The Keytar: Not Funny Anymore
A few years back, it broke my heart a little to watch the cowbell, a perfectly good auxillary percussion instrument, become an oft-quoted punchline from a funny-but-not-that-funny SNL sketch. For a while there, "more cowbell" was threatening to replace requests of "Freebird" as the inane call of the concertgoer who thinks he's more clever than he actually is. It even kind of sullied a perfectly good cult-rock band and their biggest classic rock radio staple in the process.
I don't feel quite the same sympathy for the recent irony overkill being showered on the keytar -- it's kind of a goofy half-breed instrument by design, right down to the silly portmanteau name. Still, whatever practical application the instrument had to begin with (and given the fact that keyboards can be made much lighter now than during the Keytar's 80's heyday, there's probably plenty), it's now little more than a punchline, and it's quickly becoming one that's too played out to be funny. I remember having my mind blown watching Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 1995 when John Tesh came out with a keytar and ripped up a Black Sabbath cover with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa. It was completely unexpected and hilarious, partly because Tesh is someone who'd been playing a keytar with a straight face for years at that point. The last couple years, though, have seen hacks of the comedy world and the music world alike run the whole keytar thing into the ground.
There was Borat, of course, but there was also Hellogoodbye's "Here (In Your Arms)", a video completely drenched in late 80's/early 90's signifiers made by a band who's probably too young to even remember the era firsthand. Further proving that a trend is only officially dead once the emo bands have gotten ahold of it, Cobra Starship, who hold the extremely competitive title of the worst band on Decaydance, not only have a keytar player in the band, but give smirky interviews about their "dedication to the keytar."
Last week, Keytar-mania reached critical mass on two consecutive nights of premium cable programming. Sunday was the first season finale of "Flight of the Conchords," an HBO sitcom about a satirical folk rock duo that isn't "Tenacious D." I initially chalked up my inability to understand the show's appeal to perhaps the fact that the New Zealanders were trading in some dry form of native humor that I just wasn't accustomed to. But the more crappy American stand-ups like Arj Barker turned up in guest slots, the more I realized that they're basically dealing in the same so-dry-it-chafes humor that U.S. single-camera sitcoms have been doing to death for the past few years (much in the same way Ricky Gervais increasingly feels more like Larry David redux than some shining example of "British humor"). I'd been giving the show a chance on and off throughout the summer, but this last episode pretty much clinched that I wouldn't be bothering with the second season, partly because of a terribly unfunny plotline featuring Demetri Martin and Todd Barry (mediocre U.S. comics ahoy!) as a keytar/bongos duo.
The next night, HBO aired Justin Timberlake's Memorial Day concert special, which, besides being an incredibly boring spectacle of the singer's self-love (seriously, TWO AND A HALF HOURS? You have two albums, dude, and the whole point of doing a TV concert special should be to edit out the long boring stretches between songs), featured three keytars at one point, proving once again that the guy will pretty much do anything to evoke 80's R&B (instead of, say, 90's boy bands), and is still biting Prince so hard that he must have to bleach the purple off of his teeth. Hopefully, keytar-mania has finally reached critical mass, and we can leave the damn thing to people who really, sincerely just want to play a synthesizer with a shoulder strap. But I'm guessing that as with anything, American pop culture won't be able to get enough of it until it chokes on it, and there's probably already a Will Ferrell-as-a-keytar-player movie on the development fast track (I just googled to make sure that hasn't actually happened already, and it turns out there's an outtake on the Blades of Glory DVD of him playing keytar -- fuck!).