Filk-songs 101!

Ever since I was knee-high to a drawing board, I’ve had a thing for clever song parodies, such as those crafted by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic or Mad Magazine’s lyric maestro Frank Jacobs. But until the 21st century, I never gave a thought to the fact that I could really, properly create some of my own – or that there was a whole community of people out there (not just the legends mentioned above) doing it on a regular basis! The practice even has a name: ‘Filking’, taken from the term filk-song. The traditional definition of filk-song is a ‘sci-fi folk-song’, as the name originated in sci-fi convention circles – apparently as a typo in a convention program (it should have said folk-song, obviously), which proved so quirky and popular it was adopted as the official name. However, given that you can write a filk-song about pretty much anything – James Bond, reality TV, particle physics, your favourite old sweater – the proper definition should be ‘pop-cultural folk-song’…. at least, as far as I’m concerned.

Filkers can create an original song from scratch, but many others (myself included) instead create parodies / homages to existing songs ala Weird Al; labeling them ‘Sung to the tune of….’ to give others a handy reference as to how it should be performed. The good thing about the homage-route is the tune and tempo of the song – and its linguistic structure – is already there ready to go; and your primary task is to create new, original lyrics. I know nothing about writing sheet music, composing a tune or playing musical instruments; so from that perspective, I wouldn’t even know where to start! But in a process of trial-and-error, I have honed my ability to craft parody lyrics around a snazzy beat to a nicely-sharpened edge – while my first few efforts (in my Old-School Cosmos strips, unsurprisingly) definitely need to be revamped and expanded now, my latest filk-songs are something I’m very proud of; especially since I’m A) not a musician, and B) doing this without any training or research….

But how do you make a filk-song, I hear you ask? Well, I’m not sure if there’s any official how-to guide on filking, but I do have a system that works for me; so I can certainly pass on that rather jumbled knowledge for your perusal and bemusement! Here goes:

1) Pick a song you like – while pretty much any song with lyrics can potentially be turned into a filk-song, I find that songs which I actually like listening to, ones with an upbeat tempo and a bit of joie de vivre, are the ones that most often spark ideas for a parody. They’re fun, they get my creative juices a’ flowin’, and I look forward to hearing them when they come on the radio!

2) Don’t pigeonhole yourself – I don’t think anyone has ever said to themselves “Yeh! I’m going to take ACDC’s Back in Black and turn it into a song about aluminium siding, ‘cause that’s definitely going to work!” Well, no, it’s not. You can’t deliberately set out to create a homage-style filk-song about a particular subject, or based on a particular song, in advance – my ‘greatest hits’, at least, have come about completely out of the blue, when something in a song I’m listening to makes me think of something else…. which then gives me a funny idea…. and then, and only then, along comes the filk-song. And speaking of which….

3) Start with the title – more often than not, what kicks things off is me suddenly thinking of a stupid / absurd / bizarre riff on the song’s title; which the majority of bangin’ tunes helpfully repeat several times during the chorus or verses. This – if it’s truly viable – forms the nucleus around which your filk-song can crystallise; and will determine not only how the song works, but also what it’s about. For example (and these are actual ideas I’ve come up with, so please don’t steal them), the Bee Gee’s Staying alive might morph into ‘Takin’ a Dive’ – a filk-song about throwing a boxing match for a bribe; while the Beatles Lady Madonna may make you think “Wow, that rhymes with ‘Ishiro Honda’!”…. and then you’re off writing a missive about classic Japanese monster movies. Predicting what you’ll come up with and where the song will go from there is virtually impossible – but that’s where the fun comes in!

4) Print out the lyrics – don’t rely on just hearing your chosen song every now and again on the radio, or on demand on itunes or YouTube; find the full, proper lyrics online and print them out in black-and-white, so you actually know what the actually song actually says! This is important not just because you got a physical blueprint to work from, but also because it helps to….

5) Sound it out – if you want your filk-song to match the tune and tempo of your chosen, printed-out song (both when you’re writing it, and when you’re singing it to yourself and giggling hysterically) each line needs to have the same number of syllables – not the same number of words, necessarily; just the syllables – as the matching line in the original. To demonstrate:

ORIGINAL – wal/king/in/a/win/ter/won/der/land (9 syllables total)

FILKSONG – wor/king/o/ver/christ/mas/for/the/man (also 9 syllables total)

Having too many syllables (or worse yet, unnecessary extra words) mucks up the rhythm and flow of a line, and if anyone ever sings your filk-song, they may find themselves havingtorunawholebunchofwordstogether to fit them all in before the music leaves them behind. It also helps if the last syllable in each line doesn’t sound wildly different from what was in the original song – when they don’t match up (say, when the original line finished with ‘wash’, but you put ‘Bob’ instead), the line sounds jarring and clunky; and in the worst case scenario, it can bring the entire thing to a grinding halt.

6) Work with your theme – once you’ve got an idea (i.e, subject) for a filk-song, develop it by putting together all sorts of references, facts and terminology related to that theme; and tell a story with them. It doesn’t matter if the ‘story’ is merely a series of connected anecdotes – as long as you’re staying on topic throughout, it will still be a filk-song about that subject. When I’m on a roll (in the filk-zone, as it were), I usually find that the first line of a verse will automatically lead on to the next, and the next, until I have a complete set; or a collection of individual lines from different parts of the song will occur to me piecemeal, and I can connect them together by assembling the verses / chorus they belong to around them. Exactly how I come up with these lines, I don’t know, I’m afraid: it’s more of an intuitive process of clever wordplay than one I can explain in any sort of detail. They just sound funny, and make me laugh, and off I go….

7) Use some elbow-grease, dammit – when a filk-song artist says their little ditty is ‘sung to the tune of’, they mean they have used said tune as a foundation…. but EVERYTHING ELSE has come from their pop culture-soaked imaginations. The best filk-songs are the ones where all (or virtually all) of the lyrics are unique to that song, and don’t occur in the original: it’s not enough to change a couple of words or phrases here and there to make it ‘about’ something else (“Hurr hurr, I changed ‘smart’ into ‘fart’, ‘cause it’s funny”); you’ve got to create an entirely new song that can be performed to the original tune. Not only that, if your I-didn’t-follow-Jon’s-advice filksong IS too close to its progenitor, you may find yourself in a rather dicey situation vis-a-vis ripping off someone else’s music…. and nobody wants that.

8) Mix it up – if your song’s original lyrics have a chorus that repeats several times, and has the same basic structure in each, don’t just plug in the same filk lyrics every time in your version – write a unique variant for each time the chorus shows up, that successively bring new references, facts and terminology into the song! As long as the final line of each repeat of the chorus (usually the title of the song, I’ve noticed; which is rather important) is the same, the other lines can follow the basic syllable structure but say something entirely different! As an example:

That’s the way, the cookie crumbles,
‘Cause my intern, only mumbles,
Can’t take me a break,
Got deadlines to make,
Working over Christmas for The Man!

Here is the thing, The budget’s missing,
Your boss’ shoes, You will be kissing,
You’ll weasel away,
Not fired today,
Working over Christmas for The Man!

See? Easy! It adds a nice bit of diversity and variety to the song, and shows that you’ve put a bit of extra effort into your filking…. because you Just. Care. That. Much. There are bound to be a few other minor filking principles that even I’m not aware I’m using (since they’re so very, very subtle and sneaky), or that other people out there are using; but those are the ones I see as most critical when I’m attempting to wrest brilliance from one of my vague ideas – good luck to you!


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