Saturday, October 20, 2007

Satire, the crevasse at your feet

The standard of debate around the traps on the subject of Andrew Hansen's infamous 'eulogy song' on Wednesday night's episode of The Chaser's War on Everything has been pretty deplorably low, with most people apparently unable to get past the 'for/against' dichotomy and expressing their positions, either way, in unattractively primitive terms.

[UPDATE: apparently this song was actually written by Chris Taylor -- my bad. Auto-correct as you read.]

As with so much expression of public opinion, much of this has been not about the subject in question but rather about thinly disguised self-aggrandisement. Either you proclaim your own respectability by saying loudly and indignantly that trashing the dead is icky, or you trumpet your own honesty and fearlessness by savagely attacking people who are no longer in a position to defend themselves, regardless of how ruthlessly they may have done so before they carked it.

I'm no fan of the Chaser boys as a rule, and must be the only person in the country who thought the APEC stunt was puerile and dangerous, but I admit it: when I watched Hansen singing his song, I laughed. Not least because he actually understands how to scan verse lines and what a real rhyme is, and the cleverer and more precise the scansion and rhyming, the funnier that Tom Lehrer-style song always is.

I'm in the camp (see self-aggrandisement and respectability, above) that says there is something uncivilised and savage, something pathetically cowardly, even something a bit evil, in the trashing of the newly dead. It reminds me of that 'Teenage King of Werribee' caught last year on video pissing on the head of an intellectually disabled girl, simply because he could do so without fear of repercussion. But I wasn't 'for' or 'against' the song. I thought it was funny, which is a different thing. (Although, having said that, one saw far more brilliant and subtle satire about Kerry Packer back in the 80s and 90s when he was still alive and richly equipped to wreak revenge, and did.)

One defining characteristic of satire is its profound instability of meaning. In good satire, you know that something is being sent up, mocked, savaged, traduced -- but, try as you might and using every tool of literary criticism that you have ever met or heard of, you just can't ever quite put your finger precisely on the word or moment that pins down the satirist's meaning. Think of Edna Everage, or, even more so, Sandy Stone. Think of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal', a savage essay on, among other things, English-Irish relations in which a straight-faced projector proposes (modestly) that the solution to the problem of the Irish poor would be for the Irish to farm their richest resource -- their children -- out for food.

(I thought of this great Swift piece during the Adelaide Festival of Ideas before last when economist Clive Hamilton got up on stage and, also with a straight face, proposed that the solution to the over-population of Kangaroo Island with disease-ridden and habitat-destroying koalas (given that the SA government refuses to allow culling on the basis that it would harm the tourism industry if the news got out -- particularly if it got as far as koala-loving Japan -- that people were shooting koalas out of the trees) would be to develop organised koala-hunting tourism packages and market them to Americans. It would, he predicted, be so popular that they'd end up deliberately breeding more koalas on KI in order to provide enough targets for the sporting shooters of the US.)

But back to the eulogy song. As many have already commented (including, after a fashion, the Chaser boys themselves), the Belinda Emmett moment was the song's self-deconstructing mechanism, making the double point that (1) yes even satire needs to draw the line and (2) anyway, more importantly, Belinda Emmett was, in fact, a sweetheart, so there was no satire-inviting hypocrisy involved in the modest public mourning of her death.

So far, so good.

I maintain, however, that the song had a second and more important self-deconstructing moment, and this brings me back to the point about satire's instability of meaning. For what are we to make of this?

... her dress was wet with Arab semen stains. / Stan Zemanek was a racist jock ...

Regarding this crashing non-segue from racial profiling of hypothetical semen stains (and all that that implies) in one line to scornful accusations of somebody else's racism in the next, there are only two possibilities: either Hansen did this on purpose, or he didn't.

If he didn't do it on purpose, then it reveals a staggering hypocrisy all its own, far outstripping the mild and culturally understandable hypocrisies involved in eulogising the newly dead that were the ostensible target of the song's satire: an even-less-than-skin-deep racial problem that smacks very nastily indeed of the classic white male fear of miscegenation, of 'our women' being sexually appropriated by men of other races.

But if he did do it on purpose, then it means that he was satirising his own song, which would then call its entire message into question. And if he was calling its entire message into question, then what was it really about?


