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How Parody Videos Transformed Pop Music—for Better and Worse

Bart Baker, Dizasta Music, Buebascu, sukmywangBryanStars, YouTube

Fifty years ago this October, the Supreme Court cleared the road to the world that the pop-music audience occupies today, a place where ridicule is the lingua franca and everything is made to seem ridiculous. It’s a world where popular songs exist for the making of parody videos and “Weird Al” Yankovic, somehow, suddenly, looks like a visionary.

The case that came before the high court in 1964 was Berlin v. E. C. Publications, Inc., a dispute over the underlying rights to the contents of a collection of song parodies produced by the editors of Mad magazine. Published as a trade paperback in 1961 under the title More Trash from Mad—it was the fourth volume of repackaged Mad magazine contents—the book had gag lyrics to show tunes and Tin Pan Alley hits popular among the New Frontier adults whom Mad took snickering adolescent glee in mocking. The writers of this joke songbook, Frank Jacobs and Larry Siegel (with help from a few other Mad contributors), had taken fifty-seven warhorse ditties and re-purposed them with topical angles. Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” became a satire of Middle Eastern oil potentates, “Sheik to Sheik.” Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” turned into a spoof of hypochondria, “Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady.” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, became a lampoon of sports-star endorsements, “The First Time I Saw Maris.” Silly but neatly crafted, the take-off lyrics jabbed teasingly at the headlines and the anxieties of postwar society in a way that would seem tepidly old-fashioned to readers today but came across as wildly subversive to the kids and young adults who read Mad in the early 1960s. 

Irving Berlin owned the company that published his songs, Irving Berlin, Inc.—a rare arrangement in his time that, largely through Berlin’s example, became standard practice in popular music—and he sued Mad for copyright infringement, joined as the plaintiff in the suit by several other music publishers. Berlin was maniacally protective of the copyrights that had elevated him from Dickensian indigence on the Lower East Side to wealth and prominence on Beekman Place. He was also well-steeped in the power of parody, through work of his own that his attorneys neglected to mention in their filing. 

Berlin had started out in music as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café, a hoodlum’s den in Chinatown run by “Nigger Mike” Salter, a white racketeer. Berlin, then still going by his pre-Americanized name Izzy Baline, entertained customers by improvising parodies to the popular songs of the day. He employed parody in his early songwriting, too. Berlin was enamored of blackface minstrelsy, through which white (and some black) performers burlesqued African American entertainment conventions, many of which had embedded in them parodies of white conventions; blackface was, among other things, a parody of a parody. Berlin had co-written the book for a musical comedy that was adapted as the Al Jolson movie Mammy, and he had included minstrel numbers in shows he had written from the early years of the twentieth century until 1942 (This Is the Army). Berlin, who first became famous as the “King of Ragtime”—the white, Jewish symbol of an African American artform—was clearly attuned to the ways of creative appropriation and acted against Mad in fear of ending up a victim of it. 

Yet parody is not mere pilferage. It is critique in creative form, and as such it provides a service essential to society. (Why should critique be left to professional critics like me?) The judges for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case of Berlin v. E. C. Publications landed decisively in March 1964, had a social, rather than a purely economic, conception of the copyright law’s purpose “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” In their ruling in favor of Mad, the judges wrote, “We believe that parody and satire are [the judges’ italics] deserving of substantial freedom—both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism. As the readers of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ and Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ or the parodies of a modern master such as Max Beerbohm well know, many a true word is indeed spoken in jest.” The attorneys for Berlin et al. appealed, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case, establishing what would come to be known as “the Mad magazine standard,” exempting parody from infringement on the grounds that speaking truth in jest is a use of creative content that is not only fair, but important. 

Over the fifty years between the resolution of Berlin v. E. C. Publications and the appearance of the “Weird Al” Yankovic album Mandatory Fun in the number-one spot on the Billboard album chart this summer, musical parody has come in and out of vogue. After all, coming in and out is what vogues do. The rock music of the 1960s and early 1970s was too taken with its own magnificence to find humor in much of anything, especially itself. It was not until the arrival of the Siamese musical opposites, disco and punk, in the 1970s that parodic wit rose to the surface in postwar pop—in disco, as hyper-glamorous camp, siphoned from gay culture; and in punk, as adolescent schoolyard mockery of grown-up slickness, pretense, and competence. The Ramones, with their sound-alike two-chord songs and their made-up family name, were at first mistaken for being only a joke. Then they were mistaken for being only serious. (Unrelated friends from Queens, the Ramones took their name from “Paul Ramon,” a nom de plume once used by Paul McCartney, the Beatles’ own pastiche specialist.) 

The current craze for musical parody connects to the rise of MTV, down to the truly weird—and not just scare-quotes “weird”—return of Yankovic, who until this summer was no more than a 1980s nostalgia act and who, in fact, still is. The pop art form of the video clip, which MTV established and in time virtually abandoned, and which YouTube and social media have revived on a scale both global and highly individualized, lends itself well to parody. Video is, needless to say, visual, as well as concisely dramatic. Its grammar is visual shorthand. Video enables and, indeed, insists upon, allusion. Every image shot with a camera suggests an old one from somewhere in the history of movies, TV shows, commercials, and music videos. 

It is relevant here, too, that the eye is more receptive to humor than the ear. We are amused more easily by pictures than by sounds, as the whole history of silent comedy demonstrates. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and their many competitors in early cinema all had millions of people laughing, and they made their comedy in silence. Of course, there has always been music intended to be amusing or explicitly parodic—Bach worked aural gags into his music, and so did Mozart (who famously composed a piece called “A Musical Joke”), and funny songs have been a staple of American entertainment since vaudeville. Yet humorous music on its own, without a visual component, has never had the broad popular appeal of visual comedy. (The classical canon is rich with what is often called “parody music,” though the term, in technical usage, refers more to the use of musical quotations and references than to humor.) 

