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Doing good or doing well? Loving Tom Lehrer at 90.

April 9, 2018


Isn’t it a joy to try to pen a tribute which isn’t also an obituary?  Yes, Tom Lehrer is ninety years alive today.  I hope he lives another ninety years.  He doesn’t have to do anything in these additional ninety years.  I’m not asking him to write any more songs, for instance.  It will be enough if people wake up in the morning for the next ninety years and think to themselves “… you know what?   Tom Lehrer’s still alive – and maybe even happy.” The very thought of Tom Lehrer’s happiness will make others happy.

He wrote 37 songs.   That’s only about two hours of entertainment, even with lots of banter in between the songs (and the banter was always exquisite).  He has repeatedly squashed the rumour that he abandoned satire as redundant once Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize.  He’s claimed instead that touring was just tedious – that repeating the same sequence of songs over and over again had become joyless.   In other words – he’d done everything he found fun to do in the context of popular song, and so moved on to other things.

Even this purely domestic explanation has a kind of political resonance, a kind of resistance to consumer capitalism.  Lehrer was never one to churn stuff out in response to perceived demand.  He has only ever worked on his own terms.  “Success” has never been a fetish for Lehrer.

These 37 songs though, represent an extraordinary legacy.  He could not have flourished, incidentally, in a world without censorship, a fact he was well aware of as the Sixties progressed and started to swing more and more.  An age in which every obscenity is just a few clicks away is not an age of Tom Lehrer.  (Even his song in praise of obscenity is mainly about a sense of struggle involved in trying to acquire it.)  Lehrer is a living example of the Foucauldian maxim that “repression is productive”.  He managed to discuss sado-masochism, necrophilia, sexually transmitted diseases and a range of other “unmentionable” concerns largely by allowing the audience to fill in blanks and laugh at their own sense of knowingness.  When, for example, referencing kindly Parson Brown from “My Old Town” – he always let the song collapse with a “…shall I? no I think I’d better not….”  So Lehrer’s comedy was often sublime in the most Kantian/Burkean sense (in the same sense that Laurence Sterne was sublime in the most Kantian/Burkean sense) insofar as it celebrates the power of extrapolation and works the imagination of the audience.

Sometimes Lehrer was conservative with a small “c”.  You can hear him dismiss Rock and Roll as children’s music.  His “Folk Song Army” laughs at the pretensions of the likes of Seeger and Baez and Dylan who seem to claim to have invented basic human decency – “We all hate Poverty, War, and Injustice – not like the rest of you squares”.  The same song also looks back faux nostalgically to the war against Franco.   Franco may have won all the battles, but “we had all the good songs.”  Keep singing by all means, but dont’ pretend you’re going to win.

The impotence of satire is something that Lehrer freely acknowledges.  Just as folk singers failed to stop Franco, he’s remarked decades later that his songs weren’t even preaching to the converted – merely “titillating” them with a confirmation of collective belief.

Yet despite his own repeated disclaimers, as a satirist, Tom Lehrer is also a moralist.  A satirist is obligated to expose hypocrisy and that Lehrer has done.  A satirist is obligated to restate certain standards of humanity and generosity even as these standards are being traduced.  This Lehrer has done.  Has he had a politically reformative effect?  Maybe not – but satirists are not the less moral for being inefficient.   The Scriblerians never managed to reform Sir Robert Walpole, but this didn’t stop them being satirists.  The point of any satire is to retain a degree of wit and integrity even in the face of global annihilation.

Tom Lehrer speaks truth to power.  This is the original Shakespearean definition of what is means to be a Fool or a Jester – someone who is allowed to say anything, who is licensed to offend.  The Fool or the Jester does not lead the Revolution because the Fool or the Jester is not taken seriously.  The job of taking the fool seriously belongs to others.

If there’s little for a satirist to do in an age of Nixon, there is less than nothing for a satirist to do in an age of Trump.  We live in world where there is seemingly no distinction whatsoever between “doing good” and “doing well” – in which the powers that be are incapable (insofar as they are determined to be incapable) of distinguishing between adjectives and adverbs.

Lehrer’s Old Dope Peddler is ironically celebrated as one who does good by doing well.  Politicians like Trump and Boris Johnson are dope peddlers who tell transparent self-serving lies so successfully that there is no adjective behind the adverb and adverbs and adjectives can be used interchangeably in a world of empty declaratory fiats.  Let Boris be Boris.  Let Trump be Trump… (and Trumps they were – as Alexander Pope might add).  We’re dealing with a world where people who have lied themselves into a condition of delusional shamelessness are somehow hailed as peculiarly “authentic” and are consequently allowed to rule the world.    Lehrer has no songs to deal with this, because Lehrer’s witty and erudite version of satirical subversion, of “naughtiness” requires the concept of shame.  You have to know the difference between doing good and doing well.

Lehrer saw no prospect of displacing the Nixons and the Kissingers and the Werner Von Brauns of his day – but he did look forward to maybe making them squirm a bit.  The state of political discourse in the twenty-first century Anglosphere is now too thoroughly disgusting for shame to function.

I wish Tom Lehrer many more happy birthdays.  He’s done enough – having tickled three or four generations of people with his 37 songs.  He’s exposed the limits of the satirical song and maybe goaded and prodded a few people to think of using something other than song to try to reactivate a bit of basic humanity.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Last Year’s Tribute…

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