White, Nerdy, and Old: The Astonishing Longevity of Weird Al Yankovic

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 16 2014 4:47 PM

His Bologna

A mostly fond farewell to pop music’s longest-running—sometimes only running—comedy act, Weird Al.

Weird Al.
Weird Al’s last hurrah?

Photo by Robert Trachtenberg/RCA Records

Friends, donuts, sundry hens, I come not to bury “Weird” Al Yankovic but to praise him. Or just to bury him a little, maybe up to the knees.

At 54, “Iron Man” Al has enjoyed unheard-of longevity in the business of making novelty songs. His career stretches from the barely post-adolescent “My Bologna” in 1979 a variation upon the theme of the Knack’s new wave one-hitter “My Sharona”), through the somehow-irresistible 1984 conversion of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” into “Eat It,” to “Cult Hero” Al’s belated manifesto, 2006’s “White & Nerdy” (neatly spun from the gossamer of Chamillionaire’s chorus about “ridin’ dirty”), with which he staked his territory on YouTube.  

This week, seemingly inspired by the cornucopia of videos that attended Beyoncé’s latest album, “Market-Savvy” Al has adopted an Internet-conquering strategy of releasing a video a day from his new, 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun. This is probably his last full-length, he’s said, as his record contract is up (the title is partly a joke about contractual obligation) and the format is no longer so suitable to a spoofing style that depends on timeliness.

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Most of the public never listened to the albums anyway—very few have heard his original songs (almost always another kind of silly style pastiche) as well as his perennial accordion medleys, which allow him to tick off lists of recent hits he hasn’t gotten around to goosing, instead throwing them an oompah-pah high-five. (The medley on the new album is titled “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”)  Perhaps he’ll be successful releasing songs himself in one-offs or small batches, as he plans. But it might also be that this week’s online orgy of Al will turn out to be kind of a last hurrah. And though I say it with affection, perhaps that’s as it should be.  

Comedy had a regular and revered place in the prewar, vaudeville-and-Broadway-based recording industry, and it was common on both sides of the rock ’n’ roll/lounge-act divide in postwar pop—whether with Spike Jones’ orchestral sendups or Allan Sherman’s Catskills standup-in-song, or in Chuck Berry and Lieber-and-Stoller tunes, not to mention outright novelty numbers. It remained so in the hippie era, with the Beatles’ appeal leaning heavily on wit, and Bob Dylan’s stoned beatnik surrealism (“the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken”) coming as much from Lenny Bruce as from Ginsberg and Kerouac.

But somewhere in the self-conscious 1970s, despite punk’s best rearguard efforts, the whoopie-cushion air went out of the game. Novelty music, with rare exceptions, was shunted off into a nerd ghetto ruled over by Barry Hansen, aka “Dr. Demento,” and his syndicated radio show of “weird sounds.” It was there that a young Al Yankovic discovered it, began submitting his own demos, and mainly thanks to the incongruity of a teenager with an accordion playing pop music, got adopted and promoted by the show.

And that, plus a little luck, was enough to launch “Nothing if Not Persistent” Al, who sustained his shtick through two decades that remained particularly fallow for deliberate laughs in pop—the CD era, when the music business was as fat as it had ever been on easy money and arrogant about its star-making force.

He had the especial fortune to coincide with the MTV era—videos were essentially ridiculous already, and ripe for the clowning. Without the visuals, Yankovic’s songs would never have had the same traction. He was working in memes and virality before those terms existed. What’s more surprising is that he had so little competition. (Even This Is Spinal Tap was a cinematic event that didn’t much ruffle the charts.)

But today, as many observers have noted, it’s the opposite. He’s not so much “Weird” Al as “Norm”-Al. As Jody Rosen wrote last year, “We’re all Weird Al Yankovic.” 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.

Consider this week’s offerings: He opened strong on Monday with “Tacky,” a takeoff on Pharrell’s global hit “Happy” and by far the finest of the five parodies on the record. The theme here permits “Sartorial” Al to extend his usual Hawaiian-shirted goofy style to new heights of hideous garishness. But he also gets in some digs about live-tweeting a funeral, “threatening waiters with a bad Yelp review,” and having a “YOLO license plate” that extend the joke beyond dress-up to modern manners and mores.

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