Mocking the Mainstream: Pop, Parody, and Politics in the Twenty-first Century

Rachel McCarthy

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis focuses on twenty-first century pop parody as a lens through which to examine the politics of pop music. It includes close analysis of several parody case studies, combined with an exploration of several formats of mainstream pop—Motown, hip hop, and boy band music—which are the targets of these parody songs. The project focuses particularly on parody songs whose musical aesthetics satirise those of mainstream pop, while the lyrics self-reflexively name the musical devices that are mocked. I consider how these parody songs function, who or what they aim to critique, and how successful that critique is. The Introduction sets out research questions, method, and chapter summaries, and discusses Žižek’s theory of cynical distance, which is a key obstacle that the parody songs must negotiate. The thesis is then divided into three parts. Part I, composed of Chapter 1, provides the first comprehensive survey of types of musical comedy and parody. In setting out scholarship on mainstream and manufactured pop, I conclude that despite the recent ‘poptimist’ turn of pop music studies, the aesthetics of ‘manufactured’ pop are still largely overlooked.

Part II, comprising Chapters 2 and 3, focuses on parody songs by the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Chapter 2 shows how the group incorporate a self-reflexive awareness of the problem of cynical distance in their parody of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, presenting an effective critique of the use of pop music as political protest. The parody song highlights issues pertaining to the politics of Motown music, prompting a re-formulation of received narratives surrounding ‘What’s Going On’. Chapter 3 examines the racial dynamics in parodies of black musical genres, including hip hop, by Flight of The Conchords, Weird Al Yankovic, and Lil Dicky, among other artists. I argue that the self-reflexivity displayed by these comedic white rappers is insufficient to overcome the problem of cultural appropriation in pop music and parody.

Part III, comprising Chapters 4 and 5, focuses on boy band music. Filling a lacuna in research on boy band music aesthetics, Chapter 4 outlines the aesthetics and socio-economic characteristics this pop format. I argue that boy band music’s social function must be theorised using the tools of both feminism and Marxism (not one or the other). Chapter 5 explores boy band parodies by Axis of Awesome, Da Vinci’s Notebook, and Jon Lajoie. Analysis of the function and structure of these songs highlights issues of race, gender, authenticity, and commercialism in parody and pop. I find that pop parody is a useful tool for understanding power dynamics in pop music, and that the parody songs constitute key sites for the workings of ideology, particularly relating to capitalism, race, and gender.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E., Supervisor
Award date1 Jan 2020
Publication statusUnpublished - 2019


  • popular music
  • parody
  • boy bands
  • Flight of the Conchords
  • race
  • gender

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