Day Fourteen "Eat It" from In 3-D
It would be tempting to say that Al peaked early except that it in my mind, Al is still peaking. To put it in 30 Rock terms, Al is still Reaganing, still making music that matters not despite being spectacularly silly, but because it continues to be so heroically, spectacularly silly. And that is what we need in our world now. More silliness. More joy. More escape. More that reminds us what’s great and indestructible and right. And that is Al, then, now and always.
But you cannot deny that Al hit a righteous groove pretty damn early in his career, when he was barely into his mid-20s and on only his second album. Only fourteen songs into his recording career, “Eat It” happened and nothing was ever the same. “Eat It” made Al international. “Eat It” made Al an essential component of MTV’s early renaissance, when its name was still associated with borderline avant-garde filmmaking and cutting-edge editing and production design and not the dumbing down of American culture, style for the sake of style and mindless T&A.
Early MTV was full of icy Eurotrash weirdoes with strange haircuts and arctic beauties striking Nagel poses. But Al’s heavy presence on the young channel helped make it seem friendly and approachable to a shy eight-year-old like the painfully self-conscious boy I used to be. So did the even more ubiquitous presence of a fragile creature who had been bullied and tormented since childhood into greatness: Michael Jackson.
To my eight-year-old self, who treasured his LPS of Thriller and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s In 3-D equally, “Weird Al” and Michael Jackson were simpatico figures. They were utterly unique. There was no one like them. No one danced like Michael Jackson or sang like Michael Jackson although heaven knows people have tried. And no one wrote songs or made music videos that connected with children and dreamers like “Weird Al” Yankovic. They were kings of the 1980s. It would literally be impossible to imagine my childhood without both of them, or the places where they overlapped. Their legacies will forever be intertwined. For all that Al has accomplished, there’s still a pretty good chance that his obituary will mention one of his Michael Jackson parodies in its headline.
Separately and collectively, they helped make MTV a vital cultural force and benefitted from the incredible heat their videos generated. Thanks to MTV, Jackson and Yankovic were nearly as famous for making videos as they were for making music. Yet Al’s songs have always been more than blueprints for music videos (besides, the blueprints for Al’s videos are generally the videos of the songs he’s spoofing): “Eat It” takes what would appear to be a rather threadbare comic conceit–switching the words and letters around so that a tough song about violence is a nagging song about food—and builds a whole cinematic world around it.
It helps, of course, that Al and his collaborators were able to piggy-back on the cinematic world of the music video and song it was so lovingly parodying. The song begins on an intensely cinematic note, with a series of icy series of notes played on a synthesizer called a Synclavier. The Synclavier produced sounds like something you’d hear in an early John Carpenter movie as darkness descends upon a violent neighborhood.
It’s worth noting that Al’s accordion is nowhere to be heard on "Eat It." Its days of driving songs had drawn to a close as he wisely sacrificed the useful if limited gimmick of performing rock and roll on an instrument associated with Lawrence Welk’s “champagne music” for sounding as much like what he’s parodying as humanly possible. On “Eat It”, Al and his band don’t set out to sound like “Eat It” if “Eat I” were an accordion song: he just set out to sound like “Eat It.”
But before those sinister synth sounds give way to scrappy, tough guitar we hear a sound we heard an awful lot on Al’s first album and early recordings, but would be quickly phased out: Mike Kieffer’s hand flatulence. I’m on record here as not being the hugest fan of Kieffer’s additions to Al’s early work but I willingly concede that I smiled when I first heard his handiwork on Al’s breakout song.
“Eat It” was the song that would catapult Al to superstardom, that led to platinum and Grammies and a career no one could have envisioned but while making this big leap he held onto the comforting crutch of fart noises. Because while Al had a singular gift for what made people laugh when it comes to music he also understood, like any true comedy professional, that farts are just plain funny, dammit, despite being in perhaps questionable taste, taste-wise.
Within the context of In 3-D and Al’s big breakthrough moment, there’s something soothingly, comfortingly familiar about hearing those flatulent outbursts on a song that otherwise impressively reproduces not just a hit song but a song that represented the state-of-the-art in every way, from production to its integration of rock and R&B to create something at once black and white, rock and pop, tough and oddly tender.
“Beat It” is fascinatingly a tough, macho song from an artist who had to be pretty damn tough to survive his childhood and early stardom but otherwise was about the furthest thing from macho. Al similarly deviated so far from our culture’s conception of traditional rugged masculinity that part of the joke of songs like “Eat It” lies in its feigned toughness.
Even as a kid I realized that I was far from what our society expects or wants a man to be so I gravitated naturally towards figures who did as well, like “Weird Al” Yankovic and Michael Jackson. They seemed to possess some strange magic that was particularly potent for children. I remember being absolutely transfixed watching Michael Jackson do the Moonwalk on Motown 25. My dad was equally dazzled. That was a bond that we shared, and that I hope to soon share with my own son: we didn’t just admire Al and Michael Jackson, we were in awe of them. After all, “Weird Al” would not have been my first real concert (opening for The Monkees, who I was similarly obsessed with) if my dad hadn't agreed to take me, or if he did not go himself.
If “Eat It” returns to the familiar fodder of food, the perspective is different. Previously, Al sang from the unhinged perspective of people with debilitating eating disorders specific to bologna and ice cream over-consumption. In “Eat It” Yankovic switches things up and sings from the perspective of someone monomaniacally focussed on getting a picky young eater to stop being bashful and maybe enjoy a nosh before he starves to death.
In our culture, these figures, these food pimps who will not rest until young people are plotzing, until they’re so full that they have to undo the button on their jeans, are known alternately as “Jewish mothers” or “Jewish grandmothers.” Yet Al is not Jewish despite having, on his breakthrough album, two separate songs encouraging people to eat, one explicitly deli-based, and another song that finds the humor in the garment trade. I could not imagine more Jewish subject matter, including actual stories from the Jewish bible or songs about Jewish customs.
In 3-D is more Jewish than “The Dreidel Song.” It’s more Jewish than “Hava Negila”, despite Al not being Jewish. I know because in the time we worked together I was constantly all, “Hey Al, we need a tenth for our Minyan! Can you help a fellow Jew out?” and he’d be all, “I’m not Jewish. Please stop bothering me.” After the tenth or so time I began to believe him, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.
On “Eat It”, Al is every Jewish grandmother trying to convince a fussy grand-child to at least try the brisket but he’s also, confusingly but compellingly enough, sort of an alternate-universe version of Michael Jackson and also “Weird Al”, pop parodist on the rise. What really sells “Eat It”, along with other standout parodies on In 3-D is its incongruous relentlessness. The lyrics are ridiculous yet Al brings the same intensity and focus to the song that Jackson brought to the original.
As always, Al delights in language and few fields are as full of inherently funny words as food, like “spam” , “tuna casserole” and “Captain Crunch.” Any Jewish vaudevillian worth his seltzer will tell you that food is just plain funny. It’s a testament to how intensely Jewish Al’s music is that listening to In 3-D at a formative age helped me develop a Jewish sense of humor despite Al inexplicably being a goy. Al taught me that food was funny, and mindless consumerism is funny, and people are fools and hypocrites and phonies and I will always treasure those early lessons for making me the weirdo I am today, ol’ “Nutty Nathan Raebin.”