Step Right Up

Album: Small Change (1976)
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Songfacts®:

  • Tom Waits assumes the voice of a carnival barker in this polemic about advertising and commercialism. "Step right up" is a phrase these hucksters would often use to lure crowds into attractions, promising a life-altering viewing that would inevitably disappoint. Most of us learn that early on that what's promised never lives up to the hype, but some people just keep handing over their money, hoping the Fiji Mermaid will be a glorious creature, only to find it's a stuffed monkey with a fishtail sewed on.

    In this case, the huckster is selling products with rapid-fire sales clichés like "one size fits all" and "it's new, it's improved." He won't give up until you buy something, even if it's just to shut him up.
  • Waits has never let his music be used in commercials, feeling it would compromise his work. He has very strong thoughts on the matter. "I really am against people who allow their music to be nothing more than a jingle for jeans or Bud," he told Musician magazine in 1987. "But I say, 'Good, okay, now I know who you are.' 'Cause it's always money."

    For that matter, Waits has steadfastly refused to follow trends or do anything that could cheapen his music for the sake of popular taste. In that regard, he's the antithesis of a pop star, and his fans love him for it.
  • In 1988, Frito-Lay hired a Tom Waits imitator named Stephen Carter to voice a radio commercial for SalsaRio Doritos in the style of this song. Waits was furious when he heard it. The commercial really did sound like him and gave the impression that he endorsed it, which would be a complete reversal of what he stands for and espouses in "Step Right Up." He filed suit for false endorsement and misappropriation, and won a $2.6 million judgment. Frito-Lay appealed, but in 1992 the verdict was upheld. Carter, the man who impersonated Waits in the commercial, testified on Tom's behalf.

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