Day Fifty-One: "Lasagna"

Al’s music can act as a time machine, hurtling back into the past, both our own and the culture’s, and reconnecting us with the children we used to be. Hearing the opening strains of “Lasagna”, for example, instantly takes me back to the mid 1980s, when the popularity of La Bamba, Taylor Hackford’s eminently respectable biopic of Ritchie Valens briefly ignited interest in the late singer/Hispanic icon, as well as Los Lobos, the beloved band that scored a bit hit with a faithful cover of the movie’s title song. 

There were so few representations of Hispanics in mainstream Hollywood films, particularly in positive, non-drug-related roles, back then that when a movie like La Bamba came out it was seen as a referendum on the public’s interest in movies with non-white heroes as much as it was entertainment. 

La Bamba brought the past colorfully if unimaginatively to life. It was a rock and roll biopic but it was also a period film set in the waning days of the Eisenhower era, when the world was black and white and conformity was king. “Lasagna” seems to take place in the same era, if not earlier, since the song finds Al resurrecting his “overly aggressive food pusher” persona from “Eat It” but gives the pasta pimp singing it an Italian accent that runs the gamut from “impossibly cartoony and broad” to “maybe something the Italian-American Defamation League should look into, after they take care of that whole ‘mafia’ thing.”

If Al’s career is a supermarket, he has never been afraid of the ethnic food aisles and the lasagna enthusiast in “Lasagna” couldn’t be more stereotypical. Actually, that’s not true. He would be more stereotypical if he were involved in organized crime, but Al does not traffic in those kinds of negative, malevolent stereotypes. 

“Lasagna” may be stereotypical but I doubt anyone could listen to it and think that Al hates Italians, or wants to spread negative stereotypes about them. No, the protagonist of “Lasagna” may be the most explicitly, overtly, even cartoonishly Italian in Al’s work, but his bizarre obsession with food connects him with other culinary obsessives found in Al’s oeuvre.

Al’s food songs have never been my favorites, with the exception of a song like “Rye or the Kaiser (Theme From Rocky VIII)”, which is a movie song and a story song and a pop culture mythology/mash-up song as much as it is a food song. There are layers to that particular parody whereas most Al food songs have just one layer. 

The problem with food songs is that they tend to be thin on jokes, leaning instead on the inherent funniness of food words. There aren’t really any jokes in “Lasagna” but there are plenty of exquisitely sonorous, fun-to-rhyme Italian food words like the titular noodle-based delicacy, but also linguini, minestrone, calzone, marinara, zucchini and ravioli. When Al runs out of food words to rhyme, he starts including big blocks of Italian that will be familiar to fans of mob movies, like “Capice” and “Paisan.”

If Al were to release “Lasagna” as a single and make a music video for it, which would be a mistake, it would have to be in black and white like the “Lucy” video, possibly also with a splash of color, maybe red for tomato sauce. “Lasagna” is a product of our Eisenhower-era past but it actually goes back further than that. 

Listening to Al work himself into a sweat contorting his trusty squeezebox while performing a broad caricature of an old-school, old-world Italian food pimp I found myself transported to the world of vaudeville in the teens and 1920s. Al’s roots can be traced back to vaudeville, but seldom as directly as on “Lasagna”, where he really seems to be doing a broad ethnic Italian vaudeville act despite being a pop star in the late 1980s. 

“Lasagna” is never particularly funny, nor is it that clever, but Al makes it work through sweaty conviction and one of his biggest, broadest vocal performances. It’s a triumph of perspiration over inspiration, the kind of food-based trifle that only Al has ever really been able to pull off. 

Revisiting his roots as a food-obsessed accordion jockey with a palpable affection for comedy and pop culture’s past on “Lasagna” couldn’t help but illustrate how far Al had come in less than a decade as a recording artist. He could still make the old stuff work, but he’d moved onto meatier, more substantive satirical targets. 

You know, like television. 

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