From Renaissance parody masses to Weird Al Yankovic, milk commercials to playground taunts, musical parodies are a ubiquitous, cheeky thread of a society’s musical fabric. The pervasiveness of parody belies the cleverness of the act of parodying a recognizable song; by introducing the creative constraint of reusing pre-existing musical matter, parodies instantly grant a familiar grounding to a listener acquainted with the original tune. The melody and other musical material take on a palimpsest-like quality as they are infused with new, added layers of meaning.
Perhaps the greatest example of the inventive powers of parody came about in the American political sphere during the 2004 election with parody studio Jib-Jab’s famous reimagining of Woody Guthrie’s leftist ode “This Land Is Your Land,” entitled, “This Land!” In this simple animated music video, opponents John Kerry and George W. Bush attack each other’s perceived weaknesses in an attempt to stake their claim on the future presidency. Naturally, jibes regarding class and gender abound as each performs self-aggrandized, archetypically male roles and is mocked in turn for his stupidity (in the case of Bush) or neutered, submissive femininity (in the case of Kerry).
Twelve years and three presidential elections later, it should come as little surprise that musical parody continues to be a valuable tool for proponents of this year’s presidential hopefuls. Amongst the Democratic Party in particular, parody is proving to be a fertile ground for both supporters and detractors of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders alike. In this essay, I seek to explore the ways in which musical parodies that attack and praise the Democratic hopefuls contribute to the gendered dialogue surrounding them. Additionally, I will examine the ways in which supporters use parody as a vehicle through which they can perform their own gender in relation to their chosen candidate, thereby encouraging others to join them in their support.
Hillary Clinton: Madonna/Whore or Goddess/Pinocchio
As even the most cursory of YouTube searches will reveal, Hillary Clinton has been the target of innumerable parody attack videos, both musical and otherwise, for much of YouTube’s existence. Her 2016 presidential bid has served as the inspiration for a profusion of new parodies, including but certainly not limited to a reworking of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” entitled “HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG,” a sarcastic love song sung by a Bill Clinton impersonator (set to the melody of “My Girl”) and a reimagining of Mariah Carey’s Christmas pop hit entitled “All I Want for Christmas Is To Be President.” In a turn of events that does not surprise, each parody listed here directly attacks Clinton’s perceived failure to properly perform femininity (a phenomenon which I have explored elsewhere.)
Perhaps this is why, amongst the abundance of parody videos to explore, Tomonews’s “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill” stands out. This offensive and ambitious attack video created by the American branch of a Taiwanese animation and news website parodies four hit songs from a variety of genres and decades: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (1978), Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (2013), Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981), and Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P” (1991). The use of such diverse musical material allows the creators to present Clinton in negative, yet diverse, gendered roles beyond the shrill tired “nagging wife” stereotype that has been used to dismiss and diminish Clinton over the course of her political career; however, in the process, the video reveals many of the sexist mechanisms at play in the discourse surrounding Clinton’s candidacy.
The video, which features CGI animation of Clinton and others, opens with a brief imagined boxing match between several 2016 presidential contenders (which, notably, Clinton wins after snatching Donald Trump’s wig), and then segues into a (presumably) remembered match between Clinton and Obama as the “I Will Survive” inspired segment begins. This portion of the medley of parodies features the most predictable gendered imagery as Gaynor’s disco classic, which details a woman’s process of recovery and empowerment after breaking up with a former lover, is reimagined as Clinton’s revenge fantasies about current president Barack Obama. Her age is used for comedic effect as firemen are depicted attempting to control her flaming birthday cake, and Clinton is once more depicted as a power-hungry, neurotic housewife as she measures the drapes in the Oval Office.
The next three segments show Clinton in a far less predictable light. In a variation on the usual criticism of Clinton as a power-hungry politician, she is shown as a stand-in for Katy Perry in “Dark Horse”. This segment riffs on the depiction of Perry in the original music video, as Clinton is portrayed as the desirable, wealthy object of the male gaze, a powerful combination of Cleopatra-like sex icon and evil goddess. The line from the original song “Are you ready for, ready for / a perfect storm” is changed to “Are you ready for, ready for / Your female lord” as Clinton is shown luxuriously floating across the Nile while being worshipped by slave-like followers.
