10 06 2011

I often find myself attempting to illustrate Frederic Jameson’s notion of pastiche.  It’s not the easiest thing to explain, in that, on the surface, it is so similar to parody.  Jameson defines pastiche as “blank parody.”  According to him, pastiche lacks the “ulterior motive” of parody, “amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue [it has] momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality exists.”  To paraphrase:  pastiche is a copy, like parody; however, it doesn’t acknowledge and isn’t even aware that it is copying anything, nor that there is anything to be copied.

Satirical parody uses mimicry to point out some sort of fallacy or folly concerning the thing being copied.  The Daily Show uses its format as a parody of television news to make apparent the falseness and hypocrisy of mainstream and cable news sources.  Satirical motives aren’t necessarily required for parody however.  I doubt that anyone would argue that any song by Weird Al Yankovic is seeking to point out any specific folly of the original song or artist—but there is absolutely acknowledgment that the Weird Al song is a copy of something else.  Here, he performs parody on two levels, copying both Dire Straits and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Yankovic is not engaged in pastiche.  He is aware, acknowledging, and mindful of what exactly his work mimics and the relationship it has with the original.  For quite some time, I have used the television show Family Guy, specifically the Star Wars episodes, as an example of pastiche.  When compared with Mel Brooks’ Space Balls, the lack of pointedness is apparent.  Brooks seeks to lampoon the tropes and even the commercial success of the Star Wars franchise, while Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) seems content to simply re-enact the films with his own characters, throwing in a few tired jokes here and there.

I’m no longer as convinced as I once was with the example of Family Guy‘s Star Wars episodes as pastiche.  I think it’s more fitting to see the entire series of Family Guy as a pastiche of the animated sit-com to which it owes its existence:  The Simpsons.  To accuse Family Guy of ripping off The Simpsons is too generous, I think.  From the look, writing, and plot structure of the show, it appears that Family Guy has no awareness that it is the same show—albeit less funny and less original.  The fact that MacFarlane now has two shows that are pastiches of Family Guy itself (American Dad and The Cleveland Show) adds to my point.

My points about Family Guy often fall on indignant ears of students or friends.  Because of the show’s popularity, people miss how unoriginal it really is.  And, surely, my own dislike for the show colors my arguments and, perhaps to some extent, my judgment.  However, recent television advertising has provided me with some stellar examples of pastiche, that may make the concept more clear.

This ad is obviously targeted toward twenty-something hipsters, so the lack of historical awareness regarding the punchline might be a product of knowing that the target audience might not have any idea where it came from.  But that does not stop it from being pastiche—in fact, it more firmly establishes it as such.

The pastiche of this commercial lies in the line “Can I get a hot tub?”  The actor delivers the line, inexplicably, in the style of James Brown.  The hot tub appears, the agent says, “Nice,” and the commercial ends.  Of course, what the actor is alluding to is a Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1980s starring Eddie Murphy.

In the sketch, Murphy is parodying the voice, singing style and stage presence of James Brown, though changing the scene from the expected concert stage to what appears to be a low-budget cable access talk show centered around a hot tub.  Eddie Murphy is making fun of James Brown.  The actor in the State Farm commercial is unaware (or at least doesn’t acknowledge) that he is imitating Eddie Murphy imitating James Brown.  The commercial is a representation of a representation (here, an imitation of an imitation), and therefore simulacrum.  It is also blank parody—with no awareness that there is a norm to be diverging from.  The delivery of the line “Can I get a hot tub?” is presented as natural and true excitement from the character, not as parody of something that came twenty-five years before.

This entire ad campaign is pastiche.  It has the exact same premise, structure, and visual aesthetic as a Macintosh ad campaign from a few years ago that featured Jonathan Hodgman and Justin Long as a nerdy PC and cool-kid Mac.

T-Mobile’s ad is the same ad, only for a different product.  Yet there is no acknowledgment that it is parodying or copying anything.  What is the ad agency’s motive here?  Is it to visually associate T-Mobile with Macintosh, luring Mac users to the phone company?  That makes little sense, considering the ad campaign began when Mac’s iPhone was exclusively available on the AT&T network.  While the makers of the ad likely were familiar with the previous campaign (how else could they copy it so completely?), there is no awareness within the ad itself.  It is blank parody.  It is pastiche.

Jameson comes across as being decidedly negative about pastiche.  And, as we can see from my writing, I come across in a similar vein.  However, the opinions of cultural critics aside, pastiche is really just a component of our contemporary society.  Writers are fond of comparing the postmodern condition to schizophrenia and even drug addiction in that society seems completely focused on the present.  What is happening right now is all-important, and events, products, and even people from the past are left by the wayside and forgotten.  In the twenty-four hour news cycle, Anthony Weiner’s penis obscured reporting about long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Donald Trump was reported on as a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination without ever even running, and Charlie Sheen dominated headlines for weeks.  Remember that?  Charlie Sheen was everywhere.  Does he even matter anymore?

Pastiche reflects this attitude.  Quotations from earlier eras of production can be made, but no awareness that they are quotations is necessary on the part of the viewer.  What matters is what is being produced and experienced right now.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to switch cell phone carriers.




4 responses

10 06 2011
Helen Ketcham

There aren’t a lot of Weird Al parodies that fit your definition of “satirical parody” but I would argue that some do. Offhand I can think of:
“This Song Is Just Six Words Long” (parody of “Got My Mind Set On You”)
“Achy Breaky Song” (parody of “Achy Breaky Heart”)
Most famous satirical parody:
“Smells Like Nirvana” (parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”)
Most recent satirical parody:
“Perform This Way” (“…ooh my little monsters pay/Lots ’cause I perform this way.” Parody of “Born This Way”)

His videos, of course, are full of visual satirical-parody elements, such as the moment in the UHF music video when Al as Billy Idol dances past with his back to the camera, with “look at my butt” helpfully written on the jacket above his snugly blue-jeaned rear.

11 06 2011
Contemporary Critique

Your point is well-taken. However, I think that much of the pointedness possible with Yankovic’s parodies gets muffled by the fact that he has to get permission from the artists to parody their songs. “Like a Surgeon” was actually suggested by Madonna herself, and Nirvana was ecstatic when Al wanted to parody “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (they said that if Weird Al was parodying them, it meant they’d truly “arrived”). But I hadn’t seen or heard “Perform this Way” before I was researching for the blog yesterday, and it certainly does seem a bit more targeted, and “This Song is Just Six Words Long” is actually pretty pointed commentary on pop music in general.

Also, fyi, Al is posing as George Michael in the “Look at My Butt” jacket, not Billy Idol. Hey, it’s easy to get 80s pop stars mixed up! (I can’t bring myself to use emoticons, but if I did, there would be a smiley face here.)

17 06 2011

I have been mulling this over all week. Would the Gus Van Sant Psycho be considered pastiche?

20 06 2011
Contemporary Critique

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Van Sant’s version a shot for shot remake of the Hitchcock original? It seems that it definitely fits into the category of simulacra, somewhat like Sherri Levine’s “After Walker Evans.” There’s so much reflexivity involved that I hesitate to call it pastiche. The key is the lack of awareness that there’s any “normal” or “original” to be quoting, and Van Sant went to great lengths to pay homage, shot by shot, to the original.

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