Day One hundred and thirty-five: "Virus Alert" from Straight Outta Lynwood
By 2006, the internet had long since supplanted television as our primary source of joy and endless, mindless pleasure while simultaneously warping our minds, destroying our attention spans and methodically ruining civilization. We no longer tuned in, we logged on, in part because television was much more convenient and pleasurable to watch on our computer screens.
Not coincidentally, computers, and computer culture, similarly supplanted television as Al’s subject matter of choice. Al had previously explored this fruitful and very on-brand field of geek comedy before with “All About the Pentiums” but Straight Outta Lynwood was the album where what I am calling Al’s Computer Age really began.
One quarter of the album’s twelve songs are computer-themed: “White & Nerdy”, “Virus Alert” and “Don’t Download This Song.” Those are not only three of the best songs of the album and three of the best songs from this period in Al's career. No, they’re three of Al’s best songs period. “Virus Alert” in particular is a particularly overlooked gem, a hilarious and bracingly smart (even by Al standards) homage to cult weirdoes Sparks that perfectly and hilariously lampoons our fear of simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating new technology.
They say that when technology surpasses a certain point it becomes a form of magic. I know that when my dad first brought home a VCR that would allow us to watch seemingly any movie imaginable from the comfort of our own home, it felt like magic, like it was too good to be true.
Needless to say, the magic afforded by our miraculous Apple-derived contraptions, from iPhones to iPods to laptops, is slightly more impressive and slightly more magical than the kind offered by that first glimpse of a VCR. In “Virus Alert” technology has advanced to the point where it’s not just a form of magic, but rather a form of dark magic with the capability to destroy not just the person using it but civilization as a whole.
According to the fear-monger singing “Virus Alert” the cyber-parasite of the title has the power to do infinitely more and less than that. Deep into the song we learn that the titular computer virus will “cause a major rift in time and space” and, additionally, “leave a bunch of Twinkie wrappers all over the place.”
That is an exquisitely and patently Al shift from the impossibly vast and cosmic (an electronic menace with the ability to challenge the very fabric of reality) to the ridiculous, banal and Hostess-derived.
But it takes “Virus Alert” a long time and an awful lot of comic escalation before we learn that the cyber-evil of the song’s title, if given an opportunity, will tear a hole in the space-time continuum while also littering.
We start off innocently enough, with the alarming news that “a dangerous, insidious computer virus” is making its way through cyber-space and causing all manner of wreckage in its wake.
What kind of damage? According to the song, this menace will do all of the following and so much more:
*Translate your documents into Swahili
*Make your TV record “Gigli"
*Neuter your pets, and give you laundry static cling
That is only the beginning of the damage this virus will cause. So listeners are advised to not only erase their own hard drive but also the hard drives of everyone they’re related to as well. This virus is so so Satanic, so Trumpian in its ability to inflict massive damage that it doesn’t just need to be deleted or treated, it requires something closer to an exorcism.
We learn that we’ll need to “Turn off (our) computer and make sure it powers down." We'll then need to “Drop it in a forty-three-foot hole in the ground” and “bury it completely; rocks and boulders should be fine" before taking the additional step of burning every item of clothing we’ve ever worn since birth.
Our paranoia about technology is often inextricably rooted in the shame we feel about our sexual urges. I think we’re all vaguely terrified that the stuff that brings us onanistic pleasure when we’re by ourselves will somehow become public knowledge, possibly through some glitch or manner of hacking. So it’s another perfect detail in a song full of them that the myriad horrors promised by the spread of this virus include your grandmother being sent your entire porn collection. I’m not sure she’d be able to open such an email but this virus is so nefarious it might just help her out with that as well.
“Virus Alert” proceeds with the momentum of a runaway train, or M. Montgomery Burns’ campaign for Governor. It’s blessed with both tremendous comic density and a preponderance of eminently quotable turns of phrase, like Al rhyming, “tell you knock-knock jokes while you're trying to sleep” with “make you physically attracted to sheep” and “poodle a hickey” with “stock in Euro Disney.”
The underlying sick joke behind the song, and virus alerts in general, is that this hysterical, hyperbolic attempt to keep paranoid and scared computer users safe from malevolent scammers and malware is itself almost assuredly a computer virus. One of the great joys of the early web was discovering just how many people and entities were out there trying to rip you off and take advantage of your naiveté, often under the pretense of helping save you from other scammers.
Al has done so much great work on the subject of technology and how it makes our lives better while driving us steadily insane that it’d be easy to assemble an EP or album-length compilation along the lines of previous collections devoted to songs about food and television. Thankfully Al had more control over his career at this point, and was less vulnerable to the money-grabbing whims of the folks over at Scotti Brothers, even if his auspicious career was still subject to unique and unfortunate variables like a single needing to be nixed at the last minute due to Atlantic’s weird concerns about the longevity of James Blunt’s career.
Like the best pastiches, this doubles as a covert plug for the music of Sparks. I can’t say I’m too familiar with them outside of inspiring “Virus Alert” but this makes me want to explore their oeuvre, if for no other reason than they released a song called “Lighten Up Morrissey” about one of their biggest fans.
If Al and Morrissey both love an act, then I am sold, even if Morrissey’s endorsement would have meant a lot more to me before I lost all respect for him.
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