In his YouTube video, Gary Kapelus’s friends play piano and sing his lyrics to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s emotive Bridge Over Troubled Water:
“They are teeeesting the sewwwage water/Virus can be fouuuund ...”
The earnestness of the singer’s voice and the sweetness of the pianist’s performance, combined with Mr. Kapelus’s deadpan lyrics about COVID-19 wastewater testing, make for an absurd and comical number.
Such is the nature of COVID-19 parody songs – covers of popular hits, often performed on amateur video, with pandemic-related lyrics. Emerging on the heels of the virus in early 2020, these songs have become a genre of their own, populating YouTube with the likes of “Totally Fixed Where We Are” (Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart), “Antibodies” (Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) from Backstreet Boys) and “We Don’t Talk About COVID” (We Don’t Talk About Bruno from the Encanto soundtrack). Even legendary singer-songwriter Dolly Parton dipped a toe into the genre last year with a COVID-19 vaccine-themed parody of her own country hit Jolene.
Some, like Mr. Kapelus’s wastewater testing song, elicit giggles, while others are downright wacky. But most capture a specific moment from the past 2½ tumultuous years, whether they’re about life under lockdown, the rise of “flurona” (simultaneous infection of influenza and the coronavirus), or the loneliness pets experience as their owners return to the office.
Mr. Kapelus of Toronto is arguably one of the most prolific COVID-19 parodists. As of this summer, the retired speech pathologist, rehabilitation director and professor, has written more than 170 COVID-19 parody songs.
It began with a poem he wrote in March, 2020, to vent his frustrations over trying to stay at a distance from people on the sidewalks. His neighbour Ben Chan, who is a medical doctor and the vocalist on his wastewater testing track, put the poem to music and sang it at one of the nightly sing-a-longs they held on their street that spring. Mr. Kapelus, who isn’t a musician and doesn’t perform any of his songs himself, became hooked and began writing lyrics to other melodies by artists from Celine Dion to Crowded House.
Mr. Kapelus thinks of them as akin to contributing to a newspaper’s “letters to the editor” section. He often pokes fun of politicians and policy-makers for their handling of the pandemic or at those opposed to vaccines.
Not only does this pandemic pastime give him an outlet to vent his feelings, the process of coming up with words that match the rhythm and rhyming scheme of an original song is good mental exercise, he said: “It is a puzzle.”
While some of the parodies he posts are done in the style of karaoke videos, with only text and instrumental music laid over images he chooses, others are performed by his friends. And not all are meant to be funny; some also delve into the sorrows people have experienced.
Mr. Kapelus attributes the proliferation of COVID-19 parody songs to their ability to express the fears, frustrations and anxieties shared by many.
“They’re giving voice to what people are thinking or saying privately or want to be able to scream at the top of the roof,” he said.
Sam Chaplin, a professional musician who lives on the outskirts of London, England, saw one of his early COVID-19 parody songs go viral on YouTube, with viewers contacting him from as far away as South Africa and Malaysia. His spoof of Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners, which he sings and plays jauntily on the piano, has now been viewed close to 1.3 million times on YouTube.
In his version, he croons: “COVID-19, yeah, you’re scary and mean/Gotta self-quarantine/Cancel everything.”
Mr. Chaplin explains he came up with the parody as a challenge from a friend. At the time, his work was drying up, as one by one, his scheduled performances were cancelled. The popularity of his video gave him a bit of a boost amid his disappointment and anxiety.
Mr. Chaplin has gone on to do several other COVID-19 parody songs, including about home haircuts, virtual schooling, and COVID-19 tracking apps. But he has also since recorded a new album that has nothing to do with COVID-19, and now that his in-person shows have returned, he doesn’t know whether he’ll do any more spoofs.
Nevertheless, people have gotten through tough times in the past by mixing mirth and social commentary with parody and music, and will continue to do so, he said. Looking for reasons to laugh and stay positive, “you find the real power of the human spirit to go through adversity,” he said.
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