Et Tu, Billy Bass?
About 20 years ago, many Americans found it suited them to own an animatronic fish made of plastic and latex, mounted to a trophy plaque of faux wood, which at the touch of a button, or the activation of a motion sensor, played a recording of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” or Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” while the model fish’s head rose mechanically away from the plaque, and its lifeless fish lips opened and closed in a delightful pantomime of human singing. Big Mouth Billy Bass was profoundly dumb, and we loved him for it. Now, like the refrigerator that cools our mayonnaise and the monocular camera that keeps watch over our sleeping offspring, Billy Bass is finally getting smart.
As of today, you can preorder a new and improved Billy, equipped with access to Amazon’s Alexa line of virtual assistants. No longer content to hang dead and empty-headed between performances that bring mirth to the whole household, Billy Bass will now spend his time listening. Per a Business Insider report, Billy will dance to the beat of Amazon Music songs you request, answer your queries “about the weather, news, or random facts,” and mouth the words to those responses, too. The things you say to Alexa via Billy, of course, can and will be collected by Amazon for a wide array of corporate uses. To be fair, he is not quite a one-fish surveillance operation, in that he requires connection to a standalone Alexa device in order to operate. Still, he is her accomplice, her agent in the field, the friendly fish face that masks her icy calculations.
We’re slowly getting used to the idea of domestic appliances that connect to the internet, accepting their data-gathering and risks of unauthorized access as necessary downsides to their supposedly increased functionality and convenience. But Billy Bass’s defection still stings, because his entire essence and appeal lie in a rejection of utility. He is a creature of pure idiotic whimsy, singing his stupid songs and nothing else, the last fish you’d expect to submit to the relentless optimization of your home and life.
There’s a great episode of The Sopranos in which Tony endures psychological torture by a seemingly harmless Big Mouth Billy Bass, because the singing fish reminds him of his old friend Big Pussy, whom—spoiler alert—Tony and his crew have recently murdered. I think about the real-life case of James Bates, an Arkansas man accused of killing his friend Victor Collins, in which prosecutors hoped to use audio of the alleged incident recorded by Bates’s own Amazon Echo to help convict him. (The charges were eventually dropped.) In 2018, Billy Bass could do more than give Tony panic attacks. The fish might also just turn him in.