UPDATE: Read part two of “I Started a Joke (or Careful: MGMT at Play)” here.
There have been many days, more than I care to remember, when the Bee Gees’ 1968 ballad “I Started a Joke” (written and sung by Robin Gibb) was the only song that made any sense of a world that seemed hellbent on shoving overblown, insincere nonsense down our throats and making us pay for the privilege with a tragically forced Olan Mills smile.
While a lute-like acoustic guitar rustles and a cymbal tinkles, Robin emotes (as if John Lennon were being lightly choked with a scarf): “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying / But I didn’t see that the joke was on me, oh no / I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing / Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.” (The joke was really on Robin when he left the group after continuing to battle with older brother Barry for lead-vocal leadership; his immodestly titled 1970 solo debut, Robin’s Reign, was soon deposed from the charts and he skulked back to the family business.)
I was reminded of “I Started a Joke” when I saw preliminary copies of SPIN’s November issue with 2008’s cryptically waifish, alt-rock prom kings Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT peering quizzically from the cover, draped in rented tuxedos. Going back to when everyone still called them “the Management” or “those two stoned Wesleyan doofuses who think they have a band” or “those clowns who think Brooklyn is Great Adventure for liberal-arts majors in headbands and ’70s gym shorts,” it’s always been an essential part of MGMT lore that they started their so-called career as a “joke” and that things just sort of haphazardly spiraled out of control from there, until they became widely respected and well-compensated songwriters/producers/international pop icons with a cadre of spiritual followers.
Of course, this is a common rock conceit, and whether it’s true or not doesn’t particularly matter. What really matters is whether the illusion of happenstance is convincingly maintained. Do you keep asking — despite all evidence — did they or didn’t they? And MGMT seem to have a preternatural ability to keep the illusion going.
Some of my biggest musical obsessions — the Monkees, John’s Children, Devo, Butthole Surfers, the KLF, the Pooh Sticks, Unrest — began with nagging questions: Is this all an elaborate goof? Who’s really in the band and who’s making the music? Are they kidding or winking or serious? And if it’s a joke, who’s it on?
The fact that these bands went on to write or perform songs that were deeply, emotionally affecting just intensified the obsession. Teetering between laughing and crying and just plain fucking with you, certain bands keep the tension and mystery growing and growing, and when a truly great song suddenly appears, like, for instance, MGMT’s inexplicably heartbreaking and hopeful rite of passage “Kids,” it can send you off on endless, blissfully meaningful/meaningless tangents.
It’s like that moment in JFK, when Kevin Costner, as Kennedy conspiracy bloodhound Jim Garrison, addresses his plainly freaked-out minions in his under-siege District Attorney’s office and finally floats the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald really may have been a patsy. Pumped full ofCostner’s fading, delusional gravitas and Oliver Stone’s overheated, lunatic direction, the Garrison character announces, “We’re through the looking glass here, people,” with a desperate, Am-I-fucking nuts? lump in his throat and an arrogant, I’m-fucking-Eliot-Ness glint in his eye. Every time I see it (which is as often as possible), my blood races, I get a chill, I wonder what I’m doing with my life, and then I bust a gut laughing (see also Millhouse in The Simpsons’ episode “Grampa and Sexual Inadequacy”). It’s rare when any band reaches a Through the Looking Glass Moment.
In his book The Accidental Evolution of Rock’n’Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music, Chuck Eddy muses wisely: “Rock seems to work best when greedy kids on the make, ones who don’t mind looking like they’re on the make, contemptible bastards who’ll serve up any tossed-off perfunctory garbage their audience will swallow, inadvertently let their humanness leak out.”
With all due respect to Messrs. VanWyngarden and Goldwasser, this could certainly apply to MGMT, but there’s also another possibility: That rock works best when insecure, smart-aleck kids decide they’re fed up with how stupid and degraded music has become and wanna turn the whole self-righteous mess into a ridiculous charade that will reveal the true nature of our bullshit existence, and…well…um…uh…then they finally have to sit down and actually write a song (or two) or they’ll be revealed as even worse charlatans than the people they originally hated. They may have a nervous breakdown — but it’ll be the best, most important one they’ll ever have. And then they’re through the looking glass.
Then they write “Kids.”
Or so I like to imagine it. More likely MGMT went back to their dorm room after a raucous night of beer pong, smoked a bowl, and knocked out a sketch of the melody and lyrics on a laptop in 20 minutes.
Who knows — or cares? It’s all in the imagining.
And so how does the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke” end? With Robin Gibb warbling away, maintaining the illusory mood, like a solid professional pop star, but voicing words that are, frankly, excruciating: “I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes / And I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I said / Till I finally died, which started the whole world living / Oh, if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.”
Rumor had it that he was singing from the point of view of the Devil. See what your imagination can do with that.
Next week, in I STARTED A JOKE (OR CAREFUL: MGMT AT PLAY) VOL. 2, Charles Aaron will compile some of the best (and worst) MGMT remixes, mash-ups, alternate versions, and various errata for your downloading bemusement. And yeah, he thinks the “Kids” version from the We Don’t Care EP is way more poignant than the Time to Pretend gloss. FYI.