Day One hundred and forty-six: "Perform This Way" from Alpocalypse
Welcome back to The Weird Accordion to Al, my obsessive, song-by-song chronicle of the recorded output of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. I took a longer than expected break from this column after finishing the Internet Leaks EP for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, my wife and I just had a baby, so I have a whole lot less time to work so I have to make sacrifices.
I feel like I have to speak from my soul every day, or rather Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on The Big Whoop blog and I’ve got to crank out columns like Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, Control Nathan and Clint and Scalding Hot Takes to fuel the podcast and get people to read the website but hearty, hearty The Weird Accordion to Al I can always return to, although I’d like to get some momentum going so I can finish this sometime around the new year.
I’ve also gone on a longer than expected hiatus because “Perform This Way”, like “White & Nerdy” is a very big song, both within the context of Al’s career and the culture at large, and I want to do right by it. But “Perform This Way” is different in that it’s a particularly important song for me as well within the context of my curious career as first a “Weird Al” Yankovic super-fan and then as an unlikely collaborator and co-author.
I was working with Al on Weird Al: The Book when the “Perform This Way” kerfuffle happened. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I feel like I had a front row seat to pop culture history when, in a frenzy of inspiration, Al parodied Lady Gaga’s ubiquitous LGTBQ anthem “Born This Way” as “Perform This Way.” It’s a send-up of the A Star is Born diva at once loving and more biting than his usual fare in that it took aim at the singer as well as the song.
Yankovic sent the song to Gaga for approval, per his custom, and word got back to Al that Gaga’s camp had rejected Al’s request to parody the song, leaving Al in the lurch, unclear on how to proceed with either the single, or the music video, or the album it was supposed to launch.
It was a confusing and strange time in the world of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Perhaps I am a little biased, Al being my dude and all, but I could not wrap my head around a pop artist seeing becoming the subject of a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody as anything other than the greatest honor any musician could possibly hope for, one that made membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Grammy Awards look like piles of flaming piles of garbage by comparison.
How could Lady Gaga not recognize Al as a kindred spirit who had written a parody that was a tribute as much as anything, from one world-class performer to another? Surely it all had to be some manner of misunderstanding, right? Wires crossed and all that? Thankfully, that appears to have been the case.
Eventually it came out that it was all a big mix-up. Lady Gaga’s manager, thinking he was doing her a solid, apparently rejected the parody on her behalf and once she found out what happened, she had him publicly executed and gave Al permission to parody anything of hers he cared to, including her private diaries, which she gave to him for research purposes, should he need them.
Good triumphed over evil and I did not have to hate Lady Gaga for eternity for rejecting Al, as I obviously would have if if she had personally and permanently turned Al down. Al was able to release the single, and a video in which he performed in drag for the first time in a then-32-year-old recording career and ultimately Alpocalypse, his lucky thirteenth studio solo album.
“Perform This Way” is an unusual parody for Al in a couple of different ways. For starters, it’s satirical and biting towards the subject of its parody in a way Al’s parodies generally are not.
“Smells Like Nirvana”, is probably the closest song in Al’s oeuvre to “Perform This Way” and it pointedly lacks a line as scathing as, “The critics might say it’s a grotesque display.” That line lands a little hard because otherwise “Perform This Way” is a loving valentine to the boundary-pushing pop icon’s surrealistic fashion statements and dadaist way of communicating her ideas to the world through a sense of fashion so extreme it could easily be mistaken for a form of mental illness.
Crazy or art? That is the question at the heart of “Perform This Way”, which offers a third and more accurate option: commerce. “Ooh my little monsters pay/lots cause I perform this way” Al-as-Gaga sings here, continuing a theme that pops up throughout Al’s oeuvre: underneath all the pretension and self-importance, pop stars are just like everybody else: greedy and opportunistic, attention-hungry and narcissistic.
Of course, “Perform This Way” is fundamentally about something important and profound: LGTBQ rights, self-acceptance and self-love. It’s not just a song, it’s a bona fide Civil Rights/queer anthem. It’s a song that matters in a way the pop smashes Al parodies generally do not. In that respect it’s a little like “Gangsta’s Paradise” and, to be brutally honest, Coolio really could have handled that parody a little better.
One of the interesting things about listening to “Perform This Way” in 2018 is that it’s spoofing a version of Lady Gaga that does not, for the most part, exist anymore. If you were to poll the public today about what Lady Gaga is best known for, I suspect “wearing crazy get-ups” would fall fairly low on the list.
