In Appreciation of Weird Al
by Chris Hooker
Aw, man…. The podcast covered UHF recently. I loved that movie so much as a teenager. That summer was insane for movies (it was the summer of BATMAN and the third INDIANA JONES film after all), but I still managed to see UHF in a theater.
At the time UHF was released, I worked at a record store, Wag’s Record Hound, and I used to put on the soundtrack whenever the boss was out. “Spatula City” is a particular favorite of mine; I have it split into 4 different tracks on my car’s music shuffler and it always brings a smile to my face.
It’s no mystery how I got into Weird Al Yankovic. I don’t think novelty parodies were my thing at all as a kid. I shrugged at “Another Rides the Bus” and “I love Rocky Road”, but you’d better believe I was a Michael Jackson fan. I was that white kid who couldn’t afford the red Michael Jackson jacket but coveted one with serious Charlie Bucket longing. When “Eat It” hit, I was still in the process of wearing out my vinyl copy of Thriller.
It wasn’t just a funny riff on the song, trading gang masculinity for berating picky eaters. It was an outstandingly accurate spoof. And this was in MTV’s heyday, when you turned up for world premieres of music videos; “Eat It” was not only a wholesome, fun version of Jackson’s “Beat It”, it came with an incredibly faithful parody of the music video, too. I don’t believe such a shot-for-shot parody had ever been done before in that medium.
True story: my first solo concert experience was Weird Al on the “Dare To Be Stupid” tour. He played the O’Connell Center in Gainesville (a basketball stadium). I was 13 and in this crowd with University of Florida frat boys who were smoking dope and giving me a contact high. When security saw me getting a little funny, they went after the pot-smokers, who quickly hid their joints and chanted loudly, “Just Say No”, which wasn’t a very Weird Al thing, looking back on it… but at the time, that seemed really goddamned funny. But I digress…
I don’t think there’s much need for me to get into a blow-by-blow as far as Yankovic’s back catalog. I found it funny when turned Jackson’s “Bad” into “Fat”, as a kind of consequence of “Eat It”. I had a period in the nineties when my record collection could best be described as a joyless mass of goth artists and depressing pre-emo angst, so I went out and bought three records to lighten the fuck up: volumes 1 & 2 of The Beach Boys Greatest Hits, and Dare to be Stupid.
I love that so many bands felt they’d made it—including Nirvana—when Weird Al took the song for a ride. I think Mark Mothersbaugh’s take on “Dare to be Stupid” is one of the funniest and most honest answers about an artist Weird Al is parodying. And it’s a very smart take on DEVO and their style.
It’s not the only great style parody he’s done: “Everything You Know Is Wrong” is more early They Might Be Giants than anything they’ve written in the last ten years.
I love the way Yankovic just turns up at interesting moments in time with yet another funny take on pop culture. He turned up for the Star Wars prequels in a great way, writing “The Saga Begins” from a handful of Internet spoilers and a charity-bid advance screening of Episode 1. People sometimes get the impression that parody is easy, because you’re working from a template, but there was no connection between Star Wars and Don McLean’s “American Pie”; understanding the cleverness it took to link these two things together is the heart of appreciating Yankovic.
When the catchy song “Blurred Lines” became a radio hit, I couldn’t really enjoy it because of the very problematic lyrical content involved, but Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” was my delightful guilt-free go-to. He took something topical—bad grammar and text-speak in modern communication—and made what I think is the better version of the song. And the video, which uses the same titling game as George Michael and Queen’s “Killer/Papa Was A Rolling Stone” video, actually does a very good job of explaining all the things Al is breaking down in the song. It doesn’t feel like a parody. It has a gently funny appeal that makes it feel ageless while still being very much of the now… just like the rest of Al’s catalogue or even the man himself.