Pandering to the bass

About a Wayno/Piraro Bizarro from 5/29, which turns on the title phrase pandering to the bass being understood as a pun:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 6 in this strip — see this Page.)

We are to understand pandering to the bass as a pun on pandering to the base (which has become a stock expression in political contexts), and, given the image and text of the cartoon, as involving bass (/bes/ rather than /bæs/) ‘someone who plays the bass guitar in a rock band’ (rather than in one of 7 or 8 other possible senses).

Lexical matters. First, the verb. From NOAD:

verb pander: [no object] (pander to) gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire, need, or habit or a person with such a desire, etc.): newspapers are pandering to people’s baser instincts.

Note that, the object of pander (the thing or person gratified or indulged) refers either to an abstraction (a desire, need, or habit) — in the cartoon, vanity — or to a person with this quality — the bassist.

The model for the pun in #1, the stock expression pander to the base, involves a specialized political sense of the noun base. Relevant entries from NOAD:

noun base: 2 [a] a conceptual structure or entity on which something draws or depends: the town’s economic base collapsed. [b] something used as a foundation or starting point for further work; a basis: uses existing data as the base for the study. [c] [with modifier] a group of people regarded as supporting an organization, for example by buying its products: a client base. 3 a place used as a center of operations by the armed forces or others; a headquarters: the corporal headed back to base |  a base for shipping operations. …

(to which I would add the metonymic 3ʹ ‘people at the base (the center of operations, headquarters)’ — a sense parallel to the sense of headquarters in headquarters insists that we fill out these forms).

The base in the stock expression is a specialization of 2c. From Wikipedia:

In politics, the term base refers to a group of voters who always support a single party’s candidates for elected office. Base voters are very unlikely to vote for the candidate of an opposing party, regardless of the specific views each candidate holds. In the United States, this is typically because high-level candidates must hold the same stances on key issues as a party’s base in order to gain the party’s nomination and thus be guaranteed ballot access.

Then the punning bass. From NOAD:

noun bass-1: [a] the lowest adult male singing voice. [b] [as modifier] denoting the member of a family of instruments that is the lowest in pitch: a bass clarinet | a bass drum. [c] a bass guitar [an electic instrument in a rock band] or double bass [the lowest-pitched member of the violin family, in a symphony orchestra, chamber music, or jazz ensembles]. [d] the low-frequency output of a radio or audio system, corresponding to the bass in music.

To which I add these metonymic senses (definitions and examples of my own devising):

[] someone who sings in the bass range: the basses sit to the left of the tenors | one bass was singing off-key. [aʺ] in a piece of music sung in parts, the part or line in the bass range: the bass is especially tricky to sing. [cʹ] someone who plays a bass, a bassist: the bass was late for rehearsal.

In fact, none of the senses of bass in NOAD would fit for an object of pander (because none of them are human or the right kind of abstraction) — though aʹ and cʹ would. And cʹ is indeed the sense in the pun, which is about pandering to bassists.

Systematic metonymy. Why, then, you ask, isn’t cʹ (or aʹ) in NOAD?

Because these metonymic senses are systematic, automatically available given the basic senses: for any noun denoting a voice range, there’s a related noun denoting someone who sings in that range (including cases like contralto and countertenor); and for any noun denoting a musical instrument, there’s a related noun denoting someone who plays that instrument (including cases like violin and marimba). Which systematic metonymies get listed in a dictionary is complex judgment call based on frequency and contexts of use, and different dictionaries make different decisions in particular cases.

Consider the systematic metonymy that relates names of animals and names of their flesh eaten as food. In some cases, NOAD lists the meat name as well as the animal name. As for chicken:

noun chicken: 1 [a] a domestic fowl kept for its eggs or meat, especially a young one: rationing was still in force and most people kept chickens. [b] [AZ: metonymical] meat from a chicken: roast chicken. …

In other cases, it lists only the animal name. As for ostrich:

noun ostrich: 1 a flightless swift-running African bird with a long neck, long legs, and two toes on each foot. It is the largest living bird, with males reaching an average height of 8 feet (2.5 m). … [AZ: there’s no subentry for ‘meat from an ostrich’, though people do eat this meat — I have myself — and also use the noun metonymically: Eat Smarter has a nice Ostrich and Vegetable Stew recipe, with kidney beans, ostrich, sauce, peppers, and red chile in it.]

I have no idea why NOAD lists metonymic soprano, tenor, and baritone, but not alto or bass. It could just be a matter of who happened to write up those particular entries.

Easter Egg allusions. The drawing of the bassist in #1 is in fact a recognizable image of the the character Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer), from the movie This is Spinal Tap:

(#2) Derek Smalls, the bassist of the rock band Spinal Tap

From Wikipedia about the movie:

This Is Spinal Tap (stylized as This Is Spın̈al Tap: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi) is a 1984 American mockumentary film co-written and directed by Rob Reiner in his directorial debut. It stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as members of the fictional English heavy metal band Spinal Tap (who are characterized as “one of England’s loudest bands”), and Reiner as Martin “Marty” Di Bergi, a documentary filmmaker who follows them on their American tour. The film satirizes the behavior and musical pretensions of rock bands and the hagiographic tendencies of rock documentaries such as The Song Remains the Same (1976), and The Last Waltz (1978) and follows the similar All You Need Is Cash (1978) by The Rutles. Most of its dialogue was improvised and dozens of hours were filmed. It produced the 1984 soundtrack album of the same name.
All this is wonderful, but recognizing Smalls adds nothing to our understanding of the cartoon; it’s just a little gift for some viewers — the visual counterpart to what I’ve called Easter egg quotations. From my 4/13/19 posting of that name:

If you catch the [Monty Python] quotation — not every reader will — that doesn’t contribute substantively to your understanding, but it does provide a kind of side pleasure, not unlike that afforded by Easter eggs in video games and the like. So I’ll refer to them as Easter egg quotations.

Cartoonists are given to providing Easter egg allusions, some meant to be be appreciated by clueful viewers, others (modeling characters on personal friends, for example) functioning as private jokes.

In fact, #1 has at least one other Easter egg allusion in it: the tattoo of the initials IBD. Wayno’s blog explained that IBD stands for a rock band that had previously appeared in Bizarro, but none of the guesses as to what the band was — there seems to be no band named Inflammatory Bowel Disease — was identified as on the mark. So it’s still a mystery, though Wayno Knows.


2 Responses to “Pandering to the bass”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    This Bizarro was included for admiration/discussion at , where the thread now includes a comment linking back here for readers who welcome a detailed linguistic examination!

  2. J. B. Levin Says:

    I suspect you have by now seen Wayno’s blog identifying the band in question as the Iron Bunnies of Doom (without the umlaut he regrets having omitted).

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