The spectacle continues in the next portion as the brief “Don’t Stop Believin’” segment (here, sung as “don’t stop deceiving”) introduces an unusual and graphic image of Clinton. The line “streetlights, people” from the original song is changed to “sheep-like people,” and as Clinton sings this line, her nose appears to grow to absurd lengths (in the style of Pinocchio), cracking through the ceiling of the Capitol Building and emerging on the other side where it sodomizes a sheep on the lawn. Intended to provoke revulsion, this image is indicative of how far the creators feel that Clinton has gone to transgress in her role as a woman. Her lies become an artificial phallus, imbued with coercive power. While obviously intended to be a crass attack on candidate, ultimately, this imagery also serves to reveal the violent phallocentrism of American politics, as nonconsensual, male-dominated sexual control is seen as a stand-in for political persuasiveness. This metaphor, while tasteless, is unfortunately fitting for a campaign that has been marked by discussions of a certain GOP frontrunner’s “hand” size and a series of slut and body-shaming exchanges made by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz regarding their wives’ perceived desirability.
Despite the brazen power of this image, ultimately, the creators of the video deprive Clinton even of this backhanded acknowledgement of political control. This act of disempowerment is performed unexpectedly, since at the beginning of the “O.P.P” parody, Clinton takes on the powerful mannerisms and characteristics associated with a black male hip-hop performer. Clinton, the candidate perhaps most often mocked for being stiff and uncool, makes a laughable but intriguing hip-hop mogul. Her masculinized confidence takes center stage as she smokes an oversized cigar, leads crowds of white male politicians in call-and response-style singing and dancing, and shoots an elephant (clearly intended to represent the GOP). At the end of the segment, however, the imagined camera zooms out and up to reveal hidden marionette strings controlled by a faceless male puppeteer. The space of race and gender-bending freedom created by this satire is abruptly shut down by the suggestion that Clinton, even as an imagined, subversive icon of political power, is incapable of being anything other than a pawn in a larger, male-dominated power play.
In contrast to the profusion of musical parodies created to attack Clinton, only a handful of parodies in honor of Clinton have captured public attention. One, a brief snippet of a women’s chorus singing a song entitled “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Hillary,” received the scathing attention of a Fox News reporter who claimed that the chorus’s ode was a blasphemous attempt to push God out of the Democratic party. This indictment of the song may make for excellent clickbait; however, it completely ignores the fact that the original gospel song, “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Jesus,” was rewritten and popularized during the Civil Rights Movement as a freedom song entitled “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” This secular revision of the song largely avoided references to specific religious figures or phrases (beyond the use of the word “Hallelujah” at the end of the chorus). As such, it is likely that the song was intended to tie Clinton’s candidacy to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in a crowd-rallying, easy-to-learn chorus. Considering the demographics of Clinton supporters and the makeup of the chorus in conjunction with the time of the Civil Rights Movement, it is far more likely that this song was a parody atop a parody, a reworking of the civil rights rallying song, rather than an attempt to depict Clinton as having divine properties.
Bernie across the Binary
While musical parodies created to attack a candidate are a potent way for voters to share their views on a presidential hopeful, parodies created in honor of specific candidates can often be revealing in other key ways. Bernie Sanders has largely escaped serving as the target of negative attacks thus far, a phenomenon that has been observed by political analysts and is evidenced by the fact that the musical parodies posted on YouTube regarding Sanders are largely positive tribute parodies.
The parodies in honor of Sanders are multitudinous and diverse in their approach. As Sanders’ campaign has been marked by a flurry of millennial support, grassroots action, and widespread online activism, the number and range of these tributes is clearly part of a larger pattern reflective of the demographic of young voters that Sanders has inspired with his take-no-prisoners rhetoric and commitment to matters such as raising the minimum wage and making college education more affordable. Two tributes in particular, “All About That Bern” (a parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”) and “We Will Bern You” (a Sanders-themed reimagining of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) provide a great deal of information about the underlying tensions in the Democratic Party, the gendered traits ascribed to Sanders by his supporters, and the ways in which they are using his visibility to explore their own political and personal identities.
“All About That Bern,” a parody written and performed by Victoria Elena Nones on the “Feminists for Bernie” YouTube channel, takes on comments made by Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem regarding young women who favor Sanders over Clinton. Sarcastically enacting the implication that she’s voting for Sanders in order to meet men, Nones vapidly giggles her way through the lyrics and dances in a lightly provocative manner akin to Trainor’s performance in the original music video.
While the video buys into the assertion that young feminists are “boy crazy fool[s]” on a surface level, Nones’s choice to rewrite “All About That Bass” highlights a deeper struggle between an older and younger generation of feminists. Trainor’s original song was heavily criticized by feminists, as it appeared to be a body-positive anthem while, in actuality, it upheld sexist beauty standards tied to the male gaze. Nones’s cover retains this tension, shifting the conflict from one that pits curvaceous women (and the straight men who love them) against body-positive feminists to a battle between second and third wave feminists. By casting a cutout head of Sanders as an object of infatuation throughout the music video, Nones humorously implies that her reasons for choosing Sanders over Clinton are anything but hormonally-fueled. While the parody presents itself as a tribute to Sanders, it is clearly intended to function as an exhibit in this debate, suggesting a tongue-in-cheek alternative rationale for voter allegiance in a shifting landscape of diverse feminisms.
