Overthinking It has hosted some posts of late debating pop-cultural parodies, like Starship Troopers and Steel Panther. These posts have generated some contentious yet rewarding discussions. In these posts, and the discussions that follow, a common question has emerged: does the fact of being a parody excuse the parody from being offensive? Is “I’m Just Kidding, Guys” a sufficient defense?
Consider the lyrics to Steel Panther’s “Death To All But Metal”:
Death to Britney Spears, kill the little slut
Kill Madonna too and then f*** her in the butt
F*** Mariah Carey, death to Sheryl Crowe
They can kiss each other on the camel toe
50 Cent’s a fag, so is Kanye West
Shooting hot sperm on each others’ chest!
Wow. That’s pretty terrible. Even above and beyond the unrepentant homo-bashing, those lyrics reach new levels of explicit detail. But that’s what makes it work as a parody. The hair-metal of the 80s didn’t shy away from misogyny. So in order to not just imitate that style but lampoon it, Steel Panther has to go over the top. They need to crank their amp to 11.
So that’s how you parody hair metal – by aping the cliches of hair metal but taking them to ridiculous extremes. Once you get that ridiculous, everyone knows it’s a joke.
Family Guy, back when it was funny, made its bones by creating parodies in the same style. Take a recognizable cliche, inflate it past any reasonable levels, then inflate it even further. Then make it about twenty seconds longer. Then add an explosion. The Season One “Chicken Fight” is perhaps the best example.
That’s how you make a parody. Take an aspect of the source material that the audience recognizes. Blow it up to insane proportions. Then broadcast it.
Now here’s a follow-up question: how would one go about parodying gangsta rap?
Gangsta rap has its own set of identifiable cliches: rampant misogyny and gay-bashing, opulent displays of consumption, glorifying violence and the drug trade, slow-mo shots of gangs parting seas of clubgoers like fields of wheat, etc. So if I wanted to start up a posse called the OTI Boyz and create hilarious gangsta rap knock-offs, I’d just write a song and shoot a video that took all of these elements over the top. Right?
Consider the lyrics to DMX’s “Where Da Hood At”:
Man, cats don’t know what it’s gonna be
F—in’ with a nigga like me
D to the M to the X, last I heard
You niggas was having sex with the same sex
I show no love to homo thugs
Empty out, reload and throw mo’ slugs
How you gonn’ explain f—in’ a man?
Even if we squash the beef, I ain’t touchin’ the hand
I don’t f— with chumps; for those up in the jail,
That’s the cat with the Kool-Aid on his lips and pumps
I don’t f— with niggas that think they’re broads
Only know how to be one way: that’s the Dog.
I know how to, etc.
Here’s a sampling of the lyrics to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme Da Loot”:
Then I’m dipping up the block and I’m robbing bitches too
F— the herringbones and bamboo
I don’t give a f— if you’re pregnant
Gimme the baby rings, and the #1 MOM pendant
Man, niggas coming through, I’m taking high school rings too!
Bitches get strangled for their earrings and bangles
And when I rock her and drop her I’m taking her door knockers
And if she’s resisting – [mimics gunshots] ‘BAKA! BAKA! BAKA!
And here’s a sampling of Lil’ Wayne’s “Alphabet Bitches”:
Well, the A is for Ashley
She always ask for me
To take it out her p***y and put it right in her ass
And the B is for Brittany, she bright in the class
And she be hatin’ on Ashley ’cause she tight in the ass
The C is for Christina, want me to big screen her
The way she d**k kiss should be a misdemeanor, so have you seen her
I been searchin’ but can’t find her
Ever since I been with Diamond with diamonds in her v****a
Okay, so … if I want to lampoon gangsta rap, how do I get more offensive than that? Biggie goes into explicit detail about how defenselessness, poverty and pregnancy won’t stop him from robbing (and perhaps murdering) women. Lil’ Wayne breaks a long list of women down into nothing but their sexual characteristics. And DMX, long a lightning rod for racial discourse, says in no uncertain terms, “I want to shoot gay people.” Where do you go from there?
So maybe lyrical content isn’t the way. But maybe I can make fun of the style. If I make a rap video where the rapper dresses in outlandish costumes – not just baggy pants and puffy jackets, but clothes so ridiculous that no human could comfortably wear them – that’ll make clear that it’s a parody. And then, to touch on the (critical) perception that all rap music is indecipherable gibberish, I’ll make the rapper spit rhymes that no one can possibly comprehend.
Huh. All right.
This, then, is the problem. When you have a genre that, to outsiders, already seems ridiculous, how do you lampoon it? How can you tell which is the original and which the parody?
How do you parody a gangsta who is off the charts?
Come around the other side and show tough as weak or in this case, tough as weak geek.
