In Praise of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic

By Josh Korr
tbt*-Tampa Bay Times
October 2, 2006
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Pop culture blogs are hardly known for being earnest and sincere. Detached coolness and triple-layered sarcasm rule the realm. So it was surprising — cute, even — to see an outpouring of love recently for perhaps the least cool man in pop music: “Weird Al” Yankovic.

“Weird Al Yankovic seems to be in the midst of a late-career renaissance that could be considered the novelty-song equivalent of Bob Dylan’s own return to relevancy,” Alex Blagg wrote on the VH1 blog Best Week Ever as songs from Yankovic’s new CD, Straight Outta Lynwood, became minor Web sensations. “Despite changing trends he’ll always deliver goofy songs nd videos that truly embrace his dorkitude,” the music blog Stereogum said. As others came out of the Weird Al closet, Bob Castrone of Best Week Ever made a brave declaration: “I realized maybe it was okay, cool even, to dig Al.”

Sure it is, Bob. After all, if you hated Weird Al, you’d have to hate yourself.

Yes, it’s time to give Weird Al Yankovic his due as one of the key forebears of the pop-culture-obsessed pop culture we know and love today.

Weird Al is famous for his parodies (and unfairly maligned for his originals, many of which are catchy, clever pop). But he isn’t great because he wrote stinging, hilarious satire — he doesn’t. Eat It, Amish Paradise and most of the rest aren’t actually satire, if they’re related at all to the song being parodied.

He’s great because by writing them at all, he showed that pop culture was something to be talked about, mocked, ironically loved, obsessed over. To be treated like any other topic of conversation, in other words.

Weird Al emerged in what was still a Literal Age of entertainment. Sitcoms presented a dutifully laugh-tracked, Afterschool Special view of the world. MTV could pass off Toto as rock stars. Sylvester Stallone made an unironic movie about arm wrestling. Yet we were supposed to receive this ridiculousness with straight-faced reverence.

There were pockets of mainstream resistance, notably Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and — for kids, at least — the seemingly eternal Mad magazine. They injected satire and irony into the picture. Weird Al made pop culture less distant and self-important by refusing to be awed by its minutia.

His early albums reference I Love Lucy, tabloids, The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, Mister Rogers, Cuisinart, Lacoste alligator shirts, slasher movie cliches, Tupperware, Cap’N Crunch, George of the Jungle, Star Wars, Porky’s and cable TV.

Like Stephen King and his late ’70s brand-name dropping, Werid Al understood that because Americans’ lives were so bound up with consumer products, advertising, and entertainment, a pop culture that ignored itself was a sham. The Ironic Age would take this lesson to heart.

By the early ’90s, Wayne’s World, The Simpsons, and Conan O’Brien were making pop culture references routine. The proliferation of celebrity mgazines accelerated entertainment’s inward gaze. Now blogs talk about pop culture round the clock.

That up-to-the-minute self-scrutiny can make Weird Al’s new songs instantly dated. But there’s one other element to his ’80s work that others are only now catching up with: The parodies and polka medleys treated pop culture as something to actively participate in. What is Hooked on Polkas if not a fan’s remixed mashup of ’80s hits?

It’s fitting, then, that there’s already a fan-made video Weird Al’s latest polka on YouTube — and that the pop-obsessed bloggers he spawned are writing about it. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.

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