In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: A Portland-via-Oakland comedian who recently made the move down to Los Angeles, Amy Miller has appeared on Last Comic Standing and Doug Loves Movies, as well as at both the Bridgetown Comedy Festival and Riot LA, where The A.V. Club talked to her. With jokes about body issues and growing up “white trash,” Miller’s comedic voice resonates with a whole swath of young women—and especially with those who have an undeniable and almost feverish love of Dolly Parton.
The A.V. Club: Why is this the song you picked?
Amy Miller: Two reasons, actually. One is because I always think of “Word Up” by Cameo, and there’s something about that vocal technique that was super trendy among those guys, like “word up!” I just hate that sound so much.
The other thing about “Return Of The Mack” is that songs that are really hard to memorize because they have a different aside every time frustrate me. One time they’ll be like, “Oh my god,” and then you think you’re on the right line to say “Oh my god” and you’re in your car and you’re singing, and then he says the other one, and you’re like, “Fuck! I got it wrong again.” I’ve heard that song 10,000 times, and I still don’t know when he says which thing unless I write a guide for myself. And for some reason that always infuriates me. If someone was in the studio and just said a different, wacky thing between verses each time, it throws me off so much.
But it’s mostly the voice. That voice— I don’t hate Cameo in general; I really like “Candy,” but in “Word Up,” Cameo lays on that technique a little bit thicker. It’s such a hard thing to explain in print, but you know what I’m talking about. It’s the back of your throat.
AVC: It’s the kind of singing that hurts to do it a lot. If I sang that whole song at karaoke, I’d feel like I was working a muscle that I hadn’t worked in a long time.
AM: Yes, it’s very guttural. It’s almost like you need help. You’re being throttled by someone, like “aagh, aagh,” like you’re just at your rock bottom. Maybe it’s a very hungover day when you wake up and you’re like, “Was I screaming a lot last night? Was that party loud?” And you’re still a little bit drunk, and it feels like there’s a golf ball in your throat? That’s how you sing “Return Of The Mack.”
AVC: What’s “Return Of The Mack” even about?
AM: Well, I don’t know either, because “Return Of The Mack” is from Threepenny Opera, which is a great play.
AVC: Do you think he knew that?
AM: I don’t know if he knew that. I have no idea if it’s related to “Mack The Knife” at all, but that’s always what I pictured, because I love Threepenny Opera. Then I get even more mad at “Return Of The Mack” because then it reminds me of “Mack The Knife” and then I’m like, “The music in that musical is great. This song is garbage. But really catchy.”
I don’t know why I’m so mad at it, even. I just hate it. [Singing.] “Return of the mack…”
Every once in awhile he’s like, “Once again,” and you’re like, “No, not once again, because I haven’t been with you this whole time because each time you say something different and I’m so mad.”
AVC: “Return Of The Mack” is from a particularly bravado-heavy era of music. It’s very, “Hey, remember me?”
AM: Yeah. And that’s what it is. It’s a reminder of the fact that he left town or something, or he left someone’s life, and he wants everyone to know that he is back. And it’s not a different mack, it’s not a different dude, it’s The One.
You’re right. That era there was a lot of just like, “Hey, I want to remind you about who I motherfuckin’ am, and nobody else matters.” And I guess that’s what it’s about. I don’t even know.
AVC: He’s not slinking back into town saying, “I failed.” He’s saying, “This is my big return.”
AM: Maybe he’s a guy who left his hometown and had big success, and then came back with so much misplaced bravado that people were like, “Actually, no one is surprised that you’re back. And why are you so proud of yourself right now?” And he’s just like, “I’m the mack!”
AVC: He’s spinning it positively.
AM: I feel like that’s about to happen to me in Portland. [Note: This interview was conducted before Miller left Portland.] Maybe I’ll move to L.A. and come back and then I’ll end up singing this song every day.
AVC: What if you moved back to Oakland, where you’re from?
AM: The problem is that there are so many macks in Oakland that I’m definitely not going to be the mack. I could be, in Portland, potentially, so if I go back anywhere with a lot of false bravado, it’d be there probably.
AVC: Why do you think comedians try to always push to bigger and bigger cities? Is there anything to be said for being the funniest person in, say, Pittsburgh and just being happy with that?
AM: I think if that town is anything but Los Angeles or New York, where that’s absolutely impossible, there is something to be said for it. You get more attention that way. It’s an easier thing to accomplish. Also, small towns and local publications love to have a hero of some kind. For Portland, it’s definitely Ian Karmel and Ron Funches, but every year now they’re looking for that person. If you know they’re looking for it, then you could just try to insert yourself into that position, and it’s much easier than if you’re in a bigger town.
AVC: How do you do that?
AM: I think you actually have to have something to offer and be kind of good. People will notice if you’re not, because you’ll stand out so much harder than you would elsewhere. In L.A., there could be a million delusional comedians or actors and they all blend in together and no one is ever like, “You’re living a lie.” But if you’re in a small town and you’re like, “I’m the funniest person here,” but you’re not that good, everyone’s going to notice and call you out on it.
AVC: And if you’re the funniest person in Pittsburgh, but all your jokes are about living in Pittsburgh, you’ll never get anywhere else.
AM: Totally. That’s a really common trap that people in small scenes will start to rely on. They’ll have all this material joking about that place, and then take a trip to Atlanta or whatever, and be like, “Half my act is gone because I can’t talk about how everybody has a bicycle.”
AVC: Or you have to be able to tell that story and say, “Where I’m from, everyone has a bicycle,” and make people care about whatever you’re saying, but in another place.
AM: Portland has the advantage—and to some extent this is true about Oakland, too—that enough people are aware of the stereotypes about that town that you can get away with a little bit, if it’s not hyper-specific. With Portland, it especially works because we have a whole fucking TV show about all of its quirks that’s been on for five seasons. At the same time, that makes it harder if you go to another town and say, “Nobody in Portland knows what to do at a four-way stop,” because people are going to go, “You didn’t observe that. That was on a TV show.” But for other towns I think you can do it if there’s anything really stereotypical about that place. You can do a little bit of it somewhere else. But you never want to rely on it.