Weird Al – White and Nerdy
This is the part where I say something like: You should ccoooontinue and do an article about what has been (of lately and in movies, please?) parody, accidental parody, and satire (And specifically I can’t stop thinking of “Charlie wilson’s war, just an example).
And now while I’m at this: Is there a chance to have some overthinking on Michael Mann’s work?, is that possible?, would someone care enough to do it?, Or does it just show how big an idiot am I?. Certainly expecting an answer, “go to hell” included.
darin beat me to it, but i was going to suggest “amish paradise” by weird al. to parody gangster rap is to completely take out the gangster, while keeping it at the same time (i.e. “i never wear buttons but i got a cool hat/ and my homies agree i really look good in black, fool!”)
but of course, both of these al examples aren’t simply parodies of the gangster rap genre…they’re also parodies of nerds and the amish.
@Kopakka: I’ve been meaning to write something about Michael Mann (particularly the movie Heat) for a while. Now that Public Enemies is out on DVD, I want to watch that one and look for similarities to see if there’s enough to overthink. Good suggestion!
@Darin and @atskooc: Good examples! I suspect in Yankovic’s case, he’d work the Amish or video games into his songs even if Coolio or Chamillionaire hadn’t produced their respective hits. Gangsta rap seems to be simply a target of opportunity for him.
The example of Weird Al (who also gave us “It’s All About the Pentiums”) shows that another way to parody a genre is to change the content and subject matter, while retaining the tropes of the genre. Every parody of rap music I can think of, that is the joke.
Jon Lajoie’s “Everyday Normal Guy” has profanity mixed in with statements of humility. (“I get nervous in social situations, mother fucker!”) Lonely Island’s “I’m On a Boat” is kind of about the trope of using a “party boat” in rap videos, except that they point out that such boats are typically used by super-rich white people. “I’m on a boat, and / It’s going fast, and / I got a nautical theme pashmina afghan.” I feel like their music in general works with the tropes of hip hop and suffuses it with cultural elements that are thoroughly “white,” instead of “black.”
I can think of one example of a parody that takes rap tropes to ridiculous extremes, and that is MC Frontalot’s “Braggodocio.” It has lines like, “I stand 77 feet tall, I’ve got eight balls,” and, “I’m so bright it’s like redundant to have the sun out.”
Like Tim and Darin already pointed out, taking out the “cool” parts of a genre and still leaving in the ridicilous tropes works. My example would have been Jon Lajoie’s “I Kill People”:
Here’s another way to parody rap, again leaving the tropes but representing them in a way that does not belong to the genre, i.e. with big words and great grammar:
My question to all Overthinkers out there is: can deconstructions be considered as parodies? Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Neon Genesis Evangelion for example all include ridicilous tropes inherent to the source material with fondness and subverts them in a way not typical for the genre, i.e. taking them seriously and putting them in real life situations. I can’t now remember any deconstructions that also have the intention of being funny but Kick-Ass with a release date in 2010 sure looks like one (http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/kick-ass/teaser-trailer).
Also can parodies be considered as deconstructions?
Hmmmm, I guess so: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeconstructiveParody
“Sweat from my balls” and “Straight Outta Locash”
I agree that both 1 and 3 are necessary elements of a parody, but I’m not sure 2 is. I can very much parody gangsta rap which I dislike, by making up my own rap rhymes and showing just how silly it is, with the only purpose of having fun. Likwise, I very much dislike grindcore and brutal death metal, but I find it funny to take my guitar and jam some grindcore with friends, we think grindcore is shit to the extent that its ridiculous, so we make something funny out of it. We are not fond of it, but we still parody it.
Now I may be confusing Parody with satire, but you did say that satire had parody in it. So if what you mean is that satire is built on parody then 2 cannot be true, if otherwise you mean that satire and parody are different things but with common elements (e.g. 1 and 3 but not 2) then maybe your definition is correct.
@Gomez: you raise good points. I would still contend that a really good parody has to have some fondness for the source material. I could write a parody of, oh, picking something I hate out of a hat, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that might get some chuckles. But I probably couldn’t top Avenue Q or Urinetown. (neither of which go after ALW specifically, but you get me)
@tony-with-an-i (next time, may I just say, “Toni,”?): I’d suggest that deconstruction can *sometimes* be parody if intended that way, but if that’s not the goal, then it’s not. The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t feel at all like parody to me, and not just because it isn’t meant to be funny. DKR is more like a reinvention of the genre of serial comics, like the loving child that is clearly its own, distinct individual while at the same time having very noticeable characteristics inherited from their parents. Perich would be better at either backing me up or debunking this, but I get a strong sense of deconstruction from Starship Troopers- and I find it funny, at the same time.
Perich: This Alanis Morissette song+video combination sprang to my mind before I even got to the Jenny Owen Young song.
