Daily Lists, Miscellaneous

The 11 Most Cynical Tom Lehrer Songs



?If you’re wondering who this Tom Lehrer guy is and what he’s doing on a site devoted largely to action figure news and stories about Care Bears raping each other, let me introduce you to one of the genius forefathers of popular nerdism. Coming to prominence in the Jewish comedy boom of postwar America, Lehrer brought academic satire to the masses with his dry demeanor and winkingly corny songs about chemistry, mathematics, and nuclear physicists, among other subjects. Some of his most perennial tunes include “The Masochism Tango”, “Lobachevsky” and the inescapable “The Elements”, still sung by Harry Potter actors everywhere (Isaac Asimov, too, has gone on record as a fan). Also he was allegedly one of the pioneers of the jello shot, so we all owe him a debt of thanks regardless of the shade of your particular nerdly stripes.

A Dr. Demento favorite and influence (both direct and indirect) on musical comedians of later years and today, Lehrer remains a cultural icon despite his relatively short performance career and his refusal to write newer songs. While this does mean we are robbed of the sort of topical satire he excelled at, much of Lehrer’s songbook remains fresh today, largely due to the gleeful pessimism that is the man’s trademark. Yes, underneath the jolly piano vamps and atrocious slant rhymes of his ditties lurks a deep, dark hatred and distrust of humanity, and the bitter tragedy that is modern life: people are foolish idiots, governments are corrupt and ineffectual, and complete annihilation is only one botched political conflict away. Even though nuclear war is not quite the imminent threat it once was, for the most part Lehrer’s view of the world is still relevant, in the general if not the specific. So let us take a pleasing summer stroll through Tom’s most misanthropic entries and try to forget for a moment our drab, wretched lives.

11) Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

One of the best and most famous Lehrer songs, this places low on the list as it is actually relatively less cynical than these other entries: at least the serial animal murderer protagonist genuinely enjoys what he does, even if he has “gained notoriety” doing it. In typical Lehrer fashion, the style is bright and cheery while the subject is sinister, especially when he darkly sings of taking a few pigeons back home “to experiment”. It says something about our society when a song about cheerily killing off animals barely raises an eyebrow anymore, but this is still one of the most gloriously perverse songs ever to be unleashed from the holding cells of Tom’s mind. And it’s not nearly as creepy as…

10) I Hold Your Hand in Mine

In the Lehrer universe, which is perhaps merely our own, love offers no consolation as time ensures that all things will grow old and waste away. Yet some times we may find ways to make it endure, as in this heartwarming ballad. This is another subversive send-up of a popular song style, cleverly structured so that the joke isn’t immediately apparent but comes across gradually. It’s surprisingly graphic, actually, and the warbling tones of Tom’s voice as he sings of “taking healthy bites” only make it more disturbing. If you think about it, there aren’t really that many good-old-fashioned man-with-a-piano songs that take the point of view of an admitted psychopath, so it’s nice that we have this number to spice things up.

9) My Home Town

Beating “The Kids Aren’t Alright” to the punch by several decades, this song is indeed a look at the cherished home town which the singer nostalgically longs for, and all the fucked-up things that have happened to it since he lived there (including one line that can’t be mentioned for fear of controversy). But unlike the Offspring classic, the narrator of this song doesn’t realize that things have gone wrong or ever were, seeing everything through such a thick veil of nostalgia: if there’s nothing else you take from Tom, it should be that this sort of thinking can be very dangerous.

8) Bright College Days

Few people could speak of the banality of higher education better than Lehrer, and his desecration of the “alma mater” still rings painfully true to many of us graduates, especially in this time of low employment and general discouragement (“we will sleep through all the lectures/and cheat on the exams/and we’ll pass/and be forgotten with the rest”). The students may have had fun with their beer and Benzedrine but it ultimately is all castles in the sand as they slowly relinquish their dreams and begin “sliding down the razor blade of life”, a pitch-perfect Lehrerism for the inexorable sense of doom that shows up again and again in his work.

7) Pollution

A mock-calypso song chronicling the effects of industrial pollution on American city life: all it’s missing is a verse about shrinking ice caps and it could be Al Gore’s ringtone. It may seem like a worn-out subject, but there’s at least one phenomenal line here: “See the halibut and the sturgeons/getting wiped out by detergents”. What’s even more frightening than the environmental damage is the interminable thought that none of our water is clean and nothing we consume is safe from toxins. We should all breathe a carcinogen-rich sigh of relief that Lehrer retired before he could write a song about food preservatives.


6) National Brotherhood Week

Cited by weary bloggers on every point of the political axis, “National Brotherhood Week” is one of the more well-known and oft-referenced of Tom’s political songs, even though its subject and some of the references are long gone. The idea that racial and social hatred could be abandoned for a week is mocked as being ludicrous: after all, hating someone else in order to make yourself feel stronger “is American as apple pie”. It’s less of an attack on any one particular target and more of a general ridicule, and it’s an idea that Lehrer examined a few other times, notably in his Christmas carol parody (“On Christmas Day you can’t get sore/your fellow man you must adore/there’s time to rob him all the more/the other three hundred and sixty-four”). I love the sardonic stares and little nods of the head he gives us to let us know that even when he’s pounding ragtime, he means business.

5) Wernher Von Braun

A damning critique of the rocket scientist and Nazi collaborator, this may be one of the most overtly grim of the songs here: past the smile and soft lilts it’s obvious that Lehrer holds nothing but complete hatred for von Braun. And though von Braun didn’t (as far as I know) end up working for the Chinese, his dubious choice of employers leads Lehrer to brand him as hypocritical and heartless, and then he goes a step further by invoking the “large pensions” of London widows and cripples. This is real stuff, folks.

4) Send the Marines

Lehrer served in the army for a couple of years and mined these experiences for a few songs (notably “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier” , but this tune is more pointed and critical, illustrating with depressing precision the dismissive way American forces are used to set up puppet dictators around the globe. Not too much else to say other than this is probably one of the catchier political songs and will probably rattle around your head until you just have to write a top ten list to get it out.

3) Who’s Next?

Nuclear proliferation comes thick and fast in this short but significant head-bobber. This was one of the songs picked by Lehrer for his last major public performance in 1998 and it allowed him the rare opportunity to add newer lyrics to one of his Cold War standbys. Unfortunately, this version is not on DVD but even without the update this one is still a classic of modern paranoia, as are friends and neighbors around the world slowly prepare for the big World War III.

2) So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)

And speaking of which, here’s another war song, this one for that hypothetical USSR conflict everyone used to be so worried about. Nowadays we all know that the end will come in the form of either a zombie, robot or intelligent ape uprising, but this depiction of future war in general is scarily prescient in its mention of the way war is shown on TV (“I certainly hope we have color television by then”, Tom snarks). With nihilist numbers like this one, it’s more than a little surprising Lehrer hasn’t turned up in the Fallout universe in some shape or form: it takes little effort to imagine this tune streaming out of the speaker of a half-melted car radio in the midst of a pile of post-apocalyptic rubble.

1) We Will All Go Together When We Go

As “of its time” as it may be, this anthem of complete annihilation (introduced as a “survival hymn”) still resonates. It’s pitched as a means of cheering up gloomy mourners, and in a way, this is actually one of the least cynical songs of Lehrer’s oeuvre. I mean, it does kind of put things in perspective. If we all get wiped out at once, then what good is it to worry about our own trivial little lives? But for me, what secures this as the most cynical of all is Tom’s summation of humanity after the war as “nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak” (closer to seven billion if adjusted for inflation, of course). After everything we’ve done, that will be our legacy. Now THAT puts things in perspective.

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