From Offenbach to ‘Weird Al’

Jacques Offenbach

This is as much a story of the parodied as of the parodists. One cannot discuss one without the other. So fear not, Lady Gaga fans, we shall get to the object of your devotion in due time. But we will start, somewhat arbitrarily, a century and a half ago, in Paris. Jacques Offenbach was the great parodist to emerge from that time and place.

One fine example of his work in this field, his development of the form of an operetta – or, in French, the opéra bouffe — into a satiric weapon, was the love-duet he composed for “Croquefer,” (1857), “Comment c’est vous, un gentilhomme,” set to the words of librettists Adolphe Jaime and Etienne Tréfeu, which pokes gentle fun at love themes associated with Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Many years later, in 1875, theatre manager Richard D’Oyly Carte produced one of Offenbach’s other works for the Royalty Theatre in London. Yet he needed something else to pad out his bill. He united two talented gentlemen of his acquaintance, librettist W.S. Gilbert, and composer Arthur Sullivan, and asked them to cook up something amusing. Thus was born a famous partnership and a vein of comic opera even richer than Offenbach’s achievements in that area.

They kept at it for decades. Please enjoy one of their classic patter songs: here.

Gilbert and Sullivan were in the parody business, directing satire at some of the great pomposities of Victorian England – hence the self-satisfaction of the modern Major-General, in the patter song to which I’ve linked you above. He seems on his own account to have studied every subject except warfare.

But let us focus on something more Offenbach-like, that is, the way – often lost on 21st century audiences – in which the musical numbers of Gilbert and Sullivan mimicked the musical stylings made famous in the grand operas of their time and over the generation before it.

Consider, again from “Pirates of Penzance,” the song “Poor Wandering One,” sung by the daughter of the Major-General who has fallen in love with apprentice pirate Frederic.

Mabel’s words for most of the song could easily have come from the mouth of any of the self-sacrificing heroines of Italian and French grand opera. “If such poor love as mine/Can help thee find/True peace of mind – Why, take it, it is thine!”

Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance

Linda Ronstadt, by the way, played this part, and quite ably, in the Hollywood movie in 1983.

Yet as ironic counterpoint to Mabel’s words come the lyrics assigned to her chorus, her sisters, who are confident they have better matches ahead for them.

After Mabel sings “it is thine” they chime in: “Take heart, no danger lowers;/ Take any heart but ours!”

All those words are set, by Arthur Sullivan, to music which would have recalled the work of Giuseppe Verdi to the well-educated ears of the original audiences.

But let us leap forward far enough to say something about a contemporary parodist.

Alfred “Weird Al” Yankovic has made a career out of this sort of thing since 1979. “My Sharona” by The Knack was on the charts at the time, and Yankovic took his accordion into a public restroom – to take advantage of the great echoes you get from linoleum tile – and recorded his parody/tribute to it, “My Bologna.”

Weird Al Yankovic's

Lain Ellis, a historian of pop culture, wrote that by the end of the 1970s the American music business had become “an arena for self-important egotists offering up excessively grandiose product,” and that Al owes much of his success to the natural reaction of the audience for that grandiosity.

Yankovic’s constant strategy, from 1979 to the present, has been to start with the original music, and to add deflating lyrics, so that earnestness attaches itself to triviality.

U.S. copyright laws treat parody as a form of “fair use,” so Yankovic could probably release his songs without the permission of the original artist. He doesn’t, though. He has made it a “personal policy of good manners”: (in Ellis’ words) to contain the original artist’s authorization.

Born this way

One of Weird Al’s latest creations takes on Lady Gaga. That would seem to be a challenge, since Gaga does such an effective job of parodying herself. But here are sample lyrics from Lady Gaga’s hit “Born This Way”:

I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way, born this way.

By now, after decades in which Americans have been lecturing each other in the importance of self-esteem, that has to sound like a cavalcade of clichés. It most immediately recalls “Express Yourself,” Madonna’s 1989 single and video. Is Madonna better at this sort of thing or is it just me?

Regardless: Gaga’s recording was released this spring as the title track of her new album. The roll-out was full of the sort of pomposity that encourages and indeed requires parody. Her manager, Troy Carter, said, “We built the business around her creative infrastructure and that business that was built is unique to Lady Gaga.”

One wonders why nobody, neither Carter nor anyone else at the business side of it, that “we” Carter uses,” suggested a less cheesy bit of art for the album cover. As you can see above, the cover art was of a motorcycle with Gaga’s head on front. The general reaction to that has been: “wha…?”

Sean Michaels, writing for The Guardian in April, put it well: “[I]t looks more like a cheap Photoshop job than the most anticipated album of the year.” Michaels was also unhappy about the chrome typeface in which the title is displayed and the “crazed Barbie doll” looks of Gaga’s head.

Once Weird Al conceived of his parody, “Perform This Way,” he seems to have had some trouble securing Gaga’s approval. His initial request didn’t get to her – it got lost in the entourage bubble somewhere, amidst that business built around her “creative infrastructure” that Carter boasts of. In time, though, the bubble burst. Gaga learned of the project and (recognizing a rite of passage when she saw one) gave Yankovic the okay.

Personally, I find amusing the moment when Al-as-Gaga pushes a Madonna look-alike off the stage. At any rate, parody does no harm to the real merits of its targets. We are perfectly free as a matter of aesthetics and logic to enjoy both this:

Born this Way

And this:

Perform This Way.

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