Parody is a fascinating example of where music and comedy cross — it has not always been that way. For a long time, parody just meant copying someone’s else’s work wholesale, with a view to create something that was the same only different. Having said that, it’s not clear how much that has changed.
A Not So Brief History of Parody
The meaning of the word parody has changed over the centuries. Aficionados of modern parody music may be surprised to learn that the earliest parodies are from the 15th and 16th centuries. These parody masses had nothing to do with humor. Instead, they’re better described as imitation masses, because they took ordinary secular pieces of music and turn them into masses. Admittedly, some of these masses were from traditional drinking songs and so on, but the majority of them were more serious forms of music.
These parodies were unsubtle. They didn’t just take a line or two and expanded and varied the music. They were more like Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, in that maybe they changed a note.
It got to the stage where the Catholic Church banned the use of these parodies on the basis that they were lascivious and impure. The Italians followed these guidelines to the max, but the French were a little more lackadaisical, presumably because the Vatican City wasn’t right on their doorstep.
Ultimately, this period of parody stemmed from the fact that music hardly changed in terms of usable instruments and styles between the 12th century and the 16th century. A lack of innovation and invention ensured that composers were writing and rewriting the same pieces of music for decades.
The Baroque and Classical Period
This version of parody didn’t quite end in the 16th century. Instead, composers such as Bach still reused pieces of music, as seen in his Christmas Oratorio. However, with the invention of new instruments and the gradual development of new styles meant that fashions in music changed, and parody — as it was then — became unnecessary.
As a result, parody slowly shifted to mocking. Mozart apparently parodied various clumsy musicians and composers in Ein musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke).
Saint-Saens created Carnival of the Animals as a joke, parodying various composers and musical styles, but it quickly became one of his most popular pieces. Composers parodied included Offenbach, Rameau, Berlioz, Rossini and Saint-Saens himself. Of course, Offenbach was a well-known parodist himself, often parodying Gluck, Meyerbeer and Donizetti.
The Music Hall Era
The Victorians in particular appreciated parody, particularly when it was well constructed. Arthur Sullivan, as in Gilbert and Sullivan, created parodies of Handel, Verdi, Mozart and a variety of other well-known composers. These became the basis of the Savoy Operas, which included HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, the Mikado and Utopia, Limited.
This form of comic opera served as a counterpoint to the badly translated European operas of the time, which often descended into farce and vulgarity.
Gilbert and Sullivan were not the only comic opera writers, but they are certainly the best-known. This is perhaps due to their skillful use of parody in their pieces, both in the creation of characters and in their music, resulting in familiarity while also laughing at what has gone before. The rampant nationalism of the Victorian era also had an effect, with the British becoming more insular and more determined to dismiss European influences.
Bringing Parody Into the Modern Era
As the 20th century rolled around, music became more ubiquitous, particularly with the invention of the phonograph, radio and television. Instead of being limited to a music hall, music became accessible to everyone. This meant that more people would be familiar with more songs.
A lot of parodies in World War I were originally based on church music, as many of the soldiers would have known the tunes. We Are Fred Kano’s Army, for example, uses the tune of The Church’s One Foundation.
As secular music became more mainstream, various musicians took advantage of this. Spike Jones and his City Slickers added various Foley effects to traditional songs to liven them up, and pianist Victor Borge created parodies of a variety of works. Peter Schickele did something similar, parodying various members of the Bach family with his PDQ Bach character.
One recurring theme is how the parodies of yesteryear became parodied again, like when Allan Sherman parodied Gilbert and Sullivan. Tom Lehrer also created similar parodies, but they were substantially darker, such as his Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. He also famously said “Always predict the worst and be hailed a prophet,” which gives you an idea as to the state of his maudlin soul.
Modern Parodies and Pop Culture
As the demarcation of music became ever finer, it was inevitable that parody would be pigeonholed into varying styles. You have various parody artists who keep the main theme intact but add funny words, often relating to their subject. Weird Al Jankovic’s Eat It, Amish Paradise and Tacky all fall into this slot, parodying Beat It by Michael Jackson, Gangster’s Paradise by Coolio and Happy by Pharrell Williams. So do the Wombles and the Smurfs.
Then you have parodies that keep the lyrics intact but changes up the musical style to create a humorous effect. Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine plays music in a classic lounge style, including songs such as Creep by Radiohead and American Idiot by Green Day. The Lounge Kittens do something similar.
You also have comedy rock and pop, which often parodies key elements of the genres. Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass), Spinal Tap and the Axis of Awesome are all parody artists who parody their genres.
Ultimately, parody’s here to stay, and as long as there are musicians and bands, there will be people who wish to parody them. While the meaning has changed over the years, it’s finally settled into something that is more akin to comedy than music, even though it arguably requires far better musicality than just being a musician.