Thinking Through Parody

When speaking to Ice T about his thrash metal band, Body Count, The Guardian’s Paul Lester asked: “Is there an element of parody to what you do, or are you deadly serious?” Somewhat cryptically, Ice responded:

“Absolutely. Body Count is 100% grindhouse over-the-top. It’s what you wish you could do but can’t. You wish you could reach through a phone and smash that fuckin’ blogger, that hater. You wish you could roll up behind the Mothers Against Hard Rock and shoot ’em. It’s the fantasies we have. Body Count does it.”

There’s an ambiguity in “Absolutely.” Ice highlights the fantastical and “over-the-top” dimensions of Body Count that appear parodic, but, at the same time, the aggressive anti-Establishment stance of Body Count seems highly conventional for the thrash metal genre. This begs the question: Can parody become conventional? Can parody be generic, and, if so, then does it lose its function?

First of all, assigning things a parodic function can be political–it’s a value judgemnt. To call something parody can be extremely insulting, belittling, or dismissive [1]. Labeling something as parody establishes a certain relationship between it and the parodied object, and it often involves imposing a polemical (or oppositional) relationship between two things. For example, we might debate whether or not Step Up 5: All In is a parody of dance movies or an iteration of a formula for dance movies. To label it as parody suggests that it makes a meta-commentary on generic conventions, and, conversely, to suggest that it is not parody may reduce it to the status of a formula or a copy. There is a lot at stake with these debates over whether or not something is a parody.

Not only does calling something parody impose values on it, but one might also wonder whether or not parody itself has to be political. Are all caricatured or absurd representations of well-known things a form of parody? Where does postmodernism and pastiche come into play? And what about simple imitation? [2]

In Parody, Simon Denith (professor of literature) offers one definition of parody: “relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice.” In other words, he thinks parody has to reference a well-known thing (“allusive imitation”) by imitating it and by being critical of it (“polemical”). He goes on to state that parody may criticize in two ways: 1) it criticizes the parodied object or 2) it alludes to the parodied object to criticize something else in the world. For example, Weird Al’s “Happy” knockoff (called “Tacky”) may criticize the original song, which would fulfill Denith’s first function. On the other hand, Weird Al received Pharrell’s approval to remake his song, and the song’s lyrics appear to target many things in the world: fashion choices, Instagram habits, etiquette in social situations, etc. Therefore, it might be more suitable to say it fulfills function two.

I think we might build on Denith’s idea by thinking about the way certain kinds of parody do both at once—in a double-voiced kind of way. They establish a tension between the parodied object and the way the object is/has been perceived. Another way of thinking about this would be: Parodies take aim at relationships between objects and their audience.

It may seem quite obvious that parodies do not target a work of art alone. A poem cannot parody another poem itself. Rather, a parodic poem serves to criticize or illuminate aspects of the way people have composed, read, and understood that poem. Parodies assign values and interpretations to the historical reception of certain works of art. Parodies comment on relationships between people and art, and parodies function to reconstitute those relationships.

It may also seem obvious that parodies involve relationships and reception, but I think this helps us understand the difference between parody and imitation–(imitation being an idea that plagues interpretations of air guitar from outsiders). Imitation involves trying to reproduce an object; parody involves trying to reproduce an object with respect to some historical or contemporary reception trend. Parody can be a way of historicizing—a way of tracing affective dimensions of art.

[1] Think, for example, about irony and hipsters. Consider, if you will, irony as a type of parody. We might ask something like: “Is that hipster wearing that monocle ironically or seriously?” This question involves us trying to ascertain the relationship between the hipster and the monocle–the kinds of values and significance s/he assigns to it. To call it irony might be to undermine his attachment to it.

[2] Many have weighed in on these issues. Frederic Jameson offers a pretty clear distinction between parody and pastiche. Linda Hutcheon provides an interesting approach to imitation and parody.

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