Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Joker: Write a song parody

This is the Joker card in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

I shuffled the deck a dozen times, then cut it, and the first card I dealt was the Joker. That might be a hint of how this deck is going to go. We're breaking the rules before we even get started!

Each card in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck represents a different approach to songwriting, a different way to write a song. The Joker, always a troublemaker, invites you to write a song parody. That is, take an existing song and write parody lyrics.

It's easy to write new lyrics to an existing song. For most people, this is easier than writing brand-new lyrics for a new song. What makes it easy? The song that serves as your starting point also serves as a reference point, as proof that the whole structure works as a song. So you never lose faith or get lost along the way, as you might when writing an all-new song.

Though it's easy to make up new lyrics, it's harder than it looks to write an effective, entertaining parody. You might think anyone could do what Weird Al Yankovic does -- until you try to do it yourself.

Here are some tips for writing a good parody:

  • Pick a ridiculous topic for your song -- something that doesn't often get sung about

  • Don't focus on the song you're parodying. Instead, focus on the message that you're conveying. Think of it as a new song that happens to use the same music and structure.

  • Find clever ways to use recognizable elements of the original song to convey your new message.

  • Work out a lyrical hook for your new song that sounds almost like the hook from the original song.

  • Don't worry about being funny. If you do your song well, it will automatically be funny.

Song parodies are fun for the listener, because they separate out the sound of the original song from its message. Your parody provides a new and different message, but it sounds almost the same as the original song. It's confusing, in an interesting way, because you reveal that the appeal of the original song is mostly separate from the literal meaning that it conveyed.

Writing a song parody is a great exercise to help you learn songwriting. It forces you to pay close attention to the structure of a song that you already know and figure out what makes the lyrics work.

The downside of writing a parody is that, in the end, you'll have a song that you don't own. You probably won't want to record it on an album, because you'd have to get special permission from the owner of the song you parodied and (typically) give them all of the royalties. But you might have great fun playing it for your friends or singing it at karaoke night.

People won't be too impressed that you wrote a song parody. As I mentioned earlier, everyone mistakenly thinks it's easy to write a parody. But you will gain valuable songwriting practice.

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