This week’s contest coincides — and really, it’s a coincidence — with a talk I’ll be giving about parodies, as part of a panel next weekend at the West Chester University Poetry Conference. The West Chester conference is the largest poetry-only conference in America, and all these literary luminaries will be hobnobbing and pondering such subjects as “ Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book Length Poem” and “The Musical Inaudible Abacus of Marianne Moore.”
Natasha Trethewey, the recent U.S. poet laureate, will deliver the keynote address. And I — someone who never took a college English class — will stand up and tell what kind of sing-along poop joke is most likely to win a bobblehead of the Abraham Lincoln statue.
Fortunately, most of the 75-minute session on June 7 will be handled by three Actual Poets, all of them renowned in the light-verse community. And best of all, heading the panel will be 47-time Loser Melissa Balmain, who’s the editor of the journal Light and who invited me up to talk about what makes a good song parody — or a bad one.
Of course, to demonstrate the good, I’ll be using examples from the voluminous and fabulous Invite Songbook — we really should compile one! — and maybe I’ll even share a bit from one of the parodies that come across the virtual transom for Week 1074.
I’ll concede right off that this week’s contest will have a narrower readership (and probably less participation) than even our previous parody contests, since a lot of people out there will have nothing to do with musicals; they just can’t abide watching a show in which the characters spontaneously break out into orchestrated song-and-dance numbers. And no matter how clever the parody, I’m afraid that if the reader doesn’t know the original song, he’s not going to spend a lot of time reading the parody.
But! There are still lots of fans of stage and movie musicals — including the generation raised on umpteen home video viewings of Disney animation — as well as a corps of Loser parodists who consistently serve up some of the cleverest, most finely crafted songs you’ll find anywhere.
So: What does make a good song parody for the Invitational? As we consider the various elements, let’s take a look at Mark Raffman’s terrific Inkin’ Memorial-winning entry from Week 1029, a somewhat similar contest: You had to write a song parody, set to any song, about any particular movie. Mark chose that 1980s paean to puerility, “Porky’s,” using a song from a very different genre: “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
See a chest! See a chest!
Tops are coming off with zest!
We’re awaiting an R-rating
When we show another breast!
Lots of girls! Lots of pranks!
We’ll accept your humble thanks,
We are loading up the sleaze
Because we only aim to please!
There’s not much plot to enjoy
But for every teenage boy
We deliver what you need to be impressed,
So bring your fake ID,
You’ll holler out with glee
And see a chest! See a chest! See a chest!
1. First of all, a reader has to be able to match up the parody words to the original tune — which is more challenging than you’d think. As the writer of the parody, you know which words match which notes in the song — because your mind will distort the natural accents of the words and phrases just enough to make them fit the song. But the reader, at least at the beginning of the song, will be thrown if the accents aren’t where they usually are. The best way to find out if your words easily fit the song is to have someone else try to sing them — someone who has never heard you sing your lyrics.
As with any light verse, choosing words with strong, unambiguous accents will help the reader figure out the meter without tripping up. And as the song progresses, the reader will be able to navigate a little ambiguity in later lines.
Mark’s parody is wonderfully easy to follow because its words perfectly fit the strong accents of the melody — in other words, if you read it out loud without any music, the accents would be exactly the same:
See a CHEST, see a CHEST,
Tops are COMing OFF with ZEST,
We’re aWAITing an R-RATing
When we SHOW aNOTHer BREAST …
Those first lines are so clearly accented that the reader quickly gets the accents ingrained in his mind. And so it’s not a problem when we get down to Line 9 and finally meet a line that’s not quite pronounced naturally — you’d normally say “There’s NOT much PLOT to enJOY,” rather than what we need here: “there’s not much PLOT to enJOY.” (Mark could have solved the rhythmic ambiguity by saying, “There’s no plot to enjoy,” but he’s a lawyer and perhaps he wanted to be 100 percent accurate in his assessment of this work of cinema.)
2. The rhyme scheme has to be as good as — or better than — the original. If the original song uses interior rhyme, you need to use interior rhyme. If the original half-rhymes “eyes” and “fly,” you still need to use perfect rhyme (unless your lyric is clearly making fun of the original).
When they’re sung, pop songs can often sound fine with imperfect rhyme — when just the vowel sounds match at the ends of lines — because so much of the song’s effect lies with the music, both vocal and instrumental; the words are just one element woven into a rich blend of melody, harmony, tone quality, and percussion.
On the page, however, you just have the words, and a bad rhyme just sits there, ineffective but intrusive, like a festering toe.
Mark’s parody: absolutely perfect rhymes, and even adding an interior rhyme that the original doesn’t have: “We’re awaiting an R-rating.” (The only weakness is that the rhymes in themselves don’t match the cleverness of Howard Ashman’s line “Soup du jour, hot hors d’oeuvres/why, we’re only here to serve”).
3. It must be cleverly funny. It’s not enough to match up your song with another song: We’re a humor contest. It can be bitter, dark humor, but it you have to have the zing. There has to be a humorous or wry point to the song; it can’t just sum up the plot. And like any joke, it has to finish strongly — it can’t fizzle out. That’s why the typical pop-song structure of a repeated chorus doesn’t work well for a song parody (especially one you’re just reading); it’s anticlimactic.
Mark’s song: Obviously cleverly funny, making its point about this piece-of-dreck exploitation aimed at young teenage boys, with such biting lines as “We are loading up the sleaze/ Because we only aim to please!”
4. Bonus if the original song relates in some way to the parody. I don’t require this; I ask for existing songs because we can’t run a print-paper contest to share original songs. Mark’s does this to some degree: He preserved the original rhyme (“best”/”test,” etc.) so he could use them with “chest” and “breast,” the raison d’etre of “Porky’s.”
