Strength Through Satire: The Neofolk Mischief of Death in Rome
Death in Rome | Hitparade / RIP Lounge | 2016
A review by Tenebrous Kate
Satire is an especially powerful form of humor. In the arsenal of human psychological responses, making fun of a thing is a way to take it down a peg, bring it into a more relatable perspective, and subvert the cycle of face-value seriousness that can reduce existence to a uniform shade of gray. To dedicate one’s creative faculties to satire is to engage in a bizarre dance of love and hate that requires the humorist to get close enough to the subject to understand it fully. The failure of so much satire points to a fundamental lack of understanding, leaving us with empty Xerox-of-a-Xerox commentary that does little more than reinforce tired stereotypes.
Parody is the weapon of choice for many would-be satirists, largely because of its immediacy: take a recognizable thing and twist it into a shape that suits the creator’s need. What seems simple in theory is, however, woefully difficult in execution, a fact that has been proven countless times in the world of musical parody. Today’s musical parody falls into three general categories:
- The Deep Commitment Parodist stretches a pun to its breaking point (a point which is generally reached before the end of a song, let alone an entire album). This category includes acts like 2 Live Jews, a two-man musical comedy act that reworks the songs of raunchy rappers 2 Live Crew to make predictable jokes about Jewish-American life, such as “Oy! It’s So Humid.” Also earning a spot here is the Jimi Homeless Experience, which alters Jimi Hendrix songs to reference stereotypes about extreme poverty, and Mac Sabbath, an elaborately costumed troupe that blends the music of Black Sabbath with the greasy decadence of fast food.
- The Musical Comedian has a primary goal of creating comedy, with the music being its vehicle. This type of parodist works across genres, finding opportunities for humor that tend to be more varied than the Deep Commitment Parodist. This relative variety of texture goes a long way to explaining why Weird Al Yankovic is beloved above other pop parody acts (the relatively gentle nature of his send-ups probably helps his likability as well).
- The Style Parodist creates songs in the style of a particular artist or genre without simply reworking existing songs. Spinal Tap’s take on ’80s metal, the Rutles’ deadpan Beatles send-ups, and The Goblins’ three-chord Misfits-inspired punk fall into this category.
The key problem with the majority of parody bands is that while they’re clearly playing for laughs, they stumble in their message. What is Mac Sabbath doing with the music that has inspired them, past pointing out that it would be reasonably funny if Ozzy Osbourne was singing about hamburgers instead of nuclear war and drug addiction? Although his work is undeniably clever, is Weird Al able to tell us anything about Madonna’s place in the pop pantheon with “Like a Surgeon?” The Style Parodists tend to demonstrate a keener understanding of their subjects than their colleagues who rework existing songs—they have to understand in order to create work that is recognizable as parody. In fact, Spinal Tap was so spot-on in the songs they created that it’s difficult to think of a certain brand of cock-rocking ’80s metal without thinking of them first. In a very real way, they influenced public perception and conversation around that style of music.
At this juncture, it may come as a surprise to learn that “parody music” did not always include the humorous intent we now ascribe to that term. The sole implication of “parody” was that the composition in question reused elements from other, existing pieces of music. In this spirit, then, it’s possible that a contemporary album can have a sincerity of intent and still fall within the realms of parody, revealing unexpected facets of pop music and hit-making in the process.
Perhaps no genre of music is quite as slippery in its intent as neofolk. The term itself implies something new and therefore outside of the bounds of folk and its inherent traditionalism. Neofolk plays with the ideas and imagery associated with heritage, culture, and history while applying a distinctly modern perspective. Unlike other “new” versions of existing genres, however, neofolk is characterized by its refusal to clarify its motives, leading to all manner of frustration from certain quarters. Why do these bands use totalitarian motifs if they are not endorsing those concepts? Is a genuine nostalgia at work, or are these artists dealing strictly in the power of symbols? Does being gay mean an artist “can’t be” fascist? Particularly in American culture, where strict categorization is king and ambiguity is suspect, critics tie themselves into knots in an attempt to ascribe motivation to neofolk artists. Even the most apolitical acts are linked to extremism through a complicated mental calculus that, at its heart, boils down to “guilt by aesthetics”.
Nothing should be taken at face value when discussing neofolk. Beneath the solemn surface, there’s significant room for inversion of meaning and even wry commentary. At what point does drama become melodrama and, by extension, camp? And at what juncture do our mysterious tastemakers determine these things to be “good” or “bad” art?
