The Brilliant Stupidity of “This is Spinal Tap” and “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”

We love pop music and heavy metal in spite of–and because of–their excesses and their stupidity.

“There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

-David St. Hubbins, This is Spinal Tap

The 2016 music mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping follows directly in the footsteps of the 1984 music mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. This much is obvious: both movies follow dim-witted musicians on tour, and both use their fictional misadventures to lay low the grandiosity and self-importance of our real-life music stars.

But there’s so much more going on in these movies and their music than simple mockery. Popstar and Spinal Tap are actually at their most interesting in the ways that they actually celebrate their respective genres and highlight what we enjoy, for better or worse, about pop and heavy metal.

In order to understand this, let’s do a close reading of a selection if songs from both movies, starting with those that are more mocking, then moving to those that are more celebratory.

💩 / ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

(That’s “poop emoji out of four stars,” which the review that Rolling Stone gave Connor4Real’s album in Popstar.)

Let’s start with the easy stuff: both movies have several songs that showcase their respective genres at their worst. Here’s just one example from each.

Spinal Tap: “Big Bottom”

The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’
That’s what I said
The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand
Or so I have read

My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo
I like to sink her with my pink torpedo

Big bottom, big bottom
Talk about bum cakes, my girl’s got ’em
Big bottom, drive me out of my mind
How could I leave this behind?

Now, to be clear, there are a lot of things about this song that are enjoyable at face value: there’s something satisfying about seeing “tuxedo” rhymed with “torpedo,” and the bass line–or rather, bass lines–are pretty catchy. That said, the primary effect of this song’s lyrics is to create ironic distance between the material and the listener by highlighting the distastefulness of the adolescent sexual boasting that permeated 80’s metal. A phrase like “bum cakes” is just over-the-top enough to separate itself from something like, say, “Cherry Pie,” which actually postdates Spinal Tap. On a darker note, the phrase “sink her with my pink torpedo” image conveys a sense of sexual aggression bordering on violence that is just over-the-top enough to separate itself from something like, say, “Love Gun” by KISS.

The song is a joke. We’re meant to laugh at it, and the buffoons who would express ideas in this way.

Popstar: “I’m So Humble”

Here, the joke is baked into the title: we’re meant to laugh at the buffoon who’s so lacking in self-awareness that he contradicts any notion of humility before we hear a single note in the song.

I’ve got it all and I’m gettin’ more
But I never fall, beat ’em all
Cause you know I’m so humble
I’m so humble, I’m so humble

Bar none, I am the most humble-est
Number one at the top of the humble list
My apple crumble is by far the most crumble-est
But I act like it tastes bad outta humbleness

“I’m So Humble” pokes fun at contemporary musicians who undermine the self-serious sanctimony of their music with their words and actions. We’re not meant to relate to this at all; we’re meant to feel ironic distance from the ridiculous notion that anyone could seriously proclaim themselves to be “number one at the top of the humble-list.”

Again, this is straightforward stuff. These songs are obviously jokes made at the expense of the genres’ salient features. But what happens when these movies use their genres’ features for a different purpose?

Hello Cleveland!

Spinal Tap: “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You (Tonight)”

The artistic project of this song is vastly different to that of “Big Bottom,” both lyrically and musically. “Big Bottom” plods along in a morass of tasteless sexual metaphors, but “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You (Tonight)” legitimately rocks hard and carries with it a sentiment that’s not entirely ridiculous, albeit slightly redundant:

Little girl, it’s a great big world
But there’s only one of me
You can’t touch ’cause I cost too much
But tonight I’m gonna rock ya (Tonight I’m gonna rock ya)
Yeah, tonight I’m gonna rock ya (Tonight I’m gonna rock ya)

Right off the bat, the lyrics and the music invite the listener to take part in the power fantasy in a fairly sincere way. “Tonight I’m gonna rock ya” is something that the band says to the listener, but it’s also something that the listener can absorb, appropriate as their own sentiment, and carry out into the world. There’s little, if any, ironic distancing going on, at least in this part of the song. Laughter is replaced by an authentic sense of thrill and energy–the best of what hard rock/heavy metal has to offer.

