Day One hundred and twenty-eight: "Ebay" from Poodle Hat
I would say that Al’s oeuvre and my own peculiar line of work overlap to an almost suspicious extent except that Al’s area of expertise is pretty much everything in the world, but particularly food, television, consumerism and technology while I similarly write about just about everything pop culture related, but particularly trash. Glorious, glorious pop culture trash.
So it’s not terribly surprising that when I was reading first The Hit Charade, the juicy, gossipy expose on disgraced boy band Svengali/fraudulent blimp huckster Lou Pearlman’s life and crimes, and then Pearlman’s hilarious myopic and dishonest memoir/business manual/literary infomercial Brands, Bands and Billions: My Top Ten Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum, I was also listening to Al’s parody of “I Want It That Way”, one of the signature smashes of Backstreet Boys, one of Pearlman’s biggest and most enduring creations.
In parodying the boy band’s ubiquitous hit, Al transformed a song about romantic yearning and romantic desire into a song about an equally intense yearning and desire for stuff. Al has always been hyper-attuned to the ways technology changes the way we live, and more specifically how we consume the detritus that makes us human and also American.
In that respect, Ebay was a game-changer. “Ebay” captures the weird, ecstatic sense of possibility that came with a suddenly ubiquitous online auction house seemingly making everything in the world available for a price. In his best crystalline boy band croon, Al brags of his Ebay prowess, “I’m highest bidder!” with the same ecstatic zeal singers usually reserve for outsized declarations of love.
In the irrationally exuberant 1990s we thought computers would change everything and make our lives better. In a lot of ways, that happened. iPods, iPhones, Netflix, Amazon and, yes, Ebay all had such a profound impact on the way we live, but more importantly, consume, that it can be hard to remember what life was like without these incredible technological marvels that, being Americans, we almost instantly started taking for granted.
In “Ebay”, the titular website is no mere e-commerce giant: it’s something closer to a religion, or at least a cult. In Al’s wry parody/tribute, people don’t bid on items because they need them, or even particularly want them. No, they bid on items on Ebay pretty much for the cheap thrill of bidding and the weird sense of triumph that comes with besting every other anonymous bidder for something of dubious value, if it has any value at all.
Al nails the old-dressed-up-as-new element of Ebay when he sings, “Junk keeps arriving in the mail, from that worldwide garage sale” and later concedes, “Don't know why/The kind of stuff you'd throw away/The way I do/I’ll buy on eBay.” It’s not the end reward that’s intoxicating when it comes to Ebay, but rather the thrill of the hunt and the thrill of victory. Pointless, pointless victory.
“Ebay” is sandwiched between Al’s loving tribute to Bob Dylan (“Bob”) and Frank Zappa (“Genius in France”), two of the most most abrasive and divisive icons in the history of American music. True, the mere existence of boy bands that appeal overwhelmingly to girls, tweens and teens has always enraged a certain segment of the populace, but “Ebay” is the antithesis of Frank Zappa.
“I Want It That Way” is a masterpiece of pop craftsmanship. It’s not just clean and polished: it’s pristine. It’s not just a pop song: it’s a consumer product. As consumer products go, it’s just about perfect. As with “Trash Day”, Al benefits tremendously from building his parody on the sturdy foundation of one of the best pop songs of the past twenty years.
“Ebay” also benefits from the automatic authority Al has when it comes to computers and technology. Usually when middle-aged musicians reference youth culture or technology it’s embarrassing. When Al does so, we believe him without question. When he sings, “I am the type who is liable to snipe you with two seconds left to go” he doesn’t sound like a clueless grandpa trying to stay current: he sounds like a tech-savvy dude who knows exactly what he’s talking about.
I actually picked up some cyber-vocabulary from “Ebay” which otherwise delves deep into the comedy of randomness and pop culture references, like when it lists, among other sought-after garbage, “William Shatner’s old toupee” and “A kleenex used by Dr. Dre.” The song is a mix of the old and the new. The emphasis is on the addictive nature of new technology but he also makes sure to reference plenty of television shows, including Alf, Dukes of Hazzard and The Smurfs as well as fads of years past like Pet Rocks and Pac-Man Fever.
Speaking of authenticity, Al, who astonishingly is not Jewish, makes sublime use of the Yiddish phrase “tchotchkes” and finds an ideal rhyme for it in “Sell me your watch please”, a line he delivers with hilariously out of place sincerity.
Is “Ebay” as good as “I Want It That Way?” Maybe. “I Want It That Way” may be a perfect pop song but solely because it is the work of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Ebay” might just be even perfecter.
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