Music, Satire, and TV – Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of music in creating or aiding narrative satire in television. The first step was trying to grasp the differences between satire, parody, and irony, terms that seem to be used interchangeably by some writers. Satire uses humor to reveal or revile the vices, foolishness, or other shortcomings of an individual or entity. The rhetorical tools of satire include irony, sarcasm, reversal, parody, exaggeration/diminution, caricature, and utopianism/dystopianism. A number of these have exaggeration as a common characteristic. For instance, parody is an exaggerated imitation of a style and a caricature exaggerates weaknesses or shortcomings of an individual or group. Exaggeration (and its opposite) can also be used for other elements in a narrative, such as the facts of a situation. Irony and reversal make use of opposites, the former by juxtaposing and the latter by replacing. Of all of these tools, parody, irony, reversal, and exaggeration seem the most easily implemented in music. They are also the means by which music can complement the visual satirical narrative.

Parody in music is easiest to achieve when the original musical work is deeply entrenched in pop culture and words are involved, for instance when the parody is of a pop song. Among the masters at this style of musical parody, Weird Al Yankovic writes new and humorous words to well-known pop songs, such as “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit “Beat It,” and “Word Crimes,” his 2014 grammar-focused adaptation of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Yankovic often increases the parodistic effect by creating music videos that imitate the original videos, but even without the visual images, the humor is not lost on most people. Through his songs, Yankovic critiques the excesses and shallowness of pop culture. For example, “eBay,” a parody of “I Want It That Way” by the Back Street Boys, humorously highlights the consumerism of today’s society.

Parodies can extend beyond words to the particular musical characteristics and the practices and beliefs around a musical style. Mozart’s A Musical Joke, Saint-Säen’s Carnival of the Animals, and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella exaggerate to some degree known works or stylistic practices. Spinal Tap, the mock rock documentary, parodies the 1980s hair bands and their fans. Musically, the movie creates songs that use the same instruments and playing techniques coupled with structurally-similar lyrics delivered in the particular vocal style of the original bands. More than the style markers can be borrowed, of course. Melodies and harmonies can be directly quoted for effect. Guiseppe Verdi engaged in self-parody in Falstaff, quoting his earlier works for comic effect. In this case, the placement of the melodies at certain points helped to create the irony of their use.

In discussing musical irony, humor, and satire, John Covach calls the ability to decode the sonic symbols “stylistic competency.” [1] Synthesizing the work of Leonard Meyer, Leonard Ratner, and Robert Hatten, Covach defines stylistic competency as “the ability of a listener to discern, in any single piece, those features which are normative within a particular style (group of pieces), and to discern those features which are non-normative or innovative.” He examines pieces from two satirical docudramas, the afore-mentioned Spinal Tap and a Beatles parody, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. He argues that the humor in these songs lies in the audience’s knowledge of the original style or songs and that they recognize the deviations.

Likewise Sean Nye, in discussing the use of music in South Park, labels the variety of musical references used in the show a “genre system.” [2] This collection of musical styles includes punk, pop,  country, soul, clichéd Hollywood film cues, and American musical theater references, all of which are familiar to the audiences of South Park. By strategically placing the references in the underscoring and within the narrative, the creators of the show can heighten the humor or add a musical meta-commentary to their underlying message. Nye’s genre system is similar to Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “discursive communities” in which members share cultural knowledge and are thus able to recognize complex intertextual and polysemic references employed for irony. [3]

Stay tuned for more thoughts on the interaction between parody/satire, music, and television.


1. John Covach, “The Rutles and the Use of Specific Models in Musical Satire,” Indiana Theory Review 11 (Spring and Fall 1990): 119-44.

2. Sean Nye, “From Punk to the Musical: South Park, Music, and the Cartoon Format,” in Music in TV: Channels of Listening (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 143–64.

3. Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Posted in Miscellaneous Thoughts Tagged with: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *