Has Parody Music Worked Itself into a Corner?

Casey Nugent ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

At the end of August 2015, the New York Times published a video essay on how Justin Bieber, Diplo, and Skrillex came together to make their hit song, “Where Are U Now.” The video was a touch pretentious, to say the least: it’s shot entirely in black and white, features a backstory where Diplo and Bieber first meet at New York Fashion Week, and cuts between the three artists listening to their own song and congratulating themselves on just how good it is. Not to mention, in the first minute, Bieber says that the beats used in the track are “very expensive sounding sounds,” and never really manages to get more articulate than that.

At the end of March 2016, Funny or Die released a parody of this video featuring Thao Nguyen and Merill Garbus, of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and tUnE-yArDs, respectively. The video is respectably funny, with Nguyen and Garbus really getting into their roles as pretentious, self-congratulatory artists. At one point Nguyen says “I’ve always wanted to visit space,” which is immediately followed by a smash cut to Garbus declaring “it’s about crushing dreams.” Nguyen’s Skrillex impression (ThaoX) deserves special mention — she just sits silently hunched over a keyboard, occasionally glancing back to the camera and dancing awkwardly out of beat.

But one can’t help but feel that this video is seven months too late to feel culturally relevant. For one, making fun of Justin Bieber has gotten kind of stale in and of itself. Bieber’s always been an easy target, going from spoiled brat to faux-intellectual artist in an arc that would fit a Christopher Guest character. Skrillex, and dubstep in general, have long been the subject of derision  — and Diplo is just Skrillex with a better haircut. And the direct reference that Funny or Die is alluding to is one that’s slipped public consciousness by now.

Parody music and music videos have always been a slippery slope, bouncing between genuinely funny and painfully, awkwardly bad or offensive. Nowadays, between YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and Vine, parodies of artists and songs are spreading at insane rates — and the more they spread, the sooner they get stale and overdone. The nature of viral content means that a popular joke is often getting repeated and remade thousands of times. Within days, the original content can be stale; it’s almost certainly old news by the time it’s on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. The main problem parody faces is that it often requires an intimate knowledge of the original material. With music, especially, songs tend to pass in and out of public consciousness at an alarming rate.

Take for instance one of the most parodied songs in recent memory, Robin Thicke’s date-rape anthem “Blurred Lines.” The two most famous parodies, by Youtube parody artist Bart Baker and the Auckland Law Revue both have lyrics that directly reference the video Thicke released and the content of the song. These were funny when “Blurred Lines” was relevant, and both quickly went viral, but now that the song has left public consciousness there’s no staying power for the parodies themselves. They exist in a direct, dependant relationship on the material they’re making fun of.

This makes parody music, ironically, laughable. Bart Baker’s other YouTube videos are all clear attempts to get a lot of views in a short period of time. His work doesn’t require a whole lot of mental power, or clever wordplay, or even very good jokes. All he needs is a title like “WORK, RIHANNA AND DRAKE PARODY” and he’s guaranteed at least a million views. It’s for this reason that parody is generally considered a low-tier of comedy. You don’t actually have to be very funny to write a parody.

So then why do we all love Weird Al so much? Because Weird Al is a different type of parody artist. His work uses the source material, but it doesn’t reference the source material, so it can outlast what he’s making fun of. His parody of “Blurred Lines,” “Word Crimes,” had nothing to do with Robin Thicke, date rape, Pharrell’s bad taste in hats, or women’s bodies. It had to do with grammar. And while the video references Thicke, the crux of the joke doesn’t require you to know anything about the original video or song. This gives it a staying power, it allows the joke to grow past lazy reference humor and into something genuinely pretty funny and re-listenable.

This is very clear with some of Weird Al’s older work. While his Michael Jackson parodies have the benefit of the eternal popularity of Michael Jackson, some of Weird Al’s most famous parodies are of songs no one nowadays really listens to. How many people who weren’t in middle or high school in the early 2000s will really remember Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty?” But someone with no reference or understanding of that song can watch “White and Nerdy,” and still get a good laugh out of it. Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise,” a riff on the overly dramatic “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio, has long outlasted the source material — how many of us, who were only one or two in 1996 when Weird Al made the video, remember watching it during middle school computer classes?

Parody videos and music could be relevant, and it’s a shame to see good jokes like Funny or Die’s Bieber video suffer from the lack of staying power things have in the Internet era. But parody music can’t just be dominated by the Bart Baker’s of the world, cashing in on viral clickbait without actually putting in any interesting or good jokes. Parody music has to evolve beyond what it’s riffing on if it hopes to one day be more than just the unloved stepson of the music industry. Funny or Die is on the right track with their Bieber video, but they need to be more relevant in their references and quicker to make sure the joke outlasts what it’s joking about.


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