The Grotesque in Music

The Annoying Music Show
Tom Lehrer
Patti Smith
Igor Stravinsky
Talking Heads
Jeremy Brown
Middle Tennessee State University

The Grotesque in Music

Disclaimer: I am not a musicologist nor a historian of music. I am a graduate student in English literature with a supreme interest in popular music of the twentieth century. Many of the assertions here made could very well be argued differently by a person trained in the proper field. That said, read on at your own risk.

First, let’s try and discuss what could qualify a piece of music as grotesque. In art, a montage of interconnected or melding images done in a surreal or hyperreal manner is usually called grotesque. The grotto paintings from which we borrow the word are a good example of this. Mikhail Baktin has argued that the grotesque is a celebration of the body and the body’s connections (especially through the orifices of the body) with the outer and inner worlds. There seems to be a darker grotesque as well, which seeks not so much to celebrate life and connect it with the rest of the world, but to destroy connections and act as an escape from the perceived world. How does all this relate to music? Good question. 

There seems to be three easily broken down areas of music where the grotesque could be found: in the music itself, the structure of a piece; in the lyrics that accompany a piece; and in the performance of the piece. Structurally, any piece that is at radical difference with its lyrical content, or like its predecessors in art, uses a montage effect, swapping themes from instrument to instrument or even causing two instruments to compete, could be considered grotesque. This can not be a hard and fast rule; a lot of classical music does this kind of theme swapping. However, since classical music is closer to the cultural fountainheads of the grotesque, it would stand to reason that it would exhibit more of these characteristics. The lyrical grotesque is as difficult to pin down as the literary grotesque. If the lyrics seems to either urge some psychopathic disconnection from the world, or seem to embrace the world in a particularly scatological way, then it is probably a good candidate for the grotesque. Also, with the lyrical grotesque, one must examine how the lyrics intersect the music. Certain artists will put horribly graphic lyrics over innocuous or misleading music. This causes a disjunction of expectation and effect which may evoke the grotesque. The performance grotesque is the most subjective of the three categories. Below, I will offer some suggestions of performance grotesque, but again the intersection between the music, the lyrics, and what is being seen should be considered.

The musical grotesque is the easiest to discuss. In classical music, it is difficult to isolate, but one might argue that Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring might be a candidate. Also, much of Stockhausen’s work and some of that of John Cage could easily be placed in the realm of the grotesque. With jazz, the musical grotesque becomes more problematic. Jazz in its truest form is the musical grotesque taken to a height not usually experienced. However, some jazz artists have pursued the more disturbing or embracing of musical experiments. Ornett Colman shocked the jazz world in some ways with his strange intervals and odd compositions. One might argue that John Coletrain, at least with A Love Supreme, achieved the celebratory grotesque to perfection. In popular music the musical grotesque is less in evidence. For music to be popular, it usually, must conform to certain ideas of rhythm, chord progression, and melody lines. Some departures however could include: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Yes, The Grateful Dead (at least in their more experimental moments), The Pixies, They Might Be Giants, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, and others. These all have experimented at one time or another with odd instrumentation, odd rhythms, chord progressions, and arrangements. In the case of some, like the Pixies and They Might Be Giants, actual musical montages have been attempted with a unifying theme. One could argue that almost any concept album, or linked group of songs, will become grotesque in form if not content. Thus, one could see much of the Moody Blues’ work as grotesque musically. Rock operas, due to their roots in popular music, and their attempts to exemplify or comment upon youth culture, often achieve grotesqueness. Finally, many of rock’s children take on the musical grotesque. For instance, industrial and techno with their noise tracks, and sudden changes, often exhibit some of the characteristics of the grotesque.

