Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Weird Al Yankovic

(Picture courtesy of WeirdAl.com)
Okay, so Weird Al.

The first time I ever experienced Weird Al Yankovic was when I saw the video for “Eat It”. I was familiar with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and thought that I was about to see that again, when all of a sudden there was this white guy on the screen instead of Michael Jackson. This was not the last time I would be surprised to see a white guy in a Michael Jackson video, it’s just that the other times it was Michael Jackson.

This curly-haired guy with a mustache and glasses proceeded to mimic pretty much every second of Jackson’s video while singing about food. And then got Thriller Eyes at the end, which actually freaked me out a little bit despite the fact that I had seen the full-length video for “Thriller” by that time. I think it was the context. But other than the creepy Thriller Eyes I absolutely loved what I saw. I also couldn’t believe it was on MTV because it seemed far too silly. The fact that such a thing was legitimized by actually appearing on the channel made me happy in a way I didn’t understand at the time.
           

Side Note: Yes, back in the day MTV truly was a forum for legitimacy. If your music project wasn’t represented on that channel in some way, you weren’t shit. And I now know that seeing Weird Al on MTV generated that feeling that only the most comfortable of nerds can admit to enjoying: mainstream acceptance. Seeing that thing that appealed to me so much but that seemed so outside of the other things on the radio and television made me giddy. It meant there was hope for people who seemed to like things that were not widely accepted. I didn’t recognize that at the time, but I did already know that I was very different from my dad and most of the other kids that I was around. I was a dork.

I think the next video I saw was for “I Love Rocky Road” and it was the first (of many) times that I heard a Weird Al song and was later surprised to discover it was actually a parody. I didn’t like that one as much as “Eat It”, but it was enough to convince me I needed to spend some of my hard-earned allowance dollars (I got five a week!) on a Weird Al cassette tape. I have often claimed that the first music purchases I made with my own money were Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys and Raising Hell by RUN DMC. This is in error and I only just now realized it. My first music purchase was Dare to Be Stupid by Weird Al Yankovic. I don’t remember the year and I don’t remember the store, but that predated the other two tapes by a good bit. Granted, “a good bit” in pre-teen terms could be a month. But I’m thinking it was a new release at the time, so probably a year-ish.

I learned (and still know) every song on that tape by heart. I didn’t know anything about genres. I didn’t know that the title track was the closest thing Al could do to a DEVO parody (more on that later). I didn’t know that “Yoda” was a parody of some old song called “Lola”. I didn’t even understand that the polka was an amalgamation of a bunch of pop songs. I just thought the whole thing was hilarious and knew that I had found my new idol in Weird Al.

Polka Party! Was Al’s next release and by that time I was much more aware of popular music. MTV was the full-on juggernaut that it would be for the next decade and I was… whatever you call somebody who watched a lot of MTV. I knew all the hits and I was much more familiar with musical styles. Not only had I been watching the ever-helpful MTV, I had also spent a summer in North Carolina at the Jungle Rapids water park where they played all the hits, all the time. Much to the chagrin of my Papaw, the relative who loved me enough to take me there almost every day and to date my favorite relative ever.

Side Note: Papaw – my mom’s dad – was the best person I’ve ever known. Few experiences in my life measure up to the times I got to spend with him. He took me to the Haunted Pirate Ship, to see Beetlejuice, Dick Tracy, and who knows how many other movies. He would drive all over Wilmington looking for the newest GI Joe figures since they always hit North Carolina before they did here. But more than that he is the first person that I felt loved me unconditionally. He was the kindest, sweetest, funniest person. A year or so ago my mom told me how much I reminded her of him when she watched me with my son. I’m glad she was on the phone so she couldn’t see the tears rolling out of my eyes. No matter what else I do in this life, being told that will always be my proudest accomplishment.

So I was ready for Polka Party! and the parodies within.

I don’t think you could overstate what a huge, American deal Rocky IV was. That movie was such a big deal that it overshadowed its predecessor, and Mr. T was in that movie. Mr. T owned the planet for a while in the 80’s. Nobody could mess with that guy. But then Evil Russian Superathlete Ivan Drago came along and became the most hated person since Darth Vader before everybody found out he looked like an overcooked potato. The theme song for Rocky IV was a gimmicky pro-America song by none other than the Godfather of Soul James Brown. It was called "Living In America" and they actually used it right there in the movie. Not as background music. As Apollo Creed’s entrance music. Just thinking about it makes me want to watch Rocky IV so damn bad right now.

