Day Twenty: "Mr. Popeil" from In 3-D
You may have a hard time believing this, but I was a bit of an odd duck growing up. I remember semi-vividly a six month stretch in my teens when I would tried to escape the crushing, inexorable horror of every day life by amusing myself imagining Fred Schneider talk-shouting unlikely things in his signature style.
I’d stand there at the Blockbuster Video where I worked as a clerk with a big, dumb smile on my face as I imagined the tiny little Fred Schneider inside my brain yelling things like the following,
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!!!”
“Abortion stops a beating heart!”
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”
“I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum and I’m all out of bubblegum!”
Yes, I was able to distract myself briefly from my intense adolescent angst by imagining The B-52s leaving their typical subject matter behind to wade into some comically incongruous territory. The key was to imagine Schneider singing something howlingly inappropriate. The essence of comedy often comes down to incongruous juxtapositions that say something both funny and incisive about both sides. “King Of Suede” for example, undercuts the breathless pretension of The Police and particularly Sting, on both a musical and lyrical level, by applying that somber intensity not to the pain of existence but rather to the sales pitch of a tailor who works next door to Willy’s Fun Arcade.
“Mr. Popeil” takes a different approach. Here, the wackiness of the delivery is matched by the wackiness of the subject matter. In that respect, Al isn’t really spoofing the B-52s so much as he’s honoring them and borrowing from the “Rock Lobster” template in using a crazy throwback sound to chronicle crazy throwback subject matter.
On a sonic level, “Mr. Popeil” is an impressive recreation not just of the B-52s sound, with its expansive groove, scrappy surf guitar and cascading waterfalls of boy-girl vocals from Al and female back-up singers that include Lisa Popeil, a member of the prestigious informercial family Al sass-talks/shouts the praises of.
Popeil is a very “Weird Al” type of celebrity, in that he became famous, after a fashion, pretty much for yelling on television, and selling things on television, and using television for its purest and most authentic purpose: to sell morons things they don’t need. “Mr. Popeil” is, accordingly, an extensive list of “miracle products” that are miraculously pointless. .
The singer is able to match the enthusiasm of television pitchman Ron Popeil, who helped popularize the phrase “But wait, there’s more!” and will burn in the flames of hell for eternity for his crime, pretty much by being insane. Like so many of Al’s songs, “Mr. Popeil” takes the manic, hard-sell approach of a sales pitch but from a different angle.
Al’s gadget maniac isn’t selling anything other than the idea than the Popeil family of products is God’s gift to consumers, particularly housewives. In a faithful recreation of Fred Schneider's excitable screech, Al angrily/annoyingly demands a series of wonder products Ronco just happened to manufacture.
Like a good brainwashed consumer, the song’s singer is savvy and desperate enough to ask for these products by name. He rages about his need for a Vegematic and Pocket Fisherman and tools that will assist him in such exquisitely pointless tasks as scrambling an egg that’s still inside its shell, cutting a tin can and shining pennies.
The song speaks the annoying, exuberant, catchphrase-filled vocabulary of the deal, complete with inane infomercial cliches cheerfully repeated like, “Operators are standing by”, “It slices, it dices!” and “It’s not sold in any store” and “Call our toll-free number”, and of course, Popeil’s trademark “But wait, there’s more!”
The song is about consumer ecstasy, about wonder devices that fill one particular lunatic’s life and imagination with joy and meaning and purpose. But it’s also how the hard-sell pitch of infomercials becomes, to borrow the title of the book Don DeLillo wrote in 1985 shamelessly ripping off In 3-D, part of the white noise of American society, the commercials and jingles and pop songs and TV shows that drive us crazy, but also give us so much pleasure and escape. Sometimes these wonder devices even give us something approaching joy, if never quite the sustained ecstasy expressed in “Mr. Popeil.”
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