6 Songs That Are Jokes But Everyone Took Seriously

Everybody loves this Frank Sinatra song, but no one remembers why it’s so funny
6 Songs That Are Jokes But Everyone Took Seriously

If someone misunderstands your joke, maybe they’ll think you’re lame. Maybe they’ll get angry. Or maybe, you told your joke in the form of a song, and the people who didn’t get it will love it anyway. Congratulations! You’ve got a hit, even if no one remembers what you meant by it. Just like happened with such songs as...

‘Theme from New York, New York’ by Frank Sinatra

In 1941, Broadway got a new musical named On the Town, about sailors on shore leave. Its signature song was called “New York, New York.” Four years later came a screen adaptation starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, which was appropriate, because those two men had previously starred in Anchors Aweigh, which was also about sailors on shore leave. Most “On the Town” songs didn’t make it to the adaptation, but “New York, New York” did and became famous. 

Three decades later, in 1977, Martin Scorsese made called a film called New York, New York. Though it was an original story, the title was likely a reference to the On the Town songas the Scorsese movie opens in 1945 and features a surreal scene of Robert De Niro watching a sailor and a lady dance like they’re in a musical. This movie’s signature song is called “Theme from New York, New York.” 

Within the plot of the movie, the song is composed by De Niro’s character with lyrics by Liza Minelli’s character and has the title “Theme from New York, New York” — even though, within the plot of the movie, there is no movie called New York, New York for it to be a theme to. Outside the movie, the song is most often unofficially known as “New York, New York.”

In 1978, at one of his concerts, Frank Sinatra performed “Theme from New York, New York.” He did this as a reference to his own song “New York, New York,” which was at the time still far more famous than “Theme from New York, New York.” Without Sinatra having his own previous “New York” song, his choice to cover this recent movie theme would have been absurd. This new song was written to be performed by a flamboyant 30-year-old Liza Minelli, not a 60-year-old Frank Sinatra. 

Nonetheless, people loved his version. A couple years later, he recorded it for an anthology album, and it went on to become a major New York anthem. A fair number of people know the Sinatra version without knowing Liza Minelli ever sang it. Even more people know it without knowing about Sinatra’s other “New York, New York” song, and still more people know it without having watched either New York, New York or On the Town

Below is a video from 1982 of Sinatra doing a medley of the two different “New York, New York”s, but he wouldn’t make a habit of that, as the newer song would eventually far outstrip the older one in popularity. 

Yes, “Theme from New York, New York” became a triumphant anthem for the city. Never mind that in its own movie, it scores a bittersweet scene. The movie ends with De Niro becoming a successful jazz performer and Minelli becoming a successful actress, and they briefly reconnect at a performance of this song, but they still don’t end up together. (If this ending reminds you of La La Land, it should, as New York, New York was among that movie’s many influences.)

Never mind also that, if you look only at the lyrics, the song is about someone who’s never even been to New York. It’s about someone in a small town, whose life sucks. They want to leave and go to New York but haven’t done so yet. With the arguable exception of the one line “I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep,” the song doesn’t actually say a single good thing about New York — or indeed anything about New York, good or bad. It just talks about what a success the singer thinks they’re personally going to be when they get there. 

And unless waking up in New York really does transform every single person into “a number one, top of the list,” the singer might not find that success there. They also might not even reach there. That’s the pun behind “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” 

The situation got so absurd that in 2009, the United Nations ordered Jay-Z and Alicia Keys to compose their own New York song. Their replacement anthem opens by referencing De Niro and Sinatra and now plays in Times Square 24 hours a day. 

‘Hip to Be Square’ by Huey Lewis and the News

If you go just by the title, or just by the chorus, 1986’s “Hip to Be Square” is about how you’re fine even if you’re not cool. That message sure seems to suit the band themselves, who don’t look terribly cool by most modern standards. 

But the song is really not about someone who’s square because of their fashion sense or natural looks. It’s about someone who was a rebel in the 1960s, but then gave up and decided it was easier to conform. There was no name at the time for this class of people who betrayed the hippie sprit, but they would later be known as bobos, or bourgeois bohemians. 

When Huey Lewis first wrote the song, he did it in third-person. This made it clear that it’s mocking the guy the song’s about, who watches what he eats and likes musicians to wear suits. Lewis switched to first-person, in hopes of making the song even funnier, but this backfired. “I kinda mistold the joke a little bit,” he’d later say, “and I think some people thought that, in fact, it was an anthem for square people.”

If you weren’t around in 1986, it’s possible you know the song best from being featured in American Psycho. “It’s a personal statement about the band itself,” says Patrick Bateman right before butchering Jared Leto with an axe. 

He was wrong about that. He was wrong about a lot of things. 

‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’

Not everyone knows the title of this classical piece, but absolutely everyone knows the tune. Give it a listen and nod in recognition. It’s epic and suspenseful, right? 

