Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Weird Al

Weird Al

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of Weird Al Yankovic's music. I feel guilty for streaming all of his stuff over YouTube, because (a) I am supposed to be boycotting YouTube, (b) I am supposed to be listening to music in the Creative Commons, not proprietary music, and (c) I am not paying Weird Al any money to listen to his music, and I probably will never attend one of his concerts, either. Overall I am a terrible person for listening to so much Weird Al, but it's not exactly news that I am a terrible person, and it's getting me through the days.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a YouTube clip of Siskel and Ebert panning Weird Al's movie UHF. One of the reviewers (Ebert, I think) complained that the movie did not make him laugh even once. This criticism made me feel defensive, even though I have never watched UHF in its entirety and thus am not entitled to an opinion.. But after a bit of reflection, I realized that I share Ebert's sentiment. I rarely laugh out loud when consuming Weird Al's material, the way I do when watching stand-up comedy clips (which, incidentally, I don't pay for either). Weird Al is not hilarious. On the other hand, he is clever, silly, smart, and ridiculously talented. I put much of Weird Al's comedy in the same category as the Three Stooges: it's not that funny when you watch it, but you find yourself repeating quotations and play-acting skits afterwards.

I am continually in awe of Weird Al and his band. They have a remarkable ability to mimic the styles of other artists, and then perform in those styles live. Sometimes it seems as if Weird Al is more competent than many of the artists he parodies, if only because Weird Al sings in tune during his concerts.

Weird Al is no live-performance angel, however. He uses some backing tracks. He has lip-synched in the past -- you can tell from the way he positions his microphone. He used to lip-synch "Gump", but I think he does not do that anymore.

A lot of people hate Weird Al. Not being into music as a child, I did not understand this hatred. But now I get it. The problem is that his parodies are too effective, and they often ruin enjoyment of the original song. I like Don McLean's "American Pie", but Al's rendition of "The Saga Begins" ruins the song for me. It is difficult to think about McLean's version (which at one point I had almost memorized) without lapsing into Al's recounting of that mediocre George Lucas movie. Similarly, I kind of liked Lorde's "Royals", but Al's parody "Foil" diminishes a lot of the enjoyment.

It's too bad, really. Weird Al does much more than straight-up parodies of hit songs, but only those straight parodies become hits. Here are a few categories of his work:

There are other tropes and categorizations of Weird Al's work. There is a set of distressing girlfriend songs ("You Don't Love Me Anymore", "Melanie", "Do I Creep You Out"), endless songs about food (which he sends up effectively in "Foil"), long meandering songs about trivialities ("Albuquerque", "Trapped in the Drive Through"), and a bunch of straight-up retellings of blockbuster movies ("Gump," "The Saga Begins", "Ode to a Spiderman").

Overall I feel that Weird Al has gotten better through his career, and that he has worked hard to remain relevant in the modern musical landscape. His music holds up remarkably well as it ages. "It's All About the Pentiums" is still a great song even though technology has progressed. Even when we have forgotten the source material, the music holds up. This is not all to Yankovic's credit, of course: he intentionally leeches hit music, and hit music tends to be catchy and memorable decades later.

I have been trying to think about whether there could be another Weird Al, or whether Weird Al could have existed in a different music landscape. In some sense, he came along at exactly the right time. Music videos became popular just as he did, and he took full advantage of the visuals. Along the way, his songwriting and comedic chops got better, to the point where it must be very difficult for new parodists to compete. (Also, musical parodies that show up on the Internet is (mis)attributed to Weird Al, which doesn't help.) There are lots of musical comedy groups on the Internet (Garfunkel and Oates, Epic Rap Battles of History, and a bunch of filk artists), and I am sure there are other parodists, but I do not know who they are. The musical landscape is so fragmented now that I think it is difficult for artists to dominate the scene the way Weird Al has. Maybe there will never be another artist who fill's Weird Al's niche; maybe there won't be one until the current Weird Al has been forgotten. (Who remembers Tom Lehrer, after all?)