2014: the Year of Weird Al
“Weird Al” Yankovic first entered my life when he started “taking over” Canada’s answer to MTV, MuchMusic. Music television used to be blocks of music as set by genre. You’d have the rap block, the French language block, the alternative block, and that was about it. There wasn’t much room for Al’s body of work so they’d just hand the reins over to him and he’d play host to broadcasting his phony interviews and music videos.
That undefined block of cross-genre comedy gave me a wider sense of the music sense than the rest of the channel normally would. Without the internet I depended on MuchMusic to show me what’s new, but through “Weird” Al’s work, I also learned about what’s old.
I asked the rest of the Caotica writing staff to list and defend their top five, desert island “Weird” Al songs. Here are mine.
5. I Lost On Jeopardy [“In 3-D”, 1984]
By including references to The Price Is Right as well as to the wedded couple from the original music video, Al prevents his parody from being narrow.
4. Everything You Know Is Wrong [“Bad Hair Day”, 1996]
This is the only original song I have in my list is written in the style of They Might Be Giants. I hope that some day I can be as content as the protagonist. When given the opportunity to go anywhere in time and space, he doesn’t choose to re-do his life, and he uses his golden ticket to simply pay a phone bill on time. Now that’s the mark of a satisfied person. Or an idiot.
3. Fat [Even Worse, 1988]
Even though this was before my time, I still regularly quote the opener: “Hey man, what it is with you?”
I figure Al’s fat suit represented someone about 400lbs, so large at the time that it parodied what a real human looked like. That was in 1988. In 1995, I saw Homer Simpson go on disability for reaching a weight of 300lb. Twenty-six years later, over 2.1 billion people in the world are overweight or obese. Food is definitely a theme in “Weird” Al’s music, and so is too much food.
2. It’s All About The Pentiums [“Running with Scissors”, 1999]
Technology was moving fast. We were in the middle of the Microsoft Anti-Trust Trial and competition from all sides filled the market with new hardware, new software, and even newer hardware to use that updated software. If you could explain all the references, then you were a huge nerd. Singing about hos, drugs and money is just as obnoxious and showboaty as singing about having a T1 line in your house. You can make anything sound hardcore with the right attitude.
Note to younger readers: Yes, a lot of people were terrified of Y2K. Bottled water, withdrawing all the money from their bank account terrified. In junior high, several of my teachers were in a panic from September 1999 on, but none of the students cared. We were in the first wave of truly computer savvy generations. The song based off Puff Daddy’s It’s All About The Benjamins but the music video’s style was a tribute to Hype Williams, whose forced perspectives can be seen in Rhyme’s Woo Hah! and whose lit tunnels in Mo Money Mo Problems by The Notorious B.I.G. ft. Ma$e & Puff Daddy laid the basis for Al and Drew Carey’s scenes.
1. Jurassic Park [“Alapalooza”, 1993]
The 1993 film Jurassic Park is one of my favorites. It was one of the first movies I saw in theater, or at least it’s the first I remember. His parody of MacArthur Park was the first track on Alapalooza, my first “Weird” Al album, and so it’ll always hold a special place in my heart. Comedy was limited at the time. The internet was a wasteland and I had an early bedtime. I never saw comics on TV or live, but with I had Calvin & Hobbes and Weird Al on demand thanks to books, albums and waiting for hours in front of the TV with my hand hovering near “record” on the VHS.
Calvin was a kid but Al was an adult making what I thought was childish entertainment. Each generation exposed to him considers Al “their own” because his parodies are so sophisticated. They capture the style of the times and while his humor isn’t stuck in a certain year, he refreshes his vocabulary and subject matter constantly. All of the cameos of other media in this video accurately channel-surfing on a Saturday without a cable guide. Barney, Schwarzenegger, wrestling, even the behind the scenes nods (re-lighting the King Kong gate, and Spielberg himself)… the video bleeds right out into the rest of the landscape, including the behind-the-scenes documentaries you’d see occasionally.
I hated the instrumental at first because I didn’t know the original song and I thought it was a stupid detour before realizing that media didn’t have to be linear. And since Al didn’t stick to one genre, then neither should I. So I opened up and started to really take a look around into as many styles of music I could find. Maybe I’d find something funny there, too.
5. Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser) [“In 3-D”, 1984]
Being a nerdy Jewish kid growing up on science fiction and jazz meant the original version of this song never crossed my ears. This was the first version of the song I heard. I was first exposed to this song when it was re-released on “The Food Album”, which my brother and I would force my parents to endure over and over on long road trips. My father still cannot listen to a Weird Al parody, but these lyrics are forever burned into my brain.
4. Polka Your Eyes Out [“Off the Deep End”, 1992]
Fair warning: There will definitely be at least one more of Weird Al’s Polkas on this list. If you hate polka, just know that you and I are mortal opponents for eternity. When I was 8 years old, there was no way my parents would let me listen to the highly sexual original versions of these songs. Placing them in a polka by a white dude with ass-length curly hair and an accordion appeared to blunt their edge. So yes, this may explain a lot about me: my first introduction to sex in music was Weird Al.
3. White and Nerdy [“Straight Outta Lynwood”, 2006]
I’m not even gonna bother with an explanation. If you’ve read my writing, you know this was pretty much a given. The only reason it’s not higher is because it’s so over-played.