The same was not true in 2011, when Gaga made headlines as much for her outlandish fashion sense as her catchy tunes and knockout voice. But even back then there was a lot more to Gaga than avant-garde red carpet appearances and instantly iconic looks that tried to out-Bjork Bjork and oftentimes succeeded.
“Perform This Way” begins with a bold assertion that this particular star was not born but hatched, a reference to the Egg-shaped vessel that transported Lady Gaga across the Grammys red carpet in 2011 so that she could perform “Born This Way.” Al goes on to reference other real life, instantly notorious Gaga looks as well, like Gaga’s bubble dress and steak skirt, a look that attracted the outraged attention of PETA and the fashion police alike.
The exhibitionist singing “Perform This Way” dresses in a way equally likely to attract the attention of the fashion press, tabloids, mental health professionals, the police and even the FDA, since some of the outfits described here violate health codes in addition to the rules of propriety and good taste.
I honestly didn’t follow Lady Gaga too closely in the era “Perform This Way” lampoons. I thought her songs were catchy and knew she had a reputation as a bit of a kook but looking at some of her most headline-grabbing looks from this era I’ve got to concede that some are a little, well, silly.
When I look at Gaga in her gaudiest get-ups I see someone who is, on some level, hiding behind an outrageous image and revealing something important about themselves at the same time. I see the same thing in Al’s most out-there ensembles.
There’s bold pop artistry and heady, trippy ideas behind these outrageous looks but also a lot of pretension and being weird for the sake of being weird. That’s what Al’s parody is all about. In his affectionate burlesque, Lady Gaga’s signature looks include wearing a porcupine on her head as a hat, wrapping her flaming small intestine around her neck as a very dangerous necklace and, of course, the old live-bees-as-a-dress look.
Al and the boys throw in a cheeky “express yourself” into a busy sonic mix but even without that tongue-in-cheek nod, “Perform This Way” would still feel like a pastiche of “Express Yourself” as well as a parody of “Born This Way.”
“Born This Way” even has that stilted try-n-rap thing Madonna occasionally attempts. Al’s parody of this semi-rap contains the song’s most dated passage, when the singing exhibitionist humble-brags, “I'm strange, weird, shocking, odd, bizarre/I’m Frankenstein, I’m Avatar.”
For a movie that shattered so many box-office records, Avatar sure seems to have left the cultural consciousness quickly. Al’s offhanded reference to James Cameron’s super-popular, super-embarrassing 3-D blockbuster dates “Perform This Way” as much as its focus on Gaga as a red-carpet creature does.
I wrote about Al and Lady Gaga as simpatico figures back in 2012 in Weird Al: The Book because they were famously theatrical and outrageous, performing dazzling multi-media extravaganzas where they cranked out the hits in wild costumes and stages filled with screens and props, spectacle as far as the eye could see.
I’m writing about them as simpatico figures in 2018 because they’ve both taken bold steps this year to prove to the world and to themselves that there’s so much more to them than outrageous costumes, wild sets and brazenly theatrical performances, whether by touring without all of the spectacle and glitz or playing someone heartbreakingly real in a serious drama that will probably clean up at the Academy Awards.
A Star is Born is, of course, an elaborate act of pop mythologizing loving crafted to establish its first-time film star as a figure of unimpeachable authenticity and talent, a woman who needs nothing more than THAT voice to have the world spellbound. By eschewing the shock tactics and pop-art provocation of her earlier image and iconography she was proving that she did not need to rely on shock or provocation or attention-grabbing stunts to be successful or entertain crowds.
A Star is Born is on some level about how Gaga has the goods, how she’s the real deal, how she can she sit at a piano in regular people clothes and have you absolutely spellbound.
On a similar note, The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour incontrovertibly proved that Al similarly did not need stagecraft, props, costumes, screens or extras to captivate audiences. He didn’t even need his biggest hits or his parodies, the art form he is synonymous with to the point that he pretty much embodies it at this point in his career.
Like Lady Gaga, Al is a brilliant musician and songwriter as well as a world-class live performer who feels at home in any number of disguises, not unlike Pistachio Disguisey in the motion picture Master of Disguise. In 2018, with the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour and A Star is Born, Al and Gaga performed for their adoring public in decidedly different ways than they ever had before. In the process, they proved that without the glitter and the dazzle they were, if anything, even more impressive and authentically gifted than even their biggest fans imagined.
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