No, it’s not, according to the composer. Edvard Grieg wrote it for the 1867 Ibsen play Peer Gynt, and he wrote it to be ridiculous. “I have written something that so reeks of cowshit,” he said, “ultra-Norwegianism, and to-thyself-be-enough-ness that I cannot bear to hear it.” Today, you may not know quite enough about the music of 19th-century Norway to identify what here is being exaggerated, but at the time, Grieg thought the matter was clear.

“I hope that the irony will make itself felt,” he explained. The music played during a scene where our hero Peer confronts the Dovregubbens — a word that not doesnt properly translate to “mountain king” but to a different phrase that reveals the composer’s true nature: “king of trolls.” 

‘Funiculì, Funiculà’

Here’s another tune most don’t know by name but everyone knows anyway. Some call it “The Pizza Song.” You might otherwise know it as the most Italian song of all time.

In English, we have a bunch of songs that insert silly words into this classical tune. Schoolkids learn a song called “My High Silk Hat,” about a hat being crushed when a fat lady sits beside the singer. Or, you get jingles like the following, which turn the song into an ad: 

As it happens, the original “Funiculì, Funiculà” wasn’t some old Italian folk song but was itself an ad. A journalist named Peppino Turco commissioned the tune from composer Luigi Denza and then wrote his own lyrics about how awesome a new train was. The Italian lyrics are all about how much fun the singer is having riding a cable car up Mount Vesuvius. However, given that no one at the railway was actually paying Turco to plug their new attraction, we have to conclude that he made this song as a joke

Within a few years, two different composers — one from Germany, one from Russia — each mistook “Funiculì, Funiculà” for a traditional Neapolitan folk song and incorporated it into their own operas, assuming it was public domain. It was not, and Denza sued. 

However, that was all in the 19th century. It’s been 144 years now since the song was composed, so if you want to think that this song by two guys named Luigi and Peppino about Mount Vesuvius is a classic Italian song, who are we to tell you you’re wrong? 

‘Elenore’ by The Turtles

Speaking about songs used in ads, consider 1967’s “Happy Together” by the Turtles. Here it is in a Toyota ad, in which a man and wife repeatedly try to murder each other so they can be with their one true love: their Toyota:

Here’s another, where a bunch of items from different stores all sing the song together: 

You can slip it into any ad where you want people to associate a product with happiness because that’s what the song is about, right? Unless you listen to the lyrics, that is, in which case you realize it’s not about two people in love but about someone just fantasizing about what his life might be like with someone. The two of them aren’t really together, and it’s possible that he’s never even spoken to her. 

“Happy Together” makes roughly as much sense as a love song as “Theme from New York, New York” does as a New York anthem. 

Anyway, the song was such a big hit that the band’s label told them, “Happy love songs are great! Write another.” 

This didn’t please the guys all that much. So, for their next song, they went deeper into parody. For starters, they named the song “Elenore,” which misspells the name Eleanor. The singer professes his love to Elenore, but in a ridiculous way. These are the lyrics to the chorus: “Elenore, gee, I think you’re swell / And you really do me well / You’re my pride and joy, et cetera.” 

An earlier draft was sillier still (it called her his “fab and gear, et cetera,” which were slang words from Liverpool, though the band was Californian), but the finished version of the song is still pretty ridiculous. To repeat: It ends a line with “et cetera.” And then, as the next lines, it says “Elenore, can I take the time / To ask you to speak your mind? / Tell me that you love me better.

The song was another hit, and no one seemed to detect any hint of satire. The verses weren’t much more serious, by the way. “I really think you’re groovy,” says verse two. “Let’s go out to a movie.” It’s the sort of lyrics you might expect from one of the more restrained songs by The Lonely Island. 

‘I Just Had Sex’ by The Lonely Island

Okay, not everyone took this Lonely Island song seriously. You, for example, always knew that it was a joke. But in Southeast Asia, clubs were playing it unironically.

It might sound surprising that anyone could miss the humor of such lyrics as “When I had the sex, man, my penis felt great / And I called my parents right after I was done.” But you have to understand not everyone dancing or choosing the music in a Thai nightclub speaks English. Even if someone does know some English, they might not be so familiar with the language that they can understand every word of the verses. Maybe they just catch the song’s main refrain. And a song bragging about sex doesn’t sound so crazy.

Plus, the chorus is sung by Akon, and he’s legit, right? If someone in Vietnam already knows Akon has a song called “I Wanna Fuck You,” and it’s not a parody, this is a clearly an artist who sings about sex in an unsubtle manner. 

It’s possible that some of those clubbers realized the song was weird, but they wrote that off as Americans being oversexed, rather than anyone making a parody. Think about how many Americans heard “Gangnam Style” and found it funny but didn’t conclude, “This is satire about materialism in the district of Gangnam.” 

They thought, “Wow, Koreans sure are silly!”

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