On Portlandia’s Music-Cultural Critiques


The sketch comedy series Portlandia, starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and now in its third season, humorously riffs on social life in Portland, Oregon. The show skewers–or is it homage?–a range of Portlander-types, from self-employed creatives to self-absorbed nouveau yuppies to touchy-feely uber-alternative characters almost beyond precise description. Portlandia excels at noticing the many small details that help define a social scene–how people dress, how they talk and interact with one another, and what they value. Since both Armisen and Brownstein are musicians (Armison was a drummer before he became an actor and Brownstein was a guitarist and vocalist in Sleater-Kinney before forming her current band, Wild Flag) it comes as so surprise that music is a frequent feature of the show. In its music-themed sketches, Portlandia illustrates just how powerful music is to our sense of self and community. Below are three examples.

In a sketch called “The Studio”, Fred plays an amateur home recording enthusiast and gearhead who invites his friend Lance over to his house to check out all of his specialized gear. Fred’s character is obsessed with vintage equipment, and shows Lance his keyboards, amps, microphones, and drum set. With a perpetually wide-eyed and spaced out look, he keeps referencing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as a kind of pinnacle example of studio-recorded music and hopes that one day someone will actually come visit his basement set-up to record.

In the “Wanna Come To My DJ Night?” sketch, Fred and Carrie realize, to their growing horror, that everyone around them has become a DJ. What is happening to the world?

In the “One Party At A Time” sketch, Fred and Carrie play unemployed millennials who attempt to make sense of their post-college lives and channel their vague political aspirations through meaningful music. “I feel like we need to mobilize. Like in the 60s there was Woodstock…people rallied around something. There was a protest song” says Carrie. A robot “Bot Dylan” suddenly appears to pitch a millennial protest song whose hook is “change the world one party at a time.” The song is catchy and its 4/4 electronic dance music thump transports Fred and Carrie’s characters and those around them to the club, brainwashing them into forgetting what they were protesting in the first place.

Even sketches that have nothing to do with music can have a musical quality. In the “Knot Store” sketch, the singular Jeff Goldblum plays an eccentric proprietor of a store that sells knots of string. The “music” in this sketch is 100 percent Goldblum’s voice itself. Listen to how he makes every utterance different in intonation and cadence, continuously changing up his delivery. Listen to his introduction (“My name is…Alan”) that slows, pauses, and dives to a low pitch on his name; listen to him answer Carrie’s questions about whether knots are a utilitarian or an aesthetic thing with parallel quick staccato replies (“nope…yep…”) followed by a deep and affirmative “yeah….” that swirls over several pitches; and listen to his sound effects too, as when he rolls his tongue at the end of a sentence that explains tangled iPod earbuds as a kind of sculpture (“An artist we work with makes these by jamming them into his pocket…rrrrr“). I’ve watched this sketch a dozen times. Oh so very musical!

On Sounds And Humor

It took all of three minutes, but the guy on the subway was making all kinds sounds with his voice and as I listened to him I couldn’t stop giggling.

Verbal Ace is his name and he’s a vocal artist, a human beatboxer, a singer, a sound effects machine, and mimic extraordinaire. Armed with just a microphone and a small battery-powered amplifier slung over his shoulder, he performs a stand up sonic comedy, leading his captive listeners on a journey through his strange audiophonic obsessions.

Ace’s performance begins with a brief personal introduction and then a throwback to “Axel F”, the theme song to the 1980s movie Beverly Hills Cop. Composed by Harold Faltermeyer, this synth- and drum machine-driven instrumental with its infectious (and cheesy) lead hook used to obsess me to no end. Here’s the original video for the song.

As I hear “Axel F” I smile while frantically searching for the audio recorder app on my phone.

Ace’s “Axel F” soon goes into remix mode, the drums morphing into turntable scratches interspersed with outsized shout-out interjections to–curiously enough–Sponge Bob Squarepants.

