Like probably millions of people, after hearing about Adam "MCA" Yauch's death on Friday, I spent the weekend listening to the Beastie Boys and discovering that, yup, I can still (extremely lamely) rap along to practically all of License to Ill, Paul's Boutique, and Ill Communication. While re-listening I remembered a couple things I had forgotten: 1) Paul's Boutique is a pretty crazy and amazing album; and 2) The Beasties were really, really fucking goddam goofy. Sure, there were the tracks about Buddhism (mostly spearheaded by MCA), and one about how bad George W. Bush was, but ultimately, we're not going to remember the Beasties for their spirituality or their politics. (And that's as it should be, because that one about Bush is a stinker.) We're going to remember them and listen to them until we drive our grandkids nuts because they were perpetually goofy teenagers who refused to grow up; the wiseass slackers in the back of the class who knew that fart sounds were never not funny.
Which isn't to say that Adam Yauch wasn't a grown-up. He founded a non-profit that organized the Tibetan Freedom Concerts and started a film distribution company that's put out a lot of serious and seriously good movies. He even, weirdly enough got some people into politics. That makes MCA sound like a respectable-but-humorless celebrity activist like Bono, however, and that's a nasty thing to imply. This was a guy who, in response to a negative New York Times review of the music video he directed that featured an old woman throwing a fish at the Beasties by writing a letter to the editor in his Nathanial Hornblower alter-ego demanding that the reviewer send him a goat. And that's MCA at 39 years old. At 46, he directed a 30-minute music video featuring, among other things, two time-travelling versions of the Beasties peeing on each other for a long time. The Beastie Boys at their best were a joke, and I mean that as high praise. They never, ever worried about being taken seriously, which got them in a little bit of trouble early on, when their totally manufactured smoking-in-the-boys-room personas got taken at face value. (As Sasha Frere-Jones said in his personal obituary of MCA, “When did they start smoking angel dust? When did they start hitting girls? WHAT.”) And it wasn’t just the Moral Majority who took License to Ill too seriously—the Beasties parody song “Fight for Your Right” became popular because a bunch of frat boys didn’t realize it was a parody#History).
Later, MCA issued the famous, “Yo, it is actually not cool to hit women, sorry we joked about that shit when we were teenagers” retraction, but thankfully the Beasties didn’t seize up and become Serious Artists—90 percent of their songs were of the “Let’s have an awesome time and also we are very good at rapping and sampling some funky-ass shit” variety, and of course they loved wearing fake mustaches. Fake mustaches and “I’m gonna stick my dick in the mashed potatoes” clips are like jazz—if you have to ask why they’re funny and wonderful, you’ll never know. That Beastie brand of wackiness is important, because it’s all too easy for critically acclaimed artists to disappear into their own clenched assholes—Radiohead, for instance, is so self-serious now that they release one album every five years that’s just arrhythmic clicking and Thom Yorke’s wordless (but not sexy) moaning, and we’ve apparently begun treating TV shows like graduate dissertations. If there’s one thing this world needs more of, seriously, is songs about throwing eggs at people and strapping on ear goggles. We need artists—and fuck you, MCA was an artist—to teach the children the virtues of goofiness, because so much of the world seems built to squash any fun impulses kids might have. Schools teach only the boring parts of literature and art (because surely nothing important was ever also funny), and parents shove their offspring into overstuffed schedules so they can be tiny versions of stressed-out adults. Worst of all, standardized tests are now sucking all the amusement out of even nonsense stories by forcing students to answer questions about parodies of animal fables, rather than letting them just read something funny, laugh, and appreciate it.
How many people are going to tell you, as MCA et. al did, “My work is my play cause I'm playing when I work,” which is actually a pretty good motto? There were a ton of tributes to MCA over the weekend, but my favorite was Coldplay’s cover of “Fight for Your Right.” Normally I’d lump Coldplay in the “wayyyy too serious bands” category, but they’re so earnest in covering such a dumb song that I have no idea how much they’re kidding or not—which is a pretty fitting way to pay your respects to a guy who, forget Dick Clark, was the oldest teenager in the world.