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Daring to Be Stupid: “Weird Al” Yankovic Turns 50

October 28, 2009

I’m a nerd.  I got pretty excited when I heard “Weird Al” Yankovic turned 50 last week, because it got me thinking about how much fun I’ve had listening to his albums for the last 25 years or so.  I’m pretty sure, though, that many of you out there are nerds, too.  From self-titled Weird Al (1983) through Straight Outta Lynwood (2006), several tracks on each CD have elicited anywhere from a few chuckles to snorting laughter.

Weird Al certainly didn’t invent musical parody—listen to Steve Allen, et al., and just about any Dr. Demento show—but he popularized the “genre” for folks my age.  For many of us, our earliest link to our parents’ music was the Weird Al version of songs they loved—“Yoda” for “Lola,” “I Lost on Jeopardy!” for “Jeopardy,” “The Brady Bunch” for “Safety Dance,” etc.  Sometimes we were in our teens or twenties before we even knew there was a “regular” version of a song: “Hey, they totally ripped that off of Weird Al!”  His more contemporary stuff was funny because we knew exactly the songs he was lampooning.  His polka medleys taught us snippets of Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Foreigner, and Talking Heads before we could appreciate the full, real songs.  And although he couldn’t make the accordion cool (who could?), he at least made it acceptable because he was in on the joke.

A lot of people think Weird Al is a quack, a huckster, a gimmicky hack riding other people’s coattails.  I disagree.  He is so good at what he does, his lyrics and original music so clever that it doesn’t matter if most of it comes from other people.  Some of his parodies have become more recognizable than the original songs.  If you think he’s a talentless biter, fine, but artists like Kurt Cobain (who thought Weird Al “a musical genius”), Mark Knopfler, and Don McLean (lyrics from Al’s “American Pie” parody get into his head during live performances) have enthusiastically given Weird Al their blessing to send-up their songs.  Even his band gets in on the action, mimicking almost perfectly the sounds of the originals.  Take the guitar solos and background riffs in “Eat It,” parodying Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”: nearly indistinguishable.  The video’s pretty spot-on, too.

Luckily Weird Al didn’t limit himself to musical parody.  What fan doesn’t love UHF?  It was my introduction to Michael Richards (Seinfeld’s Kramer), as Stanley Spadowski.  Nerds my age still bring up Spatula City‘s, “What better way to say, ‘I love you.’”  We still laugh at the Gandhi II and Conan the Librarian trailers.  Please don’t get me started on The Firehose.

I don’t know how well Yankovic appeals to younger generations, but “White & Nerdy,” off of Straight Outta Lynwood (Al’s birthplace), hit #9 on the U. S. Billboard Top 100 in 2006, his best showing ever on that chart.  Maybe it was only 30-somethings like me cracking up at Weird Al rapping (ably, I might add) and staying relevant by parodying the newest rap and hip-hop.  Maybe, though, teens and 20-somethings were digging it too.  You’d be doing yourself a disservice not to check out the song and video, which is hilarious and syncs up quite well with the original, Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’.”

Nick Yankovic reminded his son Alfred Matthew often of his life philosophy:  do for a living whatever makes you happy.  He did.  It just so happens that his living has made a lot of other people happy, too.  Happy 50th, Weird Al.  We hope to see you rollin’ for another 50.

  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 29, 2009 10:47 am

    Cobain had it right. W.A.Y.’s original work is often laugh-out-loud genius, and his parodies are so tight they squeak. Happy birthday WAY, and thanks for what you have done.

  2. Dave Shorr permalink
    July 24, 2010 12:39 pm

    My bro and I got to talking about Al today, we’re seeing him in Winnipeg next week. It’s insane how clever his lyrics are and how he can fit them in the frame work of the original song with such precision. Incredibly gifted dude.

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