Weird Genius

Weird Al YankovicThe Internet is replete with examples of two-word music criticism, which reflect a certain quality of thought: “That sucks.” I don’t think “Weird Al” Yankovic has ever been popular enough to inspire knee-jerk vehemence, but I’ve experienced plenty of knee-jerk indifference when singing his praises. “He’s strange,” people say; or “Isn’t that the ‘Fat’ guy?”

First, his name really is Al Yankovic (Alfred Matthew, to be exact.) He graduated from high school two years ahead of schedule, as valedictorian. He has an undergraduate degree in architecture. He’s a vegan who doesn’t drink, smoke, or take drugs. He’s still married to his first wife and has a teen daughter he reportedly dotes on. And he plays the accordion.

“Weird Al” Yankovic had his first Billboard No. 1 album in 2014, Mandatory Fun. It was the first comedy album to top the charts since 1963. He also joined Michael Jackson and Madonna as the only artists with Top 40 singles in every decade since the 1980’s. He’s written and starred in his own TV series, a movie (UHF), and is the author of two children’s books.

Yankovic is a nice guy who cried when he learned his album was No. 1. Although he’s legally allowed to parody the work of other artists under the fair use provision of U.S. copyright law, he always gets the original artist’s permission (nice, but not entirely selfless – Yankovic bargains with the original artists to split royalties on the parody versions.)

I don’t have much interest in the early, food-centric parodies (My Bologna, I Love Rocky Road, Eat It, etc.) Likewise, I don’t love the solo-accordion parodies, although they point to stages in Yankovic’s artistic development – he met his drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz when he performed Another One Rides the Bus on the Dr. Demento show (Yankovic has kept the same band members for decades.)

The beginning of Yankovic’s genius is his musical comprehension and re-creation of an exact musical style on a given song. Often, as much humor is derived from the music itself as from the words. But the words are also special. Stephen Sondheim has written that a near-rhyme is never as good as a perfect rhyme, something most pop songwriters who aren’t Paul Simon tend to be lazy about. Yankovic almost always nails the perfect rhyme, which Sondheim says requires less processing in the brain – essentially, it allows us to mainline “Weird Al’s” humor.

I’ve seen “Weird Al” in concert three times, which is second in my experience only to Bruce Springsteen. I would characterize each concert as an entertainment masterpiece – even the lighting manages to parody the typical “rock concert” experience. The first time I saw him, I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe, and tears rolled down my cheeks.

The following is a list of essential “Weird Al” tracks, which shouldn’t be taken as “ten best.” In some sense they are representative, although certainly a few of them are among my favorites. (My personal “Weird Al’s Greatest” playlist includes 33 tracks, and I don’t want to write that much, any more than you want to read it. I might be persuaded to include the list in the comments if anybody is interested.)

This parody tells the Star Wars Empire Strikes Back story to the tune of The Kinks’ Lola. Like most Yankovic parodies, knowledge of the original is not required, but the experience is heightened if you can draw connections between “I met her in a club down in old Soho, Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Cola Cola; C-O-L-A cola” and “I met him in a swamp down in Dagobah, Where it bubbles all the time like a giant carbonated soda; S-O-D-A soda.” And of course, SODA is a perfect rhyme for YODA. Later, Yankovic made a similar parody of Don McLean’s American Pie, summarizing Star Wars The Phantom Menace. George Lucas apparently loves both parodies, and Don McLean has said that now he sometimes gets the lyrics confused when he plays American Pie in concert. Yankovic frequently links both songs together in his own concerts, with his band dressed as characters from the Star Wars movies.

Amish Paradise
Hip-hop artist Coolio long insisted he hadn’t given Yankovic permission to record this parody of Gangsta’s Paradise, although Yankovic says Coolio’s representatives had signed off on the idea. Coolio now says he was wrong, and finds the song “actually funny as shit” (he’s received royalties from Yankovic’s version, and younger fans sometimes think he’s covered Yankovic, instead of vice versa.) Regardless, the concept itself is hilarious – applying the attitude of modern street gangsters to a hypothetical young Amish man. (“As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain; I take a look at my wife and realize she’s very plain; But that’s just perfect for an Amish like me; You know I shun fancy things like electricity.”) Yankovic is also known as a respectable rapper – original artist Chamillionaire commented about Yankovic’s hit song White and Nerdy: “He’s actually rapping pretty good on it, it’s crazy…I didn’t know he could rap like that. It’s really an honor when he does that.”

