Gwnewch y pethau bychain

You can call, but I probably won’t hear you…

Following up to the concert, some musing on a specific song. On Twitter, sfeley writes:

One concert annoyance: why do people laugh and shout out during “Shop Vac?” That song is TRAGIC. It’s a tearjerker. Does nobody else get it?

Which got me to thinking about the song, and the nature of comedy…or, more specifically in this case, satire.

Shop Vac” is a very bouncy pop tune, with a catchy sort of Fountains of Wayne vibe to it. It tells the story of a couple who has moved into their little suburban castle, with their two kids and the yard and the basement workshop and the convenient shopping nearby. But if you listen closely, its obvious that they are utterly miserable. As Steve notes, it’s a tragedy set in a pop song.

I’ve complained in the past about songs where the emotional centre of the song and the tenor of the tune felt at odds to me. Most famously, the Beatles “Ticket to Ride“, which I’ve always thought was a terribly jaunty tune for a song about losing love. (I much prefer The Carpenters’ melancholy cover.) But sometimes, the dichotomy is part of the point — it creates a dissonance between what we’re feeling and what we’re being told.

“Shop Vac” is satire, and it’s target is the American DreamTM — or at least the ideal of it presented by our current culture. The couple in the song has everything that we’re all told we’re supposed to want, but everything we’ve been told we’re supposed to want turns out in many cases to be empty and unsatisfying. Somewhere on the way to “success”, they’ve found that along the way they’ve lost their dreams. Lois McMaster Bujold expressed it best: “The one thing you cannot trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.”

So….why is this funny? For some, it may be a measure of shadenfruede, because the person laughing may think “Ah-hah, but I didn’t fall into that trap! I reject that lifestyle and all it represents!” (This is a very geek attitude, and geeks are Coulton’s primary audience.). For others, it’s the hollow laughter of recognition. Coulton is certainly not the first to mine this notion for humour. Erma Bombeck wrote a dozen best sellers by extracting comedy from the soul-crushing ennui of suburban life. In the 1960s, The Monkees had a huge hit with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday“, which had a slightly more detached air, but lampooning the very same ideals.

This is why it’s one of my favourite Coulton songs, and why I requested it. Because it’s complex, and thought provoking, and more than meets the ear on first hearing. I don’t think that it’s funny because I don’t get it. It is funny (and tragic) because it is revealing a truth in a way that only the court jester can. Dry black humour, indeed, but humour none the less.


Jonathan Coulton Takes Atlanta by Storm (and Paul…)


ConCertino Photos


  1. As pointed out in “Stranger in a Strange Land”, laughter is a way of coping with wrongness. Or as someone else said, “If I don’ laff, I sure as hell am gonna cry!”

    (Or as Niven’s Puppeteers put it: humour is the result of an interrupted defense mechanism — and no sane being interrupts a defense mechanism!)

    Satire walks a fine line. Fall one side and it’s trite and obvious. Fall the other and it’s offensive. Only on the cusp is it funny, because only there can you see both sides at once.

    • Yep. And that may be why this song is provoking such strong reactions. Not only is it a fine line, but the line isn’t always drawn in the same place for each listener. 🙂

      • Oh, definitely it’s in a different place for everyone. It’s why a certain fan and myself agree about not liking a Pratchett book but for opposite reasons! For them it falls on one side of the line[1], for me on the other — for others it hits the spot.

        [1] Actually, that particular line is between ‘cliche’ and ‘boring’, which is a different axis; sometimes satire has to straddle two or more non-parallel lines at once…

  2. Hmmm. Roughly sums up why I hate that one. Largely because I see the tragedy as self-inflicted. There’s nothing about owning a shop-vac or suburban ranch house that keeps you from having dreams and actively pursuing them. I’ve caught several of mine.

    • You don’t always realize you’re miserable, though. It came as quite a surprise to me to realize, on my 30th birthday, how completely and utterly wretched my life had become. On some level, I knew I wasn’t entirely happy, but I don’t think I’d quite come to grips with just how unhappy I was. Once I did that, I was able to turn my life around.

  3. I hadn’t heard this song before. Thanks.

    It’s funny on several levels — and funny with a nasty, biting edge. I particularly like “I like the Starbucks here that’s better than the other one, ’cause the other one’s not as good.” It’s an absurd statement that is funny but also makes you realize how ridiculous the life is where you compare chain stores that are supposed to be identical.