So MTV did this huge premiere for the song and it was all over the place. Music was such a massive, inescapable beast in the 80’s. There was no internet to download songs or find obscure artists or listen to radio stations from Chechnya. There was no satellite radio so you could avoid genres you don’t like. To a certain extent, the entire American public was listening to the same stuff, and lord help me I think we might have been better off for it. Nobody wanted to listen to “Party All The Time” (which was included in the polka from Polka Party) but we all had to and it created a bond. A bond that made us come together – regardless of race, age, or religion - and realize that maybe, just maybe Eddie Murphy was not as cool as we had previously thought.

Sorry. I went off on a tangent.

I tell you all of that so you don’t wonder why the opening track on this album was a parody of a song by a man who was already sixty years old. "Living With A Hernia" was fantastic. It was Al at his best obviously having a lot of fun imitating the Godfather of Soul. I didn’t know what the heck a hernia was, but you could figure out from Al’s lyrics that it was nothing pleasant. I remember asking my dad about it. Rather than telling me it was a severe stomach pain or something, he explained that it was when you suffered a rupture in your abdominal wall and your intestines protruded through, causing intense, debilitating pain and that it was really nothing to be writing funny songs about. Ha, ha! My dad! What a card!


Polka Party! remains one of my favorite of Weird Al’s albums. With parodies of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and El DeBarge’s “Who’s Johnny” as well as some of my favorite original songs and “style parodies”; this album got a lot of play. I learned the words just as quickly as I had with Dare to Be Stupid.

Even Worse was the next album Al released. It was a huge (pun intended) deal because it featured another Michael Jackson parody. ”Eat It” was probably the first song to get Weird Al international attention and that was because he was parodying the world’s biggest and best-known pop star. I don’t know exactly how you get bigger than “the world’s biggest and best-known pop star”, but Michael Jackson did it with the release of “Bad”. There was no bigger celebrity in the world – not even Hulk Hogan. So when Al released his excellent – and again food-related – parody of Jackson’s newest single, it got attention big time.


My middle school didn’t have talent shows, so much. Instead we had a lip-sync contest. Yes. Seriously. In retrospect it’s completely bizarre, but at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable. And it was handled just like a talent show. You had to try out and everything. This would have been the beginning of 1989 – the show was right before summer break. First you had to submit your song for approval.

We ended up doing “Fat” and it went really well. The only thing that sucked was a couple of jockos with a better wardrobe budget, better dance moves, and the ability to record the audio directly from the TV so that at the part where Weird Al goes, “HOOOO, ho, ho! Ho?” is actually in there and they didn’t look like doofuses when they lip-synced that part. Neither of us won, though. Some girl did Julie Brown’s “I’m A Blonde” and won.

Before I get any further, let me talk about Even Worse. It’s not my favorite Al-bum (HA!). “Fat”, “You Make Me”, and “Good Old Days” are all great, but the rest of the album fell a little flat for me. And ending the album with the slow (but funny) “Good Old Days” didn’t thrill me. I’ve always felt like albums need to go out strong with upbeat, exciting tunes. Something that makes you want more. I’d rather have something go out with a bang than fizzle out.


For the next year’s contest I really wanted to do “Paul Revere” by the Beastie Boys and submitted that. I don’t know what I was thinking. Obviously the teachers in charge rejected that one. But my second pick, “Like A Surgeon” made it in with no problem. This year my team consisted of my friends Glenroy and Shane – a black kid and a gay kid.

If that didn’t raise your eyebrows, let me paint a picture.

This was suburban Georgia in 1990. A mere three years after the Ku Klux Klan violently drove a peaceful civil rights march out of nearby Forsyth County. It was so bad Oprah Winfrey had to come down from her castle in Chicago to sort those crackers out. And I was going to perform a Weird Al Yankovic song with my black friend and my gay friend in front of a whole school full of rednecks and people who already didn’t like me very much. Of course, I didn’t think about any of that. I wasn’t making a big statement or anything. Don’t attribute my actions to anything other than wanting to have fun with my friends. The greater socio-political aspect of what we were doing never occurred to me.

And believe me – I didn’t go out of my way to make people like me. I was awkward and weird and just generally didn’t get how to relate to other people. THANK GOODNESS I AM OVER THAT SORT OF THING NOW.

