Parody music  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Parody music, or musical parody, involves changing or recycling existing (usually very well known) musical ideas or lyrics - or copying the peculiar style of a composer or artist, or even a general style of music. Although the result is often very funny, and this is the usual intent - the term "parody" in musical terms has a slightly different meaning from the general term, as it includes some kinds of quite serious (or at least not intentionally humorous) re-use of music. Parody of music has probably existed as long as music itself, but in the 20th century it has emerged as a category of music in itself.




In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, parody masses were written using tunes from folk music and other sources. Later popular song returned the compliment, borrowing hymn tunes and other church music and substituting secular (sometimes obscene) words. John Brown's Body, the great marching song of the American Civil War, was based on the tune to a hymn; it was in turn borrowed back for a new hymn. This continued into World War I, with many of the soldiers' songs being based on hymn tunes (for instance When this bloody war is over, to the tune of What a friend we have in Jesus).

Folk song is as often as not written to existing tunes, or slight modifications of them. This is another very old (and usually non-humorous) kind of musical parody that still continues - for instance Bob Dylan took the tune of the old slave song No more auction block for me as the basis for Blowing in the wind. Some folk tunes have been recycled many times - for instance the melody of Auld Lang Syne.

Classical composers often borrowed folk and popular tunes, as well as making fun of each other's musical styles. Bach and his contemporaries were very fond of the quodlibet - taking popular tunes and playing them in grotesque ways - often combining several of them at once. Haydn (who had a very strong sense of musical humour) was notorious for taking popular melodies and giving them mock serious treatment. Sir Arthur Sullivan was a master of parody of other composers' styles - in the dramatic works he wrote with W. S. Gilbert he parodies at different times the styles of Mendelssohn, Wagner, and even Handel, although (usually) avoiding the stealing of actual musical ideas. As might have been expected, his own music has been parodied ever since. The Carnival of the Animals composed by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1886 was meant as a musical joke for the composer's musician friends. At least two of the movements are direct musical parody, radically changing the tempo and instrumentation of well known melodies.

The 18th century ballad opera - which included satirical songs set to popular melodies of the time, involved some of the broadest (and funniest) musical parody of all time.

The use of well-known tunes with new lyrics is a common feature of pantomime - an old and continuing theatrical tradition, especially in the United Kingdom.


The emerging form of Jazz music frequently recycled themes from the staider "white" popular music of the time, as well as producing occasional parodies (usually called "travesties") of well known classical themes.

In the 1940s, Spike Jones and his City Slickers parodied popular music in their own unique way, not by changing lyrics, but adding wild sound effects and comedic stylings to formerly staid old songs such as "Cocktails for Two" and "April Showers." Beginning in 1949, Homer and Jethro did country music arrangements of popular songs, with parody lyrics, such as "Hart Brake Motel" (for "Heartbreak Hotel") and "The Battle of Kookamonga" (after Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans").

The 1957 Broadway musical Jamaica amusingly parodied the then very fashionable commercial variety of Calypso music. Another musical using a heavy dose of parody was the 1959 show Little Mary Sunshine, which poked fun at old-fashioned operetta.


Stan Freberg created parodies of popular songs in the 1950s and 1960s, mocking the musical conventions of the day, such as Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" in which the vocalist rips his jeans from too much hip-swiveling and drowns in reverberative sound effects at the end. Another major parodist was Allan Sherman, who began making hit records with parodies such as the now-classic "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)" (to the tune of Amilcare Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from the opera La Gioconda) and "When I Was A Lad" (after Gilbert & Sullivan's "Ruler of the Queen's Navee" from "HMS Pinafore").

Other parodists included composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who in 'Eight Songs for a Mad King' (1969) took a canonical piece of music, Handel's Messiah, and subverted it to suit his own needs, in much the same way Jimi Hendrix did with 'Star Spangled Banner'. The self-described "piano-wielding fugitive from Harvard", Tom Lehrer; and Victor Borge, originally from Denmark, who switched from a concert piano career to comedy, have also created parodies of classical piano pieces and opera.

