From parody masses and tropes in the fifteenth century to comic operas and novelty songs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a strong performative and theoretical connection has always existed between comedy and music. Composers’ motivations for combining the two arts range from pure entertainment to subversive yet sublimely palatable social commentary. The technical affinity is clear, with similarities encompassing timing, structure, and performance technique, yet most academic studies of the music/comedy relationship have come from disciplines with established histories of comedic research, namely literature, psychology, and linguistics. Within these disciplines, theoretical musical elements, i.e., form, phrasing, texture, structure, and melodic contour, have traditionally accrued less critical attention and credit for their role in eliciting the intended response in a listener. These musical features play a greater critical role in the successful combination of the two arts than previous studies acknowledge, particularly when the synthesis occurs between comedy and modern popular music. This is of special interest considering that comedy in recent years has become a larger factor within the popular music industry. Popular music increasingly is not just another vehicle by which a comic can impart a joke, but an integral part of the joke-telling apparatus.
Exploration of the complex relationship between popular music and comedy commonly divides works into categories based on the verbal and/or visual methods that produce laughter. A humor-eliciting stimulus, according to Long and Graesser, is any social or non-social event, occurring purposely or inadvertently, that is perceived to be amusing, whereas jokes constitute anything done or said intentionally to incite laughter.1 Wyer and Collins have expanded this to include:
The stimulus for the humorous reaction can be something a person says, a non-verbal behavior that the person performs, or a combination of both. The stimulus event might also include non-behavioral aspects of a situation. Indeed, a humorous response may often be stimulated by a number of verbal, non-verbal, and contextual features that are responded to as a configuration, none of which in isolation would be sufficient to elicit this response;
The stimulus events that elicit humor can be either intentional or unintentional; and
A humor-eliciting response is defined in terms of a person’s subjective cognitive reaction to a stimulus configuration or, more accurately, the person’s perception of this reaction.2
The authors make a sharp distinction between pure jokes and witticisms, defining jokes and cartoons as verbal formulas completely unreliant on context, in that they contain all the information needed for comprehension. Witticisms, by contrast, are humorous wordplays specific to a particular social context, and in which a pre-existing knowledge of that context is required for comprehension and appropriate response. Such distinctions in the manner of elicitation therefore serve to explain the cause and effect when a joke or witticism appears within a musical framework, yet they do little to clarify the said effect when the cause is the musical event itself. The “why” of humor is analyzed separately from the musical “how.”
Studies that have examined the relationship from a musical perspective have concentrated on small-scale, intra-musical incorporations. Richard Coolidge has defined three types of musical humor: absolute (intra-musical sound effects with no attributed motives or subjects), autonomous (musical quotations and other “in” jokes for musicians), and programmatic (extended humorous events as defined by composers), whereas Peter Kay creates divisions based on specific musical devices. For instance, certain compositions can be described as having musical puns based on the theoretical ways in which patterns are developed, and then resolved in unexpected ways. These ways can vary from the avoidance of an authentic or half-authentic cadence at a critical point, or the introduction of an unprepared chord in an unusual place. David Huron, using the work of Peter Schickele, aka PDQ Bach, as the model, takes this one step further and codifies nine musical characteristics that Schickele uses to make humorous comparisons between “low art” and “high art”: incongruous sounds, mixing genres, drifting tonality, metric disruptions, implausible delays, excessive repetition, incompetence cues, incongruous quotation, and misquotation.3 All of these techniques serve as small-scale elements that toy with listeners’ expectations in humorous ways, and therefore differ greatly from their large-scale counterparts, i.e., quodlibets, medleys, and musical parodies.
The quodlibet, a contrapuntal technique first popularized in the sixteenth century, is characterized by the simultaneous iteration of multiple, completely separate pre-existing musical works, combined specifically for comic effect. The humor comes from the audience’s realization that two or more pieces of music previously thought to be unrelated can be “mashed up” in a way that exposes they are melodically and harmonically entirely complementary. Bach’s final Goldberg Variation (BWV 988/30) is certainly the most well-known quodlibet; however, the form has also become a staple of Broadway musicals.4 In popular music, the best examples of quodlibets appear in the repertoire of a Milwaukee-based group called Beatallica. Songs from their 2007 Sgt. Hetfield’s Motorbreath Pub Band album seamlessly layer Beatles lyrics and melodies into Metallica songs, all sung by a James Hetfield impersonator. For example, in “Sandman,” lyrics and melody from “I’m The Taxman” meld with the harmony, performance style and sonic characteristics of “Enter Sandman” in a manner that sheds a bright light on the unexpected congruities between the two seemingly disparate compositions.
