Love in the Time of Al

I’ll say this right now: this blog post has been rattling around inside my head for a month now. I don’t know why – probably Al is using his mind-control lasers just to make me do it, or maybe Harvery the Wonder Hamster has finally evolved into a great and terrible beast, able to broadcast the thoughts of its master far and wide. But for whatever reason, I have things to say about at least one of the songs off his new Alpocalypse album, so I’m gonna say ’em right here.

First off, let me just say that I think Yankovic is brilliant. For one thing, he’s been producing music consistently for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, which is impressive all by itself. What’s more, as part of that consistency, he produces good work. Parody pop is something that is easy to do very, very badly, and when you hear it, you want to cringe and run away. Bad parodies usually have the cleverness of a room full of elementary school children, and are about as much fun to listen to. But Yankovic is able to take a pop song, find a good hook into the parody, and make it funny and clever and memorable – sometimes more memorable than the song he’s making fun of.

On top of that, he’s done something I know I haven’t been able to do: keep up with the trends in music. I mean, I think a lot of music today blows goats, which makes me feel really old and crotchety, and if I were a parody pop musician, I probably would have hung up my accordion somewhere around 2000. But not Al. He knows what’s hot, he knows what the kids are listening to, and he tackles it with just as much fun and gusto as he did back when he was bleeding Michael Jackson and Madonna dry in the heyday of my youth.

And his original songs sometimes greatly outshine his parodies. He can flip between genres, perform vastly different moods and tones, and has shown over and over again that he knows music better than most musicians performing today.

So that’s out of the way.

There are some really good songs on the new album, and I may come back to talk about a few more in the future. The one that’s been sitting on my shoulder and begging me to think about it, however, is his parody of “Whatever You Like,” originally by rapper T.I. Now I hadn’t heard the original song, but a quick search of the lyrics and the song reveals itself pretty clearly:

Stacks on deck. Patron on ice.
We can pop bottles all night
Baby you can have whatever you like
I said you can have whatever you like.
Yeah
Late night sex, so wet and so tight
I’ll gas up the jet for you tonight and baby you can go wherever you like
I said you can go wherever you like
Yeah

Anytime you want to pick up the telephone you
know that it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you
If you want it you can get it my dear
5 millions dollars homes drop the business I swear.
Yeah

I want your body. I need your body.
As long as you got me you won’t need nobody
You want it, I got it. Go get it, I’ll buy it
Tell them other broke niggas be quiet

The rest of the song is pretty much in that vein. It’s T.I. telling his young lady how pretty she is, how much money he’s willing to spend on her, and how much he’s looking forward to having sex with her. The video – which isn’t embeddable – reinforces this idea, wherein a fantastically rich young man gives his number to a girl working in a fast-food chicken joint. The video is positively dripping with symbols of wealth: diamond necklaces, a giant swimming pool, a stack of $100 bills, champagne ejaculating all over the place. The message that I get is that this man is so rich that he can afford to keep a girl no matter how much she wants from him, and he’ll make sure that this new girl knows it. Watching the video, I did get the feeling that he was basically purchasing her to add to his collection of pretty things, but that may have just been my biases coming into play.

Now, just for full disclosure: I don’t like hip-hop. Never have. Probably because I’m so white that you could put me through a prism and I’d come out as a rainbow. I’m so white that polar bears tell me to stop showing off. I’m so white that Wonder Bread and mayonnaise constitute “living it up.” Whatever the reason, I don’t like hip-hop, and I think T.I.’s song pretty much exemplifies a lot of what I don’t like about it.

But, to be fair, I only listened to it after I heard Yankovic’s take, and really, T.I. didn’t even have a chance.

Al’s song is an entirely different beast. He keeps the basic flavor of the original, in terms of orchestration and style, but instead of a horny rapper trying to entice a lady into his bed with promises of mansions and buttsex, he turns it into a love poem in the time of the working poor. This isn’t the official video, but it is the song:

The basic story is this: the singer is poor, but despite that, he’s willing to indulge his girlfriend and give her whatever she likes. Unlike T.I., Al doesn’t have very much at all:

Tater tots, Cold Duck on ice
And we can clip coupons all night
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can have whatever you like, if you like
Yeah

Take you out for dinner anywhere that you please
Like Burger King or Mickey D’s
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can even have the large fries, large fries
Yeah

Baby, you should know I am really quite a sweet guy
When I buy you bathroom tissue, I always get the 2-ply
Want it, you can get it, my dear
I got my Costco membership card right here

Yeah you like Top Ramen? Need Top Ramen?
Got a cupboard full of ’em, I’ll keep ’em comin’
You want it, I got it, go get it, just heat it
Dump the flavor packet on it and eat it

In this song, Al really doesn’t sound like he can afford to have a girlfriend. Two-ply toilet paper is a special deal, Top Ramen is a staple food, and large fries is an extravagance. It doesn’t matter, though. He loves her enough to make very real sacrifices to his budget just to make her happy. He’s offering to share his very meager lifestyle with her, with no thought of compensation. The line that resonates the most with me, the one that I find rattling around in my head when I wake up sometimes is this one:

And you can always ride the city bus
Got a stack of tokens just for us
Yo, my wallet’s fat and full of ones
Yeah, it’s all about the Washingtons, that’s right

I don’t know why that verse should be so powerful for me. Maybe it’s because public transportation is often the only thing keeping low-income people from unemployment and homelessness. The city bus, as demeaning as it’s so often made out to be, is freedom. If you can’t afford a car, then that’s the only way you’re going to be able to experience the rest of your city, and he’s willing to share that freedom with her. He’s offering up his own tokens as a dowry to her, making a possible sacrifice of his own freedom in exchange for her love.

This is a theme that pervades the whole song. In nearly every verse, we get the impression that not only is Al willing to spend money on her that would be better spent on himself, we get the feeling that he’s doing so out of a sense of love and selflessness. At no point does he sound bitter or resentful – in fact, there’s only one line in the entire song where he even suggests that she might pay him back for his largess: when he needs gas money to drive her up to see her cousin Phil.

Al’s song is about sacrifice, about giving up his own advantages in order to make another person happy. He has very limited resources at his disposal. If he gave up on having a girlfriend, he might fare better financially. Without her, he might be able to take measures to save money and better his situation. With her, he will almost certainly stay poor. But she means more to him than his comfort, than putting money away for a future where he’s no longer safely employed at Kinko’s, than having a cushion of savings in case his Hyundai should break down. Her happiness means more to him than money, and he’s willing to sacrifice to see her happy.

T.I.’s song is about indulgence. He has so much money that he can throw it away on whatever his girl of choice may like, and it won’t make a dent in his already ostentatious lifestyle. With or without the girl, his life is pretty much the same. In fact, at the end of the video we discover that the whole thing has been a daydream of the girl in question. He gave her a $100 tip, which is lovely, but not his phone number – the key to getting out of a life she clearly wishes to escape. So not only does T.I. not really care about this girl, he seems to either be utterly unaware of the consequences of his actions, or a real cruel son of a bitch. Again, the contrast with Al could not be more stark.

So, in conclusion, whatever Yankovic’s intentions were in recording this song, what he’s made is really a testament to love in hard times, to dedication with sacrifice, something you don’t often see in a lot of modern music. His song is – as many of his parody songs are – superior to the original in every way.

I’ll probably come back to this album later on, as there’s a lot of great music on it. But this one was the one that really wanted to get out.

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