Should Concerts Be Funny?

At South by Southwest, some of the most memorable sets showed the value of humor in live music.

The Violin Monsters plays in the middle of Austin's 6th Street. Reuters

A few songs into her set Thursday night at South by Southwest, Fiona Apple apologized. Not to the audience, but rather "to the building," an austere Presbyterian church in downtown Austin. She'd been cussing in her songs, profaning the venue. "Not that I go to church or anything..." she said, looking upwards nervously.

The crowd, seated in pews and prohibited for a few rare hours from drinking beer, laughed. That fact in itself is kind of funny, given that Apple's set thus far had been a spit-flacked, seriously emotional confession. But jokey commentary didn't break the spell. It strengthened it. When Apple acknowledged her songs' own unholy vitriol, she let the crowd know that she, too, sensed the weirdness and the magic of that set.

"That wasn't quite a suicide song," Stephin Merritt said between tracks. "This one is."

Apple's show was something of a dramedy amid the comedy that is South by Southwest—an absurd frenzy of thousands of performances, cartoonish corporate branding efforts (Doritos hosted a stage inside a 3-story scaffold made to look like a vending machine), and plentiful free and cheap booze. After five days, performances tend to blur together. The ones that stick out, though, are the sets that created distinct moments. A lot of those moments came from a classic kind of rock-show drama—intense songs played intensely and well. But more often, for me at least, those moments came through humor, a quality that doesn't get talked about enough in relation to live music.

Concert banter is a dicey proposition, at worst serving as filler in a weak set. But it can be an art. Take the Magnetic Fields. Nearly every track they played Friday in the cavernous Moody's Theater came with a dollop of hilarity from indie-pop crank comic Stephin Merritt and his straight woman, Shirley Simms. She'd play a few bars of a song's intro; he'd ask her when she'd be done indulging herself. She'd offer an explanation of a song's lyrics; he'd dispute in deadpan. When the band played two characteristically morose tunes back to back, Merritt segued between them with this charmer: "That wasn't quite a suicide song. This one is."

Stagecraft provides the other quick route to concert as comedy. I cracked up when Santigold's set began on Friday afternoon at Spin's party at Stubb's BBQ . The pop/reggae/electro provocateur was accompanied on stage by two backup dancers trained to move in exact unison. They were actually less backup dancers than fembots: their gestures jerky, their stares expressionless, their dancing unfunky. The two marched together, swung hammers together, and, towards the end of the set, broke character at the same time—free-styling after 40 minutes of locked-styling. Between the bots was the shambling, crown-wearing artiste Santigold. Maybe she hired the dancers to comment on the nature of subjugation or multitudes or whatever. I just thought the routine was hilarious.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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