Medleys are a related form, but instead of simultaneous iteration, multiple phrases follow one after another in sequence, often linked by lyrical theme. For example, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Angry White Boy Polka” links phrases from grunge and metal songs, such as System of a Down’s “Chop Suey” and Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness,” and presents them as though they were being performed by a perky polka band, complete with whoops and hollers from the musicians, and with accordion solos replacing guitar solos.
Within the popular realm, musical parody, defined by Kay as “the juxtaposition of two different patterns — one that our ear follows and one that we do not expect” can be further broken down into simple and song parodies.5 In this context, simple parodies, or contrafacta, are popular songs in which altered lyrics are layered over the original music. Much of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s repertoire falls under this category, as do the works of Rodney Carrington and The Capitol Steps. The comedic impact comes solely from the new lyrical content set to readily recognizable music. The example most often credited with starting this trend is Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” in which the periodic table is sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” The form found further support in Frank Jacob’s 1970 book Sing Along With Mad Magazine, which contained such songs as “Blue Cross,” in which the lyrics to Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” are modified to poke fun at the health insurance industry.6
Song parody, or guitar comedy, is a form common among stand-up comedians who use music as their medium. This category consists of originally composed songs that make fun of specific subjects or styles, and dates back to artists such as Allan Sherman, Victor Borge, and Spike Jones. It is the style most closely related to traditional stand-up comedy in its structure and comedic pacing. The AA’B song form, like the standard tripartite joke form, is tailor-made to capture the experience of violation of an innate (or acquired) expectation. “The presence of two “A’s” clearly defines A as a unit and establishes a repetitive structure that implies another A. The “B” departs from this expectation in some way, and if this way is generally consonant with the style at hand (as opposed, for example, to the sound of a fog horn), there is a constrained violation of expectation.”7
Stephen Lynch’s “Love Song,” exemplifies how closely the AA’B song structure parallels the set-up, development, and punchline joke structure:
If I had a hammer, I’d build a house for twoAnd if I had a sailing ship, I’d take a trip with youAnd if I had a poet’s hand I’d write a verse for theeAnd if I had the painter’s touch, on canvas you would beBut I don’t have a hammer and I don’t have a shipSo I can’t build a house and we can’t take a tripAnd I’ll never be a poet, nor have the painter’s graceSo I’ll never write your verse, nor immortalize your face And also I have herpes8[Used by permission: Lynchnuts Publishing, Inc.]
The interjection of pre-existing musical motives into another composition is another centuries-old technique well suited to modern music parody. Laughs are produced by a variety of stimuli, including shock at recognition of the added motive, surprise at its inclusion, and acknowledgement of the absurdity it creates. The audience’s identification of a quote and its incongruity with the song correspond closely to the set-up/development/resolution format of stand-up comedy, making quotation another variant on a punch line. Stephen Lynch and Tim Minchin regularly add musical non sequiturs to punch up the comedic impact of their songs. In “Beelz,” a song that depicts Satan composing a dating-site profile, Lynch closes with a quote from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Quotations often reinforce a shared sense of place and time, as exemplified in “Grade 9” by Barenaked Ladies. The lyrics recount embarrassing events from each band member’s teen years, punctuated by quotes from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (the song’s popularity reflects the band members’ actual teen years). Minchin’s similarly autobiographical “Rock and Roll Nerd” incorporates the opening motive from “Stairway to Heaven” into its codetta.
