This article, dear reader, is a think piece about “Weird Al” Yankovic. That sentence—and you’re dearer still if you’re still reading, reader—is one none of us thought would ever be written. But there it is, and there’s Al too, fortysomething and still inciting such a profound love/hate/I-don’t-get-it reaction that he can rightfully be called a cultural icon. Everyone knows who he is—and almost everyone has tasted his wit at some point—but only some savor his genius.
Those that can have been vindicated after years of closet fandom by the success of Straight Outta Lynwood, his just-released 12th album, which debuted at 10 on the Billboard chart and peaked as the fifth-most-downloaded album on iTunes, temporarily beating out the likes of Justin Timberlake and the Decemberists. Lynwood does not, fortunately, exploit either of those broad-side-of-a-barn targets with Yankovic’s famous song parodies. Instead, Al is surfing the YouTube-generated buzz from his self-directed, self-starring, and totally hilarious video spoof of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’,” here called “White and Nerdy” and perhaps encapsulated by the line “Only question I ever thought was hard/Was do I like Kirk or do I like Picard?” That and free downloads of the Yankovic original “Don’t Download This Song” have blown Al’s balloon into the public eye once again, raising him to the same creative and commercial heights of the artists he’s spoofing.
But lemme back up and explain my use of the G-word up there, so often mishandled that it barely holds any meaning. In the case of Weird Al, “genius” is as on-point a description as it can be in 2006.
Yankovic is an auteur—yeah, you read that right—with a vision that extends beyond bologna jokes and fat suits, though it also includes both. If you’re lucky enough to have seen his 1989 film UHF, you know what I’m talking about. His is a world where the geek gets the girl (Victoria Jackson, where are you now?), the underdog ekes out his niche, and the dopey janitor—a pre-Kramer Michael Richards—gets his own kids’ TV show. Like most cult phenomena, either you love it, loathe it, or don’t really care. There’s an element of self-conscious surrealism to it all: from the Devo-themed “Dare to Be Stupid” video some years earlier, we get a lime-green mummy cutting a kiwi. Maybe that Lynchian vision was the clincher for fans like Kurt Cobain (who said he knew he’d made it when Yankovic recorded “Smells Like Nirvana”) and Crispin Glover (Al appeared on his ’89 album The Big Problem ? The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be), or Jon Spencer and Ben Folds, who both commissioned Yankovic-directed videos.
Weird Al’s skewed worldview extends to his lifelong dedication to and virtuosic talents on the accordion. Dude, he freakin’ rips on squeezebox. If you’ve got no respect for the instrument you better cash in your Beirut and Arcade Fire albums, because it’s made a wheezing comeback thanks to such bittersweet, cardigan-wrapped fare. Polka, not so much. But Lynwood‘s accordion-driven medley—featuring oompa-pa-ed versions of “Take Me Out,” “Gold Digger,” “Float On,” and other hipster hits—is laugh-out-loud funny and potentially irritating because Al’s maniacal arrangements so nimbly deconstruct the originals.
Still, some in the too-cool-for-school school are hesitant to embrace the guy. They smirk along with Tenacious D instead, because hey, it’s ironic and thus must be edgy and cool. They decry Yankovic as a creative remora who leeches onto bigger, trend-instigating fish. And they’re half-right: Al isn’t the tent pole of the zeitgeist. Instead, he’s a canary in the coal mine of pop music, and when pop music’s good—or interesting, at least—Yankovic has more to sing about. Where Michael Jackson and Cobain had previously supplied the signposts for mainstream attention, today it’s mostly hip-hop that guides the way, providing plenty of grist for Yankovic’s mill. His sharp, rapid-fire rapping in “White and Nerdy” goes a long way toward proving the old rockist argument than pretty much anybody with a larynx can do it. And what could be more hip-hop than stealing someone else’s hook and putting your own lyrics over it? This is a genre that’s so exaggerated and overwrought that it exists almost as self-parody, which is why “White and Nerdy” can actually be taken straight. And then there’s Lynwood‘s 10-minute faux epic, “Trapped in the Drive-Thru.” R. Kelly, are you listening? You’ve been out-hammed.
Yankovic has always been here, thumbing his nose at the cool kids. He’s always been out of fashion, which, if pop culture has taught us anything, makes him permanently in fashion. A full 25 years after “Another One Rides the Bus,” he’s still relevant in a totally irrelevant way. Now that is genius. No, the world doesn’t need new Weird Al originals like “Weasel Stomping Day” or “Pancreas,” but neither does it need “Trapped in the Closet” or Taylor Hicks. At least Yankovic’s music is meant to make us laugh. Which is precisely the point he proves in his goofy, indirect, consistently funny way. Most pop music isn’t worth the price of a download, and even then it’s best taken with a wink and a grin. And maybe an accordion solo in the middle.