Weird Al: America’s Greatest Living Artist
With the No. 1 album in America, the parodist proves yet again the full depth of his genius
Weird Al Yankovic’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, sold 104,000 copies last week, earning it the top spot on Billboard’s album chart. It was a distinction that has not been achieved by a comedian since Allan Sherman’s 1963 My Son, the Nut. More than 46 million people watched the eight music videos Yankovic gradually released to promote his work, and music journalists rushed to declare him newly relevant. He’s never been anything but: That’s because Weird Al Yankovic is, by any objective measure, one of America’s greatest living artists.
If you consider that crown a bit too heavy for the curly-haired head that dreamt up such knee-slappers as “My Bologna” and “Like a Surgeon,” you haven’t been paying much attention to Weird Al’s work. He has become our fimetarious culture’s most astute observer, a supremely capable artist who, heeding modernity’s accelerated call, engaged primarily in self-referential drollery.
The polkas are the most obvious example. A staple of every Weird Al album, they string together snippets from a dozen or so hits. Weird Al’s talent is not only identifying each song’s center of emotional gravity, but also upsetting it with a quick and telling jab. In “NOW That’s What I Call Polka,” the recent album’s addition to his polka canon, Weird Al spoofs “Gangnam Style,” the South Korean rapper Psy’s monster hit from 2012. When he hits the song’s refrain, Weird Al colors the line “hey, sexy lady” with an unmistakable tinge of Jerry Lewis’s iconic “hey, lady” catchphrase. This takes a song that was already a proto-parody—a Korean rapper doing a ridiculous equestrian dance while affecting the style of American hip hop—and redeems it from triviality by soldering on a bit of comedy lore. By himself, Psy is a viral video, interesting for a few moments and then forgotten; but the Jerry Lewis plucks the song out of the Internet’s garbage heap and plants it in more fertile comedic soil.
If Weird Al can do so much with one line, imagine what he can do with a whole song. Or better yet, listen to one of his lesser-known bits of brilliance, “The Saga Begins,” which tells the story of the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace to the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” That it does a much better job than George Lucas did conveying the movie’s plot isn’t saying much—Episode I is universally acknowledged as a disaster. But in wedding Lucas’ horrible movie to McLean’s sprawling song, Weird Al managed to combine and contract the core that both these works share into one taut and surprisingly moving song. Strip away Jar Jar Binks and other infantile affectations, and The Phantom Menace is a tale of innocence lost and faith corrupted, of destruction striking a democracy at its most tender moment and causing it to harden into a predatory empire. “American Pie,” released in November of 1971—just five months after the Pentagon Papers were published—is about the exact same things: For all its gnomic allusions, its hard not to hear it as a cry against the Vietnam War and a plea to return to more simple times, when Buddy Holly was still alive and all young Americans had to worry about was seeing their sweethearts kicking off their shoes and dancing with someone else in the gym. Whether it takes place in Anytown, USA or on Tatooine, that is the predominant American myth of the last four decades. Anyone could arrive at this observation, but it took a genius like Weird Al to package it in pop culture and sneak it past the snarky bores who sneer at everything and declare it all to be trite, silly, and unoriginal.
For two decades, more or less, Weird Al was preaching mainly to his steady but small choir of fans. If his song parodies were careful and clever, his original compositions were daring and wild: In “Bob,” for example, he delivers a perfect send-up of Dylan using nothing but palindromes, most of which—“Nurse, I spy gypsies—run!”—sound like lines the master himself ought to have written but for some travesty of justice did not. Then, sometime in the last 10 years, something wonderful happened to Weird Al: The music got shitty.
It’s not that we’ve no more good artists or great songs; we do, but those never interested Weird Al anyway. He has always approached the culture as an ecosystem, not a cluster of solitary superstars. And he was drawn to performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna because they, too, were more about the atmosphere than about the pure craft. Like cinnamon, Madonna had a terrific scent but no real taste; hold your nose and sprinkle some on your tongue, and you’ll discern no essential flavor.
With the advent of social media, with the abundance of blogs, with the rise of the paparazzi, the atmosphere we were creating for Weird Al got headier with each passing year. A mere parodist would likely be felled by such a lack of oxygen; Weird Al thrived. Innovative with his use of music videos—many of us who are old enough to remember his debut got to know him through MTV—he now had a new nascent medium to master, and he did it exceedingly well.
“Blurred Lines” is a case in point. By all standards, artistic and moral alike, Robin Thicke’s earworm is profoundly idiotic and thoroughly irredeemable. Unlike other pop concoctions—the haunting candor of Lorde’s “Royals,” say, or the thrilling and rich darkness of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”—it’s just plain drivel. Attempting spoofs, other comedians were rewarded with many millions of views for takes that did nothing but make the utterly obvious observations that Thicke was creepy and his hit a step shy of an ode to rape. Weird Al took the same musical gruel and turned it into “Word Crimes,” an anthem of good grammar deriding those who cannot abide the simple rules of syntax.
This is not a random choice. In his short and evocative collection of lectures from 1974, unimprovably named Nostalgia for the Absolute, the critic George Steiner, reading Claude Lévi-Strauss, muses about the moral meaning of grammar. “Not until you have a sufficiently rich sentence structure and enough words to define the third cousin four times removed of the mother’s uncle can you have incest and kinship rules,” Steiner writes. “So that grammar, in a way, is a necessary condition for basic moral law.” That’s the line, not at all blurred, that ties Robin Thicke to correct conjugation: Lose the ability to speak properly, and whatever ensues is guaranteed to be beastly. This is what makes Weird Al’s parody so powerful.
Naturally, most listeners needn’t be burdened with such involved interpretations. Like all pop masterpieces, “Word Crimes” makes it very possible to just hum along and giggle at the clever premise. But like every Weird Al song, this one too contains multitudes.
It’s fascinating, and not irrelevant, to note how many people who have achieved the same feat and played the same part were Jewish. Weird Al is the latest in a long line of artists that has included not only Allan Sherman but also Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco and Man Ray, outsiders who, by mocking their era’s excesses, created masterpieces that perfectly distilled the zeitgeist. This was when Jews had to claw their way into the center of culture and were frequently asked to stop at its periphery. Things are different now, one or two generations after Clive Davis and Irving Azoff and the Chess brothers and David Geffen helped shape so much of American popular music. Now the ultimate outsider is a vegan Christian who grew up in a California suburb and collected all of the detritus he heard on the radio and used it to make new and beautiful things.
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