Although most studies in musical intertextuality, which draw heavily from Kristeva’s and Genette’s work in literary and linguistic intertextuality, concern the European classical canon its use has increased within popular music research.9 In applying it to the study of the borrowing, quotation, and extra-musical referencing that characterize jazz improvisations, Ingrid Monson offers the term “intermusicality” to distinguish it from the literary source. Lacasse’s 2000 examination of intertextuality and hypertextuality in recorded popular music and Hatten’s 1985 analysis of stylistic and strategic intertextuality, for example, apply such distinctions from a popular music perspective; however, the application of intertextuality theory to music takes on a more complex dimension when the music is augmented with a comic intent. Whereas the aforementioned comedy studies and their categorizations of joke telling methodologies are also valid and illuminating, a relatively recent development in the music industry adds another layer to the already complex relationship between the two arts, one which requires a closer examination of how the music itself contributes to the process. As the ultimate purpose of comedy/music hybrids is to draw laughs from listeners, cross-pollination of small- and large-scale music techniques can serve the shared goal, and help support the joke telling process. Quodlibets are often full of musical puns, and contrafacta and song parodies commonly contain quotations.10 Individually, these techniques can effectively punctuate a joke or witticism as defined above, but when layered, and communicated via a third party mediator armed with a library of pop culture references, the result is a reflexive parody, a delicately structured comedic form, heavily steeped in irony, clever juxtaposition, expectational diversion, iconographic manipulation, and audience participation, through which its performers can impart a self-critical subtext.
As a subset of reimagining, a format in which works from one genre are seriously and respectfully reinterpreted in the style and/or instrumentation of another, reflexive music parody divines laughs not from hearing new lyrics sung over a familiar song, or a chorus that functions as a punch line, but through covers of popular songs performed in a seemingly incongruous style and presented through a third-party fictional character. It is an amalgamation of musical pun, stand-up comedy joke structure, quodlibets, medleys, and quotation that relies on a unique juxtaposition of musical and non-musical information to make its humorous point.
Historically, the practice of “covering” songs has satisfied a wide range of musical, financial and cultural purposes during the rock music era, and the motivations that have paired artists with previously recorded materials have ranged from the purely economic, the campy and silly, to the just plain questionable. In its earliest days, the practice of employing white artists to re-record songs by black artists served as a public reinforcement of what the recording industry perceived as the negative cultural status of the original versions and the artists who recorded them. David Sanjek best described this process as a way to eviscerate not only the commercial potential but also the creative vitality of some of the most spirited music of its era.11 But a pure cover effort can also be used to humorous effect when songs are re-recorded by artists with no musical talent, such as the various Golden Throats collections. These novelty works derive their humor from the irony of hearing famous actors with no discernible musical ability vainly trying to sing. William Shatner’s rendition of “Rocket Man” has become a staple of impersonators’ acts. Equally cringe-worthy, although funny, is Jack Webb’s monotone version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Reactions to this type of cover song are based in what Kay defines as “superiority theory.”12 The laughter comes from listeners’ realization that the singers are terrible, based on their own musical background, and can be described as a “you’re doing it wrong” reaction.
A reflexive parody differs from the standard cover song or reimagining in that it is a comedic device that, by using multiple musical and extra-musical devices, simultaneously satirizes and honors the artist being targeted, the genre of the original song, the attributes of the “cover” genre, and most importantly the listeners and musicians themselves. By covering songs from the present or the recent past, transposing them into a seemingly disconnected musical genre to re-examine genre characteristics and stereotypes, and presenting them within a sketch-comedy format, reflexive parodists have created not only a multi-functional comedic device, but also a completely original form of musical tribute.
Although the number of genre combinations available to reflexive parodists is virtually limitless, the combination of heavy metal and rat pack-era swing has created a uniquely complex device, one that draws on notions of political correctness, virtue, vice, media image, and stereotype to make a comedic point within a musical framework. The performers in this study — Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine and The Fabulous Bud E. Luv — transplant metal music, lyrics, and imagery into a big band swing style and combine them with standardized techniques from stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy to take the concept of reimagining beyond the merely tributary to become a vehicle for comedians to comment on perceived stereotypes associated with each genre.
Echoing Nick Rivers, a character played by Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live who sang lounge versions of the Star Wars theme in sleazy airport bars, the works of reflexive parodists fall firmly within the realm of sketch comedy. It is the use of the sketch format and the adoption of a larger-than-life, obviously fictional persona as mediator that creates the interpretive distance needed for a reflexive parody to succeed as a comedic as well as musical device. More than any other performative factor, this is what distinguishes reflexive parodies from reimaginings or standard cover songs.
As fictional, yet believable front men, Cheese, the brainchild of comedian Mark Jonathan Davis (who bills his alter ego as “The World’s Loudest Lounge Singer” and “The Velveeta Fog”) and The Fabulous Bud E. Luv, created by Robert Vickers (aka “The Man Who Put The Boss in Bossanova”) are exaggerated composites of the rat pack singers, not direct impersonations of any single one. It is with the vocal timbre and inflection of Sinatra, the quick wit of Sammy Davis Jr., and the laid-back charm of Dean Martin that Cheese and Luv perform “swankified” versions of intentionally raw, unpolished, aggressive, and ruthlessly non-conformist metal music. As caricatures with an affinity for self-deprecating humor, silk tuxedos, boozy and over-inflated onstage egos, they are free to be both sophisticated and raw, well-mannered and foul-mouthed, mainstream and underground. The characters are deliberately self-aware, hyper-macho buffoons who use that self-awareness to highlight the similarities with their real-life metal front man counterparts. Both types of front men carry the stereotype of a misogynistic, hard-drinking, ego-driven musical alpha male who revels in all things naughty. As Deena Weinstein has written about the role of the metal front man, the role of rock singer “demands an acceptance if not an embrace of exhibitionism, which necessarily has a narcissistic component that the role encourages.”13 She goes on to state:
Most importantly, the position of the singer in a rock band stands out from the others because he has two separate roles: singer and frontman. This is a difference in kind rather than an extreme form of the dual role of all members of bands — playing music in the studio and in front of an audience. The latter requires something more than just making sounds; it demands concern with the visual elements of a live show. The drummer may twirl his sticks in the air or the guitarist may contort himself during his solo, and similarly the singer needs to present his vocals in some dramatic way, from staring at his shoes to running from one side of the stage to the other. But the singer, in concert, is also a frontman who greets the audience, introduces the songs and the band, and, in general, mediates the band to the audience.14
Robert Walser further characterizes the outward personas of metal musicians as “swaggering males, leaping and strutting about the stage, clad in spandex, scarves, leather, and other visually noisy clothing, punctuating their performances with phallic thrusts of guitars and microphone stands. The performers may use hypermasculinity or androgyny as visual enactments of spectacular transgression.”15 Susan Fast, in her 2001 analysis of Robert Plant’s role within Led Zeppelin, offers that the visual and physical elements of the singer’s performance go far beyond the establishment of a distinctive stage presence, to create an intentionally exaggerated masculine image.
Plant taps into the codified tradition of using a wide-legged stance, his body squarely in front of the audience, which signifies confidence and power, because the body is so firmly grounded, with weight evenly distributed, balanced, and in control. One of the most important extradaily uses of his body is how he thrusts forward his chest, which until 1979 was always nearly bare. This thrusting forward had the effect of increasing his stature, of making him larger than life, and seemingly self-assured, of asserting his sexuality, in short, giving him “presence” even when he was not singing.16
The function of the metal front man in this context is two-fold, however. He is not merely the visual focal point of a band’s live performance, but the very embodiment of the messages of self-reliance, aggression, and social non-conformity embedded in its lyrics. Rafalovich asserts: “Closely linked to narratives of mental and physical domination are themes demarcating a self that ‘rises above’ negative circumstances. Projected in overtly individualistic terms, such emergence arises from hardening the self to the world and harnessing internal sources of strength.”17 Furthermore, “[I]t may be asserted that the ‘heaviness’ characterizing metal music describes two different subjective positions. Heaviness is convened in one manner through the subject bearing the ‘weight of the world’ on his shoulders but also via a subject that crushes the world by his own heavy hand.”18 Such images of male social dominance and themes of individualism within metal lyrics serve to reinforce the front man’s role as what Dorothy Smith refers to as an “ideological representation of maleness.”19
