Day One hundred and sixty-four: "Tacky" from Mandatory Fun
Wikipedia describes American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic as an American singer-songwriter, record producer, satirist, film producer, and author. All that is true of course. “Weird Al” Yankovic is a whole bunch of other things as well. But to me what Al does for a living, and has been doing extraordinarily well for four decades, is make people happy. And not just a little bit happy. No, Al makes people at his live shows deliriously happy. Ridiculously happy. Happy to an uncool, unhip extent.
Of course people are also delirious with happiness at Phish and Insane Clown Posse shows, to cite the names of two other acts I’ve written books about. A big difference is that the audience at “Weird Al” Yankovic shows generally does not need to be blasted out of their minds on Screaming Meanies and Blue Demons and Red Howlers to have a great time. It helps, of course, but it’s not necessary. For Al, drugs aren’t a part of the great grand gestalt of live performance the way they are for Phish and ICP.
The first couple of Al concerts I went as an adult while working on Weird Al: The Book, my attention was split, fairly evenly, between watching the spectacle onstage and the looks of pure bliss on the faces in the audience. It was legitimately like a religious experience. People were mouthing every word, singing along to every song. It didn’t matter how silly or ridiculous a particular ditty might be: they meant something to Al’s fans.
They would all come to mean something to me as well. Because of this project, I have a personal and professional connection to literally every song on every “Weird Al” Yankovic album. The Weird Accordion to Al was initially conceived as a way to rob some happiness out of this cruel world by forcing my brain to think about things that give it joy rather than the many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many things in life that are terrible and make everyone miserable.
Specifically, I figured that if I really threw myself into writing 186 articles about the individual songs of “Weird Al” Yankovic, a man whose work makes me happy, that would, by definition, give me less space psychologically to be depressed to a point of catatonia over the American people’s decision to elect a demented sociopath president or the fact that I am pursuing a career in a field (pop culture media) that increasingly looks like it might not be financially viable going forward, or even now.
Al’s work made me happy when I was a boy. It makes me happy now. Joy is an essential but often overlooked component of Al’s music and Al’s world. Some of that joy comes secondhand, from the songs Al is spoofing. A song does not have to be great to give people joy. “Party in the USA” for example, is nothing more than an infectious bubblegum pop song but that doesn’t make, or Al’s exquisitely dark parody any less joyful.
Songs don’t get much happier than Pharrell’s “Happy.” Being a canny hit-maker, The Neptunes frontman recorded a song for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack that might actually be too cheerful and upbeat for even a shiny CGI children’s cartoon. “Happy” is the title. Happy is also the vibe. Happy is also the subject matter. And happy is what the song makes you unless you’ve got the soul of a pre-transformation Grinch.
Pharrell is a phenomenally talented writer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and pop icon who has written, produced and guested on roughly four thousand songs that all sound pretty much the same. “Blurred Lines”, “Get Lucky” and “Happy” sound like all of Pharrell’s other songs, only better. Al adroitly cherry-picked the Virginia hit-maker’s biggest, most ubiquitous smashes, preserving the elements that spark joy and cutting out the problematic/rapey/Robin Thicke parts.
“Tacky” is a satire of vulgarity, American-style but it is also a tongue-in-cheek celebration of vulgarity as well. “Tacky” captures how freeing and liberating it can be to purposefully disregard the dreary rules of propriety, to follow your own bliss and live your best life, even if that entails perpetually doing things that would fill most people with shame.
Part of what makes “Tacky” such a vulgar delight is the immense pleasure Al takes in outlining his character’s crimes against decorum. Al is just as giddy singing about his collection of used liquor bottles as Pharrell is crooning about pure bliss.
With references to practicing twerking moves in line at the DMV, a YOLO license and live-tweeting a funeral and taking a selfie with the deceased, “Tacky” is incontrovertibly a product of a very specific cultural moment. It’s dated in the best possible way. Of course the raging hurricane of bad taste and terrible judgment singing it is going to glom onto the timeliest and most ephemeral of trends and fads, right around the time they lose what little cultural currency they might have once possessed.
Appropriately, the Ed Hardy shirt worn with fluorescent orange pants in “Tacky” was already a dated reference in 2014 but that’s utterly fitting, since to be truly tacky, to embrace tackiness as a lifestyle, you need to be deeply disinterested in keeping up with the times. To be truly tacky requires an astonishing level of obliviousness, both in terms of how you see yourself and how you see the world.
Speaking of icons of bad taste and tackiness, longtime Al collaborator Lisa Popeil (of the Popeil family) contributes backup vocals here, as she has for many songs dating back to the 1980s. I hope that when Al calls upon Lisa’s talents he leaves a four-word voicemail message for her in his very best Fred Schneider whine begging, “HELP ME, MRS. POPEIL!”
On “Tacky”, Al makes shameless vulgarity feel like freedom, freedom from rules, freedom from elitism and freedom from excessive self-consciousness and self-awareness. About two years after the release of “Tacky” the American people elected the most brazenly tacky presidential candidate this side of Billy Jack star Tom Laughlin (who I’m sure I don’t need to remind you ran for president repeatedly), who ran on a platform that posited tackiness as an essential, necessary rebuke to the cultural over-sensitivity of the elites. Tackiness doesn’t seem quite so innocuous in Trump’s hands but on “Tacky”, tackiness is just good, dumb, liberating fun, as long as you’re not the one stuck behind a drunk guy taking off his shirt at the bank or the waiter being threatened with a bad Yelp review of course.
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