In 1965, musical satirist Peter Schickele created P. D. Q. Bach, a supposedly newly-discovered member of the Bach family, whose creative output parodies musicological scholarship, the conventions of Baroque and classical music, as well as introducing elements of slapstick comedy. Schickele continues to tour and record under the pseudonym P. D. Q. Bach to the present day. <ref>Schickele concert schedule</ref>

Ray Stevens became a country star in the 1970s and 1980s with a few serious songs (such as "Everything is Beautiful"), more novelty songs (such as "The Streak", "Shriner's Convention", and "Mississippi Squirrel Revival") and many parody songs, such as the adult-contemporary send-up "I Need Your Help Barry Manilow", and the Beach Boys parody "Surfin USSR".


The most successful parodist of popular music is often considered "Weird Al" Yankovic, who is now in his fourth decade of writing song parodies. He got his start sending tapes to be played by Barret Hansen, AKA Dr. Demento, on his nationally syndicated radio show. Seattle, WA-based disc jockey and longtime parodist Bob Rivers also records parodies of hit songs from a variety of genres and periods satirizing current events. Also dabbling in topical parodies is Buffalo, New York-based humorist Mark Russell, who appears several times a year on PBS television. The New York, NY performing troupe Forbidden Broadway annually parodies the Great White Way's most popular current musicals and their songs on stage and recordings.

And in the science fiction fan community of today, filk music thrives as a source of both parodies and original music, as it has since at least the 1930s.

Even original artists of the caliber of Tom Lehrer have been known to dip a toe in the waters of musical parody; Lehrer's famous song "The Elements" adapts a tune from Gilbert & Sullivan to the periodic table, and more recently he turned "That's Entertainment" into a précis on his real vocation, "That's Mathematics" (carefully altering the melody to avoid litigation).

Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine produces parodies not in the traditional sense of someone like Yankovic, but rather derive their humor from exactly the opposite means. While traditional parody puts new lyrics to largely unchanged music, Cheese keeps the lyrics intact but alters the musical style, thus altering the intent of the song. The humor comes from the juxtaposition of very familiar lyrics from popular Rap, Metal, and Rock songs (particularly containing profane, violent, or sexually explicit lyrics) with Cheese's exceedingly clean, "white bread", campy, lounge style. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes does likewise in a complete opposite manner: they perform hard, sped-up punk renditions of folk songs, soft rock, showtunes, R&B, and other genres not usually associated with punk. Weird Al Yankovic has also ventured into this practice; all but two of his albums feature medleys of either classic rock or then-current hit songs done as fast polkas. Ray Stevens has had hits of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" done in the style of clucking chickens, and a honky-tonk/bluegrass version of Michael Jackson's "Bad".

Other notable examples of musical parody in recent years include the 2005 musical Altar Boyz, which parodies both Christian rock and the "boy band" style of pop, the Christian parody band Apologetix, who have targeted popular music from the 1950s to the present, and the Capitol Steps, a group of current and former U.S. Congress staff members based in Washington, DC who focus on politics and other public figures.

Legal issues

Mad Magazine provoked an early legal backlash against parody when in 1961 the magazine published a songbook in which various topical ditties such as "The Last Time I Saw Maris", "Albert Einstein," and "There's No Business Like No Business" were included (in poem format; with a parenthetical phrase after each title, stating "Sung to the tune of..."). Several music publishers joined in a suit taking the magazine to court. The matter was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to review the decision by a lower court dismissing the suit against Mad.

Musical parodists were briefly an endangered species again, in the mid-1990s when a case (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.) was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by country music legend Roy Acuff's music publishing company against the lead singer of the rap music group 2 Live Crew for recording a lewd version of one of Acuff's songs without his permission. But the justices ruled in favor of the rappers, protecting the fair use doctrine and creating a legal standard for parody as protected derivative work.

See also

Parody Music Websites

  • Am I Right - searchable archive of parody lyrics, public submissions, recordings

Parody music artists

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Parody music" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools