Weird Al Yankovic, Guardian of Culture

Day 58. 146 pages, 68,971 words.

I recently picked up the new album by Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic, Mandatory Fun. Although this only marks the second Weird Al album I have bought (if you even count the bootleg Even Worse I bought on cassette from a friend who had been to Indonesia in 1988 and picked up twelve copies after Weird Al’s timeless classic, Fat, played on Hey Hey It’s Saturday), that officially puts it into the heady stratosphere of artists of whose work I have ever bought more than one album, along with the Corrs, Martin/Molloy, the Darkness … and that’s about it.

Of course, I have also acquired most of his other work in electronic format, I am embarrassed to admit (although much of it I got legally, and the rest was downloaded and burned to CD back before I had download-and-burn capability and, indeed, when CDs were actually a data-burning medium), so I do consider myself a solid and quite knowledgeable fan. I even have his never-released Still Billy Joel To Me, his epic classic Albuquerque, and I know all the words to The Saga Begins and the theme to The Weird Al Show.

I did not know until researching this blog post, for example, that the songs Livin’ La Vida Yoda, Oops I Farted Again, Weenie in a Bottle, Star Trek Rhapsody and Star Wars Cantina were not by Weird Al. Go, educate yourselves.

But this is not about his music, which in itself is enough to make him a global treasure and place him in a frontline exhibition case in the Museum of Showing Off To Aliens One Day. This is about Weird Al Yankovic as Guardian of Culture.

I firmly believe that, if a man had been frozen or locked himself in a bomb shelter in the early 1980s, to emerge today, said man could learn everything he needs to know about the past thirty years of Western history just by listening to Weird Al’s albums. The changing values, belief systems, and attitudes held by popular culture are right there. You don’t even need to be particularly astute or well-trained to pick up on them.

I’ll spare you the detail of an extended run-through of his works. Suffice it to say, you can go and find his stuff if you’re curious. I’ll limit myself to his recent album, Mandatory Fun.

This album shows, in stark and beautiful contrast against the decades and (most of the) albums preceding it, the Age of the Internet hitting music and general popular culture. And Yankovic has obviously been right there watching it happen, his finger firmly on the pulse and his thermometer firmly up the bottom of society (society’s head being up there too means that he didn’t need to specify oral or anal thermometer). There are parodies of all the great viral classics here, from Happy to Blurred Lines to (in a polka that was a delightful surprise to find on the album) Wrecking Ball, Call Me Maybe and, yes, Gangnam Style. Some of the tunes and songs I didn’t recognise, but enough of the ones that were big online.

But that’s only the first layer. Beyond this, we have the general quality of the music itself. The repetitive, almost grotesquely jaunty sample-based feel of the songs he’s parodied (oh my God, “Mandatory Fun”), the meaningless ga-ga-ga of some of the lyrics in the polka (even in comparison to some of the polkas of the late ’90s and early ’00s), the overall soulless quality of the tunes. Duckspeak, set to music.

But there’s more layers.

The parodies themselves tell the story of our modern malaise. From Foil, outlining the classic conspiracy theorist lunacy that has found a perfect incubation environment online, to Lame Claim to Fame with its double-whammy mockery of our celebrity obsession and Internet commentators, from Word Crimes and its flawless demolition of the Internet Illiterati to Tacky and its shredding of hipster and social media culture, to First World Problems and its basic musicalisation of that whole meme, you can tell Weird Al has been sitting, and watching, and shaking his head. And then grinning and saying, “I can make a song out of that.”[1]

[1] Although obviously, if you look into it, there were a lot of other writers involved in the creation of these songs – as well as Weird Al. For example, it looks like Thicke and Williams were involved in the writing of Word Crimes, which is cool. The more you know.

He even threw in a perfect sports anthem in Sports Song, a lovely show of solidarity to his obviously-numerous fans who are lost and amused and utterly disinterested by the whole freaking concept of sports.

From now on, any time someone starts up about sport in my presence, they’re getting a dose of “Your sports team will soon suffer swift defeat / That theory’s backed up by empirical evidence / We’re gonna grind up your guys into burger meat / Again, of course, we’re speaking in the figurative sense”.