Same thing going on here, although her video isn’t being ironic in relation to the lyrics- it’s just flat-out parodying the original video. But listening, it just sounds like an artful cover. It’s only when the video gets involved does it feel like parody.
I’d sort of contest something you said toward the beginning, too. With regards to the laughing at the source while laughing with the parody. You have it set up as though it’s a bunch of middle schoolers poking fun at the geek during lunch- the main bully points them out and everybody laughs along with the bully. Of course, in the case of parody of pop culture, the reasons for laughing with the parody aren’t quite the same, but the essence is: the parody is making fun in a way meant to mock vindictively, laughing AT the source, and then this parody is expecting us to take its side, laughing WITH IT, yes, but AT the source, nonetheless. But I’d argue that the parody is not laughing AT the source at all- instead, I’d say it’s WITH the whole time- REALLY GOOD parody wants us to laugh with it AND its source material. This comes from #2- a real love or tenderness for the source wouldn’t entail laughing AT. So to use your example, it doesn’t sound to me like Steel Panther is laughing AT hair metal music. It sounds more like they’re sweetly saying, “Hey, guys, this is brilliant, but ridiculous. Catchy, but ridiculous. And yet I love ya for it!::turns to audience:: See? I’n’ it cuuuuute?” So I disagree there specifically, at least. But in general, could you justify a parody laughing AT its material while still holding onto #2? How is that possible?
I would argue that by exaggerating the most objectionable aspects of hair metal, Steel Panther is being critical, and thus satirical.
They imitate a genre for which many people still hold fond memories, and bring it into a modern context where many of its conventions become grotesque (the lycra and the hair are as jarring in the 21st century as the misogyny). By reminding their audience of the objectionable, out-dated tropes of the genre, they critique its nostalgic devotees. They can do this while still admiring and capably executing the technical aspects of the music.
… and maybe I just don’t want to imagine lines like “kill the little slut” and “fuck her in the butt” being written with “a fondness for the source material.”
I’m posting with the sole intention of sharing the T Pain/ T Swift video. Despite my general Swift reservations, she pulled this off pretty well.
One aspect of T Pain that I admire is the fact that he likes to make parodies of a genre in which he is quite enmeshed. I think it adds to the real-fakeness of the piece when a known artist can announce that ‘Hey I like my work but I can see how it could be funny too’. I’m just waiting for 50 to come out with his next single ‘Get Twilight, Or Die Tryin”. Could be a twofer!
Tony-with-an-i, Tim and Darin’s examples are right on, and maybe even undercut the thesis of this whole piece. Yes, the essence of parody is the exaggeration of recognizable tropes, but that is only parody in its most basic form. Most parodies, especially those seeking to lampoon something that is already ridiculous, employ the method of introducing an incongruous outside element (Nerds, computers, Amish) or narrowing the focus to on particular absurd element (Boat). This throws the absurdity of the genre, which we no longer notice due to our jadedness, into sharper relief. The artificiality of exaggerated bling and macho posturing are highlighted when delivered by someone meek, white and/or nerdy. The silliness of one specific trope (party boats) is drawn out by making it the entire focus of the song. Gangsta toughness is rendered meaningless when applied to an outing to a bakery and a Narnia movie. To parody the lyrics, you swap out the music, as in the folk cover linked here or the well-known alt-rock version of Boyz in Da Hood. Or to parody the content, you phrase offensive ideas in a new way that reminds you what they’re really about, as in the Funny or Die link.
At its best, this mix-n-match approach keeps things fresh. Heightening without introducing a new idea can make a parody dull, obvious and unfunny. At its worst, elements are crossed arbitrarily in a combination that depends on laughs of recognition but doesn’t really highlight tropes in a way that bears parodic fruit. But it’s such a common and effective comedy/parody technique that its omission here is really glaring. (Hence the comments immediately calling out numerous examples of excellent, inexplicably overlooked hip-hop parodies.)
This example from a British TV show ‘The Day Today’ (from 1991/2 I think) might be an example of a successful parody which simply takes tropes associated with a genre and exceeds them, though they’re not trying to create a full song.
I don’t think you could confuse this song with a ‘real one’. The lyrics – ‘Uzi like a metal dick in my hand, magazine like a big testicle gland’ – take standard imagery from the genre but merge it in a way which makes it sound ridiculous.
I actually think that, whilst you eventually come through
As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself…
Whilst you eventually come through to context – the intention of being funny – I think this is pretty key to genre. As you almost note with grunge, the link here is the geographical location (USA and particularly Seattle) and time (post-hair metal, post-punk early 1990s) which defines grunge as much as its musical content. I think this can be said for a lot of genres, particularly beyond the very generic ‘rock’/’rap’ types of genre.