Okay, anyway, Glen and Shane came over to my house and we practiced and put together our costumes and props and figured out what the heck we were going to do. We could imitate most of the video, but had to figure out how to fake some other stuff due to our limited budget – about twelve dollars.

Side Note: It delights me to no fucking end to think back to Shane mincing around the gymnasium dressed up as the nurse. I can’t remember exactly – I don’t think they let him wear an actual nurse outfit like he had planned, but I’m pretty sure he wore a wig and makeup. And he was definitely sashaying.

We got our act together and did the show. I barely remember most of it. It all went exactly as planned and I think everybody was sufficiently amused. If I remember correctly, an actual band consisting of Andy Samford, and some other rocker guys I knew won. They did “Paradise City” and the fact that they actually knew how to play their instruments was likely instrumental (HA!) in their success.

Side Note: My two straight years of Weird Al lip sync performances did not score me as much sweet middle school trim as you might think. As a matter of fact, the only reason I had a date to the Eighth Grade Dance was because this girl had just moved in across the street and didn’t know any better. That poor, sweet girl – Susanne was her name. Before the dance I took her to TCBY and the comic book shop in her pretty, white dress. I spent the whole night trying not to look at her cleavage while obviously looking at her cleavage. THANK GOODNESS I AM OVER THAT SORT OF THING NOW.


But none of that mattered, because that very summer – the summer before high school – the greatest thing that has ever happened in movie theaters happened. It was unthinkable. I remember this as clearly as anything else in my life:

I don’t recall what movie I had gone to see because something knocked it right out of my head as I left the movie theater – it was a movie poster with Weird Al on it. It said “UHF” and said it would be coming out in July. I stood there staring at it forever. I couldn’t imagine what it could be. I was excited for Batman – it was coming out in June – but the thought of a Weird Al movie was so compelling and unusual it put the Dark Knight on the backburner. Until I actually saw Batman, anyway. I mean, I was still stoked for UHF, but Batman was the greatest movie I had ever seen in my life. Plus, there was so much merchandise. It’s not like I could go out to the store and buy action figures or t-shirts of Weird Al.



Side Note: WHY THE FUCK ARE THERE NO ACTION FIGURES OF WEIRD AL!?! Some assholes are making Big Bang Theory figures and Justin Bieber figures but there’s no Weird Al figure. That is beyond obscene.

UHF was like no other movie I had ever seen. To this day there is nothing else like it. It was reminiscent of Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie, but had a much stronger narrative. There was actual characterization amidst all of the ludicrous jokes and over-the-top punchlines. The movie also opened up a whole new level of parody for Al. He was able to do straightforward parodies of franchises like Rambo and Indiana Jones as well as send-ups of game shows and commercials. And I promise you I am not exaggerating or using hyperbole when I say that every second of UHF is absolute genius. I hold that movie at the same level of reverence I do Big Trouble In Little China and the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s a standard that would never not be in my collection. If I meet somebody who can quote parts of UHF we are instantly friends.


The UHF soundtrack is another of my favorites from Al. While the all-Rolling Stones polka is my least favorite, the rest of the album is a masterpiece. Featuring the strongest single-album lineup of parodies – “Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” ( a parody of the Dire Straits tune with Mark Knopfler on guitar!), “Isle Thing” (Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing”), “She Drives Like Crazy” (Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” or Clark Howard’s theme music; depending on who you ask), and “Spam” (R.E.M.’s “Stand”) – interspersed with silly commercials and original tunes, UHF is Weird Al at his best. Not to mention the fact that it includes the single best piece of music ever written by a human being – the theme song to Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse – “Fun Zone”. You don’t know how close I was to using that as my entrance music when the opportunity arose for me to have entrance music.


It’s also worth noting (maybe? I dunno, maybe not…) that UHF was one of the few albums that I re-purchased on CD after buying the tape. The only other one I can think of is Anthrax’s Attack of the Killer B’s.

It’s fortunate that UHF was so good, because it would be three long years before Weird Al put out another album.

I think it was during that time that I learned about Al’s process and I think ALTV also happened somewhere in there. I should probably go ahead and mention ALTV since I don’t actually remember it all that well and don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say.

The first instance of ALTV that I recall was just a deal on MTV where Weird Al hosted and got to show videos that were quite different from what MTV normally showed. I said I didn’t remember it that well, but I can tell you that the first episode – perhaps not even a proper episode – is what introduced me to Madness, Mojo Nixon, and The Dead Milkmen. Al played “Our House”, “Elvis Is Everywhere”, and “Punk Rock Girl” and all three songs changed my brain.

