Can I name drop a pretentious French guy? Henri Bergson claims that all good jokes do one of two things: they either tell the truth in a surprising way or they subvert expectations in an interesting way (or sometimes both).
When my four-year-old sticks her leg up through the bottom of her shirt and pretends to pick her nose with her toes, she’s trying to make her friend laugh. He thinks it’s so funny that he almost pisses himself. I merely grin. She has subverted our expectations (feet don’t do that!) and her friend thinks she has done so in an exceedingly interesting way. I think it’s a bit less interesting. So there’s an important question there about what makes a subversion interesting. Maybe I’m less impressed because I’ve seen more of the world; this ain’t my first toes-in-nose rodeo, after all.
On the other hand, a joke might also say something true, in an interesting way. This isn’t a joke: “That’s a glass of water.” Why? It’s true, but not interesting or subversive.
Enter George Carlin with a joke that says something true in an interesting way:
Why? Why…why…why…why is it… that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place? crowd cheers
To my ear, that sounds about true and it expresses this true thing in an interesting way. It upends the social script (rules) for discussing abortion. It subverts all kinds of other norms, of course, as well (tact, respecting diverging opinions, and so on).
Hot take: all good art (songs included) do one of these two things. A good song will say something true (true = a genuine or authenticate expression of an emotion in many cases, but could also just be a great, true, poetic lyric) or it will do something subversive (see music nerds like pyat and jal’s obsession with new sounds). A truly great song will do both.
Think about it this way. What’s bad about Nickleback? To me, their worst sin is being overly polished, focus-grouped, manufactured. What they are doing is not true (aka genuine/authentic). Worse yet, they sound like about a hundred top 40 ROCK HITS mashed together in a blender. What they are doing is not subversive.
Nickleback are not true; they are not subversive. Nickleback make bad art.
Thanks for coming to my TED TALK.