While “All About That Bern” satirically depicts Sanders as the political incarnation of a teenage dreamboat, another parody, “We Will Bern You,” takes a radically different approach by presenting Sanders as the revolutionary figurehead of a populist uprising. In this video, the parody does not start immediately; rather, it begins with a montage of Bernie’s message and accomplishments set to an upbeat synthesized soundtrack, ultimately climaxing as Sanders himself proclaims his campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern!” As Queen’s classic “We Will Rock You” is frequently used to create hype at sporting events, this introduction serves as an adrenaline-building stand-in for a more traditional physical contest, befitting the masculinized ode to Sanders that is to follow.
While female supporters of Sanders are shown in the video, the audio component of the parody overwhelmingly features male voices, and the visual component focuses on male supporters. The overall effect of the video is primal, a demand for justice on behalf of the increasingly disenfranchised body of young male voters who came of age during the economic collapse brought on by Reaganomics. This parody succinctly captures what Michael Kimmel describes as the sense of betrayal amongst the white middle and working classes following the collapse of the social contract that ensured that “a man could rise as high as his talents and aspirations could take him.” Kimmel argues that this collective bitterness has led an older generation of American men to band together in “the further reaches of the right wing.” Sanders, however, provides a left-wing alternative for a younger demographic (particularly a younger male demographic), fueled by a combination of the discontent for an older generation, social progress, and youthful indignation. In this parody, rage is verbalized and organized, culminating in a militant allegiance to an unconventional Messiah, one who is comfortable enough with his masculinity to declare “I love you” to a predominantly male audience (over the queer soundtrack of Queen) while still virile enough to lead a renegade band of millennials to victory.
Ultimately, I believe that these videos, when viewed as part of a larger landscape, reveal one of the underlying social trends in this year’s contest for the Democratic presidential nomination: the tendency of comedy to reflect larger societal patterns, such as a sexism-fueled discomfort with women in positions of political power, even when that comedy is created by supposedly progressive parties. This issue has been explored elsewhere in regards to a series of fictionalized campaign posters purportedly comparing Sanders’s and Clinton’s views on popular culture.
That being said, musical parody does not only perpetuate comedic or dominant (and unfortunately problematic) mindsets in this year’s election. As Sanders’s campaign has been widely underrepresented in mainstream media (referred to as the Bernie Blackout by the Sanders campaign), his supporters’ active presence on social media presents a way to subvert the trend. Amongst those aged 18–29, social media has proven to be the most common way that voters receive election-related news. As easily as parody can be used to reinforce the status quo, it can also be used to rewrite it, etching over the surface of that which is assumed, with a vibrant new message.
- Christianna Barnard
Blow, Charles M. “A Bernie Blackout?” The New York Times 19, no. 11 (2010): 813–22. doi: 10.1007/s00787-010-0130-8.
Clement, Scott “For Hillary Clinton, Demographics Aren’t Quite Destiny.” Washington Post, February 12, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/12/for-hillary-clinton-demographics-arent-quite-destiny/.
Drum, Kevin. “Why Are Millennials In Love With Bernie Sanders?” Mother Jones, February 11, 2016. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/02/why-are-millennials-love-b....
James, Robin. “All Your B/ass Are Belong to Us.” Vice, August 18, 2014. http://noisey.vice.com/blog/all-your-bass-are-belong-to-us.
Kimmel, Michael. “Why Is It Always a White Guy: The Roots of Modern, Violent Rage.” Salon, November 1, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/11/01/why_is_always_a_white_guy_the_roots_of_modern_violent_rage/.
Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Donald Trump Alluded to the Size of His Penis at the Republican Debate.” Slate, March 3, 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/03/03/donald_trump_penis_size_i_can_t_believe_i_m_writing_this.html.
Meyer, Robinson. “This Land, JibJab’s Seminal Parody Flash Video, Turns 10,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/jibjabs-seminal-flash-parody-turns-10/374161/.
Rappeport, Alan. “Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright Rebuke Young Women Backing Bernie Sanders.” New York Times, February 7, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/08/us/politics/gloria-steinem-madeleine-albright-hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders.html.
Queenan, Joe. “Was There Ever a Time When We Will Rock You Did Not Exist?” Guardian, August 16, 2007. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/aug/16/2.