The lyrical grotesque is harder to define as it can often be mere context. Much of Weird Al Yankovik’s work, as parody, could be seen as grotesque as what we expect from the song we recognize is not what we experience lyrically. Some possible candidates would definitely include Tom Lehrer. Lehrer, a former Harvard professor became a song writer of blackly satirical songs. His most famous works include: "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango," and "The Hunting Song." However, lyrics do not have to contain parody or satire to be considered grotesque. One could see Frank Zappa’s tune "Dynamo Hum," as a celebratory form of the grotesque. Although, it too contains some humor, it is not as pointed perhaps as the above mentioned songs. Some of Nine Inch Nails’ songs could definitely be classed in the grotesque, "Closer," and "Hurt," coming to mind. They Might Be Giants’ "Dinner Bell," which deals with the effects of experimentation upon Pavlov’s dog can also be seen as grotesque. The tendency is to say that any grossly humorous or blackly destructive tune is grotesque. However, this is not always true. There is such a thing as horror inspired music, and one should not discount the power that hatred or anger can play in distorting a song. "Cousin Kevin," for instance from the Who’s rock opera Tommy is extremely graphic in its depiction of childhood violence, but it is more in the nature of a documentary. Something as dark as Black Sabbath’s "Hand of Doom," while it may contain elements of the grotesque is basically a horrified protest against the effects of certain drugs. 

This brings us to performance grotesque. During the relatively quiet fifties, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performed his stage show wearing a black satin cape and rising at the beginning of the show from a coffin. Is this horror or grotesque? Perhaps it can be both, but I think given the time and circumstances I would suggest grotesquery rather than horror as a prime motivation. Arthur Brown, best known for "Fire," descended in a lift chair amid smoke and flame to perform his stage show. One immediately thinks of Ozzy Osborne biting the heads off bats, or the use of guillotines and torture devices in heavy metal concerts, however, there is a kinder and gentler grotesque performance. Pink Floyd in their stage shows use numerous lasers and the now famous floating pigs to great effect. The Talking Heads employ the "The Big Suit" along with David Berne’s athletics to achieve a truly grotesque stage effect. One could cite David Bowie’s early use of makeup and cross dressing on stage. Jimi Hendrix performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, in which he burned his guitar, might be up for consideration as well. In its own time and place, the Elvis hip wiggle could be seen as a form of the celebratory connective grotesque. Musical movies and videos have made the frontiers of the performance grotesque push even farther back. Many Nine Inch Nails and Madonna videos automatically qualify as performance grotesque. One might argue that the Weezer video of "Buddy Holly" with its implantation of the band into the "Happy Days" world represents the grotesque. The real truth of the matter is that performance grotesque is mostly in the eye of the beholder. 

This space has been too small to go into great detail about the grotesque in music. One good place find out more are the Rough Guides to ------ (fill in the blank). These can be found at The entries are brief and informative though they appear to no longer be available on the web. If anyone finds another site with this information, I would welcome notification of it. Almost every band imaginable now has a home page on the world wide web, either officially or unofficially, and these can be good places to search, as they have lyrics, sound clips, mp3's, and video clips. A number of sites are devoted to nothing but discographies, tabs, and lyrics, and though many of these are being shut down by the recording industry to protect their profit margins, mirror sites and small collections are scattered in many locations. 

Susie Stephens
Middle Tennessee State University

Christian Hymns: A Unique Depiction of The Glorious Grotesque

Traditional Christian hymns are replete with grotesque imagery that includes references to blood, injury, the physical bodies of Christians being inhabited by the person of Jesus, Christ’s gruesome death by crucifixion and triumph over death. In certain contexts, such images would be unsettling and absurd; the fact that these references are not only accepted but also celebrated among Christians warrants a closer look. Consistent with other uses of the grotesque in literature, there is a jarring "clash of incompatibles" (Thomson 15) present in Christian hymns. One noticeable difference in this unique use of the grotesque seems to be evident in the ensuing emotional attitude of its audience; because the response is generally uplifting and positive, this peculiar usage of the genre can be best described as the glorious grotesque, a depiction of the beautiful.

