He has been holding up a uniquely weird, nerdy mirror to popular music for more than thirty years. And even though each of "Weird Al" Yankovic's songs centers on the latest hit single, there’s a certain timelessness to his, dare I say, craft.
And in a characteristic creative conundrum, it may be that Al isn’t altogether aware of what makes his songs hits.
In an interview with Chuck Klosterman, Yankovic refers to himself interchangably as a "parodist" and a "satirist," but there's actually a big difference between the two. A parodist, even a masterful one, works in an entirely aestheticized realm. He teases out the subtleties of his source material and spins out something new and clever, but his parody is only about the source material. A satirist may take another's original work, but he takes it and turns it into something larger, a statement about the society that's conditioned its creation. Parody is diminution and satire is amplification.
"Weird Al"'s best songs, historically, have been parodies. "Eat It," "Amish Paradise," and "White and Nerdy" don't have anything to say about the world, but they are clever reiterations of endearing pop hits. His latest album is no different, though Al's trying to make the direction of his parody a bit more forward facing.
That’s not to say he’s becoming a modern day Upton Sinclair. The connections he makes between original and parody are tentative, focused primarily on making rhymes (not even clever rhymes) and seemingly hoping a semblance of a song will fall into place.
Al's quoted in The New York Times saying, "I like having gangsta rap and zydeco on the same album."
I'd like to hear that album. Alpocalypse is not that album.
Simply alluding to the buzzy synth production of T.I. does not make "Whatever You Like" into a "gangsta" rap song, and thinking it does is pretty insulting.
Even including the parodies, every song on Alpocalypse is a distinctly "Weird Al" song: technophobic, rich, white, socially awkward. Yankovic definitely makes nerdy music, but unfortunately it’s the kind of condescending, anti-social nerdery that gives nerds a bad name.
To be fair, T.I. enjoyed Al's parody as a sign of affirmation. And despite a bit of trumped up controversy, Lady Gaga also enjoyed her treatment on “Perform This Way.” Both occurrences are odd since, the T.I parody makes sport of poor people (an indulgence even the richest rapper would never resort to) and the Gaga parody makes fun of Gaga in a fairly substantive way. Of course it is a sort of tribute to be made fun of by Al (as T.I. says, now he’s in the company of Michael Jackson), but it’s a sort of tribute that goes beyond merely recognizing the best-selling or most popular artists working at a given time.
Al’s most enduring songs are almost inherently catchy because he selects the catchiest songs. It’s pretty obvious, but it’s kind of curious that no other artists have stepped up in a major way to follow in Al’s tracks. Besides “White and Nerdy,” which really brings some personal insight to the table, all of Al’s biggest hits have hinged on them being based on, well, really big hits. Catchy hits.
It seemed like Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” was literally unavoidable for the middle part of the '90s. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Bad” are some of the best pop songs in history. Even the songs Al picked for his latest are, for the most part, extremely catchy. And his album’s original compositions—which are just as musically thieving, but take from bands and genres rather than specific songs—lack the musical hooks of the stone-cold classics Al picks from.
In this way, then, the theme of Al’s music circles back to being a geek. It’s sort of like how Rivers Cuomo (also a big geek) kept a file of pop songs breaking down exactly how and why they were good. Al’s canon is like that, but instead of taking parts from here and there to write the Platonically perfect pop song, Al just tries to take on the least obtrusive (and hopefully funny or memorable) lyrics possible.
So again, I find it almost mystifying that more musicians haven’t taken the “Weird Al” approach to songwriting. Even though there are some notable online parodists like The Lonely Island and the Key of Awesome, parodying hit songs gets around the main problem of songwriting: Actually writing a memorable song.
I might have said that artists are too ambitious to settle for getting famous singing other people’s songs. But withAmerican Idol entering its eleventh season and Glee pulling in more than 12 million viewers, still, I’d say I’m wrong. The key barrier to entry for the song parody genre is still, perhaps because of its modern day progenitor, a little too geeky, even for the fame obsessed.
Fuse June 28. 2011