It probably doesn’t feel like there’s much to giggle about in politics right now but, as it turns out, the British public are pretty good at spinning comedy gold from straw. Or splicing together clips of politicians speaking until they’ve made Theresa May perform a pretty accomplished (but very self-deprecating) rap over the beat of I’m Coming Out.
Since the days of dial-up, viral videos with a political bent have been doing the rounds (remember George W Bush asking us to "watch this drive"?). But, from 2010 onwards, one particular format emerged from the pack to win our hearts – and our clicks. It's the political musical parody, as seen here in the 2012 mash-up of Jay Z's 99 Problems and former US President Barack Obama (warning: if you're not a fan of swearing, this video might not be one for you).
The political mash-up is an artform when it’s done well. One recent example is this piece of tech trickery from the online men's magazine JOE, which (sort of) stars Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg as Jarvis Cocker, ‘performing’ Pulp’s 1995 hit Common People.
Riffing on the Eurosceptic MP’s position on Brexit with lines like “I wanna leave the Common Market/I wanna leave the Customs Union too”, the video racked up 52,000 likes and 26,000 retweets on Twitter (at the time of writing) and - fun fact - was made by the anonymous creator 'Swedemason' - the same man responsible for putting a donk on “buttery biscuit base” in a viral Masterchef parody. Even the MP himself has praised the clip, calling it a “clever spoof”.
But what's the formula for creating the perfect musical parody? What turns Nick Clegg giving a plaintive apology from a sombre telly moment into a hummable viral sensation?
“It's important to have a clear message – a definite point that you're getting across underneath the humour,” JOE creative director and lyricist for the Rees-Mogg/Pulp mash-up, Nooruddean Choudry, tells BBC Three.
“Then, it's about adding various layers that will make it entertaining and shareable, be that in the script, the music, the visuals, etc. A noble message that reaches no one has failed. It's only effective if it is shared and resonates.”
The trick, says Nooruddean, is to treat the political parody video the way a caricaturist would approach their subject. Basically, everyone gets given a wobbly head.
“It's not unlike the way cartoonists take a subject and exaggerate certain elements of them, whilst maintaining a fundamental element of truth,” he explains.
“We look at public profile, relevance to the current news cycle, what we can pick out and accentuate in terms of their traits and behaviour. [But] at JOE we are committed to punching up rather than down, so that's the first thing.”
By this, Nooruddean means not picking on the little guy or poking fun at someone who, in his opinion, “doesn’t deserve it”.
Anonymous UK duo, Cassetteboy, shot to fame in 2014 by mashing-up then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s conference speech with Eminem’s Lose Yourself (although you may want to avoid the following link if you don't like swearing). The video racked up 6.6million more YouTube views than the PM’s original speech, so you could say they know a thing or two about making a video go viral.
“[Picking the right song] is the hardest part,” Mike, one half of Cassetteboy, tells us. “Ideally, you want a song where the chorus can be turned into a joke, or at least something relevant. It's just a case of listening to lots of music and thinking about the subject matter until inspiration strikes.”
As for the prime time to drop a mash-up for maximum exposure, the key is to strike when the iron is hot. Or rather, when the iron is trending.
Like the (see our previous disclaimer about potty mouth content) 2017 election mash-up which mixed clips from left-wing political vlogger ‘Chunky’ Mark McGowan with the hugely popular grime track ‘Shutdown’ by Sketpa. The work of journalist Tristan Cross, this was made all the more timely by the support given to Jeremy Corbyn by grime stars at the time.
“We always try to release our videos when the subject is already in the news, maybe at party conference time or during an election campaign,” Mike reveals. “And the music and subject choices need to be reasonably well-known, with sufficient raw material available for us to make something good out of.”
Take this early political parody that skewered Tony Blair's hesitation between stepping aside as prime minister and remaining in the role, an oscillation rumoured to have caused much frustration on the part of potential successor, Gordon Brown. Spoiler: Tony eventually resigned and Gordon, too, found himself on the (F) sharp end of a parody song, when current affairs publication Eyebrow Magazine re-purposed The Stranglers' Golden Brown to poke fun at his time in the premiership.
Sometimes, though, no middle-man is required and an original political clip is powerful (or bizarre) enough to strike a chord without the use of Britpop. We’re thinking specifically of Tory MP Greg Knight here, whose 2017 election campaign video caused a stir thanks to the addition of an 80s' style ditty at the end, accompanied by shaky camera footage of various posters around his office. Abstract.
While Greg’s original upload was sadly deleted, more than 54,000 people watched it in 48 hours. It even drew comparisons to Alan Partridge, though Knight himself denied knowing who that was. The MP for East Yorkshire was re-elected so, ultimately, the power of song prevailed. Well, two songs: there also exists a B-side (see below) that, if possible, is even catchier.
So we now we know the rules for making a viral political mash-up are basically like karaoke: pick a song everyone knows and make sure you hit all the right notes.
This article was originally published on the 12 February 2019.