Day One hundred and seventy-three: "Headline News" from Medium Rarities
The past does not change. It cannot change. But our understanding and perception of the past changes constantly. Our individual and collective pasts are liquid, fluid, perpetually shifting and morphing to accommodate the attitudes and sensitivities of the present.
On “Headline News”, for example, Al borrows the weirdly infectious dirge-like melody and irritatingly catchy hummed, non-verbal chorus of Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmmm” as well as its thematic structure to impishly chronicle three of the biggest tabloid scandals from the early 1990s: Michael Fay, a dumbass American tourist making the unwise choice to engage in a little light vandalism during a trip to Singapore and being punished by a vicious caning, Tonya Harding’s descent into notoriety after an associate knee-capped Nancy Kerrigan, America’s Ice Princess, in an attempt to improve Harding’s chances of winning Olympic Gold, and finally Lorena Bobbitt cutting off husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis.
In the decades since the single’s release our understanding of two of these curious, sordid figures, these walking punchlines, has shifted tremendously. Fay, alas, is still widely seen as a doofus who ran amok in Singapore and then was punished viciously and disproportionately for his youthful transgressions but Harding and particularly Bobbitt are seen in a vastly different light these days.
Harding was the subject of a high-profile biopic starring Margot Robbie that depicted the controversial skating champion as the troubled victim of abuse, first from her mother and then from husband Jeff Gillooly. Bobbitt was similarly the subject of a sympathetic film, in this case a documentary that portrayed her not as the tabloid cartoon of the public imagination who lopped off her cheating husband’s penis in a fit of rage but rather as a passionate, dignified immigrant who was viciously raped and sexually terrorized by a dead-eyed sociopath until she was moved to take violent action against the instrument of her abuse, which Al refers to as “Mr. Happy” in what is perhaps not the most sensitive moment of his career.
We’ve changed a lot in the quarter century since the release of “Headline News.” We’ve evolved and de-evolved, made great social progress and regressed egregiously. Al’s tongue-in-cheek spin through the top tabloid tales of the day is consequently the product of an earlier era.
“Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” is one of the goofier products of the Nirvana-fueled Alternative Rock boom of the early to mid 1990s, a borderline novelty song full of additional novelties. Crash Test Dummies frontman Brad Roberts sings in a bass-baritone so low that it almost sounds like he’s doing a goofy fake voice to amuse friends.
Instead of words in its chorus, “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmm” substitutes noises, namely strangely hypnotic humming. The same is true of “Headline News.” It’s one of the only songs in Al’s oeuvre that has the same chorus as the song that Al is parodying, which finds Al singing in a register lower than he ever has before in a successful attempt to replicate the oceans-deep croon of Crash Test Dummies frontman Brad Roberts.
As “Headline News” draws to a close, Al pulls out all the stops. The kazoos employed to such delightful effect in “Smells Like Nirvana” return along with the accordion that distinguished Al’s self-titled debut and even the musical hands of manualist Mike Kieffer.
The 24 hour news cycle had not quite attained the velocity the unstoppable velocity that defines it today back when “Headline News” was released as a single from Al’s first box set but musically and lyrically, this still feels unmistakably like old news.
Support independent media, get access to patron-only content and help ensure a robust present and future for The Happy Place by pledging over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace