Every so often some wild musical huckster will come along and turn the world upside down. When I was young that huckster was “Weird Al” Yankovic. He plagued every one of my family’s road trips. He was the guy whose tapes were dubbed and traded amongst friends during grade four social studies. He was the great communicator. His send-ups of “Beat It,” “My Sharona” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” were the peak of hilarity. By high school I thought I’d outgrown these things—the loud angsty stuff was now where it was at—but then “Weird Al” put music back into context, and he did it with a polka. Afterwards, I could not take seriously any band seeking to obfuscate their angst with loud guitars ever again.
The nineties were an angsty time for music in general, and being a sullen teen living in the middle of nowhere—from where I was, even suburbia seemed like the big time—I ate it all up. But what did I take away from my devotion to the genre? Did I write my master’s thesis about submerged babies chasing dollar bills on fishhooks? Did I pick up a heroin habit? What helped my horny, adolescent mind make sense of “I want to fuck you like an animal?”
By 1996, when “Weird Al” released his eleventh album, Bad Hair Day, I had moved on to other things and had come to see Al as a symbol of the horrid eighties; capriciously running amok on MTV and responding to Michael Jackson’s strange persona with even more earnest strangeness. Al’s 1989 movie UHF—a gleeful take on public-access television—was but a nerdy memory (I still can’t walk past a supply room without expecting Gedde Watanabe to jump out shouting, “Supplies!”). And as old fans like me began moving away from “Weird Al,” he seemed only to become more bitter and reactionary toward popular music. When that’s your bread –and butter though, how could you not?
So while I had thought I might no longer have had time for “Weird Al” and his cartoony insouciance, I picked up Bad Hair Day and listened to the song “The Alternative Polka”—and suddenly it all made sense to me once again. The song was a wild mash-up of Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails and just about everything else on the radio at the time. It began deceptively with the opening of Beck’s “Loser” and then kicked into overdrive with Al’s rollicking accordion and a full array of Dr. Demento sound gags. It was completely obnoxious.
At the end of the song when Al asks, like Billy Joe from Green Day before him, “Am I just paranoid or am I just stoned?” I knew the answer: Who cares? What “Weird Al” did with “The Alternative Polka” was allow contemporary music to shine through in its own blessed ridiculousness. What else can one do to Alanis Morissette‘s “You Oughta Know” that will equal it in hilarity except perform it alongside a polka? The wonderful thing about “Weird Al” is that he’s not malicious—at his best, he’s pop music’s ombudsman.
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Speaking as a fan, you can only take music so seriously. There comes a point when you succumb to solipsism and the next thing you know, you’re banging your head against the wall because no one understands the Smashing Pumpkins like you do. Hearing “Weird Al” sing the line “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage” from the Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” made me look at the song differently. Was I too a rat in a cage? Is there all there is to say about me? Granted, all that Al is trying to do is to make you laugh, lower your guard and just be yourself. And if you’re willing to lower your guard, then your music should be willing to meet you halfway. What’s the point of all the angst in the first place except to siphon money from the pockets of sullen teenagers?
Another song worth looking at from this period is “Amish Paradise,” Al’s send-up of Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise.” While there was once a time when having your song reconstituted by “Weird Al” was a compliment, this parody ruffled Coolio’s feathers—apparently, he didn’t like Al turning an earnest song about the plight of people living in the inner city into a goofy novelty piece. But, while “Amish Paradise” might seem stupid now, I’ve always thought that Al did a great job of using rap’s expository nature to craft a good song with a bit more weight to it than “Like a Surgeon.”
A more recent setback for Al was Eminem’s refusal to let him turn his parody of “Lose Yourself” into a video—the first time “Weird Al” was denied permission to do so. Granted, “Weird Al” doing a parody of an Eminem video is a bit of an oxymoron, as anyone who’s ever seen an Eminem video can attest to. But whether or not Eminem wants to admit it, he grew up in a world where “Weird Al” Yankovic loomed large and thus must have felt his influence in some small way or another, which is probably why Eminem’s videos are so much fun. The same applies to rappers like Ludacris who take their three –and half minutes on MTV to do something really weird
“Weird Al” Yankovic relies a lot on our culture at large to inform his parodies and—I’m going to go out on a limb here—when all you’ve got to work with is Kid Rock or Avril Lavigne, there’s not much to say except “Well, that’s pretty terrible isn’t it?” For proof, just check out Al’s most recent foray into polka cover songs, “Angry White Boy Polka,” from 2003’s Poodle Hat. With its mish-mash of White Stripes and Limp Bizkit, it’s fairly obvious that either Al has missed the boat or his shtick has become so internalized that the parody feels inert.
But this is my opinion today (late twenties, cat criss-crossing my ankles, cup of coffee by my side). Were I to have heard “Angry White Boy Polka” in adolescence, while lying on the floor reading Mad Magazine, I might’ve snorted Cheetos through my nose. Who else could make that happen? At least “Weird Al” cares enough to try. “Weird Al” is great because he’s eternally the same. With every generation of eleven-year-olds that discovers Al, this musical huckster gains more influence than any of his parody’s namesakes could ever hoped to have had, and that’s not too shabby.
Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he’s written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.