Parody Songwriting 101

It’s fairly common knowledge that the hardest thing for me to do is start a project. Once I get going on it, I’ll work tirelessly for hours and hours without a break, and I’ll love every minute of it. But if I get distracted and start focusing on something else, I sometimes have trouble getting back into the original task.

But when something sparks my creativity, well, it’s hard for me to stop. That’s often the case when I’m writing, or when I work on websites. Even after I’ve completed whatever I originally set out to do, I’ll sit there feeling like there must be something more I can do to improve it.

Today, the focus has been on music. Specifically, on writing parody songs for the Robin in the Hood festival, which is something I started doing last year. It’s kind of funny that it took me nine years to do anything musical for RitH, because music is what I’m mostly known for in other circles. I guess the thing is that RitH didn’t need that part of me in past years, since there were lots of other people who were interested in musical roles. And just because I can be a musician doesn’t mean that I have to be a musician.

Last year was different, because I knew that it might be my last festival and I decided early on that I wanted to run the Music and Dance Workshop on Education Day. That snowballed into performing songs with Candace and Sam on the Friday evening, and led to me writing more songs for the Sunday cast party.

To be clear, though, I’ve never written an original song…I write parodies. And I’m willing to say that I’m pretty good at it. I learned how when I directed music for the FASS Theatre Company, first by editing other people’s songs and then by writing my own. And you know what? It’s not as easy as you might think. There are a few key things that you have to consider for a parody to be effective.

First, the song has to be recognizable. There’s no point to writing a parody if no one knows what the original song is…then you’re just ripping off someone else’s tune. Some songs are recognizable by a few words, while others might depend on a guitar riff or a drum beat. “Video Killed the Radio Star” is a great example of a song that many people will recognize within a few bars…but it’s also possible that people in their 20’s haven’t heard it before.

Second, the parody lyrics have to sound reasonably close to the originals. I’ve edited parodies where the writers matched the number of syllables in the lines, but didn’t think about the cadence, and ones where there were just too many or too few words. If there’s a particularly catchy line, then I try to leave it as close to the original as possible. For example, if I were writing a parody of Katy Perry’s “Roar”, then I might go with “And you’re gonna hear me snore”. Or, I might use “And wake me up if I snore” if that makes more sense with the lines that come before it. But I wouldn’t write, “and tonight I’ll try not to snore”, for a whole bunch of reasons. The first one is easily the most effective, because it puts all of the focus on the one word that’s changed from the original.

Third, you should try to match the rhyming scheme; you can’t just ignore it and hope that people won’t notice. Even if they don’t actively think about the rhymes in the original song, they’ll notice that something feels awkward, and you’ll lose impact.

Does the original content of the song matter? Yes and no. When you write a parody, you’re drawing on how the original song made people feel, and then either building upon it or twisting it for added amusement. So, if you wanted to write a fun and silly song, you’d be better off starting with “Twist and Shout” than “Yesterday”. As for the lyrics, the original meaning of the song doesn’t matter, but there has to be enough wordplay that you can actually get your point across. In that regard, “Twist and Shout” is a really tough song, because the lines are very short and repetitive. However, the aforementioned “Video Killed the Radio Star” is great, because there are lots of words in each verse.

So, there you go. Parody songwriting 101.

Getting back to my original point, I’ve written three parodies for RitH over the past few days, and now that I’m on a roll there’s no telling when I’ll stop. I know I said it wasn’t easy, but once you figure it out it just kinda makes sense. Of course, it helps that I’m both a professional writer and a reasonably accomplished amateur musician. I’m not sure how often those two worlds intersect (excluding professional songwriters).

I suppose you’re wondering about the songs that I’ve written. Hmm, well, I don’t want to share too much here…I’d rather that the first experience people have is hearing them live at the festival. But…okay. I’ll give you one. Earlier this evening, I wrote a version of OneRepublic’s “Good Life” that I call “Herald Life”. The title says it all: it’s about being a herald (my role in the festival for the past nine years) and having a cushy life.  Of course, this year I’m a retired herald, so the song is a little late arriving. But whatever.  I actually started out trying to write it about crusader knights or townsfolk, but then realized that the herald is a natural fit. Mostly because crusaders and townsfolk in the medieval ages don’t really have good lives, whereas things are pretty darn good for the heralds.

All that being said, I’m actually not sure that I’ll use it. I’m particularly fond of the second verse, but I’d like to think that I can do better with the rest of it, and there’s still loads of time to come up with new ideas…