Pitchforking Andy Samberg’s Hipster Appeal
Alyx Vesey / Independent Scholar
When Ethan Thompson wrote a Flow column last summer on Saturday Night Live cast member Andy Samberg, he made the argument that the inclusion of the comedian, who made his mark prior to joining the show in 2005 with a series of popular digital shorts on the Web, was an interesting case study in the convergence of TV and online media. Taking this point a bit further, I’d like to discuss Samberg’s presence on the show as an indie music tastemaker and how he has used his musical fluency to create a distinct comedic voice that has contributed to SNL’s cultural relevance.
Samberg’s image as a hipster comedian is enforced by his visibility in music magazines like Spin, Blender, and The Village Voice. His hipster cred is further enforced by his involvement with the Lonely Island, a musical comedy group Samberg formed with SNL writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. They are particularly notable for their relationship with Pitchfork Media, an Internet publication that devotes itself to the coverage of independent music and has gained a substantial following with American twentysomethings looking for an alternative to print magazines like Rolling Stone that focus their attention on mainstream music. This pedigree contextualizes how SNL has used it to their advantage as a means with which to uphold their reputation as network television’s cultural space for forward-thinking music programming. However, Samberg’s popularity offers little room for women.
Samberg garnered much attention for his digital shorts. As Thompson pointed out, the success of “Dick In a Box” reinvigorated interest in SNL, which was downloaded a record-making 28 million times on YouTube before being pulled. “Dick In a Box,” which jokingly replicated the schmaltzy production, questionable fashion, and racial appropriation of Color Me Badd and other predominantly-white early 90s R&B acts, is also noteworthy for the inclusion of Justin Timberlake, a pop superstar beloved by indie-leaning music publications for his futuristic sound. As if the YouTube downloads aren’t proof enough of Samberg’s ubiquity in contemporary music culture, he performed the song at Timberlake’s 2007 concert in Madison Square Garden. Pitchfork staffers took note.
Pitchfork staffer all but drooled over “Iran (So Far Away),” another digital short about Irani President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a mock-slow jam R&B ballad that featured Samberg with another soulful white boy, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. What makes the song relevant to hipsters is its swiping of the piano melody from British electronic musician Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” which was featured prominently in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
Of course, Samberg is hardly the first comedian to align himself with underground music. Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, and Zach Galifianakis, have been featured in music videos by indie bands or interviewed for music publications like Rolling Stone and Spin. Some of them have even released comedy albums on well-known indie labels like Sub Pop, which signed Nirvana and the late 1980s and, in the 2000s, became home to almost-mainstream acts like the Shins and the Postal Service. SNL alum Jimmy Fallon made his name reconfiguring Top 40 hits into songs about holidays on “Weekend Update.” Even Fred Armisen, Samberg’s castmate, reeks of indie cred. Armisen got his start in comedy filming a fake rock documentary during South by Southwest, posing as a journalist to stage elaborate, Spinal Tap-esque encounters musicians. He occasionally writes for Pitchfork and pokes fun at hipster culture as a part of ThunderAnt, alongside former Sleater-Kinney axwoman Carrie Brownstein.
Simply put, Samberg is more of a ratings draw because he can harness his hipster appeal in a way that targets a broader audience. Samberg is also quick to capitalize on himself as a musical comedian. While comedians have long been putting out stand-up albums, few have put out albums that were supposed to be judged on both their musical and comedic merits. Pitchfork willingly frames their audience to be in-the-know young adults, posting lengthy interviews of the band, glowing reviews of their debut album, Incredibad, and news items about the release of singles like “I’m On a Boat.”
This video encapsulates Samberg and the gang’s mirroring of the ironic sensibilities of the “typical” Pitchfork reader. The video winks at all the lavish trappings of a commercial hip-hop video as the song deftly replicates the sound, even employing rapper T. Pain to deliver the hook. Like the Beastie Boys before them, this song suggests that the trio is capable of creating a contemporary hip-hop sound, but their cultural position as middle-class Jewish pranksters suggests that all of this may be done in quotes, thus distancing them from the sound their trying to replicate. It also suggests a certain amount of white boy fantasizing; while the boys may wish they could roll with T. Pain, they’re probably more likely to spend an afternoon at Kinko’s like many other Pitchfork followers and staffers.
The point of all this is that, via Samberg and the Lonely Island, SNL is reinforcing the widely-held cultural belief that the geek is male. This is only made more evident by the show’s decision to showcase all-male bands like Fleet Foxes, TV on the Radio, and Vampire Weekend, rock acts just to the left of mainstream musical attention, some of whom, like The Lonely Island, have distribution deals with Universal, NBC’s parent company. This synergistic relationship between record labels and television networks reflects the mutually beneficial relationship between SNL and Pitchfork, as a substantial number of the musical guests on SNL are critical darlings of indie tastemaker publications like Pitchfork, who put all three bands in their top ten list for records of 2008, with Fleet Foxes bestowed with the e-zine’s Album of the Year.
