Review: Reggie Watts in San Francisco, 08/17/11
I recently brought up the issue of humor in music as part of an IMP monthly assignment. It generated more chatter among the ranks than practically any other thematic mix suggestion since the Project's inception in 2003. Apparently, American and European men between the ages of 25 and 40 were largely introduced to pop music via novelty songs. Although the merits of "Weird" Al Yankovic's oeuvre dominated the conversation, the summary outcome was that good comedy music achieves LOLs on the basis of silly sounds and satire, while bad comedy music weighs down the jam with lame jokes and overly aggressive one-liners.
Judging by his most popular video clips, I had lumped Reggie Watts in with the latter group. "What about Blowjobs?" Yeah, that sounds like a macho fratboy punchline set to song. But recent winning appearances with LCD Soundsystem and on Conan suggested Watts may not be suited to the YouTube format at all. In fact, the second of his two sets at the Independent in San Francisco on August 17 was something of a revelation to me.
Although it's clear that the German-born, Montana-raised, New York-based comedian/musician strongly emphasizes the performance in his performance art, catching only small tastes of his work would easily cause the viewer to mistake Watts's awareness of the mainstream for affection, not affectation ("If I had to choose between Lady GaGa and Lisa Loeb...I wouldn't"). Watts's particular genius is tied to the way pop artists sound, both on the track and at the dinner table, away from the glare of celebrity. Despite the exercise in urban cliché of the immensely overrated "Fuck Shit Stack," Reggie Watts is obsessed with how our voices reflect our identities, not just our images. The set of sounds that capture a rapper's intonation when discussing how he came up in the business or an R&B crooner's hesitancy when talking about anything but love in the club is then chopped up as the raw material of song. Watts layers these spoken and sung vocal sounds both electronically with a sampler and live, transitioning between beatbox and non-sequiturs reminiscent of everyone from Michael Jackson to Lee Perry to Burial.
Between songs, the comedian uses accents and repeated phrases to emulate characters he might find in his own audience, such as the barely comprehensible West Indies reggae fan and the Jewish co-ed heavy into underground hip-hop. These monologues are funny, although thankfully not particularly jokey. More importantly, they help decode some of the sounds that were just used in the song. Setting up a song with a story or punchline is an overused rock band trick. Subliminally hinting at the meaning of what just happened in the previous song is a far more challenging, revelatory, and hilarious task, and Reggie Watts succeeds brilliantly.
In the end, I enjoyed this set way more than I had expected, since the rewards of a funny guy building nuanced songs about how music people sound is way richer than those of music people playing funny songs about their pets and girlfriends. Reggie Watts's star is definitely on the rise right now, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons, which gives pause to his longevity in the comedy biz. After seeing his live set, I'm led to believe his televised schlubby bro persona is complete farce. On stage, his comedy themes are abstract and his music is deconstructive, which doesn't typically fly with a broad audience. Then again, have you ever heard the one about the fat guy laughing at people dancing to architecture? Maybe that's just the future creeping up on us.
-- Ryan Mixtape, 09/10/2011