YouTube, however wondrous a means of distribution, could not bring about the boom in parody videos without the transformation of the means of production that the smart phone enacted. With high-definition digital video cameras equipped with quality built-in microphones, touch-screen editing software, and effects packages (with which my eleven-year-old son can do pretty much everything that George Lucas used to need a billion-dollar company and a hundred technicians to do), anybody can make a movie. And so everybody is, and, as with beginning artists in every art, freshmen smart-phone film-makers learn by imitating a familiar, existing form: the music video. The shortest step from imitation towards originality is parody. 

Until just a few years ago, nearly all the best-known parodies of popular video clips were made by popular video performers making fun of their peers. The makers of the parodies made hit videos by using the tropes of hit video-making to show how they were above using them. David Lee Roth, the William Shatner of arena rock, croaked a pair of vintage novelty tunes, “Just a Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” while he wandered around mock-ups of the sets of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself.” In a roughly comparable hip-hop counterpart, Chris Rock’s clip for “Champagne,” Rock hung around in a futuristic dance clip like Kim and Cease, awakened from a drowning nightmare like Puff Daddy, and scooted off in a powerboat like the Notorious B.I.G. And in punk (or gently punkish pop, to be more precise), Blink 182, in the video to their “All the Small Things,” took digs at Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and 98 Degrees—all stars of the mainstream pop to which Blink 182 was positioning itself as a smarter, edgier alternative. The Blink 182 video ended up as one of the most popular clips of 1999 and won the Video Music Award for Best Group Video that year. The parody was taken more seriously than its targets, and, in that, the pop audience of the last days of the twentieth century could see a decade and a half into the future. 

Over the past couple of years, parody videos made by non-professional fans and semi-professionals, as well as by full-time video-makers, have come to dominate the viral marketplace. Nearly all the most popular music videos—“Thrift Shop,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Harlem Shake,” “Blurred Lines,” “Wrecking Ball,” “What Does the Fox Say?”—became viral phenomena with considerable help from mock videos made in response to them and shared by the millions through devices. The number of parodies may now be the best measure of a song’s success. In the post-ownership era of popular music, sales are less meaningful than the social currency exchanged in the form of imitation and parody.

Five years ago—a very different time in pop history—I would have referred to the first song in the list above as: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop.” Today, though, a hit does not owe its life solely to its original creators; as a hit, it is the product of a great many people working independently with the common goal not of making hits nor even making music, but of making jokes. “Thrift Shop,” as we know it, is not Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” but the “Thrift Shop” of a thousand yuksters. 

This summer, the song “Problem,” a catchy and perfectly frivolous single by Ariana Grande—the former Nickelodeon star now following the second set of steps in the Miley Cyrus gamebook for pop phenomenonhood, in which a girl coos and pouts in outfits from the trampy-witch racks of a Halloween costume store—was rising up the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The explanatory text under the title on the chart cited only one fact, that the song “has gotten the parody treatment.” Nothing could better vouch for the hit status of the song than the fact of the parody made by Jake Wilson, one of the gag-video specialists to become stars of a sort now. In Wilson’s clip, the actress Rumer Willis, daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, appears in a mock public-service announcement for sunscreen, surrounded by beefy, half-naked men. 

Song parodies now generate more revenue than official videos, according to YouTube data provided in the 2014 Annual Report of the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), a music-recording trade group. While YouTube once discouraged parody videos on the dubious grounds of copyright infringement—its attorneys must have skipped the readings on Berlin v. E. C. Publications in law school—YouTube now welcomes music parodies, because it has figured out how to make money from them. YouTube is helping record companies and rights administrators to hit up parodists (and others who employ copyrighted music in their content) for licensing fees. “Google’s ContentID system has made it easier for rights holders to differentiate between video types, allowing the streaming of non-official user-generated content [UGC] such as mashups to be licensed and monetized, rather than removed for infringing copyright,” the IFPI report explains. As a consequence, according to the IFPI, “revenues generated from UGC on its platform have now overtaken those generated by official videos.” 

Little of the money that YouTube earns through advertising goes to the producers of user-generated content, of course. Their limited reward is whatever satisfaction they derive from having provided the social benefits that the judges in the case of Berlin v. E. C. Publication saw in Gulliver’s Travels, the literary satire of Max Beerbohm, and “Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady.” These benefits are real and important, particularly at a time when mainstream popular music is subjected to so little serious criticism, and when serious criticism has so little traction in mainstream culture. As the instructions for a recent video-parody contest noted, “Sometimes starlets like Miley Cyrus go kinda crazy and make interesting videos that need to be parodied.” Yes: however interesting the videos may be, parodies of them fulfill a need. If someone needs to call Miley Cyrus on her cynical appropriation of hip-hop culture and cheesy commodification of sex in “Wrecking Ball,” the video-parodist Shane Dawson may as well do it. 

Still, there is something disconcerting about the dominance of parody in the YouTube musical sphere today. The true purpose of parody is the making of jokes rather than the making of critique. The final test of a parody is its ability to get laughs; it is not the depth, nor even the accuracy, of its insights. In the aggregate—and aggregate effects are the whole point of viral phenomena—the parody videos appear to take many elements in many songs written and performed by many people, and say one thing about them: that they are ridiculous. If, as the judges in the Second Circuit reminded us fifty years ago, there is truth in jest, jest is not the only truth.