Day One hundred and forty: "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" from Straight Outta Lynwood
For parodists, R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” multi-media extravaganza proved an irresistible yet daunting target for spoofery. The R&B superstar and sex cult leader’s epic story suite is a delirious, hyper-sexualized musical melodrama whose complete lack of self-awareness renders it perfect for satirical puncturing.
Yet “Trapped in the Closet” is such a complete exercise in surreal, unselfconscious self-parody that it renders outside parody redundant. How can any one song make R. Kelly and his horny storyteller aesthetic seem more ridiculous than the probable sex criminal’s own oeuvre does? How can you exaggerate something that already exists in a state of crazed hyperbole and delirious, intentional excess?
Al’s answer was to go in the opposite direction. R. Kelly wrote and performed a crazed piece of pulp fiction that, if I remember correctly, involves a woman cheating on her husband with a ghost who’s actually a vampire before giving birth to a space alien little person. Then everybody’s identical twin bursts in and a Mexican standoff ensues. Or something. To be honest with you, I remember almost nothing about “Trapped in the Closet” except that it was very silly and a little bit over the top and apparently I reviewed it for The A.V Club?
I was honestly so hopped up on goofballs and poppers and Screaming Meanies and Nice Guy Jims that I don’t remember anything from that time. You can only imagine how disillusioned I was to discover, a full decade into my career at The Onion, that the “news” articles I adored primarily for their truthfulness and verisimilitude were actually fake and designed to make people laugh instead of providing them with accurate information.
R. Kelly wrote and performed a crazy maximalist story suite about just about everything. Al transformed it into a song about nothing, or rather the most banal possible subject: an ordinary guy on an ordinary day who goes out for fast food and ends up getting his order slightly wrong.
Oh junk. I just realized that I spoiled the song’s riveting narrative. Sorry about that. I know how people feel about spoilers. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” finds Al singing about his trusty old muse food for the first time in a while but the context is decidedly different.
Food songs tend to be Al's simplest songs. That makes sense considering they experienced their heyday in Al’s first decade as a pop star and recording artist. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru”, in sharp contrast, is tremendously sophisticated from a conceptual standpoint. The underlying joke of the parody is that there are no hard jokes. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” is not quite anti-humor but it does find Al at his most sneakily deconstructionist.
We begin with that distinctive, oddly hypnotic dripping-faucet groove and our hilariously mundane storyteller sharing the mundane details of another boring night at home. It’s early evening, he’s zoned out on the couch watching television (Al’s other early lyrical muse) when his wife ambles in to ask pose a question of very little importance: is he hungry?
The carnivore crooning the song isn’t terribly hungry but he nevertheless eventually vows to take his spouse out to eat, setting in motion a series of exceedingly banal events of almost no significance even to the people experiencing them.
As UHF and also its companion pieces Compliance and Hamburger: The Movie indelibly illustrated, the world of fast food is inherently hilarious and full of amusing details. Yet the heady humor of “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” is based less on jokes than on escalation and de-escalation.
Like “Trapped in the Closet”, “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” is full of conflict and disagreements that escalate and escalate and escalate. And repetition! Like the original, "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" goes so overboard with repetition that repeating the same words over and over again becomes hypnotic as well as annoying.
Instead of being rooted in the sordid, steamy foundation of sex, lies, betrayal and deceit like "Trapped in the Closet", Al's parody is rooted in the exceedingly minor aggravations and annoyances of everyday life.
The lyrical concerns could not be more mundane. Should they get delivery or eat takeovers? If they go out for dinner, should they go for dressy, Olive Garden, Mexican or fast good? As the title betrays, they ultimately opt for fast food but that’s just the beginning of the non-drama.
“Trapped in the Drive-Thru” starts off quiet, slow and intimate and builds and builds and builds in intensity musically and in terms of Al’s vocals, until it reaches a furious climax wildly disproportionate to the everyday nonsense being discussed. Then the process starts all over again with the next movement of this wonderfully silly song suite.
Vocally, Al could not sound more enraged and engaged about the gauntlet of minor irritations he encounters, from pimply, distracted fast food employees to annoying relatives calling him to his wife thinking he’s proposing that they eat liver for dinner when he’s actually just asking what she thinks about delivery.
In terms of length, ambition and conceptual weirdness, “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” feels more like an album closer than the terrific but comparatively modest “Don’t Download This Song” but Al’s successful formula dictates that albums end on kooky originals, not parodies.
Like the song it’s so slyly parodying, “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” is no mere song: it’s a whole big production. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” is casually ambitious; it lasts over ten minutes, includes an interpolation of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and is perhaps the only song of Al to be listed on Wikipedia as belonging to the unique sub-genre of "Hip-Hopera."
“Trapped in the Drive Thru” helps close out one of Al’s best albums in a very big way; it’s a standout parody with the oddball soul and epic audacity of an album-closing original.
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