I was pondering what it was that bothered me so much about the Suno and Udio case. My pride as a composer? Erm, no. Fear of AI? Copy-pasting Abba lyrics, uh, not really. No, it’s something else…

Completely unrelated to the story in the past months I’ve found myself listening to the musical theater parodies in Schmigadoon! (the now-canceled Apple TV+ show) (not to mention another brilliant source of parody, South Park: Bigger Longer Uncut).

Let’s take an obvious case – Schmigadoon! writers do arguably exactly what the generative AI is doing, at least on the surface. So in season 1 of the TV show, you get “Tribulation” – a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man that’s almost close enough to bring on the lawyers:

Here’s the original. This is an especially tricky parody to pull off because the original was already a parody – it’s a 1957 musical riffing on the sometimes clunky language and musical trappings of its fictional 1912 setting, and the number itself is a con man – meaning the song is happening on two levels. (Apparently, it’s even partly self-parody, as Meredith Willson was struggling with some long extended dialog before he turned it into the iconic song.)

Let’s see, parody:

Not loud-mouthed trash with their tommyrot flapdoodle
Claptrap fiddle-faddle jiggery-pokery
Stirring up the cream while you’re waiting for it to settle
Like vermin in the root cellar, flies in the buttermilk

And original:

Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey’boy
Sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?

Okay, I think you might actually melt down your server farm making a LLM generate text like that and – if they didn’t catch fire, you might think the AI was malfunctioning. But there we are.

Schmigadoon!’s writers just effectively repeat the joke – so you could argue that they’re doing what the AI is doing, mashing up references to a past piece of work rather than creating something original. Adding to the effect, various elements of costuming and choreography and the tiniest details of the orchestration get reproduced. It’s even shot with a single running shot. (Kristin Chenoweth adds extra plus-ing to the staging like playing with finger gestures, another reference to the original.)

But wait – why is this satisfying to watch? Why doesn’t it feel like this is ripping off the original?

For that matter, why do we tolerate so many repeated parodies of this song? It’s also in The Simpsons:

The song also shows up everywhere from Ally McBeal to The Electric Company. A lot of times the “parody” is just literally repeating the song.

So what the heck is going on? And why is this satisfying whereas the AI doing the same thing is a bug?

Well, let’s go back to Schmigadoon! And let’s assume there, and on The Simpsons, you have two audiences – the audience that does, erm, recall 1950s Broadway musicals (cool!), and the audience that does not. (That’s a ploy Sesame Street often uses with its audience – tell a joke that works for kids but also for their parents on another level simultaneously, which makes both groups feel included.)

So if you never saw the original number, you’d still get the song. It’s more than just the ridiculous repetition of words and intentionally corny crowd response: those elements relate to something universal, which is the ridiculousness of a crowd quickly falling for an obvious con. (Bart references that literally in The Simpsons number, which works as comedy because of Bart’s own paradoxical simultaneous innocence and self-awareness.) This is already a level of layered interrelations of meaning that neural nets are unlikely to be able to absorb without human intervention.

But on another level, the play between parody and audience is, for people who do know the number, the writers are playing with how close they can get to the original while still preserving a joke. “Monorail” is just a ridiculous word that gets repeated; “Tribulation” is getting silly with finding a synonym for “Trouble” while retaining the rhyming meter of the original.

But the same parody also plays up the particulars of each song’s narrative. “Monorail” uses the original to talk about failed public works hustles. “Tribulation” casually drops the word “miscegenation” which just sounds like more silliness – unless you know what miscegenation means, which is a pejorative reference to interracial marriage.

Ah – there it is. Writers have something to say, and they make choices. In the case of “Tribulation,” the number isn’t just an innocent commentary on a con artist in action as in the original. Here, the message in the parody is something deeper, about the way this town (and the society in the USA) restrict interracial and non-heterocentric couples. It’s taking the lightness of the original to talk about white supremacy and fascism. But in a fun way. (Welp… it’s not the first time a musical tried that.)

All of this requires that the writer not just reference some stock music based on keywords or style, but also tell the story that’s specific to the context and intent of the work itself. Just like stock loop libraries and generic music beds before them, these generative apps produce music (and lyrics) in a vacuum. Every song is a template, even if you try to make it something else.

And wait – the AI isn’t in on any joke, can’t be in on any joke. Your prompt might say something, but the AI can’t. In the case of the AI startups, they’re the con man after we caught the con. Parodies are funny because you know the writer knows you know what they’re copying. These startups hoped we wouldn’t notice – that Toto wouldn’t pull back the curtain and reveal the wizard was a fraud.

I expect that in the legal arguments with the RIAA, startups will invoke just this sort of parody to defend their use of AI training sets. But the parody is an indictment of the machine, not a free pass. The AI isn’t aware of what is original and what isn’t; it lacks ethics or meaning.

In The Music Man, the lead character is ultimately exposed as his “Think System” for teaching the town music was always a lie. But the redemption comes in the humans in the musical making the music happen.

I expect whatever ultimately comes with AI, humans are likely to do the same. But anyone taking our money passing our own music as some sort of machine invention of “artificial general intelligence,” we should probably run those people out of town on a rail.

It’s not that AI copies and steals, because humans do that. It’s that AI has nothing to say, and its creators are pretending it’s something it’s not.

And since you’ve read this far, as a treat, here’s some South Park, which is both a parody of Les Mis and every musical theater act 1 closer starting with Westside Story for going over the top doing a medley of every number in the act.

Vive la resistance, humans.

And apologies to Apple; I dunno why making an entire TV show around musical theater nerd in-references didn’t turn out to be sustainable. Back to … (checks notes) … okay totally obscure experimental music, then.

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