The literal image suggested by William Cowper’s song, "There is a Fountain" is that of repentant sinners reveling in a bloody spewage:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die.
When this poor lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy power to save. (Cowper 222)

If these lyrics were depicted literally onscreen the resulting image would be hideously grotesque. The glorious grotesque, then, is often symbolic, employing grotesque imagery that was never intended for literal interpretation. Cowper’s sinners plunging in the bloody fountain are representative of the Christian tenet of salvation; the substitutionary blood sacrifice of Jesus is perceived as spiritually purifying for believers. It is in part because of this belief in the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood that the use of the glorious grotesque in Christian hymns becomes a depiction of the beautiful, a uniquely positive portrayal of something that would in other contexts be considered a negative. Different from the Bakhtinian celebratory grotesque that stems from primitive impulses, the glorious grotesque arises out of a conviction that the quality and purpose of life will be forever enhanced by its presence. This belief provides an escape from the discomfort the grotesque usually causes, a unique feature of the glorious grotesque.

Another hymn that portrays the glorious grotesque in this context is Isaac Watts’ "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?" Once again, an unenlightened literal interpretation of the lyric would suggest that the hideously grotesque is its subject:

Alas! And did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head 
For such a worm as I? (Watts 110)

The issuance of blood, theme of death, mention of a head sacrifice, and the designation of the author as "a worm" must be viewed in its spiritual context in order for this to be a depiction of the beautiful. It is perhaps important to understand the Christian belief that the will and the power of Jesus were sufficient to have prevented His death by crucifixion; had He been unwilling to die on the cross, He could have stopped the proceedings at any time. Because Jesus’ monumental sacrifice was voluntarily carried to completion, Christians view an otherwise horrible death as a selfless offering capable of saving man from the eternal damnation he truly deserves because of his own inherently perverse nature. According to Georges Bataille, this idea of human sacrifice is closely associated with the grotesque, as it "restores to the sacred world that which servile use has degraded, rendered profane" (Bataille 55). The sacrificial, substitutional death of Jesus becomes a concrete depiction of the beautiful because it is representative of the perfect love of a demonstrative God Who would withhold nothing from His children. The lyrics of Watts’ hymn, then, chronicle this beautiful death and the glorious grotesque pictured in the verse becomes literal in this instance, not symbolic. The only symbolism in this stanza is the image of man as a worm; this is a figurative expression used to contrast the vast difference between the excellence of Christ and the insignificance of man. Because this particular parallel isn’t intended to be literal, the less than flattering description of man becomes a part of what is considered by Christians to be a beautiful story of man’s complete submission to a loving God. Submission is normally considered an abhorrent condition; once again the clash of incompatibles is evident, and the situation with its positive response falls under the category of the glorious grotesque.

According to Mikhail Bakhtin, there are certain characteristics of the grotesque body. One of those traits is the "swallowing up by another body" (Bakhtin 1). This peculiarity is the focus of Daniel Whittle’s hymn, "Christ Liveth in Me," which expresses the belief that the Christian is actually indwelt by the Person of God:

Once far from God and dead in sin,
No light my heart could see,
But in God’s Word the light I found-
Now Christ liveth in me.
As lives the flow’r within the seed,
As in the cone the tree,
So, praise the God of truth and grace,
His Spirit dwelleth in me.
Christ liveth in me, Christ liveth in me;
O what a salvation this- That Christ liveth in me. (Whittle 466)

Professing Christians take this passage literally, not symbolically. Once again, there is evidence to support that this instance of the grotesque is a positive; certainly no Christian believer is unhappy or discomfited by the presence of this living Spirit within his body. Because the resulting reaction to this grotesque situation is celebratory, as further evidenced by the lilting and happy melody that accompanies the lyric, this example becomes another instance of the glorious grotesque. 

Bernard of Clairvaux’s hymn, "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" is sung as a tribute to the suffering and death of Jesus. With its graphic images of bodily injury married to a tune that progresses from a dirge-like sequence to a hopeful major key, this song becomes a mix of incompatible melody as well as a blend of lyrical opposites. The picture of the perfect Son of God as grotesquely wounded is indeed startling; the crown of thorns on His head is a mockery of His kingly assertions:

O sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns Thy only crown,
How art Thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
Which once was bright as morn! 
What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever!
And, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee! (Bernard 116)