Sanders, Sam. “#MemeOfTheWeek: Bernie Or Hillary. Sexist Or Nah?” NPR, February 8, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/02/05/465752565/-memeoftheweek-bernie-or-hillary-sexist-or-nah.
Seeger, Pete, Bob Reiser, Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. Everybody Says Freedom. New York: Norton, 1989.
Swan, Jonathan. “Sanders Avoids Being Target of Negative Advertising.” The Hill, January 23, 2016. http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/266779-sanders-escapes-being-hit-by-negative-advertising.
Weiner, Jennifer. “Naked Lady Politics.” New York Times, March 26, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/opinion/campaign-stops/naked-lady-politics.html.
“All About That Bern (Official Video).” Uploaded by Feminists for Bernie, February 8, 2016. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1VTPhrnPrw.
“All I Want for Christmas is to be President (Mariah Parody).” Uploaded by Newsy News, December 18, 2014. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugc2GsB0fbU.
“Bernie Sanders Grassroots-Created Song: We Will Bern You! [CC].” Uploaded by captions for Bernie, December 30, 2015. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGGvunShwqg.
“Bill Clinton sings: My Girl.” Uploaded by “theronniebus,” February 8, 2016. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jy2QIAmxZ4.
“Choir replaces ‘Jesus’ with ‘Hillary’ in gospel song.” Uploaded by “Fox News,” September 8, 2015. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTfdAZ9_Mw8.
“Emails, Benghazi, and Bill.” Uploaded by Taiwanese Animators, November 20, 2015. YouTube, Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_OOrWQs33E.
“HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG.” Uploaded by IMPEACH THE SOCIALIST OBAMA, May 24, 2015. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5-SjefMyFQ.
“Meghan Trainor - All About That Bass.” Uploaded by MeghanTrainorVEVO. June 11, 2014, YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PCkvCPvDXk.
 Robinson Meyer, “This Land, JibJab’s Seminal Parody Flash Video, Turns 10,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/jibjabs-seminal-flash-parody-turns-10/374161/.
 “HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG,” uploaded by IMPEACH THE SOCIALIST OBAMA, May 24, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5-SjefMyFQ; “Bill Clinton sings: My Girl,” uploaded by “theronniebus,” February 8, 2016, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jy2QIAmxZ4; “All I Want for Christmas is to be President (Mariah Parody),” uploaded by Newsy News, December 18, 2014, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugc2GsB0fbU.
 Gloria Gaynor, Love Tracks, Polydor, 1778, LP.
 “Dark Horse,” KatyPerryVEVO.
 “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill,” Taiwanese Animators.
 Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Donald Trump Alluded to the Size of His Penis at the Republican Debate,” Slate, March 3, 2016, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/03/03/donald_trump_penis_size_i_can_t_believe_i_m_writing_this.html; Jennifer Weiner, “Naked Lady Politics,” New York Times, March 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/opinion/campaign-stops/naked-lady-politics.html.
 Pete Seeger, Bob Reiser, Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. Everybody Says Freedom (New York: Norton, 1989), 175–77.
 Scott Clement, “For Hillary Clinton, Demographics Aren’t Quite Destiny,” Washington Post, February 12, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/12/for-hillary-clinton-demographics-arent-quite-destiny/.
 Jonathan Swan, “Sanders Avoids Being Target of Negative Advertising,” The Hill, January 23, 2016, http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/266779-sanders-escapes-being-hit-by-negative-advertising.
 Kevin Drum, “Why Are Millennials In Love With Bernie Sanders?” Mother Jones, February 11, 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/02/why-are-millennials-love-bernie-sanders.
 “All About That Bern (Official Video),” uploaded by Feminists for Bernie, February 8, 2016, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1VTPhrnPrw. Alan Rappeport, “Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright Rebuke Young Women Backing Bernie Sanders,” New York Times, February 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/08/us/politics/gloria-steinem-madeleine-albright-hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders.html.
 Robin James, “All Your B/ass Are Belong to Us,” Vice, August 18, 2014, http://noisey.vice.com/blog/all-your-bass-are-belong-to-us.
 Michael Kimmel, “Why Is It Always a White Guy: The Roots of Modern, Violent Rage,” Salon, November 1, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/01/why_is_always_a_white_guy_the_roots_of_m....
 Kimmel, “Why Is It Always a White Guy.”
 Sam Sanders, “#MemeOfTheWeek: Bernie Or Hillary. Sexist Or Nah?” NPR, February 8, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/02/05/465752565/-memeoftheweek-bernie-or-hillary....
 Charles M. Blow, “A Bernie Blackout?” New York Times, March 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/opinion/campaign-stops/a-bernie-blacko....