Day Eighty-Six: "Achy Breaky Song" from Alapalooza
Over the course of the six months I have been writing this column, I have beaten various themes into the ground. I’ve written endlessly about the central roles consumerism, advertising, food and television have played in Al’s oeuvre throughout the decades, and how he continually returns to the same set of lyrical concerns like swallows returning to Capistrano.
I’ve similarly written extensively about the clear superiority of Al’s originals to his parodies, even if Al is legendary and world-famous as our preeminent pop parodist and not as a creator of sometimes transcendent pastiches and tributes to legendary artists. The superiority of Al’s loving pastiches to his spoofs is particularly glaring on the first half of Alapalooza.
The first five songs on Alapalooza contains two of the best songs he would ever record and three parodies that were all released as singles. The parodies represent characteristically Al triumphs of craftsmanship over comic conceit while the originals, “Young, Dumb & Ugly” and “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV” were cursed to live and die as album cuts and B-sides to lesser songs.
The fifth song on Alapalooza and third single/parody, “Achy Breaky Song” resembles deconstructionist songs like “Smells Like Nirvana” and “This Song’s Just Six Words Long”, where the singer seems to be heckling their own song from somewhere deep within it, as well as “The Brady Bunch.”
The singer of “The Brady Bunch” professes to despise the titular bit of trash-culture detritus, and rattles off a list of similarly reviled televised schlock he’d happily rather endure than suffer through even one more moment of Sherwood Schwartz’s abysmal but beloved and enduring rerun staple. The singer of “Achy Breaky Song”, meanwhile, professes to despise Cyrus’ pop-country smash, and rattles off a list of similarly reviled musical acts he’d happily rather endure than suffer through even one more moment of Cyrus’ big breakout hit.
I’ve written extensively about Al as a stealth music critic and historian whose discography represents a funhouse mirror reflection of the past four decades in music and pop culture. That’s not the Al we find here. Instead, “Achy Breaky Song” captures Al at his most calculating and commercial.
Al has never been afraid to make the kinds of jokes people are already making, so it’s not surprising that his list of torments he’d rather endure than Billy Ray includes such easy, familiar targets as Zamfir, master of the pan flute, Donnie & Marie Osmond, The Village People and even poor Yoko Ono, certainly the most maligned avant-garde artist of all time.
Al’s rundown of terrible hit-makers includes Tiffany and New Kids on the Block, whom Al previously parodied on “I Think I’m a Clone Now” and “The White Stuff.” To paraphrase Ice Cube on “Jackin’ for Beats”, even if you’re down with Al and his crew, he’ll diss you too. Curly hair don’t care. He’s straight up hurling truth bombs everywhere like the Green Goblin tossing out pumpkin bombs.
Now, We all know that the “Amish Paradise” scandal happened because while Al received permission to record and release a parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” he did not receive permission from Coolio specifically, and the resulting parody offended both Coolio’s strong sense of ethics and deep sense of solidarity with the Luddite community.
Nevertheless for the sake of this bit, I’m going to ask you to imagine that Al is seeking permission to parody “Achy Breaky Heart” from Billy Ray Cyrus specifically despite him recording but not writing the country smash. I think it might go a little something like this:
Al: So, Mr. Cyrus, I’d like to request permission to record and release a parody of “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Billy Ray Cyrus: Wow! I am flattered! Of course. I am a fan! A huge fan! What’s it going to be about, cheeseburgers? Wheel of Fortune? Is it going to be about cheeseburgers and Wheel of Fortune?
Al: Not quite. It’s going to be about how everyone hates that stupid song, and by extension, everyone hates you as well, including the narrator of the song, who hates your work so much he wants to vomit in disgust every time he hears it.
Billy Ray Cyrus: Harsh but fair. You don’t really feel that way, though, do you? I mean, you respect me as an artist, right? Man to man, I have your respect?
Awkward silence for a solid minute, interrupted only by ragged breathing
Billy Ray Cyrus: You know, “Achy Breaky Heart” doesn’t really represent me as an artist. I’ve got some poetry notebooks I keep laying around that give a better sense of who I am as a person. And, you know, I make a big show of being Christian for the bible-thumpers who buy my CDs but I’d describe myself as more “spiritual” than anything else. Look, what say we get together, have a little smoke session, followed by a songwriting session. I think the world would be excited for a Billy Ray-“Weird Al” Yankovic collabo.
Al: Nah, I’m good with the permission. Have a nice life. (Hangs up)
“Achy Breaky Song” is certainly one of the more mean-spirited songs in Al’s catalog. It’s the rare instance where Al is unmistakably making fun of the song he’s singing, and the singer. Al captures Billy Ray’s “Elvis as 1980s Chippendale’s dancer” singing style and persona but he and his collaborators get so understandably bored with this inane ditty that by the end they’ve overloaded the track with random silliness—kazoos, animal noises, the feigned flatulence of "Musical Mike" Kieffer –to compensate for the lack of inspiration at its core.
“Achy Breaky Song” got Al on country radio for the first time but at a distinct cost. “Achy Breaky Song” is a relative anomaly in Al’s work less because it’s a country song than because it’s uncharacteristically mean from an artist who has thrived on being nice.
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