Day Sixty-Three: "UHF" from UHF: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff
The first track on every “Weird Al” Yankovic leading up to UHF doubled as the first single and the first music video. That stopped with Al’s very first, and, to date, last soundtrack album, 1989’s UHF. This time around the first track was indeed a big parody and music video, the laboriously, torturously titled, “Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” but the first single and video was the title track.
This makes sense from a commercial perspective. This is particularly true since a movie’s theme song is generally something of a commercial for the movie it’s lovingly commemorating. This is doubly true since “UHF” doesn’t just sound like a commercial for the movie of the same name. No, it also sounds like a commercial for the kooky TV station at the core of the film’s plot. It’s consequently a meta-commercial. It’s selling both an actual movie that listeners can pay real money to see as well as the viewing experience of the kookiest TV station since those nutty nuts in Network got made as hell and stopped taking it. Or since Twisted Sister took to the MTV airwaves to let the world know that, like Howard Beale, they also were no longer going to take it.
On a literal level, “UHF” is a rowdy call to check out the oddballs an outlaw TV station. On a more conceptual, Devo level it’s an absurdist plea to stop paying attention to everything that constitutes contemporary life—jobs, family, leaving your home, school, laundry, dishes—and give yourself over completely to the all-powerful glowing screen, the glass teat, the televisual Mommy.
This anthem of the airwaves opens by brashly admonishing listeners/viewers (in our country, and in Al’s music, they’re essentially the same) to “put down your remote control” on account of this miracle channel making all other channels unnecessary, and by extension, remote controls pointless. Al keeps escalating the stakes until he’s encouraging listeners to not only forsake every other channel, but all other physical activity as well so that they can focus monomaniacally on the only thing that’s important in life: television.
The singer doesn’t just want the listener/viewer to abandon shows on other channels: he wants them to abandon their own free will as well. After all, why bother with the stress and strain and complications of making decisions and thinking for yourself when it's television's job to keep the masses entertained and hypnotized into a state of apathy and dependence?
TV is one of Al’s great muses and obsessions. So when he howls, “We’re gonna make a couch potato out of you!” he brings an awful lot of authority to those words. The song is quietly dystopian and scathing in its depiction of TV addiction. The singer, and the song, essentially ask, or demand, that the viewer/listener remove their brain and higher faculties from the rest of their nervous system before they sit down to watch television, so that they can enjoy it better.
For the singer, the best possible state for TV consumption is mindless, rapacious passivity. The TV people beam all that craziness into their home. It’s the masses’ job to senselessly consume both television and the endless parade of wonder products advertised on it, such as the miracle contraptions of Ron Popeil and family.
“UHF” is devoted to convincing listeners to worship not just television as their God but one particular channel. It makes compulsive television viewing seem like being part of a cult. As with most cults, a lot of the appeal lies in the sneakily seductive prospect of surrendering your will to something greater than yourself, whether that’s L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings or the shenanigans of the kooks who run a local channel.
Sonically, “UHF” is hard-driving and full of swagger, a guitar driven boob tube anthem that rocks. Musically and lyrically it’s surprisingly straight-forward and joke-light for a “Weird Al” Yankovic song but not for the theme song to what studios and Al hoped would be a big sleeper hit.
“UHF” consequently had a lot more riding on it than than Al’s other first singles. It had to be funny and infectious and live up to the high standards set by Al’s other, earlier singles but it also had to sell a movie Al co-wrote and starred in as a cinematic neophyte while still in his late twenties.
I’m not sure “UHF” is anyone’s favorite “Weird Al” Yankovic song, even people who adore the movie. Heck, even people who have tattoos from the movie. I know I’m personally considering a “Spatula City” neck tattoo. Al even says he’ll let me into his shows for half-off I go through with it. But the song is rock-solid and solidly rocks. I would say that it did what it needed to do in terms of selling UHF but since the movie was not a box-office success that’s not necessarily true. Then again, people keep discovering UHF and falling in love with UHF and quoting UHF so maybe this song succeeded after all in getting people excited about Al’s big movie. It just took a little time.
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