Race and the Novelty Song

When the Spanish Eurovision winner was announced my immediate reaction was a very defensive one. Here was, I thought, a fairly straightforward humorous reggaeton track and it was being dismissed as a novelty song. Of course, once I'd done a bit of rudimentary research it turns out to actually have been a novelty song all along.

But the central problem still remains. As I prepare to write the mega-post on Eurovision novelty entries I promised, I have to face up to precisely the problematic connotations of the term "novelty".

The idea of the novelty song is a western construct, coming out of Tin Pan Alley in the twenties and thirties as one of three major categories of vapid pop. Over time it's come to acquire somewhat negative associations - it's a song that's exploitative of a fad or news item, without much musical substance.

I remember how livid I was when Mundian To Bach Ke was repeatedly reported as a novelty song, since it's actually well-rooted in a bhangra remix tradition going back a decade. But in the context it was being used - mainstream European house clubs - it functioned precisely as a novelty, something fun and throwaway for the moment. Innovation, or the potential integration of new cultural elements, was reduced to the mere temporary entertainment. That sort of thing has been exceedingly common over the years - look at the dance world, where wonderful, fully-formed dance genres like rumba and merengue were reduced to novelty dance crazes, never taken seriously.

I would argue that this happens all too frequently to genres from the third world, and that to some extent the novelty tag is a (rockist?) western master supression technique against other cultures. Look at the features usually associated with novelty music: flamboyant performers, extra-musical effects, innovative and unusual instrumentation and techniques, use of humour, connection to current events or fads. Is it a coincidence that these are way more common in a lot of third world music (and African-American music) than in mainstream rock-pop? (Exception: Metal.)

In any case, treating music as novelty is dangerous because it can often suppress innovation (Dickie Goodman famously presaged sampling), and be used to foster conformity and complacence. Every time I see this clip of Tiny Tim I feel angry at the bullies who feed this self-confident outsider musician into the mill of novelty, denying him the right to be funny on his own terms.

So while I'll sometimes use the word novelty for a deliberately constructed pop song, I'm going to be much more wary of bandying it about in the future. And I'll definitely look at every novelty song deeply and try to understand it on its own musical terms, including its background.

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