Such displays of hegemonic masculinity within metal music and imagery are also crucial components to the perceived authenticity of metal music. For example, Klypchak interprets Motley Crüe’s visual imagery and performance style as an intentional method by which the musicians solidify the band’s metal credibility through performative displays of sexual prowess, prodigious alcohol and drug use, rebellion against authority figures and reverential respect accorded to their metal predecessors.20 When compared to the carefully cultivated public images of the rat pack singers as suave, sexually confident, social rule-bending, hard partying, patriarchal playboys (images further supported by the singers’ various film roles, particularly Sinatra’s roles in 1955’s The Tender Trap and 1957’s Pal Joey), the parallels between the roles of the swing and metal front man become clear. Heterosexual males dominate both groups of musicians with exaggerated on-stage personas exhibiting an assumed social dominance, and projecting a sense of male entitlement that often relegates women to the role of objects or temptresses that tease. The fabricated personalities of Richard Cheese and Bud E. Luv, and the perceived swing and metal stereotypes they mock, reflect intentionally over-the-top characters. Equal parts burlesque performer, classy master of ceremonies, late-night comedian, and suave ladies’ man, they are sophisticates with a sophomoric sense of toilet humor, delighting at the risqué language and taboo subject matter of heavy metal music, and gleefully celebrating all that is laughably masculine. As pointed out by Powell: “When a band can transgress freely, because they appeal to a transgressive subculture, they highlight things that mainstream culture may not have concerns with or acknowledge. When done with humor, typically transgression is exaggerated with ridiculous hyperbole, making these concerns laughably clear through their exaggeration.”21
Visual presentation also helps establish the characters as “other.” Like the fashion stereotype associated with the metal singers they appropriate (leather, long hair, for example) Cheese and Luv assume the uniform most closely associated with the Las Vegas lounge singer — silk tuxedo, slicked back hair, French cuffs, a martini glass, an oversized Shure microphone and a big smile. Style is everything, and as Bud E. Luv claimed in his autobiography, “Your pants should be so crisp, so perfect that they could do the show without you.”22
Paralleling Daniel Goldmark’s assertions that images of Louis Armstrong in 1932’s animated short, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” were fetishized and grossly exaggerated to make the musician resemble a stylized savage African native to reinforce white audiences’ perception of jazz as “exotic,” and thereby positioning animation as a culturally safe, mediated buffer through which to experience artistic “other,” the absurdity of hearing what is essentially a live action cartoon character singing metal music provides an open framework in which performers and listeners alike can dismiss previously conceived notions of musical quality and evaluate the songs from an unbiased perspective.23
In a process only half-jokingly called “swankification” or “lounge-mosis,” stereotypes about metal attitudes and imagery are mitigated, clearing the way for proving Cheese and Luv’s posits that metal is a misunderstood, under-appreciated, yet extremely important art form, and not unlike swing in its quality or staying power. By re-contextualizing metal into a presumedly absurd genre, these comedians are calling out metal musicians for what they consider them to be — seriously talented musicians whose best work is overlooked due to the perceived stereotypical pomposity, ultra-seriousness and self-importance of metal music. Davis (in character) describes Lounge Against the Machine’s choice of repertoire in the following manner:
This is the Golden Age of Songwriting . . . like Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the great standards of all time are being penned right now by the young artists of the day. Take Slayer’s “War Ensemble” for instance. This song speaks to a generation with the chorus “Sport the war/war support/the sport is war/total war.” When I have children and their children get married, they’re going to have Slayer playing at their wedding.24
Along with the adoption of a fictional character as a buffer, the re-orchestration of metal songs also helps strengthen and define the interpretive distance. When characteristically metal timbres, instrumentation, melody, harmony, and lyrics are transplanted into a swing model, the subversiveness, aggression, anger, and themes of individualism and rebellion — all attributes that define metal music and give it so much sonic and social power — are diluted. The process of replacing electric bass with acoustic bass, rhythm and lead guitars with grand piano, and distortion boxes with lounge-like echo effects, creates a space in which compositional skills can be objectively evaluated as it dismisses the attitude, image and frame of mind assumed among metal fans and non-fans alike.
