Day One hundred and fourteen: "All About the Pentiums" from Running with Scissors
One of the things that I find interesting about American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic is that he doesn’t always necessarily parody the original versions of songs. On “Alimony”, for example, Al was clearly spoofing Billy Idol’s live version of “Mony Mony” rather than Tommy James and the Shondells original. On a similar note, “I Think I’m a Clone Now” takes its cues from Tiffany’s synth-pop mall-rat version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” rather than from the Tommy James and the Shondells version that first made the song ubiquitous.
“All About the Pentiums” finds a similar dynamic at play. Instead of parodying the original, iconic version of Notorious B.I.G, Puff Daddy, Li'l Kim and the LOX’s “All About the Benjamins” Al instead chose to build his pioneering nerd-rap anthem on the screaming intensity of the song’s rock remix, an all-star collaboration that found B.I.G, Li’l Kim, Diddy and the LOX rhyming over a mutating rock groove from all-star ringers Tommy Stinson, Rob Zombie and Dave Grohl that builds and builds and builds to an ecstatic cathartic release.
"It's All About the Benjamins (Rock Remix)” is heavy metal. It’s punk rock. It’s rap-rock. It’s schlock rock. It’s pop. It’s pop art. It’s so 1990s it hurts. It is, honestly, a remix that I enjoy more than the original, perhaps because there’s just so much going on. It’s overflowing with ideas and crazy rock-star energy and some of Diddy’s most inspired swaggering, muttering and screaming.
As a rapper Diddy is stiff and awkward but everything he does vocally that does not involve rapping he does brilliantly, and with incredible panache. He’s one of pop culture’s great showmen. Honestly, I get more out of the sub-verbal grunting Diddy and background shenanigans Diddy brings to a song like the “Special Delivery Remix” than I do out of most marathon verses from legendary rappers.
So a fair amount of my love for “All About the Pentiums”, one of my all-time favorite Al parodies, is rooted in my enormous affection towards its inspiration. But its also rooted in the role it plays in Al’s oeuvre as a return to the screaming nerd rage of early songs like “Another One Rides the Bus” that lays the groundwork for “White and Nerdy”, Al’s biggest all-time hit and one of his signature songs, as well as Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday.”
The song also marks a turning point in Al’s discography where technology, particularly computers and online culture, became a central focus of Al’s music more so than food or television. Technology would certainly prove a more fruitful muse for Al in the years ahead on songs like “Virus Alert” and “White & Nerdy” than his old standbys sub-par American cuisine and even worse televised entertainment.
On “All About the Pentiums” Al and his collaborators transform the rap, rock and rap-rock rage and intensity of Diddy, B.I.G and company’s remix into the belligerent bragging of an arrogant Poindexter who alternates between insulting the listener (a cornerstone of hip hop) and boasting of his own technological prowess and e-swagger.
Al’s aggro nerd isn’t afraid to dip back into our corny collective pop culture history to give his new-school disses unmistakable old school flavor, like when he taunts, “You think your Commodore 64 is really neato/What kinda chip you got in there, a Dorito?”, “I should do the world a favor and cap you like Old Yeller/You're just about as useless as jpegs to Hellen Keller”, “Got a flat-screen monitor forty inches wide wide/I believe that your says "Etch-A-Sketch" on the side”, and, finally, “Your motherboard melts when you try to send a fax/Where'd you get your CPU, in a box of Cracker Jacks?”
If the insults are hopelessly white and nerdy, the aggression that Al brings to his vocals is real. In his own dorky way, Al is unrelenting here. Instead of the markedly different flows on the parody’s inspiration, Al does everything here, double-tracking his vocals so that he can simultaneously be the swaggering central MC and the antic, Diddy-like hype-man bringing a crazy energy to a song that’s already overflowing with high spirits.
“All About the Pentiums” is, among other things, a time-capsule of a very specific moment in online and computer culture. Listening to it nearly twenty years later, I really understand only about half of the references, if that. I don’t know whether that’s a testament to Al being very smart about computers or me being very stupid. It's probably some combination of the two.
Al is perhaps the only pop star in existence who can use online slang and make extensive computer references and not come off like a clueless poser trying and failing to keep up with what the kids are doing. Al has eternal geek credibility so when he gets deeply geeky with his insults, you believe him even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.
I’m going to be honest. One of the reasons I love this song so much is because it hit close to home. Some of Al’s zingers applied to me at the time of the song’s release. For example, instead of a Pentium chip, or a similarly powerful and appropriate computer chip, my IMac had a Cool Ranch Dorito inside it that, to be brutally honest, was completely useless. And, yes, at the time I would still say that I found my Commodore 64 to be “really neato.” I also used to have my own newsgroup alt.total.loser.
“All About the Pentiums” captured the zeitgeist to such an extent that listening to the song feels like rocketing nineteen years back into the past. Music and memory have that power, the power to transcend time and space, even music as transcendently silly as this.
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