Let’s get real: you still remember all the words to ‘Fat’. You know exactly how many inches Frank’s TV is. And, despite knowing there’s an element of political incorrectness to ‘Amish Paradise,’ you can rap along to it better than you can to the Coolio original. (Just don’t tell Coolio.)
Yes, Weird Al Yankovic still matters, friends, and thanks to the campaign around his most recent record, everybody knows it.
“I’ve become sort of a novelty dinosaur,” he told Screen Crush this week. “I’ve managed to hang around exponentially longer than most people would have thought.”
And, between you and me, those people were idiots. Unlike the novelty of songs like ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Crazy Frog’ (#why), Weird Al’s career is rooted in cultural commentary. In 1976, a 16-year-old Yankovic recorded his first song – accompanied by his accordion – in his childhood bedroom. Then, after releasing his debut record in 1983, he has gone on to release music for over three decades. This year’s ‘Mandatory Fun’ marks Al’s 13th album, and to celebrate what’s obviously a lucky number, he’s releasing one video a day for eight consecutive days, each more cutting than the last.
Which is where “novelty artist” ends and “culture critic” begins. Yes, the video for ‘Tacky’ (‘Mandatory Fun’’s first single), features cameos by comedians like Kristen Schaal, Jack Black, and Aisha Tyler, but its lyrics deliver harsh truths about the narcissism of our generation: “I Instagram every meal I’ve had / All my used liquor bottles are on display / We can go see a show, but I’ll make you pay.” (And if you’re trying to say you don’t do those things, that means you do them more than anyone.)
Al’s ‘Word Crimes’ – his take on Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ – does one better. On top of calling us out on our inability to write and speak like adult humans on the internet, he parodies a song infamous for its horrible wordplay – then ends the video with, “Weird Al has a big dic… tionary” to pay homage to Thicke’s super-sized… patriarchal message.
Which is not what a novelty artist does. Yes, it’s a novelty to hear good jokes set to melodies we already know, but if Al was a one-trick pony he wouldn’t have evolved as a musician – he’d just swap out original lyrics for his own, and his songs certainly wouldn’t tackle subjects like consumerism (‘Frank’s 2000-Inch TV’), stage parents (‘Perform This Way’), and cultural misappropriation (‘White and Nerdy’). In fact, 2006’s ‘White and Nerdy’ is the biggest growth indicator of all: considering 10 years earlier Al sang about the Amish community while dressed as an Amish person, his take on Chamillionaire’s ‘Ridin’ (while dressed as both Eminem and as a privileged suburbanite . . . or, I guess, just Eminem) proves he’s willing to acknowledge the ignorance and arrogance of white men. All while making us laugh.
And that’s what makes Weird Al both a valuable commentator and comedian. While he may deal truths under the guise of tracks kids can sing to, he’s never mean. He doesn’t take cheap shots, he doesn’t comment on the way celebrities look, he doesn’t slut or body shame, and aside from making me feel embarrassed about how many emojis I use, he encourages listeners to laugh at their stupidity instead of dwelling on it. Which explains why even musicians want Al to cover their work.
“My manager was having a tough time getting a hold of Pharrell through his representatives,” Yankovic told Billboard this week. “In the meanwhile, I got Pharrell’s personal email address and I sent him an email requesting permission, and he could not have been nicer. He sent me a very sweet email back immediately saying he’d be honoured. I was just blown away.”
But he shouldn’t be. Weird Al has done nearly the impossible in two industries renowned for their impatience and high turnover rates: he’s pioneered a brand of comedy that’s just as accessible to adults as it is to children, and he’s used his music to not just address the state of the industry, but the state of our society.
And as an aside, the only thing better than ‘Jurassic Park’ would be Al singing it with Jeff Goldblum.