With all this in mind, it starts to become clear that there are a deceptive number of onionskin layers to Death in Rome’s recent two-disc release of Hitparade and RIP Lounge. Though the band falls under the category of Deep Commitment Parodists, there is considerable humorous appeal to neofolk covers of radio hits, given the relentlessly anti-commercial nature of this underground genre. Transposing Death in June’s Totenkopf onto the work of Miley Cyrus, Technotronic, and A-ha brings an unexpected gravity to these songs. Lyrics crafted for singability and universal emotional appeal take on a mysterious quality. Perhaps the distance between Rihanna and Rome isn’t so very far. Consider this verse from the former’s “Diamonds”:
You’re a shooting star I see
A vision of ecstasy
When you hold me, I’m alive
We’re like diamonds in the sky
And from Rome’s “Querkraft”:
Oh, I felt like I was going to dive
Into a cruel sea of lust when
She said: “Saviours, they come and go.”
Oh, why don’t you fail me
Come on and break me for good
We feel alive
Well, perhaps it’s in the delivery…
Before dismissing this music out of hand, let’s take a moment to consider the purpose of a pop song. In 2016, it’s about more than “moving units”—it’s about valuable brand endorsements, acting appearances, and lifestyle signaling. Beyond fandom, there’s an emphasis on being the kind of person who listens to Taylor Swift (who has become a rather bizarre cover girl for ultra-conservatives) versus Carly Rae Jepsen (favorite of poptimist progressives). So many gallons of virtual ink are spilled on the political implications of Beyoncé’s latest visual album that a visitor from another planet wouldn’t be blamed for assuming she was a powerful world leader. And then there’s the strange ouroboros of analyzing Kanye West’s tweets as if he were a latter-day Jacques Derrida. Beyond enjoyment of music, it seems that assessing the relative “problematicness” of musicians has become the Internet’s favorite pastime. Can one ethically purchase an album in the current climate without a full understanding of a creative stranger’s voting record?
If one can therefore presume that pop matters (quite a bit, to many), then the act of reinventing beloved pop hits in one of the most polarizing genres imaginable is a delightfully subversive act. When Death in Rome alters lyrics so that one is urged to “get your boots on the floor tonight” in their cover of “Pump Up the Jam,” they create a rather sinister call to action. “Make my day” indeed! Don’t mistake these adjustments of song texture for changes to song intent, though. Death in Rome hews closely to the spirit of the original songs, though the party they’re starting might differ in its particulars. Odes to romantic pain like Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Haddaway’s “What Is Love” remain just that, though seen through the neofolk lens of acoustic guitar, martial drumming, historical samples, and good old European pessimism. Looking through Death in Rome’s rose-cloud-colored lenses, these songs take on a new emotional impact, with Sehnsucht replacing adolescent angst. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the only song on the two-disc release of Hitparade and RIP Lounge that doesn’t benefit from the band’s revisions is Sia’s “Chandelier,” a song that was already brimming with achingly obvious melodrama in its original incarnation.
Beyond bringing a new perspective to pop songs, this is music revels in that vexing and beautiful slipperiness that characterizes neofolk. The band’s aesthetic goes deeper than music—they create videos to accompany each track. Their first video that includes footage of the band, a take on Lana Del Rey’s depressive pixie girl anthem “Summertime Sadness”, follows the neofolk playbook to its minutest detail. Band members are shown attired in black, faces obscured and postures stoic in the tunnels of an abandoned bunker. Standing percussion and M43 field caps are checked off, as is grainy WWII battlefield footage. Fallschirmjäger plummet to earth as the vocalist croons lyrics celebrating romantic suicide. The consistency and commitment to the aesthetic is such that unknitting intent becomes difficult, as is essentially the case with all neofolk.
Perhaps this is the right time to take another stab at the lyrics game:
Like towers falling down
Like a bomb blast in your town
Like a hostage tied in chains
I could not forget your name
Like a helicopter crash
Like a ghetto that’s been smashed
Like bodies on a battlefield
I can’t live with how you feel
The above excerpt from Circ’s sugary-sweet dance hit “Destroy She Said” isn’t far from the militant high romanticism of many neofolk acts. In Death in Rome’s capable hands, the resulting cover has the bitter emotional complexity of a Spiritual Front track. It is only if one knows the original song that an added layer of humor reveals itself.
Death in Rome has the distinction of being a parody artist in both the classical sense—reusing existing compositions to create new music—and in the modern, satirical sense of the term. The band’s closeness to their material, both in terms of pop song selection and neo-folk structure, is apparent throughout. There’s far more than novelty value at play here; this is genuinely beautiful music that teases out a range of emotions, crafted from the unlikeliest of source materials. It’s a luxury and a pleasure to live in a world where this type of beautiful mischief exists.
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