What Makes a Parody “Good”?

It is a fact universally acknowledged that songs of a certain age and popularity are basically destined to find themselves covered by “Weird” Al Yankovic. It is probably equally acknowledged, however, that the man goes into and out of obscurity, like clockwork, at about the same rate as the songs he targets. The first big leaks of a Weird Al-bum blow up social media (this is true as far back as Alapalooza, the first release that was on my radar around 20 years ago, which came with MTV news briefs, exclusive premiers, and probably a round of Al-TV). Shortly after, he fades back into the shadows of the collective consciousness. It’s the way of humor albums… the joke is only truly funny on the first few spins. That Al’s work merits any returns at all is to his credit.

To the jaded music fan, tired of disposable pop schlock, it is somewhat comforting to remember how “Hot in Herre” or “Ridin’” are no longer really cultural markers (the former being mostly relegated to joke status, while the latter seems almost forgotten). Even Lady Gaga, the lead target of Al’s last album, seems to be on a decided downward slope of relevance. This doesn’t counteract the fact, however, that Yankovic endures, and his songs endure, often long after the original (“I Lost on Jeopardy” being perhaps the definitive example). Of course, there are the legitimate pop culture phenomenons, too: Michael Jackson’s longstanding support, for example, or the famous “it’s not about food, is it?” query from Kurt Cobain upon learning “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was to be covered. More frequently, however, we all know how it ends, and Coolio, despite simply exploding with “Gangsta’s Paradise,” is more well-known now as “the guy who had a beef with Weird Al”. And as Coolio himself suggests, if you got beef, eat a pork chop. This sounded like a sick burn in the ’90s, kids.

This does lead to an interesting question: why do we like parodies? A thread on the Weird Al Forum poses a question that intrigued me: which song being parodied is the legitimate “best”? His new album, Mandatory Fun, came out over the summer. The first parody released was of Pharrell’s “Happy,” with other tracks tackling Lorde (“Royals”), Imagine Dragons (“Radioactive”), Robin Thicke, and Iggy Azalea (the only songs that make any sense for them).  For me, Lorde wins by a mile in terms of “songs I’d care to hear on their own.” But then I think to myself, am I excited about these other songs? Which do I like second most? That’s a hell of a choice: I loathe them all. Do I accept that “Blurred Lines” is at least funky (because it steals from Marvin Gaye), or do I suck it up and say that Imagine Dragons isn’t really -awful-, just supremely -boring-? What about the worst song? My gut says Iggy, but “Happy” has become an intolerable three minutes of hell for me. Making a ranking is painful, because it implies any one of the songs is second best.

And yet, upon seeing the lead track as “Tacky,” a riff off the Pharrell hit, I was strangely excited. This is a song which, in every note, every harmony, every word, makes me seethe with the exact opposite feeling of its title (it’s a lot like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” in that it ends up being so saccharine as to make anyone healthy ill, and becomes a mindless mantra). Yet here I was, looking forward to clicking the link, and hearing every one of those notes again. Al doesn’t skimp… he’s going to replicate any little quirk from the original, and I hated every quirk from the original.

I somehow thoroughly enjoyed this song.

I don’t think I’d go out of my way to hear it again, but because it suddenly is not serious, all is forgiven. “Happy” believes in its mind-numbing optimism, suggesting that the world really is a cola-sweet bubble-ride, and that clapping along is a serious response. “I agree! Clap clap! I’m a good citizen!” Presumably “Tacky” believes its own message, too. It’s just a more realistic message. It’s not that Al does hard-hitting satire. He’s just doing serious work in comparison to a meticulously crafted but ultimately throwaway hit. Taking that almost elf-chorus sound from the original also simply works better when you’re trying to make someone laugh. It’s hard to buy into this sort of raging sunnyness, this blaring positivity. It comes across as comical, if only it weren’t so self-important. For Al, it -is- comical. For Pharrell, it’s meant to sucker children into movie theaters and placate them, and it’s also meant to reflect the real world. Pharrell really wants to talk about how goddamn happy he is. That is the whole of the song.

