Day One hundred and forty-one: "Don't Download This Song" from Straight Outta Lynwood
Well, folks, with “Don’t Download This Song”, the final track on 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, we have officially made it to the end of yet another album, this time Al’s twelfth. We are three quarters done with my epic and obsessive journey through the recorded output of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic. All that remains, album-wise, is 2011’s Alpocalypse, 2014’s Mandatory Fun and last year’s Medium Rarities compilation.
The end is in sight, albeit a little in the distance, something that fills me with both excitement and more than a little melancholy. It’ll feel wonderful, I imagine, to finally finish a project this vast and demanding, to have conclusively finished my ridiculous mission to write about every single solo song Al has ever released in chronological order. But I’m guessing I’ll also miss the work, demanding, exhausting and modestly read as it might be.
Writing about Al’s career has afforded me an opportunity to write about the last four decades of pop and American culture, to track the evolution of television and technology and foodstuffs though the oeuvre of an American original and national treasure.
The first single from Straight Outta Lynwood and a song Al impishly made available to fans as a free download, “Don’t Download This Song” brilliantly juxtaposes a screamingly 2006 topic—the monsters that collectively make up the music industry hypocritically and disingenuously trying to shame the public out of downloading music from file-sharers instead of giving that money directly to them—with a sound and style rooted inextricably in the saccharine all-star message songs of the 1980s, specifically “We Are the World.”
“We Are the World” succeeded in opening the wallets of the first world with a heavy-handed, saccharine but ultimately very effective appeal to decency, to goodness, to compassion. It was a song about something almost too important and substantial to be the subject of a mere pop song, no matter how well-meaning or star-studded—an epidemic of suffering and starvation in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia.
“Don’t Download This Song” sounds exactly like what it’s parodying. It’s plastic and overwrought, over-produced and shameless both musically and lyrically but instead of tackling a matter of genuine significance, Al hilariously satirizes the transparent hypocrisy of the money-crazed, parasitic ghouls in the music industry wagging a finger in stern judgment at listeners for wanting to download a song for free online instead of ponying up seventeen dollars for a Limp Bizkit album so they have access to that one song on it they like.
“Don’t Download This Song” would be a fascinating time capsule of a very specific moment in American pop culture even if it didn’t rattle off the names of a bunch of file-sharing sites history almost instantly forgot, including Morpheus, Grokster, LimeWire and Kazaa.
If you were to simply look at the song’s lyrics, the first half of the first verse would look dry and technical to the point of being both unsingable and unlistenable. In the first verse alone the song references such geeky phenomenon as “international copyright law”, “downloading mp3s”, “file sharing sites”, and, of course, the aforementioned file-sharing sites.
Yet the song illustrates yet again that in situations like these, it does not matter what you sing, but rather how you sing it. So even though Al is using a lot of mid-aughts technological lingo, the trembling faux-sincerity of his delivery makes the song’s tech-heavy lyrics so shockingly feasible that you could be forgiven for imagining that Al was crooning abandoned lyrics from an early draft of “We Are the World.”
Then the guilt trip begins. It does not end until the song does. For years, DVDs came with a hilariously hyperbolic, “edgy” PSA depicting downloading music or movies as every bit as much of a crime and a transgression as shoplifting or breaking into a car to steal a stereo. “Piracy is not a victimless crime” went the exquisitely unconvincing slogan but the truth is that pirating a Transformers sequel or Drake album is, if not a victimless crime, then extremely close to a victimless crime, or at the very least, a nearly victimless crime whose “victims” are the greedy, avaricious degenerates who run record labels and movie studios.
“Don’t Download This Song” exaggerates the recording industry establishment’s ridiculous arguments to sublime effect by presenting the ethical misdemeanor of audio or video piracy as a gateway crime that will lead inevitably, and quickly, to “robbing liquor stores”, then “selling crack” and ultimately “running over school kids with your car.” The idea is that once you’ve committed a petty quasi/non-crime like downloading Ani DiFranco songs on a blank CD, you’ll get a taste for the criminal life in your blood and then there’s no going back to the world of the law-abiding.
If downloading music illegally is a crime, then that by definition makes people who’ve downloaded the Dave Matthews Band’s latest album before its release date criminals. As Al pleads here, “It doesn't matter if you're a grandma/Or a seven year old girl/They'll treat you like the evil hard-bitten criminal scum you are.”
In the song, and the music industry’s warped logic, tech-savvy seven year olds and grandmas are criminals who must be punished and multi-millionaire rock stars with comically decadent lifestyles to support are victims.
Channeling the epic self-pity of the “Napster must be stopped set”, Al implores, “Don't take away money from artists just like me/How else can I afford another solid gold Humvee/And diamond studded swimming pools, these things don’t grow on trees!”
The song gets angrier and angrier and more apoplectic until the self-pitying singer can’t contain his anger and rage any longer, and is flat out condemning downloaders to the bowels of hell and angrily ordering listeners do the industry-approved thing and give their money to evil corporations that rip off great musicians instead of saving some scratch by removing them from the transaction.
Al is just one man but on “Don’t Download This Song” he sounds like a whole chorus of pompous pop stars singing on behalf of their corporate masters' interests. The call and effect element of the song is particularly hilarious, as when the singer insists of downloading, “Even Lars Ulrich knows it’s wrong” before warning potential downloaders/non-CD-buyers, “you might end up in jail like Tommy Chong!”
At the very end of “Don’t Download This Song”, buried deep in the sound mix, is an almost imperceptible shout of “You cheap bastard!”
In this moment, the singer’s preposterous mask of decency and fairness falls off completely and we see him for who he, and the recording industry establishment that he represents (him and Lars Ulrich, it seems) really are. They don’t care at all about honoring and compensating artists or making sure that everyone gets their fair share. No, they’re pissed off that file sharers are ripping off artists when that has historically been the job of the music industry.
Juxtaposing the smarmy sanctimoniousness of the Reagan-era charity all-star message song with the recording industry’s faux-high-minded campaign against downloading made “Don’t Download This Song” timely, resonant and hilarious. But it’s the song’s knowing, scathing satire of corporate greed masquerading unconvincingly as basic human decency that makes it timeless and enduring.
I make my living primarily through Patreon so if you would consider kicking in even a dollar at http://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace that’d be great.