While it is commendable (and advantageous) for SNL to create a national showcase for these acts, it absences the female geek, thus enforcing Will Straw’s assertion that “the nerdish homosociality of those who collect popular music artifacts” is fundamental to the masculinization of popular music which, in turn, denies female participation in these kinds of fan practices.1 The employment of insider knowledge is critical to Samberg’s appeal. It also marginalizes women. As of now, the only woman that has been featured in Samberg’s digital shorts is actress Natalie Portman, starring in a clip where she debunks her wholesome image.
Though indie bands have a spotlight on SNL, most of the female artists who perform on the show are commercial solo artists like Beyoncé and Carrie Underwood. The show could improve this lack by putting more Pitchfork-friendly female artists like Santogold, M.I.A., Neko Case, Vivian Girls, Erykah Badu, and Telepathe on their show. As for Samberg and his Lonely Islanders, take a note from Fred Armisen and make room for female musicians to collaborate as comedic voices.
1. Samberg on Skates
2. Front Page Image
Please feel free to comment.
- Straw, Will. 1997. “Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and connoisseurship in rock music culture.” Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. New York: Routledge. p. 15. [↩]
The author needs to do her research. What about Body Fuzion (Drew Barrymore)? What about Daquiri Girl (girl I don’t recognize)? What about Extreme Activities Competition (Kirstin Wiig)? What about Virgania Horsen (Kristin Wiig)? What about The Mirror (girl from Juno)? I agree that the Digital Shorts could include more women, but this writer doesn’t seem to have done something very basic….like research…before making very broad claims. Blame SNL for not bringing on female musical guests to feature in the Digital Short…blame SNL for not bringing on more female hosts period, but I think the Digital Shorts do an effort to harness whatever comedy is available to them each week.
I think that perhaps the intent of this column needs greater clarification. I was commenting on Andy Samberg’s interest in music culture, which, a) is crucial in defining his comedic style, b) has been latched on to by music publications, c) has been used as a way to align the Saturday Night Live‘s musical programming with more indie-friendly acts, d) has been re-sold to it’s intended audience via the Lonely Island, and how all of this e) marginalizes, and, in some instances absences, women.
Thus, to help build evidence to this claim and focus my argument, I looked specifically at the musical digital shorts Andy Samberg has made for SNL and not all 46 of the digital shorts Samberg helped make since joining the cast. It’s good to point out the performances of SNL castmate Kristen Wiig along with actresses Drew Barrymore and Juno‘s Ellen Page in these digital shorts. And while one of the digital shorts you mention, “Daiquiri Girl,” is a song, I don’t exactly know how the unidentified, silent woman in “Daiquiri Girl” (itself a replacement short when plans to make one with musical guest Gnarls Barkley fell though) is a positive representation of female participation in these shorts. Frankly, given that neither one of us can identify the actress (who is basically playing a slimmer, hipper version of SNL alum Jeff Richards’ hardly progressive “Drunk Girl” character), I don’t think this short is a viable example of women’s presence in the digital shorts, musical or otherwise.
However, I also didn’t focus the non-musical shorts because, while noteworthy, they simply aren’t as popular as the musical ones (to my knowledge, none of them have been downloaded and circulated as many times as the ones I’ve mentioned have, and none of them — including “Daiquiri Girl” — have been repackaged on an album with the intent to be sold to Samberg’s fan base). Given that all the shorts I mentioned have been put on Incredibad, released by a record label run by NBC’s parent company, and received largely positive reviews by musical publications like Pitchfork is not to be ignored. Furthermore, it is significant that there is only one album track (“Natalie’s Rap”) which contains a (non-musician) female presence, compared to the multitude of big-name male musicians like Justin Timberlake, T-Pain, and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes. I think this primarily has to do with the fact that Samberg’s comedic style has been packaged as musically hip and savvy, an idea further disseminated through print and online music publications who interview him and review his material. However, I believe that both the production and reception of his work tends to absent both his female castmates and the potential contributions of other female musicians.
That said, I do hold out hope an appearance from Norah Jones if the Lonely Island makes a digital short for “Dreamgirl.”
im just wondering who of “Santogold, M.I.A., Neko Case, Vivian Girls, Erykah Badu, and Telepathe” qualifies as geeks. Id be willing to bet money MIA could or will get a date on SNL. Also, while technically true, I take issue with the statement, “It also suggests a certain amount of white boy fantasizing; while the boys may wish they could roll with T. Pain, they’re probably more likely to spend an afternoon at Kinko’s like many other Pitchfork followers and staffers.” I don’t think that really adds to a respectful discourse. see you at the vivian girls show on the 10th….