Your Horoscope for Today
A “style parody” – not taken from a particular song, but done in a particular style; in this case, third wave ska (characterized by dominating guitar riffs and large horn sections.) The best “Weird Al” songs send up not only their musical inspiration (I’d argue they honor it) but also skewer a specific target mercilessly. Sample lyrics: “Taurus: You will never find true happiness – what you gonna do, cry about it? The stars predict tomorrow you’ll wake up, do a bunch of stuff, and then go back to sleep.” And the amazing bridge, which says what most people probably think but are too polite to say: “Now you may find it inconceivable or at the very least a bit unlikely that the relative position of the planets and the stars could have
a special deep significance or meaning that exclusively applies to only you; but let me give you my assurance that these forecasts and predictions are all based on solid, scientific, documented evidence; so you would have to be some kind of moron not to realize that every single one of them is absolutely true.” For me, one of the funniest musical moments in a “Weird Al” song occurs in the final verse, about Capricorns. I’m not sure why it’s so funny – the line is “never never never never leave my house again.” He inserts an extra beat before the word “house,” and at first glance you might wonder why he didn’t work a little harder on the meter of the line. But that’s where I always convulse with laughter. The extra beat is what’s funny, for some reason (it’s even funnier in concert, with every band member on the same wavelength.)

My Baby’s in Love with Eddie Vedder
(Style parody of Zydeco genre.) Pauline Kael wrote that Steve Martin’s act was a parody of a certain kind of comedian. Likewise, “Weird Al’s” meta humor is among his richest, when he makes fun of himself as an accordion-playing pop star. In this case, his groupie girlfriend has decided she prefers Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder to Yankovic, which is funny because it’s so reasonable. But Yankovic insists on cataloging their differences, over an accordion-inflected backing track. “Now, every time I see him, well, he looks so grim; I guess it really must suck to be a rock star like him; What a pain in the butt to have so much success; Spending all his time moping and avoiding the press; But my girl can’t get enough of his sullen demeanor; Like he’s some big tortured genius and I’m some kinda wiener.” The self-deprecating lyrics are brilliant, and deliver a climax that might be lost on future generations, if they forget who Alanis Morissette was.

Smells Like Nirvana
In the early 1990’s, “Weird Al” might have disappeared entirely if not for this parody, which he regards as his first satirical song. Michael Jackson, a Yankovic fan who’d provided two of “Weird Al’s” biggest hits (Eat It and Fat) asked Al not to parody his song Black or White as “Snack All Night.” When Al asked Kurt Cobain if he could parody Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Cobain’s only condition was that it couldn’t be about food. Instead, Yankovic’s song was about how nobody could understand the lyrics to Nirvana’s songs. Cobain subsequently characterized Yankovic as “a musical genius,” and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl later said Yankovic’s song was when he knew the band had “made it.” Yankovic performs the song live in a blonde wig, and practically channels Cobain as he thrashes and flops around the stage. It’s valediction, mockery, parody and tribute; it’s also hilarious.

One More Minute
“Weird Al” Yankovic has cited Mad Magazine as one of his main influences, which is obvious – he sometimes leans too much in the teen-boy fart-joke direction. But the line between potty and sublime is not always distinct – this song might be one of the best examples of that. This song is an Elvis Presley style-parody, with the jilted lover singing about all the things he’d rather be doing than spending “one more minute” with his ex-lover. There is no better example of the “Weird Al” fine line than this: “I guess I might seem kinda bitter; You got me feeling down in the dumps; Cause I’m stranded all alone in the gas station of love; And I have to use the self-service pumps.” If you find that line brilliant, read on.

