novelty song

Just an old fashioned novelty song


I love novelty songs. I love them with a great passion that makes me want to gather them all into my arms and tell them they’re all special.

My adoration started in university when I was writing a lot of papers on Tin Pan Alley, and I’ve never looked back since. The novelty songs coming out in the late 19th, early 20th century from Tin Pan Alley were some of the best examples of these strange, often nonsensical songs. There were songs to help people through horrible wars, songs that helped create iconic characters, but there was plenty of music that just embraced the silliness that novelty songs were meant to be.

There was, unfortunately, plenty of racism involved as well. That horrible strain ran through several popular novelty songs of the 50s and early 60s as well.

Thankfully, though, the more lasting songs have been those a little more tasteful. And there are some that have become a part of the American fabric like “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini”, and even The Coasters’ “Charlie Brown”.

Why bother rambling about novelty songs? Well, because I think it’s high time that we have a bit of a musical renaissance here. It’s time to put the weird and strange back into music. The more I indulge in my novelty song loving ways, the more I feel a bit sad that modern culture doesn’t seem to want to embrace the kookiness that helped create songs like “Disco Duck”.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still novelty songs around. In 2013, “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say)” by the Norwegian comedy group Ylvis became a hit after their YouTube video went viral. I hate including that as an example since it’s from a comedy group, not necessarily a musician, but I just check Wikipedia and they agree.

But just the fact that Wikipedia and I came up with the same sole example says a few things: First, I clearly am losing my touch. Two, there are just not enough good novelty songs anymore. Three, most popular novelty songs are enjoyed out of pure attempts to be ironic instead of being genuinely enjoyed.

Novelty songs often use humour (though I’m not really sure anything Ylvis does can actually be considered funny), whether through off-the-wall lyrics or parody. “El Pizza” by Dudley (the pseudonym of pianist and producer H. B. Barnum) is a wonderful example of the later, parodying Marty Robbins’ “El Paso“. But I can’t imagine any artist making something like “El Pizza” today that isn’t Weird Al.

Perhaps I’m just being sour because I simply don’t enjoy what’s being produced. There’s something to be said, though, about the success of hits in the past. I don’t think anything currently produced will ever be as classic as something like Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” ever was. It’s a song that is over five decades old and still gets regular play every Halloween (or if it’s my house, all the bloody time). But then again, I don’t think anything made today ever intends to last.

It’s almost as if our society, full on cat videos and memes, has almost forgotten how to let go in any sort of genuine way. We are a culture so saturated with parody and silly songs, perhaps all we need is to openly embrace full-on silliness in a mainstream way.

So songwriters, I plead to you: please write more novelty songs. I’d really like one about Mentos because I truly, truly believe that Mentos jingle really deserves a come back.