Day Nine: "Buckingham Blues" from "Weird Al" Yankovic
Al’s career is unique in many ways. One of the ways in which Al differs from everyone else has to do with the fairly central role permission plays in determining which songs Al is able to put out commercially and which are doomed to never see official release. Prince, for example, never had to ask anyone for permission to release a song, with the exception of his record company, but if Al wanted to parody one of Prince’s songs, then he needed to get permission from the man himself. In what we can all agree was his sole eccentricity, Prince refused to let Al parody his music, no doubt out of fear that Al would improve upon his work to such an extent that he’d be exposed as a fraud and a phony and run out of the business.
“Buckingham Blues”, for example, started out as a parody of John Mellencamp’s little ditty bout Jack and Diane, two American kids growing up in the heartland. Only instead of chronicling the poignantly small-time existence of American teens in mid-America the song would have documented the antithetical existences of people way up higher on the socioeconomic ladder, right there at the tippy top with the Pope and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Prince Charles and Princess Diana, whose royal marriage revolutionized the marriage industry (it could be argued that it helped create the wedding industry, and the notion that every bride should and could be Princess for a day).
That parody did not happen for some reason but the endlessly resourceful Al took the song in a different direction by making it a blues song rather than a proper parody. “Buckingham Blues” is consequently an unusually pure representation of a curious, curiously ubiquitous and strangely deathless comedic subgenre I have taken to calling, “The Comically Incongruous White Folks Blues.” As the name suggests, the Comically Incongruous White Folks Blues song is rooted in the notion that blues is an inherently African-American art form rooted in a specifically African-American set of struggles and a distinctly African-American form of psychic pain, one rooted insuffering and oppression, racism and degradation.
The Comically Incongruous White Folks Blues reverses the racial angle by making the subject and/or singer of the blues song not only white but a comically over-the-top representation of white people and white culture. The core joke of the Comically Incongruous White Folks Blues is that exemplars of unexamined white privilege, like the babysitter in the motion picture The Adventures of Babysitting who favors a black blues club with a down and dirty ditty hipping them to her particular angst, have no right to sing the blues, particularly to black people, yet feel compelled to do so anyway.
The Comically Incongruous White Folks Blues is at once a cheeky act of cultural appropriation and a meta-commentary on cultural appropriation. They’re a way for white people to perform black music without denying their fundamental whiteness. They both reflect and satirize some of our confusion, uncertainty and awkwardness when it comes to race and class.
They’re meditations on whiteness more than they are on the blues, and no one in the entire history of the world, with the possible exception of Nicolas Sparks is whiter than Prince Charles. How white is Prince Charles? If you look up “White dude” in the dictionary, it’s accompanied by a picture of Prince Charles. Then again, if you look up, “inbred” you also find an unflattering photograph of the British royal’s pasty face and horse mouth. It goes beyond that. If you look up “erectile dysfunction”, “micro-penis”, “pedophilia”, “oozing boil”, “dying from syphilis” and literally dozens of disgusting, stomach-turning words and phrases and you’ll find the same awful photograph of Prince Charles.
What I’m saying is that the dude who writes the dictionary has a bizarre, slanderous grudge against Prince Charles and filled the book with insane attacks on him. To be honest, I’m surprised he got all of that nastiness past his editor and copy-editor. Thankfully, the narrator of “Buckingham Blues” has a whole lot more sympathy for the couple he calls, “Chuck and Diane”, who he goes on to describe as “Couple British kids from the Palace of Buckingham.”
Part of the humor of the The Comically Incongruous White Folks Blues lies in the generic nature of the music and composition. It’s only a slight exaggeration to state that every single one of these songs has the same generic, ba-dum-ba-dum-dum rhythm, a groove that instantly says to audiences, “This is a blues song, but not one of those serious ones.”
Indeed, the groove for “Buckingham Blues” bears a distinct resemblance to that of Al’s later number “Generic Blues” but the music doesn’t matter as much as lyrics that filter the royals’ life of infinite leisure through the prism of a blues world of eternal suffering. The comedy comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of an art form that’s all about howling despair and a subject matter that’s all stiff-upper-lip propriety, but it also comes from the song’s distinctly American, working-class take on a distinctly British, upper-class world, like when Al howls, “They don't serve no Twinkies/With their afternoon tea/Never had a dinner made by Chef Boyardee.”
The references to Twinkies and Chef Boyardee do not seem at all incidental. For the young Al of the early 1980s, everything was about consumerism, everything was about consumption, everything was about the joy and agony and absurdity of capitalism. The singer of “Buckingham Blues” is obviously not a royal subject, nor a gentleman with any sense of propriety or deference. He’s a man who clearly processes the lives and pain of the British royal family through tabloids. In that respect, the Royals are as much a product of the supermarket as Oscar Meyer bologna and Rocky Road ice cream.
Yankovic’s career spans era. Hell, he started releasing singles officially around the same time hip hop did. Like the genre that has given Al some of his biggest, least likely hits (such as “White And Nerdy” and “Amish Paradise”), has gone a whole lot farther than anyone imagined possible. In the aughts, Yankovic revived his career in a big way with a song that pioneered nerd core, or Comically Incongruous White Folks Rap, as I like to call it. When it comes to being white and nerdy, “Weird Al” is an O.G in the game.
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