Day Seventeen: "Buy Me A Condo" from In 3-D
“Buy Me A Condo” is another fascinating first in Al’s oeuvre in that it’s his first and, to date, only reggae song as well as the first time Al recorded a musical in a conventionally African-American genre, from the perspective of a Jamaican immigrant no less. The song’s narrator leaves behind his island paradise and spiritual ways to assimilate into a society and culture that could not be less spiritual, or less empty in its wanton materialism.
In “Buy Me A Condo” being an American is largely a matter of buying things. It’s less an identity than an assortment of possessions and a “pocket full of credit cards” that will allow this lucky newcomer to the American way of life the opportunity to be in debt for the rest of his life. For him, the United States is all about condo ownership, wall-to-wall carpeting, and, in the ultimate piece of mid-1980s preppie conspicuous consumerism: Izod, the “the funny little tee-shirt with the alligator on.”
“Buy Me A Condo” is quietly audacious and unsparing in its depiction of American culture as rooted not in religion or art or a shared sense of ideals but rather a shared mania for consumerism and a deep-seated belief, found throughout Al’s oeuvre, that there is no problem that ill that cannot be treated through retail therapy.
The lonely, misguided Rasta Man of “Buy Me A Condo” trades in a rich, vibrant, indigenous culture as a Ganja-smoking reggae aficionado for an American existence that could not be more soul-suffocatingly lily white. “Buy Me A Condo” is consequently something of a meditation on the nature of whiteness. Think of it as an early variation on “White And Nerdy” that uses a historically African-American genre to simultaneously send up and ironically honor American whiteness at its dorkiest and most embarrassing.
The song irreverently depicts assimilation as a matter of de-evolution. A man who once had fire and passion and idealism trades that all in for a “bowl of plastic fruit” and the opportunity to get an Amway distributorship that will allow him to spread the gospel of capitalism to others. He trades in Bob Marley for Jackson Browne, and the soulful rhythms of island life for empty plastic materialism. .
Americans have a tendency to romanticize and fetishize Rastafarian culture. We tend to see Rastafarians as exotic and pure and more aligned with the natural world than our own degraded society. The singer of “Buy Me A Condo reverses this dynamic by seeing whiteness and all of the awful, awful, awfully white things that come with it as exquisitely, tantalizingly exotic and foreign and consequently desirable.
Forget “Rhapsody In Blue”, Citizen Kane or the Constitution: in “Buy Me A Condo”, the essence of American life can be found in a “weenie barbecue”, preferably one paid for with one of many credit cards.
“Buy Me A Condo” is one of the only Al recordings, if not his only non-polka-medley recording, to feature even a passing drug reference when the narrator sings about throwing away all his ganja, although bootlegs of Al’s concerts from the mid-1980s frequently featured the singer screeching for minutes on end about his desperate craving for Quaaludes.
I kid, of course. Al seems to have made it through the world of 1980s rock and roll without ever using drugs, which is a testamen to his commitment to clean living and ferocious self-discipline. It also helps explain why Al is as sharp and relevant and popular nearly four decades into his career as a pop parodist as he has ever been.
Though the singer of “Buy Me A Condo” may very well have made a mistake trading in ganja for weenie barbecues and Tupperware parties but Al remains an unbeatable advertisement for a sober lifestyle and heroic self-restraint.
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