Jonathan Shaw said...

What an excellent post. Thank you! I often think that the Chasers are playing a game in which they aim to have themselves taken off the air for going too far. In a way the APEC stunt was a paradigm of this: they expected to be stopped at the checkpoint but were waved on through. Again and again we the audience fail to stop them at their metaphorical checkpoints. How much will we allow them, they seem to be asking? And we seem to tell them that there's no obvious limit in sight, though we won't guarantee their safety from snipers.

tigtog said...

Excellent analysis, PC. I'm very much behind the eightball with what I thought would be a simple discussion-starter post on LP and which is rapidly becoming the thread that lives too long. The response to wealthy white people being discussed after death has been astonishingly strong.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Jonathan, that idea of 'Somebody stop me!' is a really interesting one. It's as though in that Belinda Emmett moment they were going through the motions of stopping themselves, since clearly nobody else was going to do it for them.

TT, I've been following that LP thread and it looks to me like the sort of trajectory implicit in Godwin's Law: the longer any thread goes on, the further away from the original topic it's in danger of getting, and the more likely it is that the noise of certain well-beaten drums will begin to drown out all other discussion.

Elsewhere007 said...

I thought the point with Belinda Emmet bit was meant to substantiate the thrust of the song, really.

What I found annoying about the song was that it was so unambivalent and unremitting.

I always said that one day the Chaser team would get themselves arrested -- long before the APEC thing. I think the hubris of an earlier time slot has gone to their heads.

Zoe said...

Cat,your post made me actually go and listen to the song which I hadn't heard yet. (Chaser usually way too boy for me).

The line before the Di one you quote was "Princess Di was just a slut for sex when they looked in the car wreck" - I think "they" are the paparazzi, and the Arabness of the semen stains indicative of their preoccupations.

Pavlov's Cat said...

El -- good point. I wonder whether all of those things could be the case at the same time. it would certainly support my theory about the instability of meaning.

Zoe, fab point also, and it touches on something I was thinking of writing a whole nother post about. The song is sung in a 'voice' that is not precisely that of the unmediated satirist but rather of some slightly gormless naive observer. And then the voice kinds of slides into the POV of the paparazzi, as you say. Writers do this all the time, kind of slide in and out of different points of view as represented by little changes in word choice and so on. You could write a 20,000 word article about this song and still not get quite to the bottom of it.

genevieve said...

I am quite pleased my kids read the Emmett comment in the same light you did, PC. They are smarter than their mum now. Huzzah.
Great post.

JahTeh said...

'subtle satire', by that do you mean the marvellous Rubbery Figures and the infamous 'Goanna' sketch? My father's been gone for 12 years and I found he'd taped every one of those shows and they still made me laugh. I haven't heard the Chaser song, they're not my cup of tea.

TimT said...

For me, I think the song fell a little short of good satire, since although it did put into verse/song form a simple idea skilfully, it seemed to be lacking in wit - I can't think of any of the characteristic absurdities or surprises that mark good comic songs.

The Tom Lehrer comparison is an interesting one, because he is always aware of the potential for wit. You get a surprise every line:

I hold your hand in mine, dear
I press it to my lips;
I take a dainty bite from
Your precious fingertips;
My joy would be complete, dear,
If only you were here:
But still I keep it with me as
A precious souvenir.

Offensiveness was more or less the substitute in this song, I think. Seen in that light, maybe this is what Hansen was going for in that line about Princess Di - a visceral image that played on the gut reaction of the audience. Hansen can always disclaim responsibility, obviously, by saying that he does not personally believe this. It's a question you frequently face when writing satire, especially transgressive/offensive humour.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Truth schmuth, indeed. I believe Diana was wearing trousers that night, apart from anything else. But they just couldn't resist a kind of bonus retrospective slap at the Lewinsky dress stain, now the stuff of legend.

But re the song, I thought it was clever. Well, some of it. I kind of liked the switch in each chorus line, which is a classic technique in this kind of satire ('even tools' ... 'even wankers' ... 'even arseholes' etc.)

Which reminds me that no matter how offensive they had been, I would have forgiven them anything for saying 'arseholes' and not 'assholes'.