Day Ninety-Four: "Amish Paradise" from Bad Hair Day
Give yourselves a hand, Al fans, because with “Amish Paradise”, the first track on 1996’s Bad Hair Day, we have officially made it to the ninth album in our kaleidoscopic, obsessively completist journey through the life and career of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Nine albums! That’s a whole lot of albums.
After Bad Hair Day, we'll only have five studio albums left—1999’s Running with Scissors, 2003’s Poodle Hat, 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, 2011’s Alpocalypse and then 2014’s Mandatory Fun. I’ll close the column out with the 2017 outtakes and rarities collection Medium Rarities, and then, friends, I will be done with this project, with the exception of the extensive work I’ll do turning it into a book or possibly reviving it for next year’s tour for a new column, What A Long, Weird Trip It's Been: Al on the Road.
But at some point I will be done with this project and then what will I do? What will be my next Quixotic venture? (Looks out thoughtfully in the distant). Who knows? But today I’m writing about one of the biggest and most dramatic songs in Al's career, a Luddite anthem that sparked what rap historians have unanimously hailed as the biggest, most important, and, confusingly enough, deadly hip hop beef ever, easily surpassing 2Pac versus Biggie: “Weird Al” Yankovic versus Coolio.
But the origins of the Coolio versus “Weird Al” Yankovic saga begins decades earlier when an experimental and ambitious Stevie Wonder discovered that he could use a sophisticated and advanced synthesizer to replicate an entire string section. Wonder used this innovation along with assists from Hare Krishna musicians and the West Angeles Church of God gospel choir to give his despairing 1976 song “Pastime Paradise” an almost overwhelming sense of majesty, grandeur and intensity.
With not much more than synthesizer, percussion and a whole lot of voices Wonder creates an overpowering wall of sound that simultaneously reaches skyward to the heavens while conveying bottom pain and despair, even hopelessness. It’s not just a song. It’s a production. It’s an extravaganza. It’s a masterpiece prominently featured on one of the towering classics of soul music: Songs in the Key of Life.
Just as Al is able to draw upon the popularity and power and catchiness of the songs he parodies, Coolio, guest vocalist L.V (real name: Larry Sanders) and producer Doug Rasheed draw upon the solemn gospel majesty of “Pastime Paradise” to create something epic and melodramatic, sweepingly orchestral yet as intimate and urgent as a dying hustler’s prayer for redemption and forgiveness.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” wasn’t just a hit song. It was a phenomenon. It was the most popular song of the year, selling nearly six million copies worldwide. It was just as successful critically, topping the Pazz & Jop poll. But as successful as the song was, the video might have made an even bigger impression.
The oft-mocked video finds Dangerous Minds star Michelle Pfeiffer reprising her role as a white savior of a teacher being “schooled” in the bleak realities of life in the ghetto by soulful urban Bard Coolio. By the end of the song, you really sense that Pfeiffer’s character now grasps that “Hip Hop” truly is “the poetry of the streets” and that, if you really think about it, wasn’t Shakespeare kind of the first rapper? It really makes you see things differently if you look at it that way.
Both “Pastime Paradise” and “Gangsta Paradise” have the power and scope of great gospel songs. Al drew upon this with his parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by making the song explicitly about religion. Stevie Wonder and Coolio and guest vocalist L.V took us to church on “Pastime Paradise” and “Gangsta’s Paradise” before Al took this singularly soaring sonic bed and made it the basis for an extended Amish joke.
Now that I’m no longer collaborating directly with Al, I can tell the rest of the story of how “Amish Paradise” and some of Al’s other religious-themed ditties came about. Some time in the mid 1990s, Al was hanging out with Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, doing mushrooms with them in Joshua Tree, as one does, when Dawkins suddenly had a mystic revelation.
“God doesn’t exist!” the preeminent Atheist howled into the wind. He went on explain, “It is therefore incumbent upon the three of us, who I have just decided to dub The Secret Council Of Militant Atheist Overlords to show humanity that God has never been anything more than a self-regarding fairy tale the weak-minded tell themselves and each other in an attempt to deny the unrelenting awfulness of existence.”
He then pointed dramatically at Maher. “You—funnyman! Use your gift for mirth and merriment to convince the public that people of faith are dumb and wrong and should be made fun of for not being as clever as us atheists. Actually, you do not have to use humor to spread this message. In fact, feel free to be as self-righteous, sanctimonious, smug and superior as possible while spreading this essential message. Only by making people feel dumb for believing in anything can we bring about the rational scientific utopia that we dream of.”
Then he turned his attention to Al. “You, “Weird” one. The masses trust you. They believe in your truths, no matter how painful. That’s why they embraced BOTH “Fat” and “Eat It.” You were telling these ignorant pig-creatures that they were monsters of consumption and conformity and consumerism and they “ate” it up, so to speak, with masochistic relish.”
He continued, with the gloomy forcefulness of, ironically, an old testament prophet, “That is wonderful! But it is just a start. Alfred Yankovic, You must use your art to help us destroy the very foundations of organized religion. First, you stuck a dagger in the heart of their bogus faith, their so-called “Christmas” with not one but TWO anti-anthems depicting the holiday not as a blessed, sacred event but rather the setting for a nuclear apocalypse and a bloody, corpse-ridden killing spree engineered and executed—no pun intended!—by none other than Jolly Saint Nick himself!”