 

Actually, Weird Al introduced me to a lot of music. At some point I learned about Al’s method for creating a parody – something I had never really thought about. He doesn’t just record the song and put it out, even though it would be perfectly legal for him to do so under American law. He seeks out the artist and asks their permission to parody whichever song he has chosen. If they don’t give permission, he does not do the song. This is what leads to “Style Parodies”. An excellent example of this is “Dare to Be Stupid”. From what I understand, Al went to Mark Mothersbaugh and asked if he could do a parody of DEVO’s “Whip It” (I think). Mothersbaugh said no. So instead we got “Dare to Be Stupid”, which is clearly in the style of DEVO but is not derivative of any one DEVO song. Same goes for the Talking Heads. David Byrne wasn’t into the idea of an Al parody and refused to allow whatever Al was asking for. So instead we got one of Al’s greatest and most memorable original songs; the song that was included in The Transformers: The Movie – “Dare to Be Stupid”. One of the biggest shocks of my entire life was when the Junkions started attacking the Autobots with that song playing in the background. And then later they all dance to it. Bah-weep-Graaaaagnah wheep mini bong.

There was more ALTV over the years. I believe at one point it was an actual show. I’ll have to check and see if it’s collected somewhere so I can buy it. Surely Rhino or Shout Factory is on that.


After his three year absence, Weird Al Yankovic came back big time, right along with the Seattle grunge movement. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had become the biggest song in the USA literally overnight. A little over six months after Nirvana’s single hit, Weird Al released “Smells Like Nirvana” and was once again adored by the public. I’m not a fan of Nirvana, but I think how this parody went down is very cool. Weird Al called Kurt Cobain to ask for permission. Cobain gladly gave it and later remarked that having Weird Al parody their song meant that Nirvana had truly made it. Knowing how Cobain reacted to having truly made it renders that comment a bit sour, but it remains a historic acknowledgement of Al’s talent and contribution to modern rock history.

The album that accompanied Weird Al’s return to the spotlight was Off the Deep End and was the first album to feature a cover that directly parodied another album. Nirvana’s album Nevermind featured a baby in a swimming pool chasing down a dollar. Weird Al’s featured a naked Al going after a donut.

While the first single from Off the Deep End was a hard-rocking parody, most of the rest of the album had more pop-friendly sensibilities. People like MC Hammer, New Kids On the Block, and Gerardo(!) were still around and topping the charts. And Al parodied all of them. The album also featured Al’s best polka since Polka Party!.

In retrospect, Weird Al’s polkas are mind-blowing. Not for being awesome pieces of music – which they are – but for making you realize that all of the songs contained therein were in proximity to one another. Looking back, it surprises me to realize that “Ice Ice Baby”, “Losing My Religion”, and “Cradle of Love” all came out around the same time. And most of Al’s polkas are like that. You hear them and are shocked to find out which songs were big at the same time.

Weird Al must have wanted to capitalize on the success of Off the Deep End (and who could blame him?) because his next album – Alapalooza – came out the very next year.


“Bedrock Anthem” – a parody of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Under the Bridge” and “Give It Away” - was almost as successful for Al as “Smells Like Nirvana” had been. But for some reason, Alapalooza didn’t quite get me. I couldn’t actually remember the track listings until I looked them up. And even then I still can’t remember how the songs went. I don’t know what happened or why, but Off the Deep End was that last Weird Al Yankovic album that truly resonated with me. And that kind of bums me out.

Despite not buying albums, I have definitely kept up with Al over the years. The recent popularity of nerd culture – whatever that means – has led to a lot of Al in media. Actually, it’s probably that trend combined with the fact that people my age – people who grew up with Al – are in charge of stuff now. Chris Hardwick’s rise to prominence has meant a certain amount of exposure for Al on TV and Nerdist-related things. In addition to appearing in Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 (which I did not appear in) and an episode of Batman: The Brave & The Bold (alongside Scooby-Doo, no less!), Al also had his very first Comedy Central special. So he’s clearly doing alright despite my lapse.