In spite of the shocking message of abuse depicted in these lines, there is an assurance of hope that fills the heart of the Christian singing this song. The horrible death of Jesus has provided believers with a way to achieve eternal life in heaven and Christians are comforted by their belief that this death has broken the stranglehold of evil on the world. What remains is an overwhelming sense of peace. According to Wolfgang Kayser, this is a key element in the definition of the grotesque. He writes, "In spite of all the helplessness and horror inspired by the dark forces which lurk in and behind our world and have power to estrange it, the truly artistic portrayal effects a secret liberation. The darkness has been sighted, the ominous powers discovered, the incomprehensible forces challenged. And thus we arrive at a final interpretation of the grotesque: AN ATTEMPT TO INVOKE AND SUBDUE THE DEMONIC ASPECTS OF THE WORLD" (Kayser 4). The gratitude and love expressed in the second stanza of this hymn indicate that the author is experiencing a positive reaction to the grotesque imagery presented in the first stanza. This is an additional instance of a twist on the standard reaction to the grotesque and it becomes another example of the celebratory nature of the glorious grotesque. 

A final use of the grotesque in traditional Christian hymns involves references to everlasting life to promote the belief that there is victory over death. Not unlike Amos Tutuola’s idea of selling one’s death, this idea embodies the belief that the physical death of an earthly body is actually the first step on a journey to another life. For believers, this new life will be a glorious celebration in heaven where the Christian will be reunited with departed loved ones in a state of eternal bliss. Famed hymn writer Fanny Crosby writes of this experience in her tribute to eternal destiny, "My Savior First of All:"

When my life work is ended and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see,
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me. (Crosby 502)

There is no hint of the author’s fear of death in this song; there is instead a sense of hope and expectation present in both the lyric and the melody that originates from the Christian beliefs in resurrection and salvation. Wolfgang Kayser also mentions this fearlessness in connection with the grotesque when he states, "The grotesque instills fear of life rather than fear of death" (Kayser 3). 

These are but a few examples of the many instances of the grotesque in traditional Christian hymns, but the response of the audience in each case remains consistent. Instead of the anticipated negative reaction to images that within other contexts would be unsettling, there is a uniform celebratory response that becomes a unique application of the grotesque genre, a depiction of the beautiful that can perhaps be best described as the glorious grotesque.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "The Grotesque Image of the Body." Rabelais and His World
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. New York:  Zone Books, 1988.
Bernard of Clairvaux. "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." In Peterson 116.
Cowper, William. "There is a Fountain." In Peterson 222.
Crosby, Fanny. "My Savior First of All." In Peterson 502.
Kayser, Wolfgang. "An Attempt to Define the Nature of the Grotesque."
Peterson, John, ed. Great Hymns of the Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968.
Thomson, Philip. "The Grotesque." The Critical Idiom. London: Methuen, 1972.
Watts, Isaac. "Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?" In Peterson 110.
Whittle, Daniel. "Christ Liveth in Me." In Peterson 466.

Jeremy Brown
Middle Tennessee State University

Lyricism and the Grotesque: Tom Lehrer’s America

Tom Lehrer, a mathematics professor from Harvard, rose to notoriety during the late fifties and sixties as a writer of grotesque songs and blackly humorous or satirical songs. Such classics as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango," and "We’ll All Go Together When We Go," earned him a unique niche in American pop culture. His piano playing, technically very adroit, and sugary sweet, often borrows from show tunes and old standards to provide the background for his horrors. However, Lehrer’s lyrics are his trademark. While his primary mode is that of black humor or satire, Lehrer often ventures into the grotesque. 

Besides the incongruity between music and words, he is a master of adapting an idea to horror. The song, "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," in which a grieving murderer keeps the severed hand of his beloved is a perfect example of the sentimental love song transformed. Lehrer always strives to shock, but this is more in the nature of the satirist, such as with Swift’s "A Modest Proposal," rather than in the truly grotesque artist. However, on his album "Songs," Lehrer has a second half which screams with grotesqueness. Only the slight lessening of the mood by "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz," and the ending with the lighthearted "Be Prepared," save this second half from being a work of grotesque brilliance. 

