Has anyone else noticed how many TV commercials for this holiday season revolve around the singing of a traditional Christmas carol with substitute lyrics which tout the products or benefits of buying the advertiser’s wares?
Some examples of song parodies (or perhaps travesties) driving TV commercials this year:
- T.J.Maxx/Marshall’s puts new lyrics to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
- Best Buy parodies a number of carols, but the one that comes to mind is “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen”
- The Pennsylvania Lottery has a game for every day in its version of “The 12 Days of Christmas”
- For Outback Steak House, “Jingle Bells” becomes “Lobster tails, lobster tails, lobsters all the way…”
- Rohrich Motors, a local car dealer, does its own version of “Jingle Bells” dedicated to financing a car purchase, which goes “Zero down, zero down, zero all the way…”
The question is why has this advertising style invaded TV all of the sudden? I believe the answer is that the song parody represents the confluence of two trends:
- The song parody is a form of consumer-produced art that has become so popular in the age of YouTube and Facebook.
- The song parody is in essence adolescent humor, which has also become increasingly popular in advertising, especially in any non-jewelry commercial targeting men (and even some of the jewelry ones as well).
Now for a little personal history of song parodies leading to a unified theory of why they have invaded the public psyche lately, and especially this Christmas: When I was a kid, song parodies were a kind of weak-kneed rebellion in middle school years. There was always one person in every group of kids, usually but not always a boy (and in my group it was me) who would cleverly turn popular songs into something funny. In my case, we were 12-year-old Jewish boys rebelling against singing Christmas carols in the holiday assemblies of our public schools, so we would sing my words to “Noel”: “No ale this morning ‘cause Piels is on strike.” Turning “Silver bells” and “Jingle bells” slightly obscene took nothing more than a deft change of one vowel. In fact, most of the song parodies I wrote, to such varied material as “Carolina in the Morning,” “The Singing Nun” and “Stuck on You,” were pretty blue.
These parody songs, sung in such male-bonding environments as scout camps, school assemblies and dances, moved from group to group or died out when the creators grew up, but for the most part were marginal cultural artifacts, much like graffiti before pop artists discovered spray paint in the early 70’s.
Of course, there have been infrequent mainstream and near mainstream “stars” who depended primarily or exclusively on song parodies. Alan Sherman had a series of albums in the early 60’s, with such gimmick titles as “Ma Zelda” for “Mathilda,” “Harvey and Sheila” for “Hava Nagilah,” and the incomparable masterpiece of the genre, “Oh Boy,” a cultural dictionary set to “The Ballad Of Pepe Pinto (Mexican Jumping Bean Song)” which both Billy Joel and REM may have used for inspiration for their own list songs, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “The End of The World,” respectively.
Calvin Trillin is our most distinguished current practitioner of song parodies in the pages of Nation, but he never sings his material (to my knowledge), only writes it down.
Nowadays, our up-and-coming Lorenz Harts get a video camera and perform their songs for the Internet, that is, the entire world. The song parodies have thus become part of the do-it-yourself trend in entertainment launched by reality TV and the Internet. Beyond that, they are also part of the larger trend to sacrifice quality for accessibility and portability: sound quality, image quality and quality in production values. Such tradeoffs have been made before in cultural history, e.g., in Byzantine art and post-Charlemagne letters.
Trends such as these are ever the font of advertising inspiration. In fact, a history of advertising reflects a history of short- and long-term trends in popular culture as a whole.
I’m going to close with a moment of self-indulgence with the lyrics for my favorite among the song parodies I have written. I did this one as a 21-year-old graduate student in comparative literature, sung to Jimmy McHugh’s melody for “I’m in the Mood for Love”:
I’m in the mood for geometry
simply because you’re near me.
When we are lying parallel
I’m in the mood for geometry.
Staring into your parabolas
sends me into hyperbole.
I think your cosine’s the same as mine,
I’m in the mood for geometry.