Why can’t “good” music also be funny? It’s a question I’d like to ask of every award show that’s aired over the past 20 years.
History’s proven that, even when ceremonies like The Golden Globes or The Oscars acknowledge good music, they refuse to recognize the talent it takes to write a song that’s both catchy and funny. Heartfelt ballads, jazz-peppered dance numbers, and acoustic country crooners — those are the shoe-ins, the songs that have enough gravitas to justify their inclusion on Hollywood’s biggest night. And when voting bodies do deign to hand out a trophy to a number from a comedy or musical, it usually comes in the form of a Disney property — an animated breakout with mass appeal and an endearing, inspiring message.
Normally, that’s something we wouldn’t balk at. Normally, we’d just keep our mouth shut. Except this year, the snubbing of musical comedy came at the expense of “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” and that injustice just cannot stand.
The summer of 2020 was tough. Our society was plagued by a pandemic and a presidential election. Music festivals were canceled. Movie theaters shuttered. The WAP Tik Tok challenge was poised to take hold. It was a time of chaos and uncertainty. But Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga — a Will Ferrell-backed comedy that hoped to introduce a beloved European singing competition to American audiences — was a bright spot, a two-hour musical jaunt filled with mischievous elves and ridiculous costumes, international pop bangers, and Canadian national treasure Rachel McAdams. It was a movie about chasing your dreams and recognizing the value of home; a melody-infused dramatic saga about star-crossed lovers littered with kitschy techno bops.
Its songs were silly and meaningful, crammed with lyrics that doubled as comedic puns, the kind of jingles you laughed at while you nodded your head to. There were operatic numbers filled with sexual innuendos about African lions; club raves chronicling the hero’s journey of a volcanic protector man; an upbeat romance ballad and an accordion backed Icelandic pub folk-song with spaced-theme references to a man’s climax. These songs merged character arcs with the film’s brazen comedy, they weaved strangely funny stories, traded in bizarre rhymes and rhythms, and still, they managed to pass as believable entries into the world’s biggest music competition.
Yet, when the Golden Globes announced the nominees in their “Best Song” category, there was a glaring lack of Ferrell-inspired musicianship. This got us thinking: What other comedic musical triumphs have been ignored by the out-of-touch, humorless gatekeepers known as awards voters?
Todd Phillips’ first Hangover flick was a crass, crude frat-boy romp around Las Vegas, which made the impromptu hotel room lullaby from Ed Helms’ character even more remarkable. “Stu’s Tiger Song” was added as an interlude between the film’s more outrageous action scenes, a way for the boys to pass the time as they waited for some Big Cat tranquilizers to take effect. It’s a soft, childlike melody underscored by the group’s desperation to find their missing friend and Helms’ imaginative wonderings about the sleep habits of grown tigers. It was a moment of quiet beauty in the middle of a raucous, boozy, crime-laden adventure and it deserved more.
So did the work of Babyface, Adam Schlesinger, and everyone else involved in crafting the superb soundtrack to a 2001 teen comedy, Josie and the Pussycats. Sure, the movie flopped with audiences who couldn’t understand how it was parodying the subliminal advertising in pop music at the time, but that’s no excuse for the industry insiders who snubbed it during awards season. Maybe the boy-band stylings of Du Jour’s “Backdoor Lover” were too erotic, but what of the girl group’s “Pretend to Be Nice,” a punk-themed feminist anthem that could’ve topped Billboard charts back in the day?
There are less obvious comedically-inspired songs that deserve recognition too. Jason Segel gave us a lesson in artistic expression through puppetry when he penned “Dracula’s Lament,” the sorrowful ballad that serves as the centerpiece to his Dracula Musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. (That film also crafted Aldous Snow’s British pop number “Inside of You” which gave the supporting character a solo spin-off.)
Ferrell pops up again, in the late 2000s with his “Boats N Hoes” rap, a raunchy nautical banger he wrote with John C. Reilly that marked a turning point in the pair’s sibling rivalry on screen. Schlesinger makes another appearance too, crafting some fine melodies for the Hugh Grant-starring rom-com Music & Lyrics. “Pop Goes My Heart” is an authentic 1980s expression of first love, but Hayley Bennett’s “Buddha’s Delight” is the Britney Spears-inspired exotic piece-de-resistance that feels especially relevant right now.
There’s “Walk Hard,” Reilly’s gritty, metaphorical answer to Johnny Cash, and “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an earworm from Inside Llewyn Davis accented by the baritone utterings of Adam Driver. But perhaps the worst slight when it comes to musical comedy (or comical music) happened when awards voters disrespected the genius of Andy Samberg’s Pop Star: Never Stop Stopping. The film, a mockumentary-style parody of a pop star’s downfall, houses a handful of hits — songs that are catchy enough to justify the hype surrounding Samberg’s musical icon, and stupid enough to laugh aloud with. They’re raps about the importance of staying humble, even when you’re a musical prodigy. They’re synth-beat-backed takedowns of the Mona Lisa, they’re catchphrase compilations featuring Emma Stone, love ballads that invoke Bin Laden, and an equal rights anthem backed by powerhouse vocals from Pink.
These tracks aren’t your typical awards show fare — which might be indicative of a larger problem when it comes to recognizing comedy that might not necessarily be labeled as smart. But that doesn’t make them any less worthy of recognition because what they’re doing is infinitely more complicated than just crafting a melody and lyrics to accompany a movie’s theme. They’re telling a story, helping a joke to land, creating musical parody that can live on in different forms using of-the-moment sounds and sharp humor.
They, too, are what constitutes “good music,” and it’s time that awards voters get down with that.