Day: Eighty-Eight: "Talk Soup" from Alapalooza
If you’re like me, you’re pretty freaking excited about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s upcoming tour for many reasons, one of which is that for the first time in decades, it appears like Al will be leaving his screens at home. It’s hard to overstate the significance of this shift. Screens figure have historically figured very prominently in both Al’s lyrics and performance iconography because screens have historically figured prominently in American life, particularly American pop culture and American communication.
Video screens where images and footage from Al’s vaunted, much-televised past compete for the audience’s attention with the man himself in the flesh have long been staples of Al’s concerts. There’s a certain pleasing synchronicity to this symphony of screens, reflecting each other at odd and sometimes revelatory angles.
It’s appropriate on a conceptual as well as performance level for Al to be backed by screens in concert because so much of his music is about screens and the central yet shifting role they have played in our lives and our dreams and our imaginations. In the 1980s, the period of Al’s more furious, prolific and fruitful exertion, those screens were of course the television sets that were at the epicenter of American life and transmitted not just images of magical figures like Gilligan, Ed McMahon and Ethel Mertz but also commercial advertisements for miracle products that would enrich our lives immeasurably and solve problems we didn’t even know we had.
Then in the 90s and aughts, Al followed larger social and societal trends and began to replace TV screens (some 2000 inches in size!) in his songs with computer screens. It turns out computers could do all sorts of amazing, borderline miraculous that have transformed how we live and work and communicate, like allow us to watch television more conveniently.
So there’s an undeniable synchronicity to Al bringing screens out on the road in the past to share his insanely telegenic history and many television and film and music video appearances, many of them riffing on other iconic television, films and music videos. This is particularly true of “Talk Soup”, a song specifically designed to accompany a television show about other television shows composed of snarky comic commentary from a series of wisenheimers, including Greg Kennear, John Henson, Hal Sparks, Aisha Tyler and finally Joel McHale.
Yes, “Talk Soup” was commissioned to be the new Talk Soup theme song but was never used for reasons Yankovic was never quite explained. Yet it lives on as an album cut on Alapalooza exploring, in tabloid culture and television, two themes Al has explored obsessively. Al’s earlier tabloid opus, “The Midnight Star” took the form of an enthusiastic spiel for the titular tabloid.
“Talk Soup” traffics in similarly sordid, tabloid subject matter but from a different angle, and one that helps distinguish it fr”om lesser similar efforts like “Jerry Springer.” The song’s singer is obsessed with being one of the human oddities and latter-day freak shows who populated sordid daytime talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show, Maury and Donahue and helped housewives and heroin addicts fill the hours with their white trash melodrama and frequent fisticuffs.
Why does this curious man, this self-described “I'm just a cross-dressin' alcoholic neo-NaziPorno star, as you may have guessed” want so badly to expose his eccentricities to the general public? He never quite specifies. He just seems convinced that he’ll better if he publicly exposes the kinds of secrets most people would want to hide even from their closest friends and relatives.
“Talk Soup” delights in the randomness and vulgarity of the tabloid realm, in its pathological obsession with outrage and transgression. Sonically, the big, brassy “Talk Soup” sounds a little like a pastiche of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” but “Waffle King” is the stated Gabriel tribute of Alapalooza.
“Talk Soup” captures an earlier, innocent era of outrage, when people were still shocked by things like Bigfoot and Elvis sighting and not completely beaten down by the unrelenting awfulness of everyday life. In “Talk Soup”, tabloids were a fetid sewer that ran beneath pop culture and was gingerly avoided by respectable folks.
In 2017, our whole culture is a fetid sewer lorded over by a close personal friend of The National Enquirer named Donald Trump who is a relatively pure creature of tabloid sleaze, with his pathological emphasis on sex and power and petty feuds and vicious personal attacks and unhinged conspiracy theories.
If the one-man freak show singing “Talk Soup” is an “anorexic co-dependent bingo addictstripper born without a chin” then our President is an “orange-skinned, lying, thieving, con man fake college proprietor without a conscience.” Tell me that the carnivalesque stunt where Trump parading women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and assault just before a Presidential debate wasn’t a Geraldo-type stunt.
The singer here will do and say anything crazy just to get his name and face on television. I'm pretty certain that's true of the President as well, and, in fact, explains much of his behavior and actions.
The craziness outlined on “Talk Soup” are normal now. In 1993, the idea that a man would be so desperate to appear on screens that he’d gleefully debase himself was both rooted in reality (and, of course, television) but also exaggerated to a comic degree. In 2017, the idea that a man or woman would be so desperate to appear on screens that they’d gleefully debase themselves, is still rooted in reality but it’s also the underlying basis of the whole ugly swamp known as “reality TV”, which was just a baby, really, when Al released this song, and, alas, hasn’t really grown or evolved, or matured in the ensuing twenty-three years. If anything, it’s probably devolved dramatically, so there’s something incongruously nostalgic about this song’s affectionate tribute to something that was already bad, but would only grow bigger and more malignant, as trash TV gave way to trash reality television and then ultimately trash reality.
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