Ace does sound effects too: crickets and an alarm clock to start with and then onto the sounds of the recorded voice announcements heard on the subway. Ace does the woman’s and the man’s voices perfectly.

Now I’m laughing as I check the sound levels on my recording. Actually, there are no sound levels to check! It’s just that I can’t bring myself to look up at this unexpected source of audio humor so I pretend to be busy.

Ace (in the booming and chirpy male announcer’s voice): “The next train will arrive in one day.” And then this: “Thank you for riding the MTA–as if you had any choice in the matter.”

As the train makes its stops, Ace pulls out more tricks to pull in his audience. He interacts with the train’s sounds in real-time–imitating, for instance, the two-tone chime of the doors opening and closing to the point that I’m note sure which sound is the real one.


What makes me laugh is the musicality of Ace’s vocal mimicry. It’s one thing to have an ear for something, and most of us have very excellent ears in the sense that we can recognize the exact sounds of those male and female subway announcers’ voices after hearing them even only once. But few of us can build on our ability to recognize a sound’s distinctive characteristics and then verbally reproduce that sound ourselves. I wouldn’t even know how to begin doing a vocal impression of an alarm clock or a cricket. I know the sounds well but can’t produce them.

Ace also makes me laugh because of his ability to transcend what for most of us are limits to what our voices can do. Our voices are our primary audio stamp, our distinctive timbral profile that completes our physical presence. But Ace’s vocal pyrotechnics suggest, Gumby-like, a more fungible timbral essence; in fact, he seems to become whatever it is he imitates. I laugh because ultimately I find Ace’s uncanny way with sound a little unsettling. Here I am assuming that each of us is has a settled and fixed sonic identity while Ace demonstrates just the opposite.

Here is a video clip someone posted on YouTube of Ace doing essentially the same routine as the one I heard:

From The Hard Drive: Backing Up Old Voices

This is supposed to be a funny post.

As I was dutifully backing up and copying thousands of old files from a dusty desktop computer on New Year’s (I’m preparing to bury the computer in my closet—which, by the way, is starting to resemble one of those small cars out of which an implausible number of clowns are packed in), I came across an MP3 that made me laugh. The piece is called “Have You Any Thoughts.”  It’s part of a trio of compositions I wrote ten years ago based on voice messages left on my answering machine.

Does anyone remember answering machines?  The little plastic box kind that sat next to your phone?

“Have You Any Thoughts” features the talking voices of a few different folks who encountered music I had recorded onto my answering machine as a greeting message.  (I was trying to be cool.) I thought the music was okay–it was an excerpt from some electronic thing I had been working on–but the callers had varying opinions. This just goes to show how one set of sounds can inspire wildly different reactions in different listeners. It may also say something about the kinds of friends I keep.

There are a few humorous things about his piece. The voices are extracted from their initial contexts (the answering machine), their judgements–good, bad, or indifferent–revealed, sampled, and repeated. The voices are fun to listen to because each one captures a different kind of humor: unintentional humor, vicious humor, deadpan/dry humor, sarcastic humor, and plain strange, out-there humor. Each voice is sure of itself, sure of its perspective and what it’s saying, so juxtaposing all of the voices together heightens the overall humor quotient. The music I wrote around these voices is humorous too: you could call it cheesy, faux funk. All the parts–the piano, the organ, the drums, the horns, the twangy guitar–were played on a MIDI keyboard using generic preset sounds.

By the way, one of the voices on “Have You Any Thoughts”—the voice that asks, “Thoughts, have you any thoughts?” and then breaks out into spirited solfege singing—is that of my friend Fred, a teacher and ney player in Boston. To Fred’s credit, he’s figured out a way to use this music (as well as two other compositions of mine) as pedagogical tools in the college classroom to inspire discussions on voice, affect, humor, and other topics that only someone like Fred can conjure, taksim-like, out of thin air.

Here is the piece:

You can read more about the Answering Machine pieces here.