And then we get this verse:

You’re sweet, but you’re just four feet
And you still got your baby teeth
You’re too young, and I’m too well hung
But tonight I’m gonna rock ya (Tonight I’m gonna rock ya)
Yeah, tonight I’m gonna rock ya (Tonight I’m gonna rock ya)

Wait. Did this song just promote pedophilia? Sort of. It’s certainly not condemning it. And here’s where things get really interesting: by pairing this repulsive notion with the aforementioned authentic sense of thrill and energy, the song indicts the listener for enjoying only sightly less reprehensible expressions of similar ideas in “real” rock songs:

Well, she was just seventeen
If you know what I mean
And the way she looked
Was way beyond compare

I guess…I do know what you mean, Sir Paul. That tonight you’re gonna rock her! Tonight!

Popstar: “Incredible Thoughts”

Do yourself a favor and check out all of the lyrics to this song, which is basically the beautiful love child of “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and “Miracles” by the Insane Clown Posse. Here are some highlights:

Incredible thoughts
Incredible minds
I’m so overwhelmed
How did my brain conceive them?

Now, if this song were just a joke, the rest of it would be about how these so-called “incredible thoughts” are either banal garbage or total nonsense. But that’s not exactly what’s going on here.

A snow white dove in the pitch black night
A rain drop falls from tremendous heights
A wave crashes off of a cliff in Scotland
A child bites an apple, but the core is rotten

These statements might not be “incredible” in a profound way, but they’re evocative of spectacle, and they’re compelling in an instinctual, not intellectual way. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we really want from our entertainment–to be given some sort of transcendent experience that provides a brief release from the never-ending existential bleakness of our lives? Michael Bolton’s soaring tenor voice, phat beats, and sweeping helicopter shots?

TV is free, but what is the cost?
We have GPS and yet, we’re still lost

There’s actually a lot of legitimate profundity in these deceptively simple statements: the interplay between sponsor interests and creative integrity in ad-supported TV models; the way technology paradoxically alienates people from each other while bringing them together at the same time, etc. But let’s keep moving on through this song.

What if one thought could cure the people
What if one song could end all evil

“What if one song could end all evil?” Yes, it’s a ridiculous statement, but it’s not far at all from the sentiment expressed in “Imagine” by John Lennon, a song that all but says “sing this song with me and there will be world peace,” especially when it’s sung on New Year’s Day in Times Square every year. Music has a profound affect on our human psychology and has been the soundtrack to mass social movements many times over. It’s only slightly absurd to ask if one song could end all evil. An incredible thought, indeed, and when combined with the aforementioned Michael Bolton, it creates an authentic sense of joy and hopefulness.

And then we get just plain nonsense such as “what if a butterfly was made out of butter,” “a milk dud, sitting in the acid rain,” and “a house cat addicted to the cocaine.” As was the case with “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You (Tonight),” this song appeals to us with the genre’s salient features, then indicts us for accepting the genre’s features.

Speaking of cats, what the hell is going on here?

You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat?

Now that’s an incredible thought.

These Go To Eleven

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that these two mockumentaries combine their genre critiques with genuinely appealing music. After all, these movies are meant to entertain, and they wouldn’t be very entertaining with actually wretched music (Nigel’s epic guitar solo from Spinal Tap aside). But what is surprising, or at least a little less obvious than the word “mockumentary” would suggest, is that they go so far out of their way to express a complex appreciation for the messy contradictions presented by pop music.

It’s worth noting that these last two songs come at the end of each of these movies. They both give the closing argument for their respective movies’ genre critiques, while at the same time delivering a rousing, highly entertaining finale. Both movies show how we love pop music and heavy metal in spite of–and because of–their excesses and their stupidity.

Add a Comment