  4. To me it’s not satire at all. It’s about a man who really doesn’t care about the person he’s with. JC does quite a few like that--“Till The Money Comes” is another. “Soft Rocked By Me” is the same kind of man playing the Nice Guy game, and made the male use of that ploy clearer to me than all the LJ posts I’ve seen on the subject.

    I see these songs of his as a blisteringly accurate and angry attack on certain kinds of male, and as such they’re not comfortable to listen to. Calling them satire, thinking of them as funny, allows one to distance oneself from the putative target, but the truth is that there but for constant vigilance and self-criticism goes every one of us who is cursed with two lumps and a sponge finger. It’s too easy for us to forget to care, and that’s what Coulton is telling us.

    • That’s certainly another way to look at it, but it’s not how I read this one. But that’s ok. Art doesn’t have to speak the same to each listener. 🙂

  5. Now see, that is a song I sort of like for the bounciness of it, but sort of have issues with. It’s satire, perhaps, but comes across to me as more of an attack song. In this video of Coulton playing live in Los Angeles:

    he says that he wrote that song after he was using his own shop vac to clean up something or another another, thinking “Awe, this is awesome, man… Wait, no it’s not.”

    The song, to me, is full of arrogant presumption; it’s Coulton asking everyone else to laugh along with him at all these uncool people who live in the suburbs, doing all these things that “we” know are uncool. Up yours, Coulton. I’ll decide what I think is cool and not, thanks very much. His origin story in the video, in particular, strikes me as somebody realizing that he had, and was enjoying, a tool that he’d always made fun of other people for. And rather than just admitting that he had been wrong, and that shop vacs are useful and harmless, he freaked out and decided to prove he was still on the cool side of the fence by writing that song.

    Sounds like I hate the man, don’t it? :{)} Not true. I have all of Thing-a-Week, saw him with Paul & Storm in SF, and sing along as loud as anyone when Tony Fabris starts up one of his songs. I even learned one myself (Skullcrusher) for our concert at BayCon last week. But that one has always rung false to me, and since you brought it up, I felt the urge to write my feelings down.

    Living with my kids in the suburbs, enjoying Applebee’s, and regretting nothing, I remain faithfully yours: it_aint_easy.

    • And I’m glad you did, because this has been an interesting conversation.

      I think I identify with the song because I *have* been the person who woke up, realized I’d gotten the life I once thought I wanted, and found myself miserable. I did something about it, and ended up with a life that suits me much better, but I haven’t forgotten that feeling of being trapped in a cage of my own making.

  6. I don’t know if you are a fan of Moxy Fruvous -- I saw them once in concert in a fairly small venue that had a bar in it. I’ll never forget the looks on the band’s faces when a bunch of obviously drunk folks loudly requested The Drinking Song ( about a guy who drinks himself to death. And when they finally played the song all the drunk folks were singing along with their lighters in the air . . . seemingly completely oblivious to the irony.

    • I am a fan, though I never got to see the m live. (Are they still together?)

      There’s a long and old tradition of people misappropriating songs, unaware of the real implications of the lyrics. Politicians particularly seem to be prone to this (Reagan and “Born In The USA”, for instance).

      I’ll never forget the interview I saw with Sting, where he expressed his bafflement that people interpret “Every Breath You Take” as a romantic love song. “People come up to me and say ‘Oh, we love that song. We played it at our wedding!’ and I reply ‘Well….best of luck, then.'”

      • They aren’t together anymore as far as I know. Jian has a radio show on the CBC (

        Yeah, when I was a kid Every breath you Take creeped me out, and I was really too young to explain why. When I got a bit older, I heard his interview about it, and it all clicked.

    • I got to see them twice in St. Louis in the 90s -- they are a blast live.

  7. “Shop Vac” has always seemed to me to have a tinge of the hysterical to it. Not ha-ha hysterical, but crazy/desperate hysterical. As such, the character in the song is vaguely aware of the insanity of what he’s doing, but can’t quite face up to it. On the surface it comes out as funny, but on later or deeper listening, it isn’t.

    The sprightly tone of the song both initially disguises that ironic twist and then strengthens it once you realize what’s going on. I think it’s a great song. It just happens to be about an appalling person or situation. “I Crush Everything” is in the same boat, but isn’t nearly as effective because it’s so straightforward.

  8. Wow. Thanks for the analysis. Kit told me about this post and its followup comments yesterday (I don’t read LJ regularly enough), and I’m glad she did. It’s fascinating to see so many perspectives on the same content.

    I started to leave my own reaction to your reaction to my reaction here, but it exploded beyond what I originally thought I’d write, so now it lives in its own post.

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