"Tubthumping" is really a great song if you come at it as being a brilliant piece of social satire. "Weird Al" Yankovic would often do what he called "genre parodies," where he would write an original song in an attempt to imitate another group's sound. Of "Dare To Be Stupid," a send-up of Devo's sonic palette, Mark Mothersbaugh said, "this is what Devo had been trying to do for years – and 'Weird Al' beat us to it!" So, I can only imagine what Chumbawamba thought when their pub anthem send-up proved to be huge with the very people it was taking the piss out of.
Meanwhile, the suits at Universal were surely thinking, "do it again!" And with What You See Is What You Get (hereafter referred to as WYSIWYG), the band said, "yes and no."
WYSIWYG was released April 4th, 2000. I was at the tail-end of my second year at SUNY Potsdam. After an ill-advised semester as WAIH's chief engineer, I had been elected to become the station's music director starting in the Fall of 2000. The station's current music director had been driving me insane for the past semester because he believed that a college radio station should sound like a modern rock station. Of the albums he passed over during his waning tenure, Chumbawamba's new set was among the rejects.
The summer of 2000 was the first time since I had joined up that WAIH stayed on the air between the Spring and Fall semesters. As such, I began my term as music director earlier than expected and gleefully tore apart my predecessor's playlist and refreshed it with the glorious sound of diversity. Songs from WYSIWYG went into high rotation on my air slot.
While "She's Got All The Friends" was the only single from the album, I opted instead to introduce people to it via "Pass It Along." It was with some amusement when I heard the song used in a GM commercial. It was with further amusement when I found out that Chumbawamba had used the vast majority of the fee they were paid for the song in donations to organisations critical of GM. Of course, there's nothing particularly amusing about General Motors as an organisation. When the question is "where do you want to go today?" the answer usually isn't, "out of control into a ravine with no brakes or steering because the key fell out of the ignition." The current situation with GM is particularly sickening when you consider that their suits did a "cost-benefit analysis" and determined that paying the legal fees for lawsuits stemming from the defective ignition switches would cost less than issuing a recall and fixing the problem before people started getting killed.
My friends and I thought WYSIWYG was a great album. Fourteen years later, I still think it's a great album. Twenty-two tracks making up a total of 48 minutes of music make for a fast listen – and more like one musical piece than a collection of separate songs. It goes by very quickly, especially when you note that only five tracks exceed three minutes in length and three don't even make it to the one-minute mark. It's the perfect satirical set-up for the state of the Western World at the end of the century: shallow, glossy, interested only in instant gratification...but beneath the surface lies the rot of paranoia, corruption and oppression. "Pass It Along" perfectly encapsulates this: a soaring chorus with Microsoft's "where do you want to go today" ad campaign stands in contrast to a verse where the line, "shut out the world – it’s getting worse; save yourself, don't leave the house."
"Pass It Along" could almost be a sequel to "The Good Ship Lifestyle," but on WYSIWYG that theme of self-imposed isolation via fear of "the other" is most stridently revisited on "Celebration, Florida." Against a breezy country backdrop are sung the lines, "there's a bake sale at the school house and they're selling innocence. They're keeping out the deviants to protect the residents of Celebration, Florida." Yes, Celebration is the ultimate gated community – a municipality constructed and (at one point) wholly owned by the Disney Corporation. Up until 2010, they could even brag that the experiment was a roaring success – no murders in Celebration ever! It took until 2013 for the number of killings to go up to two. I am reminded of Edgar Allen Poe's "Mask of the Red Death" – try as you might to keep the horror of the "real world" out, it will find a way to get in. Maybe it's a better idea to try and solve real world problems then merely fortifying oneself against them?
I want to say that a lot has changed in the past fourteen years, but I really can't honestly do so. Whenever I compare then to now, all I get back to is a cynical assessment that all changes have been, at best, superficial. In fact, I'd dare entertain the notion that things are really worse. If Bill Clinton's eight years were marked by missed opportunities, then what is to be said of Barack Obama's nearly eight years? Bush II certainly accelerated the downward slide, but at least he was a lightening rod for activism. Put a so-called "democrat" into office and suddenly people fall asleep as if nothing could possibly be going wrong. What you see is what you get but a lot of people simply aren't opening their eyes and taking a good look around.