In the 1970s, the three members of ZZ Top were blues-rock badasses, covered in beards and old blue jeans. They sang about Jesus leaving Chicago and, with fearsome authority, about beer drinkers and hell-raisers. They'd been up, they'd been down, and we never doubted for a second that they'd "been around."
But if they growled "I ain't askin' for much" on their hit tune Tush in 1975, eventually ZZ Top got greedy, asking for way too much in the 1980s. They sold out to MTV and made silly videos involving goofy automobiles and spinning guitars. They released stripper-girl anthems like Legs, and no one ever took tres hombres near as seriously again.
It's a delicate thing, balancing zaniness, laughs and outlandishness with music. Everyone from the duck-suit-wearing Elton John to the grease-painted Kiss to the helmet-wearing aliens of Daft Punk have dabbled in monkey business. (And let's not forget the half-fake Monkees themselves.) Then there are the brilliant songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Randy Newman, each with admirable canons of sharp-tongued, melodic works, but who are unfortunately remembered by casual fans for their novelty numbers (Dead Skunk and Short People, respectively).
Of course, adding cartoon personalities, pranks or parody to an act can pay off. Kiss rocked convincingly enough, but the sound of their records was dreadful. And yet their gimmick worked: Chuckle at their looks and high jinks, and Kiss will laugh with you, all the way to the bank.
"We take a lot of pride in the thin line that we ride between serious music credibility and a tongue that's planted firmly in cheek," says David Macklovitch, the singing half of the playful Montreal electro-funk duo Chromeo, on the line from Los Angeles. "If you go too far, you're a comedy band, and if you forget the fun, well, then, you completely denature what Chromeo is all about."
Chromeo is about to release its fourth LP, White Women, a collection of sly dance jams and wry funk-pop. If the album's lighthearted jacket cover has the duo's Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel walking arm-in-arm with a leggy bride wearing white, the music itself is not being sold as a joke at all.
The album's lead single, Jealous (I Ain't With It), has already been nominated as the song of the summer by the excitable Huffington Post. (To which Macklovitch replies, "We've got a lot of work ahead of us, and the song has a ways to go before it earns that title.")
As for that song's lyrical point of view, Macklovitch talks about writing love songs from non-traditional points of view. "With Jealous, we try to turn this Casanova lover-boy cliché on its head," says the singer, whose smarty-pants bona fides are legitimate. (He possesses a PhD in French literature from New York's Columbia University.) "We present the man as a comical antihero, instead of the super-macho, sexually predatorial man you hear on the radio. He's a silent and powerless witness – pretty much castrated."
If the woman in Jealous is domineering and manipulative, the opposite is true with Over Your Shoulder, which is over the top when it comes to the assessment of woman as sex objects with body issues ("You see your problems of self-esteem, could be self-fulfilling prophecies, so probably your best policy is to talk to me"). The women of that song are portrayed as "needing reassurance," says Macklovitch, but when it comes to Sexy Socialite, it's the man who is insecure.
"Our mission is to portray relationships from a variety of humorous perspectives," he explains. "We actually make it a point to remind interviewers that our music isn't even heteronormative. These power struggles can apply to any type of relationship."
Musically, a pair of mature collaborations with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig and emerging star Solange Knowles (sister of Beyoncé) stand out. Chromeo has previously featured Solange's voice (on 2010's When the Night Falls), but the new Lost on the Way Home is a lush co-write that "pushes the muso fibre on the record," according to Macklovitch.
So, there's that balance – the silly and the serious. When talking about the world an artist can create with lyrics, album packaging and his or her appearance, Macklovitch mentions Kiss, Iron Maiden and Steely Dan. "They had a level of humour and ridiculousness," he says, "but you also had some memorable jams that can stand on their own."
True enough. On stage, Macklovitch and Gemayel set their keyboards upon pairs of plastic female legs. All in good fun, of course. You see, Chromeo, like ZZ Top before them, have their props – and they know how to use them.