Twenty-five years of "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.
"Weird Al" Yankovic first appeared on television in 1981, wheezing out "Another One Rides the Bus" (his public-transport themed revision of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust") in quilted Technicolor pants. Since then, he's methodically dismantled our national soundtrack and rebuilt it, piece by piece, out of wretched puns, accordion riffs, and percussive armpit-farting. His work forms a shadow Top 40 of the last 25 years: "Eat It," "Like a Surgeon," "Addicted to Spuds," "Fat," "I Think I'm A Clone Now," "Smells Like Nirvana," "Amish Paradise," "It's All About the Pentiums." His new album has hit the Top 10 just in time for his 47th birthday, and its first single, "White & Nerdy," a parody of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'," has become YouTube's most popular music video of the month. (YouTube is essentially the Great Alexandrian Library of Weird Al videos.) Somehow, at an age when Weird Al's early pop muses have died or retired or been charged with pedophilia, he still has something to tell us about youth culture. What is it? And why are we still listening?
Yankovic was born, fittingly, in 1959—the year after Michael Jackson and Madonna, his most important early muses. As those two established themselves in the mid-'80s as the King and Queen of Pop, Weird Al followed one kazoo-blast behind, seizing the (strangely uncontested) position of pop's official Jester. They released hit singles; he transformed them into hit parodies. All three careers coincided with the birth of MTV, and it's hard to say who benefited the most. The music video lifted Yankovic's art from mere novelty songs to something much more powerful, a kind of deep parody of the new cult of musical celebrity. His real medium wasn't music, it was fame—he was a parasite of ubiquity. Suddenly, he was not just tweaking trite lyrics and catchy melodies, but lampooning the whole overwhelming mythology of pop: the look, the movements, the feeling. "Eat It" (1984) transposed Jackson's absurd street-fighting fantasies into the harmless world of suburban mealtime; "Like a Surgeon" (1985) imported Madonna's dirty, quasi-religious writhing into an antiseptic, scrub-colored hospital; and "Fat" (1989) transferred Jackson's tough-talking bravado onto, well, gigantically fat people. Along the way, Yankovic became an icon himself, extending his brand into film and kids' television. He even earned the adoration of the artists he parodied: Jackson donated his "Bad" set for the "Fat" video, and Nirvana loaned him their janitor. (Prince is the rare artist who's been impervious to his charms; he's refused permission repeatedly.) Now Yankovic is a recognized accessory to superfame. As the Texas rapper Chamillionaire told the Houston Chronicle recently: "It's one thing to go platinum. Where do you go from there? Then Weird Al calls."
"White & Nerdy" is a good example of Weird Al's gifts. He lovingly reproduces the sonic drive of the original song, all the way down to guest rapper Krayzie Bone's dense, melodic second verse. There are a handful of great lines ("MC Escher—that's my favorite MC"; "My rims never spin, to the contrary/ You'll find that they're quite stationary") and visual gags (Weird Al riding a Segway in a spandex bodysuit). The video touches, lightly but deftly, on the demographic paradox at the heart of hip-hop: the suburban white kid as the core audience of the culture's most commodified example of urban black cool. Weird Al works, as always, with stock characters: His gangsta is straight out of Boyz n the Hood (gats, bandanas, pimped rides), and his nerd is the same computer-programming Trekkie we've all been making sympathetic fun of since the invention of the microchip. In comedy terms, it probably shouldn't work as well as it does—all he's done is juxtapose a couple of clichés and rhyme the key words—but it's hilarious.
When Weird Al's "White & Nerdy" MC spits out lyrics, he scowls as menacingly as a grown man with braces possibly can—and that nerd sneer is the essence of Yankovic's comedy. His quintessential joke is to transfer the bravado and intensity of rap (or rock, or punk) into the mouth of some iconically unhip figure (rabbi, Amish, nerd), who then declares his unhipness forcefully over the song's monster riffs and deep beats. Weird Al is a cultural ventriloquist: He makes dorks speak fluently in the language of cool. This is the principle behind his polka medleys, in which he rewrites radio hits ("The Humpty Dance," "Do Me, Baby," "I Touch Myself") as oompah-oompah beer-hall anthems. It's also the idea behind his iconic look—the mustache, poodlefro, and oversized glasses—which has, over the years, dorked up most of rock's great fashions. (There was some serious trauma among hard-core fans when he shaved, grew his hair out, and got LASIK surgery a few years back.)
The only "weird" thing about Weird Al Yankovic (and it's not weird in the way he seems to want it to be weird) is that he insists on calling himself weird. The tag, at this point in his career, is like an appendix or a vestigial tail—a remnant of an earlier evolutionary phase, now a little misleading. It's a spray-on, pseudo-zany veneer that manifests itself mainly as an unshakeable faith in the hilarity of Hawaiian shirts and hamsters; it's incidental to the rigorous logic of his actual comedy. (My 2-year-old daughter calls him "Funny Al," which seems better.) Unlike Salvador Dalí or Mel Gibson, Yankovic isn't essentially weird—i.e., a figure with whom we have nothing in common. In fact, the opposite is true. Weird Al's essential service is to point out that, from the perspective of the middle-class suburban lifeworld, pop culture itself is weird. This is the paradox of Weird Al's weirdness: He's actually Normal Al, a common-sensical, conservative force. He's Everyman trapped on Neverland Ranch, exposing as many stylistic excesses and false profundities as he can.
To be sure, Weird Al has his weaknesses. He's a virtuoso—someone who pours his prodigious energy into a narrow and rigid channel—and this carries risks. The worst of his work is as formulaic and calculated as the pop he's ostensibly mocking: You could punch a song premise into a computer, spin it through a Weird Algorithm, and get the same result (cf. "Canadian Idiot," his new album's parody of Green Day's "American Idiot," which is a litany of stale Canada jokes). In Yankovic's best work, however, the mistakes hardly matter. Over the last 10 years, his parodies have grown more subtle and precise—see for instance "The Saga Begins," in which he solders together Star Wars and Don McLean's "American Pie," two self-important chestnuts of epic Americana. Or check out "Bob," his recasting of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" entirely in palindromes. The song is worth a whole library of faux-scholarly Dylan criticism. It manages to reproduce all of Dylan's lyrical signatures—gnomic aphorisms ("Do geese see God?"), fragments of dialogue (" 'Do nine men interpret?' 'Nine men,' I nod"), dislocated historical figures ("O Geronimo, no minor ego").
Weird Al's persona—the genuine, lovable dork—has been bulletproof for 25 years because, I suspect, it's authentic. He mocks the pieties of our hipness, however trivial (see the first 90 seconds of his interview with Eminem), and exposes the absurdity of overwrought pop emotions. Even at their silliest ("I Want a New Duck," "Addicted to Spuds"), his parodies do important cultural work: They defuse whatever seriousness clings to the ubiquitous megahit, whatever tiny sliver of it colonizes our lives and makes us dream of a pop Xanadu where everyone has perfect abs and dances synchronously for our never-ending pleasure. He has singlehandedly tutored the MTV generation in critical thinking. If he ever showed a hint of music-industry self-seriousness—an entourage, disrespect for his fans—his career would have been over 20 years ago. But the populist appeal seems to work because it's deeply felt. He's not like them, he's like us. To the millions of us flitting around the edges of hipness, he is our Geek Bard, our Troubadork. Unlike his prey—the rappers and the rockers, the folk-pop shamans and the techno wizards—Weird Al is, in the only meaningful sense of the phrase, keeping it real.
Sam Anderson is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.