At Long Last, Can’t We Just Like Weird Al?

On The Concourse, Samer Kalaf writes, “Does anyone actually hate ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic? You’ll usually find two reactions to him: adoration or indifference.”

Well, not quite.  In 2011, a particularly humorless writer for the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this about the accordion-playing King of Kitsch:

NOT Weird. Retarded Al Yankovic would be more fitting if it didn’t have the politically incorrect implications of the playground. The world’s most successful pop parodist is about as ”out there” as your average fourth-grade class clown.

“The tortured rhymes and sheer corn between one underpants gag and the next could be excruciating and his narcissism astonishing,” spouts the Australian buzzkill.  “From Another One Rides the Bus to Amish Paradise, any signs of genius lay in the musical hooks forged by experts long before Weird Al and his perfunctory session players learnt the chords.”

So Coolio’s an expert now, is he?  No wonder the Sydney Morning Herald filed this article under Comedy.

Yes, I have to disagree with Samer Kalaf.  In the mainstream media, there’s always been an underlying, perhaps even unconscious, distaste for Weird Al and his parodies.  Maybe it’s the fact that all these cool hipster types devote their lives to documenting every step, meal, and wardrobe change of god-like 20-somethings we’re all supposed to LOOOOOOOVE! but who tend to wind up being broken-down, boring old human beings after a few years.  Maybe it’s because Weird Al is the guy these critics hated in high school: not just smart but clever, funny, a guy who could undercut your carefully constructed affectation and be better at it than you at the same time–and he could do it all with a smile.  Maybe it’s because after more than thirty years, these entertainment insiders still don’t get what there is to like about Al.

The latest “concern” from these all-knowing, all-seeing “cultural critics” is that Weird Al may not be “relevant” anymore.  They’ve latched onto Al’s announcement that his latest album, Mandatory Fun, will likely be his last regular studio album.  (Because he’s more interested in putting out EPs or singles that don’t take as long as a full-length album to put together.  The opinionistas tend to gloss over this, if they mention it at all.)  “After over 30 years in the business, could this actually be the end of ‘Weird Al’ as we know him?” frets Matt Picht of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Will Ashton of the Celebrity Cafe says in his review of Mandatory Fun, “With his 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun, comedic musician ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic proves once again that he still knows how to keep his comedy sharp, even if his voice is starting to no longer become as relevant or needed in today’s society.”  Most of the naysayers and professional concern trolls cite the fact that these days anyone can post a parody of anything on YouTube, so why do we need a Weird Al?  His parodies are dippy.  All he sings about is food.*  His songs are way too happy and juvenile, when today’s music parody consumer wants snark and edge, cutting political and social satire.  Says Carl Wilson on Slate: “The spike in sophisticated comedy as well as the do-it-yourself recording and video-making boom centered on YouTube have brought if anything a surfeit of musical mockery. And a lot of the newborn Weird Als, face it, are simply better than ‘Field of One’ Al ever was.”

Yeah, right.  First, have you taken in any of these new parodic geniuses on the Interwebs, Carl?  Yeah, they might be edgier than Al, but they’re not nearly as musically sophisticated.  Al’s parodies and “style parodies” may sound effortless, but they’re really complex creations that weave musical signatures together into stand-alone works that still mirror the originals.  For example, I just bought Mandatory Fun the other day.  I’d heard that the nine-minute-long “Jackson Park Express” is an homage to the “story songs” of Cat Stevens.  “Cat Stevens didn’t really write story songs,” I told my husband, “Maybe whoever wrote that album review is too young to remember someone like Tom Chapin.”  But once I got a chance to listen to the song, lo and behold, it did sound like Cat Stevens.  Those big, bursting acoustic guitar chords, the epic peaks and valleys of sound–all there, all Cat Stevens.  “Jackson Park Express” also contains this gem of a lyric:

I want you inside me

Like a tapeworm.

Damn, that’s good love song parody.

Second, why exactly is Weird Al obsolete just because other people on the Internet are doing what he’s doing?  By that logic, we shouldn’t need to watch “Game of Thrones” because some Lord of the Rings fan fic short uploaded on YouTube has rendered professionally written and produced TV drama obsolete.  I like indie music, too, but I think my brain is evolved enough to be able to like Weird Al and other comedy musicians who are Not Weird Al at the same time.

Third, who says comedy has to be relevant?  Weird Al has never been a satirist.  He takes on the music industry and pop culture and little niggling irritations of modern life.  Must all comedy these days be biting social snark?  Is that a rule somewhere I missed? Plus, I hate to tell you this, media critics, but edgy social commentary tends to disappear far faster than stupid fart jokes.  You know why we still read Shakespeare obsessively and tend to ignore his colleagues, like Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton?  Because Jonson and Middleton wrote jokes critiquing their world, and their world is now 400 years gone.  Someday, that’s going to happen to us, too.

So for now, while we’re all still here on this earth, can we please stop whining and wringing our hands and proclaiming the end of Weird Al and just enjoy his stuff, for God’s sake?  Yeah, I’m speaking as a long-term fan.  “Eat It” came out when I was nine.  I loved that song then, and even though it’s juvenile and orally fixated, I still love it.  I love the polka medleys.  I love the style parodies.  I still laugh along with the song “Yoda.”**  In these days of income inequality, Middle Eastern conflict, and civilian airline travelers falling from the sky, can we please please please sit back and enjoy something stupid?  Something juvenile and lacking in cynicism?  Something with heart?

 

*The horror!  Not to mention wrong.  By my unofficial count, only about 10% of Al’s songs are food related.  Plus, these days, what with Top Chef and Iron Chef and Chopped and how many networks devoted to food and cooking?  Three?  Four?  It seems that American pop culture has finally caught up with Al, and not the other way around.  If I may send a message to all those media aesthetes from the past thirty years: Eat it.

**Yes, someone actually panned “Yoda” because “it’s not nearly as zeitgeist-y in its song choice or its subject.”  You know, Young’un Internet Writers, just because you weren’t born long enough ago to appreciate a cultural reference doesn’t mean there’s nothing there to get.  Also, since when is “zeitgeist-y” part of the criteria for critiquing comedy or music?

 

 

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