Week 36: Ray Stevens, Jester Of The Tea Party Set
A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
I’ve been a comedy obsessive since my dad gave me a copy of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers when I was 10. “Weird Al” Yankovic was my first idol, and the inspiration for my ill-fated third-grade novelty band Nathan & The Rockers. And yet I didn’t really get into audio comedy until a few years ago. Now my iPod is full of comedy albums from folks like Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan, Demetri Martin, plus at least one “Weird Al” box set and comedy podcasts like Comedy Death-Ray, Never Not Funny, and The Best Show On WFMU With Tom Scharpling.
So when I saw a A.V. Club newswire post about country cut-up Ray Stevens scoring a big comeback with an anti-immigration song I figured now would be the perfect time to immerse myself in the music, the magic, and the wonder of the most successful country novelty act of all time. It was as if fate itself was admonishing me to explore the evolution of the man behind such timeless apogees of sophisticated comedy as “Ahab The Arab.”
I’d long been fascinated by Stevens as a cultural figure, a sad-faced clown whose goofball oeuvre reflects the cultural zeitgeist. During the three weeks or so when streaking constituted the hottest fad, Stevens raced into the studio and released the instantly dated novelty smash “The Streak.” When the Twin Towers fell, Stevens responded with “Osama Yo’ Mama.” And when the election of President Obama drove the right wing to dress up like founding fathers in a misguided attempt to convey that our country had strayed from the principles that made it great, Stevens cannily reinvented himself as the jester of the Tea Party set, a real-life Bob Roberts.
Stevens wasn’t always defined by his politics. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, he was a respected Nashville professional, A&R man, busy session musician, producer, and songwriter who worked with titans like Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley. As a recording artist, Stevens specialized in silly novelty songs like “Gitarzan,” but he was also the first artist to record Kris Kristofferson’s hangover classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” Some of Stevens’ biggest hits, like “Everything Is Beautiful,” were maudlin and sentimental instead of goofy and ridiculous. But on 2010’s We The People, Stevens defiantly, unmistakably threw in his lot with Birthers, Tea Partiers, and everyone else convinced that Obama is transforming our nation into a socialist nightmare. In doing so, he ensured that he will forever be associated with ultra-conservative politics.
Listening to We The People, and Stevens’ box set, Box Set, I experienced the opposite of joy and laughter. The mere sight of Stevens on the cover of We The People, peering out at me with cold, dead eyes while dressed like a Tea Party lunatic, sends me into an apoplectic rage. Stevens’ dispiriting oeuvre filled me with profound sadness and emptiness. When narrow-minded people dismiss country as the music of xenophobic, cornball, maudlin, flag-waving jackasses who luxuriate in their ignorance, they’re taking about Stevens, who embodies every negative country stereotype in unusually pure form.
The Stevens of We The People is a real-life version of Mr. Show’s C.S. Lewis Jr., a cartoonish super-patriot railing semi-coherently about tax-and-spendocrats who want to soil God’s own U.S.A. with their rascally socialist schemes, baby-murdering, and nonsensical earth-protecting. That foolishness about global warming don’t hardly make no sense to Stevens. Since Stevens moonlights as one of our top climate-control scientists, I think we should all take his views on global warming very seriously.
We The People’s insufferable arrogance begins with its title. As a wealthy, famous white man who proudly proclaims he gets his ideas from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly, Stevens now feels qualified to speak for the sum of the American people, all of whom are apparently ready to revolt over our president’s mild health-care reforms.
The title track, written by veteran songwriter Max T. Barnes, crows “You vote Obamacare / We’ll vote you out of there / We the people have awakened to your tricks” before quipping that if politicians “had the common sense that God gave a billy goat,” they’d realize that salt-of-the-earth Americans like himself are onto the kind of “pork-barrel special-interest tax-and-spend scam” that health care represents. In the tradition of protest singers from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger to Billy Bragg, Stevens augments his incisive political commentary with an enthusiastically blown raspberry, a foghorn to cover up profanity, and all manner of wacky sound effects, always the sign of a sophisticated musical manifesto.
In the video, Stevens—looking for all the world like a zombie Tommy Chong—pretends a plunger is a guitar, wears founding-father garb, and stares vacantly while lip-syncing lyrics like “We’ve heard from Hannity, Beck, and Limbaugh what you got in mind for grandma / And we found this O’Reilly fella on Fox / We’re kind of like Joe The Plumber / And when we crunch the numbers, it all adds up to voting you out at the ballot box.”
