The Flight of the Conchords’ “Carol Brown (Choir of Ex-Girlfriends)” is an exemplary case study in the intertextualty of the comic song, or rather, the parodic-travestying song (see Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”). Its major and obvious debts are to two previous popular songs, one American and one English, which, given that the Conchords are from New Zealand, might allow us to note the ongoing generative power of the postcolonial; but those concerns may perhaps be set aside for now. The tropes of a certain masculinist discourse shall be our primary focus here. “Carol Brown” and its ancestors point to a kind of “gender trouble” (see Judith Butler’s book of that title) in parodic-travestying popular song.
When “Jermaine” — let us employ, with due reservation, his self-nomination — sings “There must be fifty ways that lovers have left me,” he’s clearly signaling a debt to Paul Simon’s 1975 song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
But though “Fifty Ways” is explicitly invoked by the Conchords, a perhaps more direct and substantial influence goes unremarked. This is “Song for Whoever,” by The Beautiful South (1989).
Note that each of the three songs features a list of names, hearkening back to "Madamina, il catalogo è questo” — the famous “catalogue aria” from Mozart and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni — and perhaps even to the genealogies of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (see, e.g., Genesis 5 and Matthew 1).
Of the three songs, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” might at first seem to be the least thoroughly captured by the masculinist rhetorical enterprise, since it features a woman listing the names of men: Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus, and Lee. But this appearance is misleading: note that no woman actually speaks in the song, but rather is spoken for by the masculine singer — and the emphasis is solely on how she relates to him: “The problem is all in side your head, she said to me.” (This is not a song that would pass any musical version of the Bechdel Test.) If a woman seems to have power in this song, it is power yielded to her by the singer, provisionally and temporarily. He remains the true decision-maker.
“Song for Whoever” is more obviously and flagrantly sexist, with its frank emphasis on using the tears of women for financial and reputational gain: “The Number One I hope to reap / Depends upon the tears you weep, / So cry, lover, cry.” Yet the song ultimately deconstructs itself, reaching its aporia in the namelessness of the singer: it is only the women who receive names, while he remains a cipher. He claims the power of speech and song — like Orpheus — but can only receive it by giving up his name, while the specificities of identity remain with the denigrated women. This reversal of power is indirectly acknowledged at the end of the song, with its narration of female vengeance — meant by the singer to be feared, but understood by the listener as a proper and indeed necessary act of retributive justice.
This “return of the repressed,” as Freud might have called it, finds a completion and intensification in the video of “Carol Brown.” Note here the presence of the woman's name even in the song’s very title — indicative of things to come, as the singer strives unsuccessfully to control the narration of his sexual history. His crucial mistake is the decision to display images of his former lovers, with the obvious purpose of subjecting them to the masculine gaze — but to his surprise and consternation, those images come to life: an ideal instance of the feminine subaltern speaking back to masculinist power.
Who organized all my ex-girlfriends into a choir
And got them to sing?
Ooh ooh ooh, shut up
Shut up girlfriends from the past
But — and this is the key point — they do not shut up. (He later repeats his order — “I thought I told you to shut uh-uh-up” — but they do not obey.) Through utterance they overcome their status as mere images, and take control of the song. As Baudrillard might put it, the simulacrum here becomes the hyperreal — and thereby the undoing of the Don Giovanni figure is complete.
Let me close with one ambiguous, and ambivalent, note. The wild card in “Carol Brown,” the figure that represents and enacts excess of signification, is “Bret” — whose evident chief trait here is silence. Unlike “Jermaine” and unlike the “Choir of Ex-Girlfriends” he does not sing. And yet he acts: and his primary acts involve manipulation of the image of “Jermaine,” including, most notably, shrinking him. Thus through “Bret” we see the reversal of the woman-as-enlarging-mirror trope that Virginia Woolf limned so memorably in A Room of One’s Own.
One might then see Bret as a Trickster figure — see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, though one might also describe “Bret” as a “whiteface” version of the “signifying monkey” about which Henry Louis Gates has written so incisively — but a trickster acting in order to help liberate women from imprisonment in the image constructed by the masculine gaze. But does such behavior enact a genuine male feminism? Or does it rather re-inscribe masculinist control in the deceptive guise of the Liberator? These questions will have to be pursued at a later date.