The answer song is not a parody. Weird Al Yankovic writes those for a living. Some people see parody songs as the best way to spread the Word (that last is via Waxy and Defective Yeti), but mostly they just are or are not amusing the first time you hear them. For a Canadian 7", Billy Childish did a brilliant sendup of the unmistakable Kingsmen recording of "Louie Louie" with the tune he wrote for the Headcoats, "Louis Riel" ("The Metis and the Cree did agree to live on the plains peacefully / At the battle of Batoche, the dream was lost / And with their lives they paid the cost / Louis Riel, oh man, you’re gonna hang / Hey-ah, hey-ah"), which would, in a better world, win him some kind of award, but the parody song is, for the most part, fodder for Dr. Demento. Nor is the answer song a cover. Some cover songs are unironic; Hendrix’s awe-inspiring deconstruction of Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower" was primarily about reinterpreting a great tune. Some are goofy, like Jawbox’s take on Tori Amos’ "Cornflake Girl", which involved falsetto and reg wigs. Some twist the meaning tremendously; Chan Marshall‘s The Covers Album includes not only a devestatingly lonely version of "Satisfaction" but a cover of a song originally written by her ex-boyfriend to commemorate their break-up up.

The basic concept of the answer song dates back at least to 1600; that’s when Sir Walter Raleigh saw fit to write a response to Christopher Marlowe’s "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love". Marlowe’s "The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd" set the pattern for the answer song: take the theme, images, even words of another work and invert them while keeping the form (and, if you’re a rock and roll band, the tune) the same. No topic was as ripe for this — in the twentieth century, as in the seventeenth — as the war of the sexes. Thus, Jody Miller took a whack at Roger Miller’s "King of the Road" with her "Queen of the House". Damita Jo’s "I’ll Save the Last Dance for You" responded to the Drifters’ "Save the Last Dance for Me". Country singer Skeeter Davis answered Hank Locklin’s "Please Help Me, I’m Falling" with "I’m Falling Too". Smokey Robinson’s band, the Miracles, answered the Silhouette’s "Get a Job" succinctly with "Got a Job".

Hip-hop, which already was legally recognized for its propensity towards sampling music for parody purposes, has picked up the answer form. When rappers start a beef with one another, they don’t have to resort to pulling guns the way Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur did; they can just yank the beats off their rivals’ songs and record an insulting track over it. Sometimes this seems to be in a spirit of fun; sometimes, it seems less so. Sometimes, this can get complex, as in "Hail Mary, in which Eminem, 50 Cent, and Busta Rhymes tee off on (among others) Ja Rule, borrowing a song by the late, widely beloved Tupac as a way of saying that Ja Rule is stealing beats. 50 Cent broke out with a song called "How to Rob", but saying that someone steals music is insulting (although not as insulting as barking at someone, which is apparently how 50 got on Ja Rule’s bad side to begin with).

Following all that might be confusing, but it at least makes conceptual sense: 50 Cent and friends are borrowing one musician’s tunes to make a statement about another. That happens. Did Barry McGuire’s "Eve of Destruction" get you down? The Spokesmen had a charming song about fighting the Reds and the good of the Western world with "Dawn of Correction":

Where there once was no cure, there’s vaccination Where there once was a desert, there’s vegetation Self-government’s replacing colonization What about the Peace Corp. organization? Don’t forget the work of the United Nations

But sometimes there are answer songs that are just odd. The Kingsmen, apparently sick of their own monster hit, wrote an answer song to "Louie Louie" called "Louie Go Home". When Jay Farrar was in the alt.country band Uncle Tupelo, they performed an old murder ballad, "Lilli Schull"; when Uncle Tupelo broke up and Farrar started Son Volt, he wrote a song from Lilli’s point of view called "Been Set Free". And then there’s the saga of Major Tom. David Bowie’s "Space Oddity" was followed by Elton John’s quasi-response, "Rocket Man"; Peter Schilling’s reworking, "Major Tom"; and then Bowie’s revisitiation, "Ashes to Ashes". Bowie wasn’t sending himself up; Schilling and John don’t seem to have wanted to make a particular statement about Bowie. None of them are reversing the situation or really providing a new scenario. Maybe they just found the image of Major Tom, drifting, falling, too compelling to resist.