I love how Stevens sings of Bill O’Reilly as if the Fox fixture were some sort of homespun philosopher whom Stevens and his fellow intellectual seekers came upon spouting common-sense wisdom, whittling at the corner store, and smoking a corncob pipe, rather than an obnoxiously ubiquitous blowhard with a pulpit that stretches across our fine nation. The production values, performances, and sentiments expressed in the video are pure public access, yet the video has wracked up more than 3 million views on YouTube. Stevens has done well for himself underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
“We The People” sets the bar prohibitively low, but the next number, “Caribou Barbie,” shimmies defiantly under it. Stevens, once again looking simultaneously bored and dispirited, sings Sarah Palin’s praises in the most effusive manner imaginable, hailing her heretofore-unknown integrity and respect for the constitution, flying the flag for her 2012 political run, and attacking the liberal media for “slicing and dicing” her interviews. In Stevens’ mind, at least, there exists uncut footage of Palin’s interview with Katie Couric which reveals the former Alaskan governor to be an erudite, dignified stateswoman with a deep, comprehensive grasp of the subtleties and nuances of international politics.
But it isn’t all wacky, ill-informed political discourse and zany sound effects. Stevens veers schizophrenically from asinine gags to shameless sentimentality, as evidenced by tracks like “Thank You,” where Stevens shakes his head in disgust over all those flag-burning protestor types who refuse to acknowledge the heroism of our fighting men and women.
But none of these crimes against music and comedy has generated the stir of Stevens’ anti-illegal-immigration rant “Come To The U.S.A.” Like many of Stevens’ songs, it’s incredibly lazy, yet also tries way too hard. Stevens seems to realize that his songs are devoid of funny lyrics, amusing ideas, insight, humanity, or any redeeming facet, so he piles on leaden shtick: silly, vaguely offensive accents; zany fake public-service announcements; and most noxiously of all, Stevens’ trademark idiot chuckle of self-satisfaction. A typical Stevens concoction is a misbegotten cross between a vaudeville sketch, morning-zoo wackiness, and a diatribe from your racist uncle.
We The People offers nothing but reactionary politics and pandering schmaltz delivered with supreme condescension. The songs on Stevens’ career-retrospective Box Set are largely apolitical, but Stevens’ love of crude ethnic stereotypes hints at the xenophobia that pervades We The People. In “Osama Yo’ Mama,” Stevens borrows the “Middle Eastern” setting on his Casio keyboard (previously heard on his earlier hit “Ahab The Arab”) to deliver a tongue-lashing to Osama bin Laden for embarrassing his mother with his shenanigans. Though Stevens’ song suggests otherwise, I doubt that bin Laden’s mother speaks in a cartoonish backwoods drawl. The song is now laden with historical irony, since Stevens seemed convinced that bin Laden’s capture was imminent. Nine years, two wars, and tens of thousands of deaths later, we’re no closer to catching Bin Laden then we were on September 12, 2001.
How can a song about streaking not be even the tiniest bit fun? Watch and learn, or avert your eyes to keep yourself from “The Streak”’s soul-crushing powers.
Stevens has a reputation as the “Weird Al” Yankovic of country, but that association does a tragic disservice to Mr. Yankovic. If anything, “Weird Al” is the anti-Ray Stevens. “Weird Al” is a force for good in the universe, a talented, smart, funny, big-hearted icon whose music has brought joy and laughter to millions. To paraphrase a Simpsons line, “Weird Al” es bueno, Ray Stevens es el diablo.
My extreme dislike of Stevens is partially political and partly artistic. In spite of his bona fides as a respected musician and producer, the arrangements on Box Set are easy-listening bland and sterile, a tepid fusion of soulless countrypolitan slickness and middle-of-the-road pop. Stevens doesn’t seem to understand the craft of comedy. His timing is awful, his delivery is smug and patronizing, and his kitchen-sink approach reeks of desperation. I didn’t laugh once listening to the 73 Ray Stevens songs in my iPod. It proved the opposite of edifying:Listening to Stevens actively made me stupider. He is the first, and hopefully last, artist I’ve covered in this column whose work is almost entirely devoid of merit. Thankfully, at this point I feel like I’ve listened to enough country to confidently state that he’s the exception rather than the rule: an enormously successful veteran who has taken much from pop culture without giving anything back in return.
Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
Townes Van Zandt