Much of Lehrer’s effect on this album is lost in the newer compact disc versions, as they consist of a double length album, "Songs" and "More songs," which has changed the running order and puts "Songs," first as it appeared chronologically. This detracts from it’s grotesqueness. However, on the original vinyl, which I was privileged enough to attain a copy of, the effect is staggering. The First song of the second side is called "The Irish Ballad." It is modeled after traditional English and Celtic ballads, which in and of themselves could be quite gruesome. It begins:

About a maid I sing a song
Sing rickety-tickity-tin
About a maid I sing a song
Who did not have her family long,
Not only did she do them wrong,
She did every one of them in, them in
She did every one of them in. 

The song then proceeds to itemize how each of the family was killed. The father was killed by an axe, the mother was poisoned, the sister by emulation, the brother by drowning, and the baby brother by cooking. The song goes on to share with us morbid details of the murders, such as the mother’s "hideous grin," the drowned brothers bones, and "occasional pieces of skin." The speaker’s final childish assertion that if his song has gone on too long you should have "never let" him begin, is as silly as the heroine’s inability to lie to cover up her atrocities–as lying "she knew was a sin." The song is slow, heavy and very minor, giving a sense of foreboding to the rest of the side.

In "The Hunting Song," Lehrer takes a black, satirical and grotesque look at the art of the sportsman. The first verse shows the direction:

How clearly I remember
Twas a year ago November
I went out to hunt some deer
On a morning bright and clear
I went and shot the maxiuum the game laws would allow
Two game wardens, seven hunters and a cow.

While this is merely black humor applied with fine wit, the song continues in the same vein. The second verse shows the hunter as he has "tied them to my fender, and I got them home somehow." The bridge provides some legal grotesquery in the form of the reasons the hunter’s permit is taken away: "Cows were out of season, and one of the hunters, wasn’t insured." However, the grotesque punch of the song comes with the last lines:

And there’s ten stuffed heads in my trophy room right now,
Two game wardens
Seven hunters
And a pure bred Gernsey cow.

This image is the real shock value of the song. It is offset by the jaunty music and the seeming light-hearted satire of the rest of the lyrics.

In "My Home Town," Lehrer savagely satirizes the bourgeois values of small town America. He begins his song in typical small town nostalgia fashion, lamenting the missed people of his town. However, those people are immensely different from the ones we expect. There’s the sweet girl next door who turns out to be a prostitute. Further, there is the math teacher who sells weed and pornography to the children. Add to this, Dan the druggist who killed his mother-in-law and then "Sprinkled just a bit, over each bnanana split." Lehrer has grim fun in not mentioning what the choir director and Parson Brown did, omitting their verse in a funny voice over. He implies by this that homosexuality, the unspeakable sin of the fifties, is less atrocious than these other, more blatant sins. He discusses the village idiot who lighted fires just to watch the glow, but "Nothing could be done, because he was the mayor’s son." The speaker of the song still laments at the end of his number about the "super special, just plain foks in my home town."

The side goes on to describe how a lover wishes to love now before his love "grows o ld and gray and fat." Then there is the disgusting dichotomy between the dancers of the "Wiener Schnitzel Waltz." The speaker of "I Hold Your Han in Mine," discusses his cannibalistic and psychopathic tendencies in the first verse: 

I hold your hand in mine dear,
I raise it to my lip,
I take a healthy bite dear
Of your dainty fingertips

While he waits, he resolves to hold her hand until the police come to arrest him. Bakhtin’s grotesque is nowhere in evidence. This is the destructive black grotesque of Twain or Swift. It is a horrified denunciation of all that it sees, the corruption of reality. For such an artist, reality becomes the cancer that cannot be eradicated, nor allowed to spread. The best one can hope for is remission, the worst, metastasis. For Lehrer, that metastasis came all too soon. His last album, "That Was the Year That Was," which contained the music composed for the TV show ""That Was the Week That Was," contained his blackest assaults on politics, education, freedom of speech, science, and religion. However, his grotesque had died away. While the "Vatican Rag," a piece from that album contains the grotesque in structure, it’s content is rather more funny than darkly disturbing. However, the black mood was not gone as can be seen in "Wernher von Braun," where the cancer spreads, takes over, and in the end consumes the song. It is the dark night of the grotesque soul, the plunge into chaos.