Songs of political parody reach Supreme Court's ear

May 24, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

Singing for their supper is nothing new to the Capitol Steps, troupe of ex-congressional staffers who have learned that satirizing politics is a jollier way to make a living than working for politicians.

But now the hit musical and theatrical group is singing to a different audience: the U.S. Supreme Court.

Probably for the first time, a singing brief has been filed in the somber edifice where black-robed justices study Latin-laced tomes.

The brief -- actually, an "exhibit" submitted in support of a brief -- lampoons President Clinton with "Pander Bear," a takeoff on the Elvis Presley hit "Teddy Bear." Nonpartisan, the exhibit includes such lyrics as: "Hark! When Gerald Ford was king/We were bored by everything," and "Old man Gipper, he keeps on dozin' along" -- an "Old Man River" parody inspired by the Reagan presidency.

There's a point to all this, and, to the Capitol Steps, there's nothing funny about it.

Song parody, an intrinsic element of American political and social culture since the nation's founding, may be caught in a legal battle for its life.

The perceived threat comes from a suit that was filed against the rap group 2 Live Crew for its takeoff on Roy Orbison's classic song "Oh, Pretty Woman." The parody, "Big Hairy Woman," offers an unromantic view of prostitution.

"Pretty Woman" publishers, Acuff-Rose Music Inc., are seeing green, as in money for alleged copyright infringement. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of Acuff-Rose. Unless the Supreme Court reverses or narrows the decision, the case could stop the music of all money-making parodists.

The nub of the issue: U.S. copyright laws include a so-called "fair-use" exemption -- an official loophole for "comment," "criticism" and other high-minded forms of filching. Through that loophole have slipped generations of parodists, including the Capitol Steps. But the appeals court ruled that because "Big Hairy Woman" was "blatantly commercial," the fair-use exemption didn't apply.

With a dozen albums and a calendar full of live and radio performances, the Capitol Steps are proud to be commercial. So is parodist Mark Russell, who joined the Steps in signing the written friend-of-the-court brief to which the musical exhibit was attached.

Parodists in all corners of America are aspiring to commercial success.

So, what is the Supreme Court to make of such lyrics as "If you knew Souter/Like I know Souter/You would throw out the guy/Instead of mating and normal dating/I once witnessed him matriculating"?

But monkish Justice David Souter may not have heard that one. It's on the Capitol Steps' "Sheik, Rattle and Roll" album, not in their Supreme Court brief.

Nor does an affidavit filed in the case by the Fabulous Bakersfield Boys include that troupe's tribute to Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. Set to the tune of "That's Amore," it begins: "When I look at your eyes and I leer at your thighs/ That's harassment."

If the Bakersfield group, which performed 50 shows last year, remains relatively obscure, it has at least one good excuse. After cutting an album, it sought permission for the parodies from the owners of the original songs, only one of which was in the public domain.

Spokesman Michael Huey said the result was one OK, four OKs conditioned on signing over rights to the lyrics, five no-replies and two flat refusals -- including a refusal from the owner of "That's Amore," which Mr. Huey counts among his best numbers.

"We ended up with an album on the shelf," Mr. Huey says.

William A. Strauss, the Capitol Steps' artistic director, says many "American" songs today are owned by European and Asian companies.

"If permissions are required, this art form is effectively over," Mr. Strauss says.

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