As a purely comedic device, in the same manner that a stand-up comedian sets up a joke, builds expectations through pattern, then concludes with a funny twist to the story, reflexive parody provides another method by which to deliver a punchline. Just as harsh timbres, mechanized guitar effects, displays of virtuosity and/or extreme vocal range instantly identify a song as metal to listeners, the same melodies, harmonies and lyrics, when played in hushed tones by a stand-up bass, bouncy horn section, and small trap kit, and sung by a smooth-voiced baritone, obscure a song’s identity, at least until the chorus kicks in. The process of sonically picking apart the swing version to find its metal source can also function as the set-up and build-up portion of joke structure, with the act of identification functioning as the punchline, or a variation on the AA’B form. This function is of crucial importance when the original song follows an uncommon form, i.e., an iterative form, or AAAA. The punchlines in Bud E. Luv’s versions of “Iron Man” and “Paranoid” rely solely on the audience’s recognition of the song, as neither contains a chorus in the traditional sense. The more divergent the swing version, the more satisfying and successful the process becomes. In both live performance and recordings, however, resolution relies entirely on the listener’s awareness of the original. Extremely rarely, if ever, is the song’s title announced. Figuring it out is left entirely to the audience and forces active participation in the joke-telling process. Winning the game of “name that tune” is equated with “getting the joke.” This forced audience participation creates an active, shared experience between listener and performer, as well as among listeners themselves. The latter is strongly reinforced during live shows when previously unrecorded versions are performed.
Quodlibets offer another effective comedy tool for reflexive parody. As with non-parodic quodlibets, two or more individual musical lines are superimposed, but in reflexive parodies both lines are swankified and connected by thematic material. For instance, in Cheese’s renditions of Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the familiar melodies are melded with stylistically disconnected, yet thematically complementary tunes; the former with “Singing in the Rain” and the latter with “Mr. Sandman.”
It is important to note that although reflexive parodists rework metal music to fit a different context, unlike in contrafacta, the lyrics remain the same as in the original. Not only are they preserved word for word, including all profanity, but also they are clearly, deliberately enunciated; the vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, thereby providing one of the funnier juxtapositions that characterize the form. When they do occur, alterations solidify the nature of the assumed character, but do not divert attention away from the original’s impact or meaning. For example, in Bud E. Luv’s medley of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Free Bird,” the opening lyrics to the latter are changed to “If I split this town tomorrow, would you still be digging me” and the closing ones are reduced to “Bird, chick, change.”25 Cheese makes a similar meta-fictive interjection in “Bust A Move” in which he sings, “He’s hoping you can make it there if you can ‘cause he hired Richard Cheese to be the band. Seriously, we do weddings.”26
Like shock comics of the 1980s and 1990s, who deflated the importance of banned words through constant repetition until their shock value was subverted, Cheese and Luv delight in the way listeners are taken aback by brazenly performed profanity. Whereas the original rat pack singers were bound by decency laws and stricter public mores regarding language, metal artists are less motivated to self-regulate what they say, so when Cheese casts a sly wink to the audience while cheerfully uttering such phrases as “Come on motherfucker, everybody has to die” from Slipknot’s “People Equals Shit,” the words function as an expression of self-deprecation. The dirtier or more profane the word, the funnier its iteration becomes when coming out of the mouth of a clean-cut lounge singer who belts it out joyfully as he throws out the rules of language convention and political correctness.
Furthering the odd juxtaposition of a drunken, tuxedo-clad lounge lothario belting out Black Sabbath classics is the inclusion of musical quotations. Of all the techniques at reflexive parodists’ disposal, the insertion of musical quotes best keeps the active interpretive process going in a live performance. Once listeners recognize the song that is being reimagined, quotation can up the ante by challenging them to also identify the origin of the quote, how it musically or thematically fits within the re-orchestrated version, and how its inclusion contributes to the now multi-leveled irony. Quotes can come from a plethora of sources, but when they are characteristic of yet a third musical genre, the result is a trifecta of absurdity. Rarely are these quotes set up or referenced, leaving listeners responsible for isolating and identifying the snippet, and recognizing how it relates. For example, Cheese’s version of “Welcome to the Jungle” interjects a whistled motive from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Girls Girls Girls” contains a motive from “Brown Eyed Girl,” and Lee Presson and the Nails’ version of “Mr. Crowley” slips in the opening bars from “The Final Countdown.”
