A Song for World War III and Philosophical Thoughts

I stumbled on this interesting article on a singer / song-writer / comedian / satirist by the name of Tom Lehrer who was active in the 1950’s and ’60’s. He long preceded the likes of “Weird Al” Yankovic but his music, despite it’s age, was right at home on the Dr. Demento radio show of the ’70’s to ’90’s. Besides the pure “cool” factor of the man and his work, his career spurred thoughts in me bordering on the philosophical.

One of the many songs of his that grabbed me is, “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)”.

As soon as I watched this, it made me think of the Fallout franchise. I suspect it is just that ’50’s feel to the video, mixed with the ’30’s or ’40’s popular style that he usually wrote them to… and of course in this case the World War III reference. Whatever it is, this song really seems like something you would hear playing on a radio or TV in a Fallout game session or trailer, like the trailer here for Fallout 4:

It really stands to show that there really is nothing new under the sun. That the coolest things are really just mash-ups of things that have come before.

The article brings up one other thing to my mind that I’m not sure how I feel about. Lehrer’s musical satirical career, and his sudden ending of it, seems to drive home the futility of, well… the futility of trying to change anything for the better, at least through satire or debate. I’m not sure I agree with that thought, but…

So how does this comedian’s work bring these thoughts to my mind?

First, when you read the article, look at his career, or read any later interviews of him (such as they are,) after he ended his career, I think it at least possible that he realized:

  1. His work had become passé, spawning others who went far farther with their dark humor; going perhaps farther than he felt right, effective or in good taste.
  2. Many of the topics, (whether they were political, sociological, or cultural,) that his songs poked dark fun at had also become passé or common-place. His attempt to get people to think about topics that were difficult for most to consider through humor essentially failed to produce anything other than entertainment. Instead of inspiring debate, instead of shining a light on dark topics that needed to be addressed, I think his work may of actually helped to make those topics of concern become common-place.

I may very well be wrong, but I don’t think point #2 above was what he intended when writing his songs. I think he took a look at his musical career and felt his work failed to make any type of positive change and instead only capitalized on what it was trying to inspire debate on. He had seen things that were ironically funny, and explored that humor not only to amuse, but in part I think in hopes that it might make a change for the better. But those topics became so “normal” that they ceased to be funny, and had become instead merely a sad truth. What he found funny was now so common it scared him. The article I referenced at the beginning of this post quotes him essentially saying this very thing:

“Things I once thought were funny are scary now… I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”

These are only my interpretations, and obviously I have no way of knowing that any of the above is true. And I do not completely believe that debate or satirical commentary is entirely futile… that it does not change anything for the better. But I think possibly in the bigger picture, in many ways, it is true.

Instead, for me at least, it’s about the “smaller picture”. About changing, helping or making things better for those you meet and interact with. Paying it forward. And in the small-scale, “pure” intellectual debate is often not the best method to make a change for the better. Satire is even less so as it often seems condescending or snarky.

No, it seems to me the way to make a change for the better is to plant small seeds and ideas and to lead by example. To simply be patient and caring to all that you meet, as difficult as that can often be. To help on a one-on-one level as much as possible. To bring a bit of happiness to those you meet. It won’t change things in the big picture, but it seems to me this is the best way to touch the lives of others.

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