Even better in this department for Week 1029: using “Getting to Know You” for the film “1984” (Beverley Sharp), and “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” for “Sophie’s Choice” (Ward Kay).
So just do all that stuff, okay?
A few more notes for entrants: I hope to run a YouTube clip to each parody I run so readers can turn it on and listen to the tune while reading the parody. If you have found a clip that matches your parody, please include the URL in your e-mail; it’s fine to say “Start at 0:45,” for example, if the song has an introduction and you’re just using the main verse.
Because we have so many fine parodists, and because it takes a long time to read each parody — to appreciate it, you really have to sing along with it, at least in your mind — I can’t run very many of them in one file, especially online; nobody would get to the bottom. So I’ll probably share some worthy “noinks” on the Style Invitational Devotees page on Facebook in the weeks after the results run.
My definition of a musical — a show or movie in which the characters do a lot of singing — doesn’t rule out opera, though I don’t plan on running many arias.
I swear, I could keep running horse names contests every four weeks — or even the results from the two a year that we run — and never run out of great entries. For the sake of sanity, I ran “only” about 50 in this week’s results, by a long list of Losers. As often happens with the grandfoals spinoff from the original contest to “breed” two actual horse names, there aren’t quite as many entrants, and definitely fewer brand-new ones.
One difficulty with the grandfoals is that most of the names you’re working with are already puns, and so you have at least two elements in play already for each of the two horses: the original term and the pun. So with Keister Bunny, say, you have Keister, you have Bunny, and you could have Easter Bunny, to some degree. And if you breed that name with, say, Wizzer of Wall St., then you have both Wizzer and Wall St. Rather than asking you to incorporate every last element into the grandfoal names, we’ve found it’s best to combine two or three of them in the final name, and pretty much ignore the others, especially if they’re not the most conspicuous elements.
Which leaves us with lots of classic puns today.
Loser of the Year Danielle Nowlin takes her third Inkin’ Memorial with her combination of &*^$ Mammogram and Clans Casino to produce Squish and Chips — which gets in both Casino (chips) and the original Clams Casino (seafood dish), and of course the &*^& mammogram. (Just nothing about clans.) Most important, I laughed out loud at the juxtaposition. That’s Ink No. 109 for the Also Rookie of the Year — and 110 for her honorable mention.
I had the pleasure of meeting Harold Mantle last summer in Woodside, Calif., where eight Northern California Losers converged for a dinner when I was in the area on vacation. Harold first got ink in the Invite in Week 5; he’s paused for life now and then, but today blots up Ink 39.
“Judas’s Carryout” — I guess nobody would name a fast-food joint that, huh — earns a mug or bag for Kathy El-Assal (28 inks) and a nice note for the overswagged Chris Doyle (3.2 million inks). And while fourth-place Barry Koch (134 inks) will probably be happy to place “above the fold,” he’s probably more tickled to see that we have another song parody contest — he’s always asking when we’re going to have another one.
As fun as the horse puns are in themselves, I also enjoy gathering the many different variations submitted by the hundreds of foal breeders. Here’s a list of some of the good puns on Peter, Paul & Mary songs resulting from various equine trysts (disregarding the lack of a comma in the foal name Peter Paul & Merry, offspring of Candy Boy and Life Is a Joy):
Bagel and a Sneer + Peter Paul & Merry = LeavenOnAJetPlane (Rob Wolf)
Toast in New York + Peter Paul & Merry = LeavinOnJetsPlayin (Rob Wolf)
Peter Paul & Merry + Tryst and Shalt = Flower’s Gone (Harold Mantle)
Peter Paul & Merry + Wizzer of Wall Street = Babe I Hate To Go (Caroline Warfel)
Peter Paul & Merry + Bagel and a Sneer = All the Flour Gone (Dudley Thompson)
Peter Paul & Merry x Arson a Sling = If I Had a Hammock (Chris Doyle)
Peter Paul & Merry + Heresy’s Kisses = If I Had Enamour (Dudley Thompson)
Peter Paul & Merry + Gettin Outta Dodge= If I Had a Hummer (Harvey Smith; John McCooey; Rick Haynes)
Peter Paul & Merry + Kilty as Charged – Aye, Had a Hammer (Catherine Hagman)
Peter Paul & Merry + Pi Rho= If I Had a Gamma (Rob Wolf)
Hoyle of Ole X Peter Paul & Merry = Cream Puff (Barry Koch)
Peter Paul and Merry x Loch and Lode = OffTheMagicDragon (Susan Geariety)
Peter Paul & Merry X Pack of Camels = Puff’n & Draggin’ (Pie Snelson; Kathy Fraeman; Brad Alexander)
Peter Paul & Merry + Midnight Snack = Puff N’ Stuff (Bernard Brink)
Vlad the Inhaler x Peter Paul & Merry = Puff the Magic! (Beverley Sharp)
Plus: Peter Paul & Merry x OK, Just This Once = That’s All Folk (Jeremy Levin)
DQ: Some of the unprintable names
Hey, if you’ve read down THIS far, I’m not going to worry you’re offended. I might worry that you’re insane.
Flatimir Putin + &*^$ Mammogram = Putin On The Tits (Craig Dykstra)
Snagglepussy Riot + The Nope Diamond = Pubic Zirconium (Craig Dykstra)
Abstract Dart x Tolkien’BoutShaft = Dildo Baggins (Frank Osen)
Gu x The Wheel McCoy = Cummin’ ’Round (Bill Verkuilen)
Well, maybe that last one.