The album ends with a heartbreakingly beautiful love song, Jackson Park Express, a throwback to Good Old Days if ever I heard one, and very near as poignant if not quite so delightfully ultra-violent and charmingly psychotic. And one of the rarest things of all, which I hadn’t really given any thought to until now – Yankovic does it all without swearing.

And as little as I care about the issue of “bad language”, I can’t help but respect that.

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6 Responses to Weird Al Yankovic, Guardian of Culture

  1. aaronthepatriot says:

    I have greatly enjoyed Weird Al over the years though I am nowhere near the fan you appear to be. I’ve even come up with some great parodies for him to use that never were [1] [2] over the years, one to great success IMO. Perhaps this is another case, as with Dr. Who, where the term “lover” instead of “fan” needs to be applied to you? Adding to this trip down memory lane, I must mention my forever-favorite of his, “This Song is Just Six Words Long”, parodying the classic from Dirty Dancing [3] “I’ve got my mind set on you”. See how the Weird Al version is not 6, but in fact 7, words long? Classic Al. Perfection. Of course there are many other favorites but I had to mention that one for the delicious wrongness of it.

    [1] I went to his website for the very purpose of giving him my song idea, with the hopes he and I would rise to greatness together or at least he’d tickle me pink forever by liking my idea, only to find a notice on his website that while he accepts comments, he very much does NOT accept song ideas [4] Which is too bad because my idea was awesome, everyone who loves me agrees. It was to be a parody of the song “Buttons” by the Pussy Cat Dolls, which has lyrics in the chorus of “I’m tellin ya ta loosen up my buttons baby…uh-huh…” etc. The theme of the parody would be a man who is angered that his dry cleaners has totally screwed up his shirts somehow, all the buttons are pulled out and barely hanging on etc. The new lyrics would be “I’m tellin ya YOU loosenED up my buttons…” etc. I mean, how perfect is that. Alas. Never to be.

    [2] Or for me to parody I suppose, I have most of the song in my head now.

    [3] I believe it was, at least.

    [4] Or at least he did not at the time.

    • stchucky says:

      I’ve even come up with some great parodies for him to use that never were [1] [2] over the years, one to great success IMO.

      For some reason this makes me think of Homer Simpson in the episode “Three Gays of the Condo”.

      Perhaps this is another case, as with Dr. Who, where the term “lover” instead of “fan” needs to be applied to you?

      Indeed! It seems I’m more lover than fan in most things.

      Adding to this trip down memory lane, I must mention my forever-favorite of his, “This Song is Just Six Words Long”, parodying the classic from Dirty Dancing [3] “I’ve got my mind set on you”. See how the Weird Al version is not 6, but in fact 7, words long? Classic Al. Perfection. Of course there are many other favorites but I had to mention that one for the delicious wrongness of it.

      Ah yes. I remember fondly the debate I had with my older brother back in 1988 (that song was on Even Worse), as to whether a contraction counted as one word or two. I think that was when I realised I was destined to become a technical writer.

      After seeing how many songs are misattributed to him, and imagining for a moment how many people must have tried to sue him for coming up with a parody they believed they’d come up with, I guess I can understand an absolute refusal to entertain the idea of taking fan suggestions. Indeed, Homer Simpson in the episode “Three Gays of the Condo” is all the reason Weird Al would ever need to not take fan suggestions. Perfect illustration.

      • stchucky says:

        I should add that, at least to my ears, the chorus of that song did tend to vary between “song’s just” and “song is just” several times, so a case could be made either way and yes, in some places it most certainly was not a contraction at all, but seven words. Brilliant stuff.

  2. Linza says:

    Aren’t footnotes supposed to go at the end?

    • stchucky says:

      When I’m blogging and e-mailing, I put them at the end of the paragraph. Endnotes go at the end of the text but I don’t do them. Footnotes go at the end of the page but there is no “page” on a blog essay.

      • dreameling says:

        Footnotes go at the end of the page but there is no “page” on a blog essay.

        HTML and the existential crisis of footnotes. [1]

        [1] lol, I think the plural of footnote should be feetnote. Made myself laugh there. Must be tired.

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