Day Seventy-Six: "The White Stuff" from Off the Deep End
I am a man who enjoys a good boy band. If I were at the Essence Festival and New Edition or Boyz II Men were performing, I would be in heaven. The joyous sounds of the Jackson 5 provided the soundtrack to some of the happiest, or rather least traumatic moments of my childhood. I think Justin Timberlake is a fantastic pop singer and songwriter whose gifts manifested early when he was the brightest light in N’ Sync.
Yet New Kids on the Block, those mullet-sporting teenybopper idols of my youth always left me a little cold. They had hits, alright, and those hits had hooks but they were never quite as infectious or as irresistible as the boy bands listed above. I mean, sure, I appreciate the perversity of the group roping my beloved Nice n’ Smooth into appearing on their ill-fated comeback single “Dirty Dawg”, in which they attempted a slightly more adult image by trading in their babyish old name New Kids on the Block for the super-tough and unimpeachably adult NKOTB.
New Kids on the Block were a commercial powerhouse and bona fide pop culture phenomenon but they did not command respect from critics and audiences. They were thought of as a silly cartoon, partially because their merchandising blitz included the group starring in a silly cartoon. NKOTB garnered instant respect, however. They were the Velvet Underground of their time: they weren’t very popular (unlike New Kids on the Block), but everyone who bought one of their albums or went to one of their shows went on to start Big Star.
But before the walking punchline known as New Kids on the Block could reinvent themselves as gritty sonic outlaws NKOTB they were an unusually boring and white bubblegum outlet known for inane ditties like “The Right Stuff.” Like so much of New Kids on the Block oeuvre, it’s a nauseatingly sugary Ring Pop of a love song that finds the teen idols crooning in harmony about young ladies who possess “The right stuff” and I’m not talking about Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel or the acclaimed 1983 motion picture of the same name. Actually, that may not be true. Rumor has it there are outtakes with lyrics like, “you’re got The Right Stuff, baby/the best-selling account of Chuck Yeager’s solo flight!”
Regardless, the version that ended up getting released contained zero references to Tom Wolfe’s book and Phil Kaufman’s film and lots of generic lyrics about love. As is his custom, Al transforms a song about romance into a song about gluttony. In “The White Stuff”, “Culinary Al” Yankovic returns to his beloved supermarket aisle for inspiration for a comically over-the-top exploration of a pathological obsession not just with one particularly iconic American snack food but rather for one element of one particularly iconic American snack food. That is some specificity right there.
So what is the titular white stuff? Is it the booger sugar that fueled pretty much the entirety of 1970s and 1980s rock and roll? Or could it be dandruff? Nope, in “The White Stuff” the substance in question is the white cream found between the cookies in Oreo’s. If that does not sound like a fruitful or juicy subject for comedy, particularly at this stage of Al’s career, that’s because it’s not.
“The White Stuff” is at once a song about nothing and a song about gluttony, consumption and consumerism. In other words, a song about our country and what passes for American culture. Al here returns to a familiar theme: that the end result of buying and consuming all of those amazing wonder products and foods we see advertised on television or on the radio (or, in this day and age, online and on our phones) is momentary contentment and pleasure in the short run and obesity, heart sickness and death over time.
When I was a kid, my sister, dad and I would make up parody lyrics to commercial jingles. The one that sticks out in my mind is a jingle for Smurf-berry Crunch that we changed to “Smurf-Berry Crunch is fun to eat/it makes you fat and rots your teeth!”
I was channeling the spirit of my hero “Weird Al” Yankovic with my revised lyrics. Al even sings on “The White Stuff” that “My teeth are clear rotted right through, but who cares?” In “The White Stuff”, Al draws a very straight line between sandwich-cookie over-consumption and ill health when he humble-brags, “Had so many (Oreo’s) my pancreas just went into shock!” Al’s songs are full of people bragging about things they shouldn’t boast about, like being proud of the traumatized state of their internal organs.
This obsessive gent takes his obsession with cookie filling to what some might deem comic extremes, rubbing it on his roast, putting it in his coffee and spreading it on his toast. It’s another song of obsession from a man whose life is ineffably enhanced by a consumer product that’s dragged down by the threadbare shabbiness of its inspiration. It’s fun hearing Al fill all the roles of a boy band but it’d be much more fun if he were impersonating a good boy band instead of New Kids on the Block. Though it has its moments, “The White Stuff” cannot ultimately overcome the thinness of its central comic conceit and the banal emptiness of the inane pop song it’s spoofing.
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