CRF Blog

How Parody Videos Transformed Pop Music — for Better and Worse

by Bill Hayes

In How Parody Videos Transformed Pop Music — for Better and Worse for the New Republic, David Hajdu traces the legal and cultural history of pop parody songs.

Fifty years ago this October, the Supreme Court cleared the road to the world that the pop-music audience occupies today, a place where ridicule is the lingua franca and everything is made to seem ridiculous. It’s a world where popular songs exist for the making of parody videos and “Weird Al” Yankovic, somehow, suddenly, looks like a visionary.

The case that came before the high court in 1964 was Berlin v. E. C. Publications, Inc., a dispute over the underlying rights to the contents of a collection of song parodies produced by the editors of Mad magazine. Published as a trade paperback in 1961 under the title More Trash from Mad — it was the fourth volume of repackaged Mad magazine contents — the book had gag lyrics to show tunes and Tin Pan Alley hits popular among the New Frontier adults whom Mad took snickering adolescent glee in mocking. The writers of this joke songbook, Frank Jacobs and Larry Siegel (with help from a few other Mad contributors), had taken fifty-seven warhorse ditties and re-purposed them with topical angles. Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” became a satire of Middle Eastern oil potentates, “Sheik to Sheik.” Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” turned into a spoof of hypochondria, “Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady.” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, became a lampoon of sports-star endorsements, “The First Time I Saw Maris.” Silly but neatly crafted, the take-off lyrics jabbed teasingly at the headlines and the anxieties of postwar society in a way that would seem tepidly old-fashioned to readers today but came across as wildly subversive to the kids and young adults who read Mad in the early 1960s. [more]