Buck 22’s “Achy Breaky 2”: A Terrible Song That Raises Fascinating Questions

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 14 2014 12:18 PM

What Is “Achy Breaky 2”?

A remix? A sequel? An answer record? (And what is Larry King doing here?)

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.

It’s a fascinating realm to dig into. We tend to think of the convention dying out, but it actually just evolved and became one of the primary engines of hip-hop in the form of “diss tracks,” from the “Roxanne Wars” (aka the case of sluts v. dawgs) and the “Bridge Wars” (did hip-hop began in Queens or the Bronx? please answer in invective form) through Kendrick Lamar’s everybody-spanking guest verse on Big Sean’s “Control” last year and the wounded replies from Drake and others.

Getting closer to the achy-breaky end zone, there’s also Prometheus Brown of Seattle rap group the Blue Scholars’ rebuttal to Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s country-rap misfire “Accidental Racist,” called “Racist Accident.”

“Achy Breaky 2,” however, falls down utterly as an answer song because it is neither timely nor pointed. In fact, Buck 22 has nothing to say about the original “Achy Breaky Heart” except for Look! I’m on a record with Billy Ray Cyrus! You know! Miley’s dad! It’s also simply not done to feature the original artist on an answer song, or for that matter a parody—it ruins the dramatic tension. (Weird Al didn’t make those mistakes when he sang, off the mark promptly in 1993, “Don’t play that song/ that achy-breaky song/ the most annoying song I know.”)

Instead, perhaps “Achy Breaky 2” falls into the far-less-common category of the sequel song—usually a number that attempts to follow up an artist’s biggest success by returning blatantly to the same well, whether quickly or much later. This practice probably stretches way back as well—you could argue that Berlin’s 1911 “That Mysterious Rag” is a sequel to “Alexander’s,” but it’s not literal enough. Folk singer Blind Alfred Reed following up his 1927 success “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?” with 1929’s “Why Don’t You Bob Your Hair, Girls?” (kind of a self-answer record) —now that’s more like it.

Really, though, the first example of a sequel song that springs to mind is David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” (Scary Monsters, 1980). It is almost as meta-musical as “Achy Breaky 2,” beginning, “Do you remember a guy who’s been in such an early song?”, but it transports the sympathetic spaceman from “Space Oddity” (1969, though it didn’t break in North America till 1973) into further galaxies of hurt: “You know Major Tom’s a junkie.”

“Ashes to Ashes” stands out among sequel songs because it’s not merely a rerun and so doesn’t tarnish the original. It is hard to say as much for George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Moon,” or Chubby Checker’s algorithm of diminishing returns from “The Twist” and (the arguably even better) “Let’s Twist Again (Like We Did Last Summer)” to “Slow Twisting,” “Twistin’ Round the World,” “Twist It Up” and finally “Yo, Twist!

Then there are in-between cases such as Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” which is OK but no “Johnny B. Goode,” or Buddy Holly’s sequel to “Peggy Sue” called “Peggy Sue Got Married” (perhaps the only sequel song ever to inspire a movie). And Lesley Gore’s follow-up to “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry”—I like to imagine she later becomes the Judy of the Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk,” continued by “The Return of Jackie and Judy.”

All of those, however, have more dignity than Bon Jovi self-plagiarizing the melody of “Livin’ on a Prayer” for the chorus of “It’s My Life,” Paul McCartney’s thankfully unreleased 1987 self-tribute “Return to Pepperland,” or perhaps most desperate-seeming of all, Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia” (with Johnny Cash in an unfortunate guest role). At least John Cougar Mellencamp has had the sense to resist fan requests that he write a “Jack and Diane, Part 2,” reportedly telling them that the characters are just made-up people in a song—nothing happens to them next.

As with answer songs, hip-hop seems to have taken much of the novelty factor out of sequels and rendered them more routine—and therefore usually less hokey, as Complex demonstrated recently in a rundown of 25 (mostly) rap sequels. Incidentally, after a couple of failed attempts at other approaches, last year Rebecca Black herself returned to the days-of-the-week motif with a song titled, yes, “Saturday.” But like almost all of the clones above, it didn’t reignite any sparks.

So is “Achy Breaky 2” a sequel? It carries the appropriate ignominy, and the time lag doesn’t work against it here. And in a loose sense it continues the “narrative” of Billy Ray Cyrus’ existence and of the Cyrus family. Or maybe, like past dance-craze sequels, it simply reinforces and/or expands upon the nightclub-floor possibilities, in this case that the tune is suitable both for boot-scooting and booty-shaking.

Perhaps. But that’s awfully loose. And here, too, we run into the opposite problem as with answer songs: Sequels are generally done by the original artist, not by some unknown with the originator sitting in—with the exception, I guess, of the aforementioned “Yo, Twist!” which, were it released today, might be billed as Fat Boys feat. Chubby Checker.

Finally, “Achy Breaky 2” is not a cover, not a remix, not an answer song, not a parody, and only by very broad definition a sequel. Maybe it’s a kind of appropriation, treating the chorus as a large-chunk sample, in the tradition, say, of Puffy’s use of the Police on “I’ll Be Missing You” or untold numbers of mashups. On the other hand, that’s not actually a sample. Appropriation isn’t much of a thrill with such firsthand assistance.

I’m going to call this song (and maybe “Yo, Twist!” too) a “freakquel,” for coloring so far outside the lines. Perhaps you can propose an alternative category or parallel. Whatever its taxonomy, no doubt soon you’ll be calling it a flash in the pan. But seldom has so unworthy a song raised so many worthy questions. So, Billy, sing that crazy hook again.

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.