Mad Skillz: Izaac on writing Christian parody songs
Do you read Izaac’s blog yet? You should. It’s funny. And it’s by my friend Izaac. Izaac and I grew up in the town of Maclean. We’re both first years at Bible college. Maclean has a good chance of having the highest per capita production of blogging bible college first years in Australia. Anyway. Despite the self deprecation Izaac is a pretty talented guy. I wouldn’t have had him MC our wedding reception otherwise. It might have been ruined.
Here’s his mad skill.
I’m average at a lot of things. I lack the dedication and motivation to be truly awesome at any individual skill. I play piano but don’t read music, I play guitar but can’t play lead, I sing but only by the broadest definition of the word and at 25 I just started learning the clarinet and can only just make a noise. I am in no doubt this ‘could be better’/’could be worse’ stance has continued into the realm of blogging.
One thing I can do however is shamelessly plagiarise the works of others for personal gain (though parody is protected by law and I don’t actually get any benefit from it). I now present to you Mad Skillz – How to write Christian Parody Songs.
- Don’t be obvious.
Every man and his dog has thought about re-writing the lyrics to “I’m a Believer.” No one thinks you’re clever.
And then I saw God’s grace/Now I’m a believer/Now there’s not a trace/Of doubt in my mind.
All you’ve actually done is replaced “her face” with “God’s grace” which is both vague and potentially confusing jargon. It’s akin to re-writing Bryan Adams Everything I Do (I do it for you) by replacing every “you” with the word Jesus.
- Choose enduring songs
There’s no point putting all that effort in just to have the original song fade into oblivion by the time the next ARIA chart is released. It’s better to choose songs by established artists and particularly their earlier work. Along the same lines rock and/or roll endures while other styles tend to fade away. Pop sensibilities change and most dance music has a particularly short lifespan. Remember Disco?
This is the current ARIA Top 5 – Replay by Iyaz, Fireflies by Owl City, Blah Blah Blah – Ke$ha, Memories – David Guetta Feat. Kid Cudi, Tik-Tok – Ke$ha. No doubt like me you’re scratching your head wondering who these people are and how long since Coldplay released a single. Don’t re-write any of these songs.
- Pick songs with lots of lyrics.
A lot of modern music is based more on the beat and bassline than the lyrics. Go for artists that are particularly verbose. I once attempted to use the entire Beatles #1 album to re-tell Romans. It was really hard with the shortage of lyrics and the length of lines for many of the songs. Make sure you have enough words to tell your story.
- Not all ideas are created equal
Sometimes a great idea won’t work in practice, at other times all you need is a word or phrase to kick you into action. When I re-wrote Little Lion Man about Daniel in the Lion’s Den, it was just the word ‘Lion’ that got me thinking. I broke Rule 2 because the song won the Hottest 100 which ensured a lot of instant recognition. For those thinking I broke rule 1, I would contend because the song isn’t actually about lion’s it isn’t all that obvious. Maybe I’m just trying to say you don’t need much of an idea to have a go.
- Lighten up
You’re essentially engaged in an act of humour. That means you must try to be funny, even if you fail. People will already be smiling because “Hey, isn’t this that song? But listen that crazy cat has changed all the words.” Don’t get bogged down with too much seriousness. I wanted to convey in Little Lion’s Den that King Darius hoped Daniel would be frightened by the punishment. The line I was trying to rhyme with said “Tremble for yourself, my man” I went for “Tremble in your sandals Dan.” It’s not funny ha-ha, but it works because it’s a play on “tremble in your boots” plus sandals are inherently funny.
- Realise it’s not a congregational song
Simone writes God-glorifying congregational lyrics which she tells us aren’t particularly suited to recounting narratives. Parodies on the other hand are a perfect vehicle for retelling Bible stories. The lyrics remain the driving force behind the song, so craft them carefully but just realise you are unlikely to get a parody onto the next EMU cd, so write accordingly.
- Follow the metre of the original
Most popular songs aren’t modern poetry. Some are, most aren’t. That means lyricists often squeeze in extra words, change the length of lines, occasionally change the rhyme pattern. Wherever possible try to work off the same number of syllables sung with the same staccato as the original. (Apologies to those who know anything about music and realise I’m using technical musical terms without actually knowing if they’re appropriate.)
- Rhyme like with like.
It’s hard to strike a balance between rhyming with the original rhymes and telling the story you want to tell. Wherever possible try to rhyme with the original sound,. If there are multiple rhymes within a line, work extra hard to include them. A lot of the humour in a song can come from rhyming closely to the original. My version of Little Lion Man isn’t overly humourous – but those who know the original hopefully appreciate the effort I went to replacing the repeatedly dropped F-bomb with “Luck”, “just”, “stuck” and “plucked”.
- Production values count
There’s nothing worse than writing a parody only for the hearer to be unable to recognise the original. If you are recording try to be as close to the original as possible. Personally, I would never sing on a recording if I had the choice, but seeing as most of my recording is done using my MacBook set up at home when Sarah is busy I am left with the devices and skills that I have. As most people don’t have the budget to accurately record or proficiency to play live close to the original, it is important to understand musically what is the hook to the song. It was too difficult to learn and record my Missy Higgins parody on piano, so I played the piano riff on a harmonica over my guitar to make it stand out and the song instantly recognisible.
- Arrogantly overstate the history of parody songs in the Church
Having written a number of parodies, a few of which I’ve recorded I like to exaggerate the history and importance of parody songs. I think I heard somewhere once that many old church songs were written to famous tunes such as “God has spoken by his prophets” to Beethoven’s Ode To Joy. But more than that, a number of songs were written to famous pub tunes. Though on reflection I’m pretty sure the lyrics to pub tunes I’m referring to were by the heretic Arius. Hmm… this is an awkward place to finish.