2. Dare to Be Stupid [“Dare to Be Stupid”, 1985]
Made the year I was born. Also made in 1985 was Transformers: The Movie, which my neighbours had a VHS copy of I would come over to watch religiously. That movie and this song have been assimilated into my genetic makeup. Part me from them, and my personality shall crumble to atomic dust.
1. Alternative Polka [“Bad Hair Day”, 1996]
I told you there would be another polka. This polka is my favorite because it uses probably the furthest genre from polka, “Alternative Rock”. My favorite part is that because Al doesn’t swear, he just puts funny sound effects in place of the f-word on NIN’s “Closer”.
Much like Margaret, my first encounters with Weird Al were televised. His MuchMusic takeovers, his ALTV album release specials, and (eventually) the Weird Al Show itself. I was captivated by his surrealist elements, his preference for gaudiness, and his consistently good natured humour. His work reminded me a great deal of my other favourite entertainer at that age, Pee-Wee Herman. Much like Pee-Wee, Al’s work is surprisingly sharp and intellectual, but both entertainers keep their work unpretentious and inviting. Soon my parents would indulge my growing obsession with comedy, and I’d receive the cassette tape of Al’s compilation “The Food Album” in my stocking along with other novelty cassettes like “Goofy Greats”. I ran that tape into the ground.
It clearly made an impression on my family, because it was the last Weird Al album I would ever receive or own. And while my parents seem to respect Al’s musical talent and business acumen, they don’t particularly seem to enjoy him. I’ll be forwarding them this article in the hopes that it changes their mind, but I’m sure it will just annoy them.
5. I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead [“Weird Al” Yankovic, 1983]
This found its way onto my jogging playlist four years ago, and it will stay there forever. In recent years I’ve begun to appreciate Al’s original tracks much more than his parody work, and this lively original from his debut album shows really captures his energy and passion. Then it takes that captured energy and shoves it inside of you. An anthem to living life with enthusiasm and to killing pretension, it tells you everything you need to know about Al.
4. This Is The Life [“Dare To Be Stupid”, 1985]
This track is best remembered as a tie-in to the forgotten Michael Keaton mob-comedy Johnny Dangerously, being released almost a full year before the rest of the album. The video for the track itself includes a lot of clips from the movies, with Al’s scenes being filmed around the same themes. I like the prohibition style instrumentation and the rapid fire delivery of stupid one liners about self-importance. I wish more rap songs were this clever with their self-aggrandizement.
3. Good Old Days [“Even Worse”, 1988]
A gentle nostalgia song that turns dark extremely quickly, Yankovic says he wrote this one as an experiment. Told from a psychopath’s POV as he reminisces on the increasing depravity of his youth, Weird Al claims to have written it with a collaboration between James Taylor and Marilyn Manson in mind.
The song itself is relatively sparse compared to a lot of Al’s other music, never-changing tone to match the viciousness of its lyrics. For critics who complain that Al’s work can be overbearing, this is a change of pace just for you.
2. UHF [“UHF”, 1989]
The soundtrack to UHF, and the film itself, both appear as underrated classics in the Weird Al oeuvre. The film is a cult classic today, but I rarely hear it discussed outside of fan circles. Which is a shame, because UHF really does stand quite well on its own merits. It’s aged well, which is difficult to do for a comedy, and it’s ideas for “progressive television” were almost prescient in places. Weird Al always does well when he’s commenting on entertainment, and this song stands besides tracks like “Syndicated Inc.”, “Jerry Springer“, “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV“, and “Talk Soup” for skewering the growing obsession with entertainment that came with the rise of cable television.
Television in general, I suppose. It’s pointless to debate when television really began to delight in the nastier elements of society, but cable TV definitely gave us a few new outlets for some niche market grime. This track beats out the competing tracks mentioned above on the basis of that opening guitar riff, it’s call for immediate mindless satisfaction, and the rapid-fire pace of the video that perfectly encapsulates the no-attention channel surfing of cable zombies.
And just look at how many costumes Al gets to wear. Who knew he could mimic so many dance styles so perfectly? Weird Al shines in this one.
1. Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota [“UHF”, 1989]
This song takes you on an amazing journey. It’s an homage to the folk-music story songs of Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot, carrying you along on the narrator’s journey across America in the back of a 1953 Desoto. Which speaks to me on a personal level, since enormous chunks of my childhood took place in the backseat of various cars, traveling across the North American continent in search of exactly the kind of oversized tourist traps this family was looking for. I have actually been to many of the landmarks mentioned in this song (yes, all of them are real), and I loved every second of it.
Building oversized kitschy junk is a very Canadian thing to do, though the song focuses on oversized American junk, and any Canadian will be able to relate to the narrator. Who here hasn’t been shanghaied into a day-trip to see the largest Ukrainian easter egg, the largest miniature town, or one of several “worlds largest” axes. Every time I hear this song, I’m right back in that minivan with my cassette player full of novelty music and 1950’s radio shows. Every few hours we’d stop by some park, or historical landmark, or oversized pile of kitschy junk and just learn for a while all about what a strange world we live in. This song *is* that experience.
“Biggest Ball” also has the distinction of being one the longest Weird Al songs, especially considering it’s not a medley. So while there is a distinct change midway through the song, it does not have the “advantage” of jumping between parodies or styles. Yet it never slows, and you never tire of it. This song is a slow, majestic burn that none of Al’s story songs since have been able to match.