Ethan, do you take issue with the concept of white boy fantasizing? Or do you have a problem with the writer poking fun at Andy and his counterparts?
I think it’s pretty clear from the “I’m On a Boat” video–where it references the typical Kinko’s day–that white boy fantasizing exists here. The guys acknowledge it themselves.
In my opinion, this article is spot on in its assessment of how the musical digital shorts leave out women. I’m grateful that females in academia are doing this type of work–even if it means deconstructing a popular male hero and taking insults for it. If you thought the writer was making fun of white boy fantasizing and considered this disrespectful, I find this ironic. Women have been asked to laugh off patriarchy since its inception.
I often find myself comparing the lack of inclusion of women in “geek” culture to the lack of women included in punk culture before it. The Riot Grrrl movement helped to address this issue, and yet women were still marginalized (both by their male counterparts and later by the media) for their “cute” hair clips and the ways in which the ladies in these bands chose to dress. The beauty of today’s feminism is that we are, for lack of a better word, permitted to critique the way in which underground culture– and the mainstream media that eventually absorbs it– continue to marginalize women. We’ve saw it in the ’90s, and we’re seeing it again today.
Ms. Vesey addresses this issue with intelligence and wit (I, personally, loved the Kinko’s comment). She raises a valid and widely shared perspective that lady geeks are just not often recognized or even addressed. The hipster culture that Andy Samberg embraces tries to find ways to subvert pop culture while still, on some level, displaying an sense of excitement for being included (see T-Pain video). This “underground” culture is no less a boys’ club than the “mainstream” culture that is being parodied.
Samberg’s almost entirely male musical shorts may not be purposely sexist, but it is important that someone take note of it. That is why Ms. Vesey’s article is so important and informative. Hipster dudes, we know you may not realize that the ladies are being left out. But instead of getting defensive, maybe just take some time to think about it.
Norah Jones lent her voice for the song Dreamgirl so Natalie Portman isn’t the only female in the album.
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Andy Samberg is also capitalizing on the fact that being a geek is “cool”. As he becomes more a part of mainstream culture, he is helping make the “hipster” subculture a more prominent part of music.
I would have to agree with you that women, I believe, are unintentionally, left out of the hipster- geek culture. However, women are usually not notable in comedy. Look at late night tv hosts, they are usually men whereas women hosts are located in the early afternoon on weekdays. i think the core of the problem lies within the fact of lack of women comedians. Most comedy writing staffs are mainly male.
I agree with the above comment that women are typically scarce in comedy. However it seems that lately, strong female actresses have taken on comedy and are rivaling their male counterparts. What’s interesting is that the majority of the female comedians that I can think of are all from SNL- Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, etc. So it seems particularly notable that Samberg is critiqued for his lack of female representation, when he is on a show with such successful women comedians. Additionally, his work with Natalie Portman was a huge success, and her skit became a popular hit, which should be encouragement for similar work. Samburgs new catering to the ‘indie’ culture is a smart career choice because of the frequent reference to the ‘hipster’ in society. While this hipster may be portrayed in television and films, it is rarely critiqued or made fun of, for example, in Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s show “Portlandia”.
So it seems to me that the author of this article is frustrated with the underrepresentation of the female “geek” on television shows like SNL. With I believe is a fare argument but to consider it from the producers side it might help to see why there is this underrepresentation. The Producers of any show on television are all trying to target a particular audience of viewers. They want to bring in the best ratings and have the biggest shares; this all means more money for them. So the show SNL feels it is targeting the larger population of viewers being male rather than female. So if they tried to appeal more to female viewers they might loose some from they larger target audience and potentially be loosing millions. I do agree with the fact however SNL could benefit from bring in more female band acts for the show than they already do. That way they would not be changing the dynamics of their show but still be attracting more viewers without loosing any.
I have always been a big fan of Andy Samberg’s Digital Shorts on SNL. The Lonely Boys are able to use satirical approaches to poke fun at pop culture and over-dramatize current events and fads. Dick in a Box was a revelation for SNL that definitely brought in a new, young fan base. And Andy has helped maintain that fan base with each Digital Short he has made. It was then extremely disappointing when he decided to leave the sketch show after last season. However, despite his absence he still has managed to make Digital Short appearances as he did last week with host Adam Levine.
The issue as to his inclusion, or lack there of, with women in the shorts is an insignificant argument at this point. This article was published in 2009, and though it may have been more valid then, Andy definitely began including more women in the years since then. Lady Gaga in “3-Way: The Golden Rule” and Rihanna in “Shy Ronnie” were both obscenely popular and received just as many hits as shorts staring male celebrities. I look forward to seeing what else he comes with post retirement from SNL. But a favorite of mine will always be “Dear Sister” starring Shia Labeouf. Though this early short wasn’t a musical, it was hilarious and still makes me laugh every time.
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