Day Fifteen: "Midnight Star" from In 3-D

Few novels have affected me as profoundly as Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and I’m not just saying that because I’m pretty dumb and am infinitely better acquainted with the Gathering of the Juggalos and the various seasons of Couples Therapy than I am with novels. Nah, I’m a non-fiction man, so my taste run more towards Violent J’s Behind The Paint than Jonathan Franzen’s Purity but when you look past the surface differences, are those two books really all that different?. 

I was particularly struck by a passage in White Noise that describes the contemporary American supermarket as a place of wonder and awe, an enchanted place of mystery where the jewels of the world come together in a paradise of consumer abundance. Almonds from Spain! Extra Virgin Olive oil from Greece. Exotic chocolates from Switzerland. Bazooka Joe bubble gum from Israel with comics in Hebrew. All are transported from their homelands to the United States, processed, packaged and distributed in boxes with famous cartoon characters on them or American flags or Olympic athletes. 

White Noise made me think of supermarkets as cathedrals of capitalism, for-profit museums of all of the incredible wonders of contemporary life and consumerism that we take for granted because we can take them for granted. Being able to take wonders for granted is one of the incredible luxuries of contemporary life for many Americans. There’s nothing so amazing, so life-changing, so incontrovertibly wonderful and true and powerful that we can’t grow bored of it almost instantly and start pining for something even better, that we can then almost instantly disregard as well. 

You just can't contain the Incredible Frog Boy

You just can't contain the Incredible Frog Boy

I consequently associate supermarkets primarily with Don DeLillo and “Weird Al” Yankovic and, to a much lesser extent, food. The supermarket is the spiritual home of a lot of Al’s work, particularly in his Reagan-era radiant youth. It’s where his beloved Oscar Meyer bologna and Rocky Road ice cream was sold, as well as the Captain Crunch and Raisin Bran he’s trying to push on the picky, finicky, possibly-soon-to-starve-to-death reluctant eater of “Eat It.”

The grocery store is also the place where the life of the narrator of “Midnight Star” changes instantly and profoundly. For it is within the racks of what are dismissively known as supermarket tabloids that he encounters a miraculous publication known as the Midnight Star that opens him up to a world beyond his wildest imagination. 

To be fair, this stuff all actually happened. The rest is just crazy! 

To be fair, this stuff all actually happened. The rest is just crazy! 

He learns that his pet may be an extraterrestrial. He further discovers that the ghost of Elvis is living in his den and that, among other wonders someone or something known as “the incredible Frog boy” is on the loose again. His mind is sufficiently blown because if you did not realize that all of the stories in newspaper tabloid are crazy fictional mix-em-ups designed exclusively to sell papers by pandering to reader’s bottomless appetite for sensationalism then the stories they contained would seem like dispatches from a crazier, more miraculous and astonishing world. 

It’s a little like Scientology. If Scientology were real, then it would not just give its zealots competitive edges in communication and business, it’d give them genuine superpowers. Then again, that is as big an “if” as the stories in Midnight Star being true. Yet like so many of the guileless obsessives in Al’s discography, Al is so myopically passionate about his greatest love in life that he lacks any perspective on it. He’s transformed instantaneously from a total outsider to a neophyte to a true believer who spends the song evangelizing on behalf of Midnight Star and its articles on how to lose twenty pounds a day eating jelly donuts and the man born without a head. 

“Midnight Star” has some of the pop-operatic lushness of Jim Steinman’s work with Meat Loaf. Like those songs, it has an outsized sense of melodrama but where Meat Loaf’s sweaty, sleazy top 40 symphonies revolved around the two perennials of young American life—sex and rock and roll—Al saves his outsized passion for a tabloid he sees as a Reagan-era version of The Matrix’s Red Pill—the skeleton key that opens the door to hidden realities. 

As such, “Midnight Star” is a tribute to the nutty ingenuity of the tabloids as much as it is a parody. You cannot be a grown man who has chosen “Weird” as his professional moniker without having an appreciation for the sillier things in life and few things were sillier in the mid-1980s than supermarket tabloids. 

Though it is ostensibly about the titular fictional tabloid, “Midnight Star” references The National Enquirer’s “Enquiring minds want to know!” slogan and seems inspired partially by Weekly World News. Being not just a profoundly funny human being but also a student and scholar of comedy, Al saw the satirical side of the notorious black-and-white tabloid. Al understood that Weekly World News went so far that it became at once a particularly outrageous tabloid and an inspired, sustained, ongoing parody of supermarket tabloids that helped pave the way for The Onion, which similarly began as a black and white tabloid parody, and which Al was an early high-profile fan and supporter of. 

“Midnight Star” lovingly catalogs the tropes and cliches of tabloids, from their peculiar obsession with Hitler’s brain being kept alive inside a jar to their equally intense obsession with UFOs and first-person testimonials, the more far-fetched the better, and finally to their never-ending jones for all things Elvis-related. 

I can’t help but look back on 1980s supermarket tabloids with a distinct nostalgia. Back then it was easy to delineate between the real, authentic, reliable news found in The New York Times and The Washington Post and the lurid fantasies of The National Enquirer and Weekly World News. Now everything is hopelessly mixed up and a President who is a less reliable source of information, about himself and the world, than the Midnight Stars of the world, uses the “word fake news” to describe any news he doesn’t like, whether it’s authentic or not. 

We could laugh about someone believing the nonsense in the tabloids back in 1984. Hell, the humor of “Midnight Star” is largely predicated on the absurdity of anyone thinking anything chronicled in its pages could be real. These days people seem not only ready to believe any old implausible, impossible-seeming nonsense, but to also act on those beliefs in scary, alarming ways. We used to be able to laugh about fake news and the tabloidization of our culture. Now it’s something we weep about, and laugh about only in the darkest, most bitter possible sense.