Truck Drivin’ Song
Absolutely the most single-minded of “Weird Al’s” one-joke songs. It’s sung in the style of a Johnny Cash basso-country song, from the point of view of a cheerfully cross-dressing trucker. That’s the whole joke, but it keeps getting funnier as it goes on – the big bass voice distressed because “when I hit those big speed bumps; My darling little rhinestone pumps; Keep slippin’ off the mother-lovin’ clutch.” The song my family is most likely to sing along with on a road trip.

The Night Santa Went Crazy
A style parody of Soul Asylum’s Black Gold. I co-wrote a song like this once, contrasting idyllic acoustic folk guitar with hard rock. (I also wrote a weak parody of Yankovic’s Buckingham Blues that I called Rich Suburban Kid Blues – I performed it in my underwear, ala Tom Cruise in Risky Business.) This is the second Christmas-themed song Yankovic released, after Christmas at Ground Zero. Like that one, it’s not the most reverent Christmas song. “Down in the workshop all the elves were makin’ toys; For the good Gentile girls and the good Gentile boys; When the boss busted in, nearly scared ’em half to death; Had a rifle in his hands and cheap whiskey on his breath; From his beard to his boots he was covered with ammo; Like a big fat drunk disgruntled Yuletide Rambo; And he smiled as he said with a twinkle in his eye; Merry Christmas to all – now you’re all gonna die!” OK, so there’s one near rhyme in there (ammo/Rambo) – but if you’re not tickled once the jingle bells turn into heavy metal guitars, this song’s not for you anyway.

The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota
A story-song in the style of Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot. It’s almost 7 minutes and 1,000 words long, and to me represents Yankovic at his most generous. A small-time HVAC contractor takes his family on a dream vacation to the titular attraction. Along the way, Yankovic affectionately celebrates Americana in all of its ridiculousness: “The scenery was just so pretty, boy I wish the kids could’ve seen it; But you can’t see out of the side of the car because the windows are completely covered with the decals of all the place where we’ve already been: There’s Elvis-O-Rama, the Tupperware Museum, The Boll Weevil Monument, and Cranberry World, The Shuffleboard Hall Of Fame, Poodle Dog Rock, And The Mecca of Albino Squirrels; We’ve been to ghost towns, theme parks, wax museums, and the place where you can drive through the middle of a tree; We’ve seen alligator farms and tarantula ranches, but there’s still one thing we gotta see…” Rather than being disappointed when they finally get there, the family can’t wait to go back again. And “Weird Al” finds a way to make a perfect rhyme out of “I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather go ta… than the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.” Perfect, indeed.

Yankovic started including long-form parodies on his 1999 album Running With Scissors. Albuquerque is 11 minutes and 22 seconds long, and was originally thought of by its creator as something that “people might listen to once, if at all.” It’s a song in the tradition of George Thorogood. The song has become one of Yankovic’s most beloved (I saw him perform it live in 2011, surely one of the highlights of my concert-going life.) Subsequent long-song album-enders have included the Frank Zappa-inspired Genius In France (2003), Trapped in the Drive-Thru (2006), and Jackson Park Express (2014). Albuquerque is the best, and not just because the name of the real place begins with the letters “Al.” “…then one fateful night, Zelda said to me; She said ‘Sweetie pumpkin? Do you wanna join the Columbia Record Club?’ I said ‘Whoa, hold on now, baby, I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment!’”

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Of course this list is incomplete and might provoke some griping. Please, feel free to do it below. I know I haven’t mentioned Don’t Download This Song, a We Are the World-style benefit for artists who are struggling because of illegal music downloads (Yankovic offered the song as a free download on his web site.) Or his pitch-perfect Talking Heads parody Dog Eat Dog. Or Close But No Cigar (“She was so pretty she made Charlize Theron look like a big, fat, slobbering pig.”) Or Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me (“…by the way your quotes from George Carlin aren’t really George Carlin; Mr. Rogers never fought the Viet Cong; and Bill Gates is never gonna give me something for nothing; and I really doubt some dead girl is gonna kill me if I don’t pass her letter along.”) Weird Al is like that. Weird, and funny as hell. Genius? Maybe.

You can hear this piece in Podcast Episode #6