So is a parody a vehicle to simply ridicule a hated track? Is it like drawing a mustache on a woman on a billboard ad? Maybe a bit. My favorite track from Al’s last album was “Party in the CIA,” a take on Miley Cyrus, pre-bear-humping. Miley, like Pharrell, offers up a supreme cotton candy song, and allows for lines like “staging a coup like yeah.” Other recent standouts include “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” which takes the everloving piss out of R. Kelly’s egomaniacal now-33-part shitshow “Trapped in the Closet.” But then there are classics like “The White Stuff,” which turns the ramblings of NKOTB into more sensible obsession over Oreos, or all the way back to the beginning where “Ricky” turned Toni Basil into a commentary on “I Love Lucy.” Al has made a pretty penny off of terrible flashes in the pan.

But again, there are those classic Jackson parodies. There’s “This Song’s Just (Six Words Long),” which tears into a former Beatle’s work (and which I immediately loved as a child, knowing the source well). “Livin’ in the Fridge” is based off probably the best second-wave Aerosmith song out there (I welcome dissent). Style parodies of Devo and the Talking Heads were among my favorite Al tracks in the early days. So I have found that I can still love something whether I love or hate the original. Maybe it’s neither schadenfreude nor hero worship. Maybe it’s both.

This latter point, on style parody, becomes a vital connection to the new album. While some of these mine too closely to one specific song (“Mission Statement” is clearly built off “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” while for those who know Southern Culture on the Skids at all, “Lame Claim to Fame” is directly reminiscient of “Camel Walk”), others hit the overall flavor on the nose. “First World Problems” deeply understands the Pixies, and “My Own Eyes,” well, I want to see if you can guess the band before I give it away, but it is without a doubt doubly funny the second you realize that yes, for all intents and purposes, it is a generic song by that band. In the first case, it is my love of the band that improves the song, and in the second it is my disillusionment with the band.

As for the parodies themselves? “Foil” ends up being the second worst (Imagine Dragons simply cannot lift themselves up out of boring, even in a parody setting). Admittedly it becomes a more interesting entity in video form, where the shift from verse 1 to verse 2 can have some visual cues and be marked as a non-sequitur. Iggy’s hit and possible swansong is second best, to me, largely due to the “glue-dat, glue-dat”… Al has come a long way on understanding the nuances in rap performance since the days of, say, “All About the Pentiums.” The clear winner, though, as a writer, academic, and imperfect grammar nerd (why make rules if you can’t play with them, right?), has to be “Word Crimes”. In this case, the content is the winner. Not that I don’t like mocking conspiracy theorists, but this had a more cohesive thread throughout, with more clever jokes, while “Foil” is half phoned-in food reference.

Totally non-scientifically, then, a great parody involves a topic you’re interested in (or doesn’t: see “Theme from Rocky XIII”), a song you’re familiar with (or not: see “Taco Grande”), or both (or neither: see “Here’s Johnny”). More simply, there’s really no guaranteed path. It can be easy to define what makes humor NOT work, but the intimate inner workings? Much less straightforward. Whatever the reason, though, it’s nice to see “Weird Al” when he comes back into the fray, and clearly we’re not the only ones in agreement: Mandatory Fun became his first #1 album. It’s also, quite possibly, his final traditional album. While we wait and see exactly where Yankovic ends up in future days, it is heartening for those of us who have straddled the pre-and-post-digital ages to see him able to translate so fluidly into a new world, while also watching the new world accept a piece of a time forgotten, when parody was not the property of any-jerk-with-a-camera, but required a real knack for cleverness to bring any sort of success. As that goes, Al continues to be as sharp as he ever has been, and arguably more so.

Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

One Response to “What Makes a Parody “Good”?”

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