I often wonder if it's inherent in our human nature to take that what we know (songs, stories, jokes, experiences, and art) and re contextualize it into our own creation. I am a graphic designer by day and a cartoonist at heart. I thirst for satire, parody, puns (clever and bad ones, alike), situations, and stories I can distill into a frame by frame sequence. I'm a writer with pictures, which seems to require a certain innate need to reference the things people know (symbols, images, experience, movies,music, and political reference) sometimes easier at conveying an idea over a simple attempt at an emotional impact.
But I can't help but thinking that the need to re-appropriate is more biological within humans than it is preferential. I think it is in our nature to create collages, mash ups, and remixes of music, video, and photograph's. The very first piece of pop cultural ephemera I can recall effecting me a was an issue of Mad Magazine which parodied the cover of Time magazine. It incidentally was my first introduction to Mad Magazine, an endless source of parody and ridicule I would devour as fast as the sugary candy usually purchased with it. You might say parody and satire were the backbone of the house that Alfred E. Newman built.
But there was something about growing up in the 80's - parody or re-appropriation was everywhere. New Wave seemed to be a mash up of the lighter (more neon) side of punk rocks fashion sense, mixed with a retro futurism of the space age 50's. Shows like Saturday Night Live, were established to skewer cultural institutions and pop culture alike, while being a pop cultural institution themselves. And a young "Weird" Al Yankovic found a special niche parodying the hits of the day with song parodies like "Eat It" (for Michael Jackson's "Beat it", and "Like a Surgeon" to Madonna's "Like a Virgin"). Al Yankovic actually stood as a one man cultural re contextualizing, mash up force. He not only made spot on musical parodies of the music he lampooned, he made parody videos that mimicked the some of the better known imagery MTV was producing and sending through the closed circuit network of cable television. Al Yankovic was a one man monopoly of pop stardom parody. Like an appearance on The Simpson's would be many years later, to be parodied by "Weird" Al, was a cultural cache, a badge of honor, and it would seem that it often lent to a further increasing popularity of the artist who was lampooned.
You tube videos:
Michael Jackson - "Beat It"
Weird Al Yankovic - "Eat It"
But here's where I feel it's more in our biological nature to reference the past, or past work of others. One need only to look at back at Folk and traditional music to see this trend repeated again and again. I've figured out 3 ways in which music is often re-contextualized:
- Traditional Melodies or well known existing are recycled (lyrics are often changed or "updated")
- Versus addendum (versus are sometimes added)
- Song Theme's are expanded upon.
Here are 3 good examples of this in practice:
1. "Love Me Tender" - Elvis Presley (Ken Darby - Credited to Verra Matson/Elvis Presley)
"Aura Lee" or "The Maid with the Golden Hair" (music by George R. Poulton, lyrics by W.W. Fosdick).
Here's the "original" via YouTube (the dudes a bit of a tool, but it was a good version of lyrics and melody):
and of course the Elvis Presley version, where he puts the crooner shine on in the "68 Come back" special:
2. "Amazing Grace" - John Newton
This song was written by Englishman John Newton and sung over a variety of different tunes before being attached to the tune "New Britain." The tune is believed to be of Scottish or Irish origin. The song continued to update and evolve when brought to America, and was not spared from the addendum phenomenon:
Link to song performance of the song by The Hargroves at The Internet Archive
In her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe includes an extra, final verse which may have been taken from another hymn. The additional verse is part of most hymnals today.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
Whereas the original lyrics were penned by John Newton in 1772
(stanzas 1-6), this additional verse (stanza 7) was written in the
nineteenth century, and is credited by some to John P. Rees (1828-1900). This verse became firmly established as part of the hymn by its addition in popular hymnbooks of the early twentieth century.
3. "Maggie's Farm" - Bob Dylan
image source - http://www.bobdylanroots.com/down.html
Next to Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" performance, Dylan going Electric at The Newport Festival in 1965, has to be one of the single most iconoclastic moments in pop culture (even if recounts are often more profound then it was actually experienced.) In the book, Behind The Shades: Revisited by Clinton Heylin, Johnny Taplin is quoted as saying that Dylan "seemed to be crying" (pp. 213) after the performance, even though people like Joe Boyd got it, and were "lapping it up"(pp. 211). But the act of playing "Maggie's Farm" electric, with a rock band, at a folk festival, was a sign of protest in itself, lending to the ever deepening history of music evolving.
From Wikipedia -
folk movement. Punning on Silas McGee's Farm, where he had performed
"Only a Pawn in Their Game" at a civil rights protest in 1963 (featured
in the film Don't Look Back), Maggie's Farm recasts Dylan as the pawn
and the folk music scene as the oppressor. Rejecting the expectations
of that scene as he turns towards loud rock n' roll, self-exploration,
and surrealism, Dylan intones: "They say sing while you slave / I just
a YouTube video of that performance:
"Dylan biographer Robert Shelton
traces the origins of his 1961 song "Hard Times in the Country" to
"Penny's Farm," a 1920s musical complaint about a rural landlord; it is
also similar to Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett's
1934 song "Tanner's Farm."' - William Ruhlmann (All
A link "Down on Penny's Farm" performed by Charlie Parr at The Internet Archive.
This behavior doesn't always apply to just music, though. Even the visual arts have their progenators of recontextualization such as Joseph Cornell. Cornell seemed just as comfortable re-appropriating dime store tchotchkies and print matter into mystical little worlds or spiritual shrines of his own devising. Cornell even had a correspondence of cultural mashing with one of the first modern artists to turn art on it's head - Marcel Duchamp [further reference]. When one views the work created between the two in correspondence, assisting Duchamp with his Dossier project, it is clear that even Cornell was helping Duchamp to re-contextualize and re-invent himself once more.
So what is this need, this compulsion for us to take, riff, expand upon, collapse, rearrange, deconstruct, reconstruct, and recompose something we enjoy so much. Since I was a kid, I love to flip the lyrics of a popular song to fit a situation, no matter how silly. It's a sort of mental free form improv gymnastics for me. I like seeing if I can fit my thoughts within the context of the "original". "Stop Your Sobbing" is sung to my daughter with the lyrics "There's one thing that you gotta do, To make me still want you" is replaced with "If there is one thing I cannot do, it is to nurse you." And who didn't attempt this in the most juvenile ways on the playground as a kid. As a kid songs like "Every Breath You Take" could easily be reconstructed into an ode to a bizarre bathroom experience that would have us in stitches. When in doubt Pop Culture will always thrive on the double entendre or a poop joke or two. Even as children we see the benefit of building something off the work of others.
As beings that posses a strange trait called creativity, our human experience in every form is the reference. Making the profound more personal is the name of the game with humans. Or like Bob Dylan proclaimed in that ground breaking album, maybe it's all just about "Bringing It All Back Home"
Originally published 1/11/2008 on Mog