Subvert this song!

Andy Rau

Perhaps you've heard of "My Humps," a hit song by the Black Eyed Peas that enjoyed a lot of radio play a while back? It's the sort of song that Christian moral/media pundits could have a field day with: it's vulgar, misogynistic, and is (if I may don my Art Critic hat for a moment) lacking in social value. Well, it turns out they're not the only ones who feel that way: Alanis Morissette recently released a parody music video that recreates the lyrics and hyper-sexualized posturing of the original, but set to a melancholy piano solo rather than a thumping hip-hop beat. It's surprisingly clever and compelling, and it's being hailed as a brilliant piece of social satire:

On one level, [Morissette's version of] "My Humps" is a commentary on dim-bulb pop. The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps," though a huge smash, was widely mocked for its vapid, suggestive lyrics. [...] The video, featuring Fergie, the group's lead singer, was, if possible, even tawdrier....

Dressing herself Fergie-style, with baubles and bling, surrounded by black-clad male dancers, Morissette retained the original's visual sluttiness but replaced the Peas' thumping rhythm track with a pensive solo piano. By removing the intoxicating bass line and clearly enunciating the crass lyrics, she gave the song's sexpot swagger a new tone of sadness and desperation while simultaneously parodying her own artistic tendencies toward self-absorbed angst.

If you want to see for yourself, you can watch the original Black Eyed Peas music video and Morissette's parody on Youtube [note: both videos feature a lot of scantily-clad females, hip-hop gyrating, and crude lyrics; watch at your own discretion]. Morissette's version really is strangely effective; by simply placing the song into a different context, she's created a very cutting critique of its message.

There are some other good examples of this out there--a few years ago, Tori Amos sang a cover version of Eminem's thoroughly unpleasant song "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," in which the narrator describes murdering his wife and dumping her body in the ocean while his young child looks on. At the time, all sorts of people were decrying the crass and anti-social content of Eminem's music. I often sort of filter out that familiar moral criticism, but Amos' cover hit me like a punch in the gut. Like Morissette's version of "My Humps," Amos' version of "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" removed the thumping rap beat and replaced it with a sad, quiet melody. The result was a very effective condemnation of the song's message--it stood judged by its own lyrics.

On a lighter note, I'm also reminded of Weird Al's tradition of taking popular music and setting it to polka music, without changing the lyrics--it's presumably meant in good fun, but it also has the effect of making the often-offensive original songs sound completely ridiculous. And then there's Johnny Cash's covers of songs like Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt"--the original version was haunting and nihilistic, but Cash's cover infuses it with a powerful and sad Christian spirituality. (I still get weepy-eyed every time I watch that video.) And on the literary front, satirical works like C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters serve much the same purpose.

This form of cultural critique can be quite witty and effective, but except for a few of the above examples, I don't see it employed much by Christians. Critiquing the message of pop culture by parodying it, or in Cash's case actually repurposing it, can be profoundly effective and countercultural. The usual Christian response to offensive messages in pop culture is to complain and condemn it. There's certainly a place for that, but have decades of expressing moral outrage from the sidelines done much to reclaim popular culture? I would love to see more Christians using their own artistic skill to undercut and expose destructive messages in pop culture. We don't need to start parodying every offensive song out there, but this is a good reminder that one effective way to counter morally destructive art is to counter it with artistic statements of our own.

Does anyone else know of any good examples of this sort of countercultural statement?

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