What is Parody?

Mockingbird Sitting on a Wire By: newheights1985

Every once in a while, a story emerges, usually involving the use of music in either a humorous, provocative, or even offensive context that is then assumed by many to be an example of fair use in the form of parody. Aside from the fact that parody itself does not automatically guarantee a use would be judged fair in an actual court case — there are several other factors — the word parody itself is frequently used as a catch-all description for a variety of works that are not, in fact, parody.  Most notably this year, the case involving Goldie Blox’s use of the Beastie Boys’  song “Girls,” though ruled in favor of the Beasties*, has left some lingering confusion about the nature of parody.

The other night, my kids showed me this video by an obviously very talented young performer named Jon Cozart. He takes four famous Disney songs based on four famous Disney princess movies and sings a medley of four new narratives expressing his own jaundiced view as to what happens after happily ever after.  They’re funny, he has a great voice, and I’m not surprised this video has over 37 million views; but it isn’t parody even though it calls itself “parody” on YouTube, and I was even tempted to call it parody myself.  (Note that I am using Cozart’s excellent video as an example and am expressing opinions.  There is no case involving his work.)

A parody must lampoon the original work itself. So, merely writing new words to accompany a popular melody, or even riffing on the sounds of the original words, does not make the new work a parody unless the new work directly targets the content and soul of the original.  Thus, Cozart’s rendition of “Under the Sea,” which conveys a narrative in which a mermaid suffers the deprivations of ocean pollution, is a work of social satire and not parody.  In fact, the works of the most famous artist in this genre, Weird Al Yankovic, are largely not parodies either because the original songs are not the targets (or victims) of the joke. For instance, in the early 80s, when Al turned Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll” into a song about ice cream gluttony called “I Love Rocky Road,” he used wordplay and the familiar refrain to create a brand new comic piece, but he did not parody or comment on the mood, attitude, spirit, or content of the original song or its creator(s). This is why, even if it were not Al’s standard M.O., he would have had to pay for a mechanical license to produce the new song as well as a synch license for the video.

This video by producer The Key of Awesome, mocking Lorde’s song and video “Royals” is a far better example of actual parody.  In fact, near as I can tell, this producer primarily makes legit parodies.  The new lyrics (and new visuals) directly mock Lorde, her song, the original video, and even the spirit of the song and its performer. (Sorry, Lorde, nothing personal.)  This is a very different animal than taking the melody of “Royals” and writing lyrics to express something, comic or not, that is external to the original work.  For example, I wrote a few weeks ago about the Westboro Baptist Church borrowing Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” to write, perform, and distribute a video of themselves singing an anti-semitic rant called “Hey Jews.” My own kid commented that, offensive or not, the song was probably fair use as a parody, and I had to administer a dope slap. Again, in order for the Westboro Baptists to produce a parody, they would have to rewrite the lyrics to directly mock McCartney’s message to young Julian Lennon, or at least attempt to mock some intrinsic meaning in the original work that, I guess, also expresses how much they hate jews. I have no idea what that would sound like, but that’s what it would have to be to accurately be called a parody.

And that brings us to what I believe is confusing about what happened in the Goldie Blox v Beastie Boys case.  For that video, which was really a commercial, the producers rewrote the lyrics to “Girls.” Had they produced the song as a stand-alone work without the video, one might be able to call it a parody because the original lyrics were misogynistic, and the new lyrics were about female empowerment. But even then, there are a few factors that muddy those waters.

For starters, the original “Girls” is arguably a satire of misogyny, and so parodying that work technically conveys a pro-misogyny message, which was certainly not Goldie Blox’s intended communication. And this notion of an expectation that an audience will understand when a parody is being conveyed is actually relevant, both legally and creatively. As established in the landmark case Leibovitz v Paramount, the parody maker must have a reasonable expectation that a broad segment of the public will get the joke, that the work being targeted needs to be in the contemporary, public consciousness to the extent that the parody itself will be broadly understood. This isn’t simply a legal precedent; there is no point in making a parodic joke for which the intended audience has no frame of reference. “Girls” is a 20-year-old song that doesn’t get a lot of contemporary airplay or use in other media; and it is very probable, therefore, that Goldie Blox’s audience of parents, likely to be in their early to mid-30s, may not have the song present in their consciousness. Thus, that segment of viewers would not be immediately aware that any attempt at parody was at play.

Confusing this aspect even further is the video itself. We see young girls building an elaborate contraption and looking brainy, nothing that conveys mockery of anything at all. So, by experiencing the video in conjunction with the song, but without any knowledge of the original “Girls,” the viewer is completely ignorant of any attempt at parodying anything whatsoever. Rewriting the words to an existing song in order to promote a broader message about girl power, especially for the purpose of promoting a business, might arguably produce a piece of social commentary, but it deviates very far from targeting the content of the original work for the sake of parody.

Even in the age of the Internet, words still have meaning. And just because there are market forces at play that would like to see every form of remix and reuse classified as a fair use, this is no reason to abandon our ability to make literate distinctions among various types of works. It isn’t simply a matter of policy or law, but is a matter of cultural understanding.

*CORRECTION:  Thanks to commenters for jarring my memory.  GoldieBlox settled without a court ruling.  They paid a fine to the Beastie Boys, who donated the money toward some cause related to empowering young girls.

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