When we talk about song parodies and satire in music, the first name that comes to mind is probably “Weird Al” Yankovic. His parodies of songs, from Michael Jackson to Nirvana to Lady Gaga, made him a star during the age of ‘80s and ‘90s MTV and he cleverly rode that popularity into the age of vitality on YouTube, then keeping his work visible in part by partnering with comedy outlets such as Funny or Die and Comedy Bang Bang. His success and universal acclaim have made him the modern gold standard among music satirists.
Yankovic has the kind of mind that comedians love—in a 2017 Washington Post piece, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Hardwick and Jack Black all fan boy on his oddball comedy chops. Lin-Manuel Miranda told the New York Times that he’s a “Weird Al” obsessive. Musicians love him too. Being parodied by Yankovic is seen as a rite of passage in pop music, a sign that your song has entered the zeitgeist. If you ever wondered how he does it, there are two different parts of Yankovic’s process to consider: the creative side and the legal side.
Creatively, Yankovic gave the Times a deep look into his process, which is not unlike a comedy writer: complex and specific. Writing his parodies looks like spending 10,000 hours on a puzzle that he attacks with mathematical precision. Yankovic explained that he goes into a creative trance and walks around like a zombie, because in his mind he is sifting through word choices to land on the funniest combination for a line. He collects all his thoughts and reads them over and over, writing and discarding lines. Yankovic also detailed his collection of possible rhymes for keywords used in his lyrics, each indexed by syllable count. The only way to get to the best joke is by sorting thought and considering all the jokes. When the song calls for it, Yankovic does extensive research into facts and keywords. Since Yankovic’s particular type of parody is about creating new lyrics over existing melodies, he can focus, or some might say fixate, on crafting exactly the right words for the maximum comedic impact.
Legally, Yankovic goes beyond what the rules of fair use require. While parody of copyrighted material is covered under the First Amendment as protected speech and under the fair use doctrine, generally, Yankovic doesn’t lean on his Constitutional rights to release his songs. He gets permission from and the blessing of every artist whose songs he transforms—the only notable exception being Coolio, who is still ticked off about “Amish Paradise,” after a misunderstanding that no one is quite able to pinpoint. For his part, Yankovic is still torn up about it. But there’s a reason you haven’t heard Yankovic parody Prince; the purple one repeatedly turned him down and Yankovic respected his wishes. Aside from professional courtesy, Yankovic has another motive for asking permission rather than begging forgiveness: he arranges a songwriting royalties share that enables him to make money from the new lyrics he creates. Sometimes that looks like a flat payment, other times it’s a royalty split, depending on the artist and song.
There is some disagreement in legal theory, however, about if all of Yankovic’s compositions would be covered as parodies. Fair use doctrine is notoriously difficult to interpret for the courts, creating confusion about what constitutes fair use and transformative work—changing the original work enough so that it no longer infringes on copyright (an example of this relatively new element of judging parodies is coming up, courtesy of 2 Live Crew). While parodies are covered as protected speech, satire is not. Some think that Yankovic’s songs don’t all meet the criteria of parody. Songs including “Like a Surgeon” and “Eat It” use the original melodies of Madonna and Jackson, but don’t comment lyrically on the songs or the personas of their writers, making them satire and not parody. Other songs, such as “Smells Like Nirvana,” directly comment on the style and presentation of the band and more clearly fit the criteria of parody. Yankovic’s work has never faced scrutiny in court, so whether he’s creating protected works has not actually had to stand up to a legal challenge.
One of the most revealing looks into how the legal system views parodies in pop music came with the 1994 Supreme Court decision in Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. The case found Florida rap group 2 Live Crew facing off against a music publishing firm which handled the late Roy Orbison’s catalog and which denied the group a license to use “Oh, Pretty Woman” for a parody. In the unanimous decision in favor of 2 Live Crew, Justice David Souter wrote that it was necessary for the parody, which the court felt this song was, to reference the original thoroughly enough to be recognizable to the listener and make a transformative work. What advanced copyright protection was the Justice dismissing the lower court’s notion that because it was a commercial work it didn’t meet the criteria for fair use. Instead, the court insisted that that was only an aspect of the work and that it was worthwhile as parody regardless of whether or not the work generated money for 2 Live Crew. It didn’t hurt that the group did request permission to use the original and credited songwriter Orbison on their album.
Going further back in time, parody and satire are time-honored traditions in music and were especially popular in the 1930’s and ‘60s, times of major political upheaval in the U.S. as the country went through a depression and the civil rights movement, respectively, to comment on politics. Weird Al got his start on Dr. Demento’s radio show. Demento, real name Barry Hansen, was known for playing “strange” records—novelty songs, comedy and anything unusual. Demento has a degree in ethnomusicology and is known for his huge, wide-ranging record collection. It’s thanks to that show that Weird Al heard many of the musicians who influenced him: Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Benny Bell, Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa and more.
Two of those artists worth knowing and delving into are Spike Jones and Tom Lehrer. Jones was a drummer and bandleader in the big band era, most active in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His parodies were developed out of musical boredom—he and his friends were bored with playing the same American songbook classics night after night, as gigging artists were known to do. So he started adding in strange sounds and remaking popular songs with a layer of commentary on the sappiness of the compositions. His biggest political hit was 1942’s “Der Fuehrer's Face,” which found him inserting a raspberry sound into the song after every use of “Heil” and mocking Hitler. It really takes the seriousness out of Nazism. He also re-recorded the classic “Cocktails for Two” from a romantic ditty into a horn-honking, drunk hiccuping rampage, poking fun at the salacious nature of many of those songs that flirted with innuendo to talk about sex without talking about sex.
The other is Tom Lehrer, a mathematician and musician who started out applying his knowledge of music theory and expertise on piano to popular music, after lessons in classical music didn’t quite pan out. He’s best known for “The Elements,” which takes the melody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song” from The Pirates of Penzance and turns it into a recitation of the periodic table, and a bruising indictment of the Ivy Leagues and standardized education. Lehrer tackled and satirized a number of social issues in the ‘60s with overtly political songs, warning about nuclear proliferation (“Who’s Next?”), the environmental crisis (“Pollution”) and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” which was a direct jab at the city of Boston’s attempt to control the bird population by feeding them poisoned food—to name a few. Lehrer preferred writing his own original music, for the most part, and his efforts eventually earned him a honorary doctor of music degree from the University of London and a reputation for writing controversial, but wildly popular, songs.
It takes a lot of effort, smarts, and gumption to properly wield satire and parody in music. Perhaps the best advice on mastering it comes from Weird Al, who told Fast Company, “many parodists and satirists go for the jugular, but I’ve always gone for humor that was a little less biting and derogatory. I like to say that my parodies are more of a poke in the ribs than a punch in the face.”