Dawkins thundered, “But that still won’t be enough! I want you to further destroy the tenets of organized faith by recording two more fiery satirical Molotov Cocktails tossed directly into the heart of Judeo-Christian morality!
In the first, you will use your words and your wit to destroy Luddites by disparaging their faith through humor. People will laugh, because they themselves are not what you will cruelly refer to as “crazy Mennonites” but this song will sew doubt and cause people to lose faith in Christianity. After you release “Amish Paradise”, which is what this manifesto will be titled, it will only be a matter of time until the Christian nation of the United States is itself an “Atheist Paradise.”
“In the final bit of my plan, you will then attack the cornerstones of Judaism by releasing another satirical grenade entitled “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.” People will laugh, but while they’re laughing the very fabric of their worldview is being completely undone. “Amish Paradise” will pretty much instantly negate Christianity. “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi” will do the same for Judaism. The insane cult of belief is about to be destroyed and we three are the cause.”
Then he cackled maniacally. Nah, I’m just kidding but when Coolio said that he felt Al’s parody was disrespectful towards the Amish his concern wasn’t just a product of Coolio’s famous hypersensitivity towards slights to Mennonites.
“Amish Paradise” is the original White and Nerdy anthem, a tribute to the simple life and humility delivered through one of the least simple, humble vessels imaginable: a melodramatic rap song. The incongruous comic juxtaposition of hip hop arrogance and attitude and really old time religion fuels the song comedically but on a larger level it’s about the arrogance and hypocrisy of the faithful.
The plainly dressed crooner boasts of his Christ-like ability to literally “turn the other cheek” after a non-Luddite kicked him in the posterior. He even goes so far as to say he wished the impertinent youngster well. But his actions are the antithesis of selfless as he can’t help but brag, “I'll be laughing my head off when he's burning in hell.”
Long before Conor4Real bragged obnoxiously about his lack of vanity on “I’m So Humble” the Mennonite flow master here was bragging of his humility, “Think you're really righteous? Think you're pure in heart? Well, I know I'm a million times as humble as thou art.” Like Conor4Real the thing about the singer here that’s so impressive is how infrequently he mentions all of his successes.
The Luddite antagonizing the listener is devoid of true humility, of course. His piousness has a very specific purpose: to win him a cushy seat alongside the Lord up in heaven for eternity while all the TV-watching, modern-convenience-dependent philistines around him are roasting forever in the flames of hell.
The singer draws a direct line between his ostentatious Godliness on earth and privileged place in Paradise when he brags, “I'm the pious guy the little Amlettes wanna be like/On my knees day and night scorin' points for the afterlife.” He might need those points in the afterlife because as you’ve probably ascertained by this point, this Amish gentleman is a bit of an overly aggressive creep.
It’s not enough for him to brag relentlessly about his humility. He also has an unfortunate tendency to threaten people whose piousness and plainness he finds lacking. He follows up his boast about scoring points in the afterlife with the chilling threat, “So don't be vain and don't be whiny/Or else, my brother, I might have to get medieval on your heinie.”
“Amish Paradise” takes on the arrogance and hypocrisy of the righteous in general but the Amish in particular. Satirists are invariably granted more comic leeway to lampoon their own faiths and cultures and obviously Al isn’t Amish so there are definitely moments throughout the song where Al either pushes the boundaries of good taste or even exceeds them.
That’s both surprising, given how cautious and careful Al is in every facet of his career, and unsurprising, given the song’s title and conceit and also that comedy often involves making fun of people. Lyrics like, “We're all crazy Mennonites/Living in an Amish paradise/There’s no cops or traffic lights/Living in an Amish paradise/But you'd probably think it bites” won’t win any awards for cultural sensitivity but Al can get away with questionable sentiments like that (outside of Coolio’s mind, at least) because everyone know that Al is a good guy whose reputation is impeccable, as are his intentions.
Besides, “Amish Paradise” is ultimately too silly to be offensive. When he was still angry about a parody that nevertheless poured royalty cash into his bank, Coolio complained that Al’s parody was “disrespectful” towards a song that meant something. That was true. Stevie Wonder and Coolio and L.V’s songs weren’t just socially conscious and ambitious lyrically: they sounded important because they were important and remain important. They sounded like songs that mattered, that were about something.
A lot of the songs Al chooses to spoof are goofy fun but sometimes he chooses something like “Gangsta’s Paradise” that is important, that does have an unmistakable emotional sonic heft Yankovic undercuts by making the substantive and somber superficial and silly. It can be easy to forget how massive “Gangsta’s Paradise” was. It was the top-selling single of 1995 and though “Amish Paradise” is huge in terms of Al’s career and took up a lot of space culturally, it never rose higher than 53 on the singles chart.
Al’s parody was nowhere near as successful as the song that inspired it but it sure feels like the two songs are equally well remembered this day. It was a turtle and the hare type situation between Al and Coolio. So while Coolio might have won the sales battle by a decisive margin, Al won the war, to the extent that Coolio today is known primarily for a few unmissable hits, an unusual hairstyle (one might even go so far as to say that for Coolio, every day is a bad hair day) and last but not least, being that dude who thought it was a good idea to publicly beef with “Weird Al” Yankovic for some reason.
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