Day Twenty-Seven: "Dare To Be Stupid" from Dare To Be Stupid and The Transformers: The Movie Soundtrack
One of the reasons Al’s music has always appealed to me is because there is an element of criticism and commentary in everything he does. He is both critic and artist, the observer and the observed, the star and the parodist of the star. As a kid who thought like a critic, and would, for better but mostly worse, grow up to be a critic, I sensed that "Weird Al" Yankovic was as close to being a rock star as I’d ever get.
I don’t mean that I thought that I would write a book with “Weird Al” Yankovic when I grew up. I never could have imagined that. What I meant was that I identified with Al because he clearly had the brain of a critic. His brain was an enduring source of fascination to me when we were working together. There were so many things it could do freakishly well. He is a true renaissance man, an inveterate student of the world and a deconstructionist before the word became a tiresome buzzword.
Sometimes the commentary is overt and filled with affection, like Al’s tribute to Kurt Cobain’s adorable idiosyncrasies (has enough time passed that we can now call Kurt Cobain adorable in good conscience? Yes, it has) on “Smells Like Nirvana” or the more ambivalent and ambiguous Lady Gaga parody/homage“Perform This Way.”
Sometimes the commentary is meaner and snarkier, like in the “I Got My Mind Set On You” parody “This Song’s Just Six Words Long.” But I don’t think Al has ever released a song as mean-spirited as “Still Billy Joel To Me”, an early parody that was never released for a couple of reasons.
The parody was never released because Al didn’t think Billy Joel would approve, or give permission. Yet it was also nixed because at an early age Al figured out what kind of an artist and a man he was. That did not involve being mean-spirited. Oh sure, there would be voluminous darkness and weirdness and strange characters and sketchy situations in Al’s songs but he somehow manages to convey an air of genial affability no matter how grim and ghoulish things things get. This includes the many "Weird Al" Yankovic songs that end in some manner of nuclear apocalypse. Those can be a little dark, no matter how peppy they sound.
Al’s parodies and pastiches are powered not by derision but by affection. Al is a semi-secret evangelist on behalf of the artists he loves. Al’s early EP and album track “Happy Birthday” isn’t just a rather brazen homage to Tonio K: it also functions as something of borderline subliminal advertising for the artist. Hell, I bought some of Tonio K’s early stuff on the basis of Al’s homages and was blown away. K’s a snarling, subversive oddball genius too smart and too original for his own good but Al captured his essence and transmitted it to what would become a sizable audience in the years and decades ahead.
Almost all of Al’s songs qualify as cultural and musical commentary of some sort, and to me, the pastiches are more interesting because Al isn’t just swapping out old lyrics for new ones: he’s creating music and words that are new yet cut from a distinctive, familiar pattern. On “Dare To Be Stupid” Al captures the grand gestalt of Devo so eerily that even now I’m not entirely positive that “Dare To Be Stupid” isn’t actually a Devo song, and not just an uncanny simulacrum of the same.
Driven by rampaging synthesizers that collectively create a sense of relentlessly kinetic energy, the song is largely devoted to dispensing advice, life lessons if you will. In that respect, the song is like Baz Luhrmann’s classic joint “"Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” if the person dispensing wisdom was completely insane rather than casually wise.
Al being Al, the terrible advice the lunatic singing the song dispenses is saturated in pop culture references, particularly involving television and advertising, and, of course, advertising on television. Because if you were bold enough to dare to be stupid in 1985, there were an awful lot of consumer products and corporations eager to help you in your quest. When not twisting and contorting cliches and aphorisms into neat little knots, Al admonishes listeners to be a “coffee achiever”, after an ad campaign launched by the National Coffee Association, an organization designed to convince people to drink coffee with commercials featuring such “coffee achievers” as David Bowie and Kurt Vonnegut. Seriously. Coffee was apparently so out of fashion in the 1980s that they needed to release commercials encouraging the public to consume it.
Elsewhere, Al references the Paul Masson’s Orson Welles-fueled “We will sell no wine before its time” commercials and Charmin’s Mr. Whipple line of commercials designed to brainwash the American public into thinking something terrible would happen to them—probably the death of a child—if they transgress the laws of nature and the angry dictates of Mr. Whipple by squeezing the popular toilet paper brand.
“Dare To Be Stupid” is a brilliant and weirdly necessary extension of Devo’s concept of De-Evolution. It’s a boldly nihilistic invitation to escape the strictures of sanity and intelligence and embrace every American’s God-given, inalienable right to be a boob-tube-worshipping consumerist moron.
Deep into the song, slipped into dangerous, dadaist and nonsensical advice is the following counsel: “Settle down, raise a family, join the P-T-A/Buy some sensible shoes and a Chevrolet/And party 'till you're broke and they drive you away.” Some of y’all might know that particular scheme as “The American Dream” but in “Dare To Be Stupid” it feels just as intentionally pointless and nonsensical as everything else.
Al is channeling Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh and nails the New Wave icon’s ability to be so incredibly white in his take on funk that he somehow comes all the way around and becomes weirdly funky and hip. David Byrne during the Talking Heads’ enjoyably lengthy funk stage also mastered that dynamic, and would be the honoree of another of Al’s most sincere homages in the Talking Heads pastiche “Dog Eat Dog.”
Of all of the pastiches Al would record through the decades, he seldom, if ever, got it as right as he did on “Dare To Be Stupid.” The song has enjoyed a prominence unusual among non-parodies. Unless you include “UHF”, from the soundtrack and motion picture of the same name, or "Polka Party!", it’s the only Al song with an album named for it.
In news that blew my mind as a prepubescent boy, “Dare To Be Stupid” appeared in The Transformers: the Movie, although I was not yet savvy enough to realize the magnitude of the song’s placement. The song was the double A-side to Stan Bush’s “The Touch”, which some of y’all might know as the song a strung out Dirk Diggler is delusionally convinced will make him a Marky Mark-level pop star in Boogie Nights.
One of the neatest aspects of this project has been seeing how far Al’s influence extends. Now I’ll never be able to see the “The Touch” scene in Boogie Nights again without thinking about how closely aligned the iconically terrible power ballad’s commercial fortunes were with one of Al’s signature songs.
So “Dare To Be Stupid” didn’t just get to be on a movie sacred to ten year old boys at the time: he also has an odd connection to one of the most iconic scenes in one of the most iconic movies of the 1990s as well. A decade later Al got even more leverage out of the song and its endless second life when he provided the voice for Wreck-Gar, the leader of a group of pop-culture-obsessed (of course) robots known as the Junkions on an episode of the animated Transformers television show.
Then came the ultimate accolade. On Behind The Music, Mark Mothersbaugh described how shocked and honored he was by the song, describing it, without a tinge of hyperbole, as, “the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.”
You know what? He’s right. For all its weird angles and dadaist attitude, there is something beautiful about “Dare To Be Stupid.” In terms of the mythology of contemporary geekdom it’s a fusion of two complementary gods, geek deities in perfect alignment. Because while the song isn’t technically a collaboration, it feels like one. Only this time rather than a conventional collaboration Al, is taking Devo’s essence, their ineffable joie de vivre, and creating something simultaneously new and old, instant and vintage.
In daring to be stupid, Al further confirmed his genius, comic and otherwise, while paying perfect tribute to simpatico geek icons.
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