My love of Weird Al’s music created so many friendships over the years. In Elementary School my friends Ryan and Sean knew Dare to Be Stupid and Polka Party just as well as I did. My Middle School nerd crew knew all the Weird Al. These were the guys I played Dungeons & Dragons with and also the ones that introduced me to Monty Python (well, reintroduced – but that’s another post). Even now I have a much nerdier relationship with my buddy Gnoll than I do my other friends, largely because of shared tastes in nerd music.

It seems like everybody’s a nerd these days, but all it takes is one single question to ferret out the truth – the real depth – of anybody’s dorkitude: “What do you think of Weird Al?”

So after Varis recommended this post the other day I went and downloaded Alpocalypse – Weird Al’s latest album. I was a little afraid to listen to it. Not because I thought Al might have lost a step. I had already heard the first single off of the album and knew it was good:


No, I was afraid the problem would be me. Maybe I’m too serious now. Maybe all of Al’s little tricks – sound gags, polkas, and the like – wouldn’t amuse me anymore. Or maybe it would just be too oriented on parody and not present enough content that I was familiar with. Just looking at the track listing after I downloaded it from Amazon revealed that “Born This Way” was the only song being parodied that I was familiar with. Thankfully the tracks are now listed as “Parody of” so I knew which ones were originals. But anyway, I was worried. I didn’t want to not love Weird Al. I didn’t want to have grown out of what he does.

Thankfully, I haven’t. Despite my lack of familiarity with the source material for his parodies, Al is as funny as ever. For some reason Amazon’s download system is being a real asshole, so I can’t listen to Alpocalypse and review it right now like I wanted to. I also couldn’t listen to They Might Be Giants new album – Nanobots – after I bought it this morning because tracks 2 and 3 wouldn’t download and I can’t very well listen to an incomplete album, now can I?

But there were a few tracks that stood out to me about the new album.

“Perform This Way” – It’s a good parody, and in the vein of “Smells Like Nirvana” it gently pokes fun at the original artist. I also like the story behind this one. Apparently Weird Al contacted Lady Gaga’s people to ask about doing a parody and one of her people told him no without even asking her. She ended up hearing about it and was furious. Gaga immediately contacted Al and gave him her blessing.


“CNR” – This original tune about Charles Nelson Reilly immediately became one of my favorite Weird Al songs. I first heard it on the Comedy Central special and was blown away. It’s awesome.

“Polka Face” – I just wanted to mention the polka because I’m glad it’s a multi-song polka and not themed or another “Bohemian Polka”. But I don’t even know half of the songs in this one.

“Craigslist” – Well, Le Sexoflex, if somebody is going to do a song about the same thing you did and do it better, at least it’s Weird Al. I still love your version, though. And Weird Al doesn’t do the thing about being tied up in the Motel 6.

“Party in the CIA” – There’s just no way you could not be familiar with Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”. I think I heard it at Stone Mountain or something. Al’s parody is excellent. He manages to hit all the silly vocal nonsense that Cyrus does while putting together a hilarious description of CIA work.

 

“Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” – An awesome original song about the e-mails that your idiot friend sends you.

I’m happy with Alpocalypse despite my lack of familiarity with some of the songs. It’s a funny album regardless of the songs being parodies. And it makes me want to go back and fill in the albums I’m missing – an easy thing to do these days.

I still love Weird Al Yankovic. I’ve never seen him live and I really want to. I’m also hoping for a sequel to UHF. I think I’m going to have better luck with the former.

8 comments:

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    1. I've heard about the costume changes. Well, I've seen 'em. I have seen footage from shows. But that just isn't the same.

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  2. You and I lost interest in "Al"bums at the same time, apparently. I'd enjoy a single here and there, but that's about it. However, I've since also caught back up, but most of the new stuff still doesn't really do as much for me. I doubt I'll ever listen to them enough to memorize song lyrics. I sing along to the old stuff all the time, though.

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    1. Yeah. It's that lack of awareness of - or maybe caring about - pop music.

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    3. "Moves Like Jagger" is the worst song I have ever heard in my life. There is absolutely nothing good about it.

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  3. I'm not sure if you've listened to it or not, but "Straight Outta Lynwood" was also a pretty decent album. "White and Nerdy" is especially hilarious once you've read and/or completely memorized the lyrics XP. That being said, I really enjoyed this post, you hit so many awesome points and your stories are great. Thanks Phantom, for the constant entertainment. :)

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    1. I've heard "White and Nerdy" and it is very good. I plan on purchasing the rest of Al's albums over the next couple of weeks. Not all at once because I want to be able to appreciate them.

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