throwback to 80's synthpop and new wave, centered on creating a fun halloween atmosphere. The album talks about urban legends, aliens, crazy scientists, interdimensional invasions, necromantic romances, seductive ghosts and many other things. Initially it is easy to put the album in the same classification as something like Kung Fury, winking at the audience, pointing out how "ridiculous" the themes are through the exaggerated sounds of the decade honored. But eventually, many of Spirit Phone's songs begin to reach an appreciation beyond irony, achieving those parodic themes in a genuine way. The song No Eyed Girl is about the narrator falling in love with an interdimensional creature, with lyrics like "If I spoke your language I could tell you how I feel / But your language isn’t real", eventually causing the invasion of such "No-Eyed Creatures" to earth. But the last sentence of the song, “and I’d do it all again”, gets to a genuinely disconcerted romantic emotion. "I would cause the end of the world more than once, if it meant that I can be with you" is an effective romantic hyperbole, and the moment you accept this song as genuine, it becomes a beautiful song about love. The absurd phrases about the “no-eyed girl” become hyperbole to the feel of inadequacy around the one he loves, everything fits in a beautiful way. But you never lose the feeling that the song is laughing at you a little for taking it seriously, with phrases like "I might go insane if i learn your full name" taking us back to the Lovecraftian comedy.
Or a song like Ancient Aliens, which nowadays reads as nothing like humorous to me, feeling more like a genuine horror song. The title comes from the infamous History Channel program, and it's about a caveman meeting an alien. The theme brings us back to something like Prometheus & Bob, the stop motion comedy show, but here the caveman's confusion is palpable. Phrase after phrase about how terrified the man is, you begin to feel fear in your skin.
I can't help you
You're not human
You're not animal
My mind's this cave
So dark, no moon, no stars, no stars
No sound, just hearts and walls of art
And you, you fly
You burn my eyes
You speak in my mind
You seem surprised that I don't hear you
Throughout the entire album (and I know I'm not the only one to think that, given the explosion in popularity and obsession that the album has had in recent years), almost every song has moments when something clicks and they gain this surreal character of seriousness. Especially the songs near the end of the album like I Earn My Life and Spiral Of Ants, essentially serious songs about social anxiety and conformity in very Talking Heads-ian therms.
In his book “Atlas, Or The Anxious Gay Science”, Georges Didi-Huberman uses Nietzsche's “Gay Science” as the model for thinking about art history. Nietzsche says, about the man of Gay Science
“We are misidentified—because we ourselves keep growing, keep changing, we shed our old bark, we shed our skins every spring, we keep becoming younger, fuller of future, taller, stronger, we push our roots ever more powerfully into the depths—into Evil—while at the same time we embrace the heavens more lovingly, more broadly, by imbibing their light ever more thirstily with all our twigs and leaves. Like trees we grow—this is hard to understand, as is all life—not in one place only but everywhere, not in one direction but equally upward and inward and downward.
We, open-handed and rich in spirit, standing by the road like open wells with no intention to fend off anyone who feels like drawing from us—we unfortunately do not know how to defend ourselves where we want to; we have no way of preventing people from darkening us: the time in which we live throws into us what is most time-bound; its dirty birds drop their filth into us; boys their gewgaws; and exhausted wanderers who come to us for rest, their little and large miseries. But we shall do what we have always done: whatever one casts into us, we take down into our depths—for we are deep, we do not forget—and become bright again.”
Here Huberman identifies that in this profession there is a negativity (or an initially perceived negativity) that he classifies as "anxiety", thus being an “Anxious Gay Science".
“This incessant movement, goes with an instability, a wandering that is no less fundamental for the man of gay science. Like Atlas, this man is a stateless person, rootless in space and time: ‘We who are homeless . . . we children of the future, how could we be at home in this today?’”
I like this classification in its English expression, “Anxious Gay Science”. Huberman never goes into the topic from a homoerotic point of view, but I think there is enormous potential for that type of topic as it is expressed in the queer community. And, for the pun, I think I can call this phenomenon of Penis Music “Anxious Gay Music”. But not only the pun, I think that the non-genre genre (“full of future”, in portuguese using the phrase “as of yet to come”) shares similar, multiple, rhizomatic and cutting sensibilities, emotional complexity and simplicity to the point of ridicule. I think the future of revivals and the future of musical expression lies in this comedic seriousness, in the tears of the clown. In the toy gun that shoots real bullets.