The purpose of these quotations is to function as pieces of a pop culture puzzle to be “gotten” by listeners without hint or provocation. They are jokes, within jokes, within other jokes. In literary theory, this technique is defined by John Fitzsimmons as obligatory intertextuality, or when the writer “ . . . deliberately invokes a comparison or association between two (or more) texts. Without this pre-understanding or success to ‘grasp the link,’ the reader’s understanding of the text is regarded as inadequate.”27 “Obligatory intertextuality relies on the reading or understanding of a prior hypotext, before full comprehension of the hypertext can be achieved.” 28
In the same manner that a stand-up comedian uses a call-back to refer to something said earlier in a performance, reflexive parodists use quotations to refer to information not iterated in a show, but from a shared pop culture library of knowledge. These motives can serve to reinforce a song’s ironic content, particularly when they are indicative of a third genre or reference. Illustrating this technique is Cheese’s version of “Closer,” a quodlibet that superimposes the Nine Inch Nails original onto “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street.”
To heighten the inherent silliness of layering children’s music underneath an extremely risqué lyric, he threads in quotes from “Linus and Lucy” (aka the Peanuts theme) and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
The application of reflexive parody can be extended to incorporate cinema, where such unexpected juxtapositions within the music can underline a visual or narrative subtext. The irony of foul language that communicates disturbing lyrical imagery via a mediator creates a sinister and unsettling backdrop to Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Cheese’s version of “Down with the Sickness” plays in its entirety as underscore to a montage showing the main characters enjoying their last moments in their shopping mall refuge before the final assault on the zombies. The upbeat, easy-listening format obscures the danger portrayed in the song’s closing lyrics, “Here it comes, get ready to die,” and highlights the insanity of the situation in which the film’s characters find themselves, as the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
In both versions of Dawn of the Dead, muzak — defined here fairly broadly as the kind of piped-in, easy-listening, lightly orchestrated pop tunes (also known as “environmental,” “mood,” or “elevator” music) used as an aural backdrop in commercial spaces like offices, stores, and especially shopping malls — serves a number of purposes from pacing to atmosphere to commentary. Most importantly, though, it paradoxically intensifies the horror of the effect of the films by strongly evoking feelings best described by Freudian notions of the uncanny and taboo, and by serving as a near-perfect analogue for, and even embodiment of, the living dead themselves.29
The role of the mediator and the importance of the interpretive buffer it creates in the comedic success of reflexive parodies become evident when compared to pure reimaginations of the same repertoire. Artists such as The Easy Star All Stars have recorded reggae versions of Dark Side of the Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as respectful reinterpretations of the classic concept albums. The Vitamin String Quartet has recorded Muzak-inspired variations of well-known pop songs; the Gourds’ version of “Gin and Juice” is a country take on the Snoop Dogg signature song; and Hayseed Dixie and Iron Horse have successfully combined bluegrass and heavy metal on Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute to KISS, and Black & Bluegrass: A Tribute to Ozzy Osbourne, respectively. Both reimaginists and reflexive parodists cultivate an image of talented musicians performing serious interpretations of modern songs, but without the characters, quotations, clever juxtapositions, musical in-jokes, double entendres, and active participation in the interpretive process, the result is an interesting reinterpretation of the original song, but not necessarily a funny one. Similarly, Paul Anka’s album Rock Swings, as well as Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy feature swing-inspired interpretations of current popular songs, but are completely devoid of characterizations or extra-musical references, making these pure cover efforts, but not reflexive parodies.30 In parallel, the compositions of Peter Schickele, which regularly feature quodlibets, groan-worthy title puns, and quotes in the “newly discovered” works of PDQ Bach, are extremely effective at producing laughter, but as there is no third-party mediator, there is no understood, secondary meaning to the jokes. Professor Schickele never presents himself as anything but a stylized version of himself, making the PDQ Bach repertoire an example of a conventional song parody that uses several hybrid music/comedy techniques on a small scale, but not a reflexive parody.
