Have you heard the joke about Miley Cyrus’ dad and Dionne Warwick’s kid? That would be “Achy Breaky 2,” the video released Tuesday by rapper-producer Buck 22 (Damon Elliott) featuring Billy Ray Cyrus and a cameo by Larry King. It racked up nearly 5 million YouTube views in less than two days—less in the way of the new Nicki Minaj single than in the camp mold of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” where looky-loos crowd in to gawk at the wreck.
A song that became old enough to drink last year, though it always seemed pretty tipsy, 1992’s line-dance-fever hit “Achy Breaky Heart” has never sounded so amiable and nonirritating as it does when returning to it after suffering through the new version’s shoveled-on, dubstepford-wife sound effects and its squirm-inducing shoutouts to Cyrus’ daughter: Buck paraphrases Jay-Z’s “Somewhere in America” line with “Miley’s still twerkin’/ Daddy’s song is workin’,” while in the vid, shiny-paper-clad alien ladies make like Miley in the butt dept., and the elder Cyrus whoops back, “wreckin’ ball!”
The tune is pretty explicit about its intended purpose, which is to generate buzz for Buck 22: “Next to BRC, up on TMZ/ Got everybody wonderin’ who I am.” Wonder no more: The younger son of Warwick and her ex-husband, jazz drummer Bill Elliott, Damon Elliott is an engineer and producer who got his start with Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony in the 1990s and has worked on records with pop divas from Pink to Beyoncé, but never really has caught much shine of his own—his career highlight prior to this week was producing the hit cover of “Lady Marmalade” in Moulin Rouge. Which may explain why he’s resorted to hitching up with Miley’s pa for this y’allapalooza of nepotism, although thus far “Achy Breaky 2” has led almost no one to Buck 22’s other song on YouTube, “Country Pride.”
That roughly settles the first two boggled queries a viewer is likely to spurt out: “Who?!” and “Why?!” But there remains a third: “What is this?!” It’s certainly a novelty song—a prank of sorts, framed by a Larry King intro that recalls the 1938 War of the Worlds radio hoax—but what kind? What are its musical precedents?
Many have called the track a “hip-hop remix” of the original, which is in keeping with Elliott’s stated goal of “leading ‘a new revolution of Country mixed with Hip-Hop,’ ” seemingly symbolized here by its principals being beamed up from a Kentucky forest to a funkadelic UFO—and in Buck’s case only, being transformed from a boy to a man, which is either subconsciously racist, a complex nod to country’s troubling racial past (and sometimes present), or just plain mystifying.
In fact, America’s two most populist music genres, superficially at odds but similar beneath the skin, have been mixing at least since the emergence of “hick-hop” with Bubba Sparxxx and Big & Rich in the early 2000s. Two of the past couple of years’ biggest country hits have been full-out country-rap crossovers: Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” featuring Ludacris, and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” with Nelly. So Elliott is rather late for the revolution.
More significantly for our purposes, both of those songs really are hip-hop remixes, with the original recording melded with raps and new beats. “Achy Breaky 2” is, as its title suggests, a completely new recording, with verses in a slightly different framework than in 1992 and the chorus re-performed as a duo. So no, it’s not a remix exactly.
Instead one might be tempted to class “Achy Breaky 2” as an answer or response record. That tradition dates to the beginning of popular-music history—the 1875 hit “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” was a response to the lesser-known “Barney, Take Me Home Again,” there were countless comebacks to Irving Berlin’s epochal 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and of course Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was an answer song to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Arguably it went back even further to the debate poems and tenso of medieval troubadours or, in African-American culture, rap’s forerunner the dozens.
The form’s heyday, though, is typically regarded as the 1950s to the 1970s, especially in country and R&B, often with a female singer talking back to a hit song by a male or vice versa, with romantic or sardonic overtones—sometimes even injecting an everyday kind of feminism into the pop conversation.
For instance, Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” provoked Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” and Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog” in 1952 was answered within weeks by Rufus Thomas’ “Bear Cat,” which was the first minor hit for Sun Records. Outside the gender-wars model, the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” was parried by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Got a Job,” the launching single for Motown. (Answer songs seem to be lucky charms.) And then there’s the whole tangled saga of Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd.