“I am the very model…”

Over at The Dish, I came across a video which seems to be supportive of President Obama. It touts his Presidential accomplishments, and touches on some of his personal qualities, too. It’s in the form of a walk around the White House while he and, presumably, his staff and family sing a copy-change of “The Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

The original is a terrifically fun song from a very entertaining light opera, premiered in New York on New Year’s Eve, 1879. It’s been used as a base for–allegedly–humorous copy-changes since, probably, the very, very early morning of New Year’s Day, 1880. It’s catchy, and it has just enough metric challenge that creative types can impress the proles by playing with it. A notable version is Tom Lehrer’s performance of the periodic table of the elements.

We’ve been enjoying, or, as some would have been, subjected, to these renditions for more than 130 years so far, with no sign of let-up. When are they OK, and when are they not?

Copy-change is the process of taking some existing written work and changing the words, but keeping the grammar, syntax, and structure, to make a new work. Usually a parody, and often a satire. It’s a low form, since by tying oneself to the original, one cannot really present a well-worked-out new work. But, it can be an effective way of introducing something to a fresh audience. Particularly if you’re copy-changing a well-known song. Even if the song is mainly well known because it’s been used for copy-changes for 130 years.

Because it’s low, limiting, and essentially derivative, it’s good for pedagogical purposes and politics. In school, the familiarity of the source material affords a way into the actual content material, it’s a mnemonic scaffolding for the stuff you really want to convey. In politics, it has that advantage, but also the advantage of being amusing. In political advertising, there’s basically SCARY and amusing. If an ad isn’t SCARY, then, by default, it’s amusing. That’s not a high bar to clear, and even copy-changes can clear it.

Both of these uses are also, essentially, ephemeral. They aren’t meant to last. The copy-change is intended merely to draw attention to itself long enough to redirect it to the substance it wishes to convey. And–particularly for political advertising–that substance is itself ephemeral. So, in the context of a political campaign, a copy-change is OK. But that’s all it is: OK. Of course, in a political campaign, OK is actually pretty unusual.

Here’s the video itself, in case you care, but not enough to follow the Dish link above:

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