If one of the primary purposes of comedy is to poke holes in the perceived pomposity or seriousness of its subjects, then heavy metal is a logical target for comedians. But if reflexive parodists really are re-contextualizing metal to uncover its source musical quality, why is it so funny? What is being made fun of? It is clearly neither the musical content, nor the performers, as they are not mocking either, but rather reveling in their unexpected similarities. Instead, the unique combination of parodic elements forces listeners to incorporate their own perceptions and assumptions about heavy metal music, and the stereotypes they hold of metal’s image of pompous self-importance, self-indulgence, and overt masculinity, into their interpretive process. Reflexive parodies direct listeners to laugh at themselves and their metal preconceptions in a Beavis and Butthead-like manner. All listeners, metal and non-metal fans alike, willingly become the object of gentle, self-aware and self-imposed ridicule. For metal fans, the interpretive distance provides an affirmation of the style’s quality and lasting ability as well as a funny medium through which to acknowledge the sometimes overblown pomposity in which metal is presented. It pokes holes in its ultra-seriousness and makes metal fun again. For non-metal heads, it provides a way to laugh at their sometimes-inaccurate perception of metal music, its practitioners, and fans. The success of this complex composite structure as a comedic form depends entirely on whether the audience willingly sees itself as an active participant in the process.
Michele Hannoosh proposes that for parody to function as a fully distinct literary form, it must allow for critique of itself just as it critiques an original work. The capacity for self-commentary “ . . . distinguishes parodic renewals from more generally intertextual ones, which are not obliged to make critical demands upon themselves in this way; the comic element in parody, on the other hand, renders such self-criticism virtually compulsory.”31 By contrast, Margaret Rose acknowledges in her study of literary reflexive parody as a metafictional form that there are self-critical implications of the genre but also that there are inherent contradictions, the limits of self-reflexivity. A parody, by her reasoning, cannot adopt itself as a subject, therefore cannot criticize itself fully: “The parodistic and modernist metafiction has also shown itself to be forever short of its mark of analysing the reality of its own fiction.”32 Following this argument, self-parody is theoretically impossible because it is forever unfinished and cannot describe itself completely.
Musical reflexive parody differs sharply in that, through the combination of musical elements, joke structure and third-party composite-image character, the music is not constrained by the same limits. Quite the opposite is true as the interpretive distance created by the synthesis of techniques demands that both the performers and the audience be hyper-aware that their reactions are just as much a part of the irony as the songs being transformed. Moreover, within literary theory it is possible to appreciate an intertext without full comprehension of the references. Optional intertextuality, as Fitzsimmons has proposed, means there may or may not be connections between multiple texts. “The intent of the writer, when using optional intertextuality, is perhaps to pay homage to the ‘original’ writers, or to reward those who have read the hypotext. However, the reading of this hypotext is not necessary to the understanding of the hypertext.”33 Such categorization might be appropriate with regard to reimaginings or cover songs, as one can still appreciate the music without understanding or even recognizing a hypotext. But when analyzed as a comedic vehicle, passive interpretation contravenes the purpose of musical reflexive parody and negates its impact.
The establishment of musical reflexive parody as a unique genre is contingent on its ability to self-critique, not limited by its lack thereof, nor is the understanding of the hypotext arbitrary. As such, traditional analytical methodologies that focus on a direct cause-and-effect approach require modification to incorporate the function of multi-layered small- and large-scale musical and non-musical sources. Individually, puns, quodlibets, contrafacta and the like, contribute to the comedic value of a work, but do not by themselves impart subtext. Rather, the sum of these musical parts divines the self-reflexive humor. Therefore, scholarly conversations must continue to interpret individual musical elements as they facilitate the joke-telling process, but also consider how they can become an intrinsic part of the joke itself. Reflexive parody, through unexpected juxtaposition of the profane and the elegant, the modern and the outdated, and inter-generational cultural clues and icons, communicated through form, puns, quodlibets, and quotes, exacts an appreciation for an often-maligned musical style. It also creates an interpretive space in which listeners can objectively evaluate metal music, its creators, its fans and themselves, while adding another layer to an already irony-drenched comedic form.