Weird Al Yankovic: Renaissance Man

Considering my other geeky/nerdy interests, I suppose it’s no surprise that I’m also a long-time fan of Weird Al Yankovic.  This week marked the release of his fourteenth studio album, Mandatory Fun, which contains parodies of Pharrell’s “Happy,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and others.  In a sure sign that I’m continuing my steady march toward old-fogey-dom, I was completely unfamiliar with at least one of the songs being parodied, “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea.  This has been true of Al’s last several albums.  It was long after I’d memorized “White and Nerdy” that I finally heard the source song.

With the release of Weird Al’s latest album, there has been some discussion online (in particular in a Grantland article that I am not going to link to because I felt it was needlessly mean) about whether Yankovic really matters in this age of the Internet when anyone can crank out a parody and put a video on Youtube. 

Admittedly, freshness can be an issue when it comes to parody.  Several of the songs Weird Al covers on the new album came out a year or more ago.  Age doesn’t matter as much when he’s parodying a classic, such as when he turned “American Pie” into “The Saga Begins,” but is anyone going to remember “Fancy” a few years from now?

Yankovic has acknowledged this problem, which is why Mandatory Fun may be his last traditional album.  From here on out, he can release parody songs and videos as they are completed and far closer to the popular source material.  That makes complete sense, and I’m sure Weird Al will be fine doing this.  Yes, there’s a lot of competition out there on Youtube, but he is still the one and only real big name in parody music.

The parodies are how he first came to fame, and he is very good at what he does.  While there are many many other people posting parodies on Youtube, in many cases their lyrics don’t quite work with the original tune or the singing…isn’t great.  There are definitely exceptions.  I talked about Not Literally’s work in a previous post, and recently I’ve had this very well done parody of “Talk Dirty to Me” called “Talk Nerdy to Me” stuck in my head.  But then it doesn’t surprise me that geeks would do parody well.  Weird Al is part of geek culture.  I’m sure many of these people were raised on and look up to Weird Al.  They aren’t his competition; they’re his legacy.

What has bothered me about some of these articles, though, is the idea that Weird Al’s career consists of these parodies and nothing more.  Most non-fans don’t seem to realize that about half of each Weird Al album consists of original songs.  Many of these are “style parodies” in which he writes a completely new song in the style of an existing artist.  For example, Mandatory Fun has “First World Problems,” which is his take on the Pixies.  My favorite song off of his previous album, Alpocalypse, is “Skipper Dan” a vaguely-Weezer-esque song that’s one of his originals rather than a parody.   Two of his bigger songs in the 80s, “Dare to Be Stupid” and “One More Minute” are also both originals.

Al and his band can play pretty much anything.  Speaking of the band, Al has been playing with these same guys for decades now.  They’re all very talented musicians, which is another fact that tends to be overlooked in discussions of Weird Al.  Seriously.  Go see them in concert.  All of the songs are played live, and they sound fantastic.  It’s also a hell of an entertaining show.  How many of the other Youtube parody singers can claim the same?  This is not to disparage these other singers, many of whom put in a lot of work and are quite good.  Weird Al is just in a different league.  There’s a reason (many of them really) that his career has outlasted many of the artists he’s parodied.

There’s also more to Al Yankovic than his work as a musician.  He co-wrote and starred in the movie, UHF, which, while it didn’t do very well on release (It was 1989, and it was up against movies like Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Batman), has come to be considered a comedy classic.  He’s made numerous guest appearances on TV shows and hosted his own series, The Weird Al Show, for a seasonAside from directing his own videos, Yankovic has directed videos for many other artists such as Hanson, Ben Folds, and The Black Crowes.  He’s also written two children’s books, When I Grow Up and My New Teacher and Me!  He also has a degree in architecture, which means he might also be able to design a house for you. 

So, while this may be his last studio album, let us not lament the end of Weird Al.  I have a feeling that he’s not going anywhere.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to “Word Crimes” again.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter