I’ve been a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic since I was a kid. I can remember my brother bringing home a cassette of Even Worse and playing it, and being immediately engrossed by the idea of musical parody, and of musical comedy in general. Probably every Weird Al fan has a similar story. Comedy music only occasionally nears the top of the charts; Al’s one top 10 hit was 2006’s “White and Nerdy”, Allan Sherman only had “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”, and as far as I know Tom Lehrer never broke the top 40 (and Spike Jones simply predates the Billboard Hot 100.) Ray Stevens was most successful by this measure, breaking into the top 10 with four separate songs, and even snagging the #1 spot on two separate occasions, but one of those was the completely-serious “Everything is Beautiful” (of course, the other was “The Streak”, so it balances out.) But generally speaking, there’s no critical acclaim for the comedy musician. None of the above are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and even Weird Al, the youngest of that lot, has been eligible for several years at this point). Nobody claims them as influences except for other comedy musicians. The only way anybody becomes a fan is by being introduced to them through another fan.
And as I listen to Alpocalypse, Weird Al’s first full album in 5 years, I wonder how much longer that’s going to happen (though I have to note that Alpocalypse had Al’s biggest album chart debut, at #9). As I get older, I find myself feeling less enjoyment of his parodies. It’s not that I’ve “outgrown it”; far from it. My sense of humor is as sharp as ever, and Al has honed his own sense of humor, and his musical skills, to a razor’s edge. No… it’s the source material that I’ve drifted away from. I’m just not the target market for today’s pop songs anymore.
That’s a problem for “Weird Al” Yankovic, because his success is so strongly tied to the hits of whenever he releases his albums. Most musicians suffer a certain degree of type-casting, but are able to break away from it when they choose to. If Metallica releases an album that’s softer or harder than their fans expect, they may catch some flak, but the fans will buy it and the next album anyway. Bon Jovi’s known for rock, but has had two separate songs win the CMT (Country Music Television) Music Award for Collaborative Video of the Year. But Weird Al’s so strongly associated with parody that it’s assumed that any album of his will have several parodies of current pop songs. In fact, many who aren’t fans are unaware that he does any songs that aren’t parodies (roughly half of every album). Yankovic has commented on this several times himself, stating that the parodies “sell the album to the bulk of the population”. That quote’s from 1998, and he seemed OK with it then, but I’ve sometimes gotten the sense that he wishes he could do an album entirely with his original comedy pieces. I can’t help but notice that even on his new albums, his originals never sound like the current pop music his parodies focus on; it’s always an older feel, or a less-mainstream modern genre. And “they pay the bills” has always been the answer for the parodies… I’ve never heard him say “I like doing them” as his first response to why he does them. They also tend to be responsible for some of the release problems on the albums; ideally, the parodies are contemporary with the source songs, but that requires a rush job, and if an artist declines to have their song parodied it can throw a monkey wrench into the works (legally, parody is protected speech, but Yankovic prefers to get permission as a courtesy.)
So I can’t help but wonder if there’s a degree of ennui there that’s affecting the parodies (which seem to cleave a bit closer to the source material than on previous albums). So between my own distancing from today’s pop music, and the sense that Al himself isn’t quite as into it as he once was, it’s becoming harder to enjoy a new Weird Al album as fully as an older one, even though his technical skills have grown exponentially. Parody is essentially an act of deconstruction and reconstruction, and you can’t do that a lot without learning how things work. Weird Al has learned enough about music that his songs are often technically superior to his contemporaries. But the parodies are inextricably hobbled by the songs they are based on; there’s a limit to the amount of tightening up he can do. Fortunately, there’s always the original songs to enjoy.
So after that unplanned dissertation on the nature of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s music, here’s a breakdown of the tracks on Alpocalypse:
“Perform This Way”: A parody of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”, this song caused some minor controversy and nearly became one of those “monkey wrenches” mentioned above. As mentioned above, Al seeks permission from the artists though he legally doesn’t have to. In the case of “Perform This Way”, he was in talks with one of Gaga’s managers, who insisted first on seeing the lyrics, and then on hearing the final recording before giving permission… and then after Al had done that (he usually waits to record the song until after receiving permission to avoid wasting time), the manager said permission had been denied. As the song had been planned to be the lead track on the album, this created a delay, and Al decided that although it wouldn’t be an album track, he would release it for free on his website. It was, admittedly, a bit spiteful of a move to make, though understandable (he did the same earlier with “You’re Pitiful”, which James Blunt gave his permission for, but in an unprecedented event Blunt’s record company stepped in and denied it.) But then a funny thing happened. Lady Gaga contacted Yankovic, and said that this was the first time she’d heard it — and she gave her permission. Apparently the flunky had been overstepping his bounds. Frankly, I’m glad; while I’m far from a fan of Lady Gaga, I had always thought that her virtues would, at the very least, include not taking herself too seriously. “Perform This Way” pokes fun directly at Gaga herself, gently mocking her attention-seeking stunts. It’s a reasonably amusing song, though inherently dated; ten years from now, will we care any more about Gaga’s antics than we do about Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart”? Of course, there might well be another attention-seeking freak by that point.
“CNR”: The internet is fond of taking people who are somewhat impressive in real life and pop culture and elevating them to the ranks of demigods: Chuck Norris and Mr. T are the most prominent examples, but periodically others get put in there. In “CNR”, Al adds the late game show host Charles Nelson Reilly to those lofty ranks, ascribing to him such feats as discovering cold fusion, training a rattlesnake to do laundry, and swallowing a Volkswagen whole. This is an Al original, not parodying any specific song, but with a hard garage rock sound deliberately reminiscent of the White Stripes. Although the style took some getting used to, it’s a great song, amusing and listenable every time. “CNR” was one of five songs released on Al’s internet-exclusive EP Internet Leaks in 2009. On the one hand, releasing the EP undoubtedly help keep Al in the public eye during the 5-year wait between albums. On the other hand, releasing essentially half the album two years ahead of the rest leaves those songs feeling less fresh. However, there was a pleasant surprise for me listening to this track on the final album, as at some point between ’09 and today, Al slipped in an extra verse. Apparently Charles Nelson Reilly’s legacy needed to be just a bit more awesome yet.
“TMZ”: “TMZ” parodies Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”, and it’s probably the furthest lyrically from its source material. In it, Al pokes fun at the obsession with celebrities and how the paparazzi won’t leave them alone. It’s a double-pronged barb, though, as Al takes shots both at the crazier antics of some celebrities (such as drunk driving and racist rants) and at the absurdity of TMZ and their ilk being so gleeful about not giving people a moment’s peace (“Everything celebrities do is fascinating!”) Although he does point out why some celebrities are targets, his sympathies seem to be more against TMZ than with them. Al makes good use of his self-harmonizing technique here; he regularly records in such a way as to sing both lead and background on his songs, and this song really benefits from the effect.
“Skipper Dan”: Easily my favorite song of the album. An Al original (Wikipedia says it’s in the style of Weezer, but I don’t hear it), it’s catchy, cheerful, very listenable, and profoundly relatable. Dan’s a classically trained actor, critically acclaimed in off-Broadway plays, with hopes of making it big… and working on the Jungle Cruise Ride. Anybody who has ever been in any career centered around creative endeavors and seen it warped beyond recognition, or who had to “settle” to pay the bills, knows exactly how Skipper Dan feels.
“Polka Face”: One of Weird Al’s ubiquitous polka medleys. They’re on almost every album (barring the first and Alapalooza where he did “Bohemian Polka” instead), and to be honest… I can’t say I’m really a fan of them anymore. After a while, they all sound the same, and only the first one (In 3-D‘s “Polkas on 45”) really seems original as a result. The medley, incidentally, is another which utilizes Lady Gaga’s work, specifically “Poker Face”. The rest is of course other contemporary tracks. I did experience a moment of surprise when I heard what sounded like “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” in the middle of the song. As it turned out, it was actually “Right Round”, a song by Flo Rida, which samples the aforementioned Dead or Alive tune. No offense to Flo Rida, but I can’t help but think that since the part Al used in his medley was based on the sampled section, Dead or Alive should also have been credited in the liner notes.
“Craigslist”: This Al original is very heavily influenced by the Doors… to the point of getting Ray Manzarek on keyboards. While nobody would mistake Yankovic for Morrison, he does a very credible job of capturing the bluesy rock feel of classic Doors songs. In terms of subject matter, this song retreads some of the ground of his 2003 song “eBay”, but it manages to be reasonably different by focusing on the sometimes bizarre listings on the site.
“Party in the CIA”: As you might ascertain from the title, this is a parody of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” Weird Al doesn’t get political very often (the most overt example I can think of is his mocking of the RIAA in “Don’t Download This Song”), but it’s hard to listen to lyrics about waterboarding and not think there’s a bit of commentary there. It’s also hard not to be somewhat disturbed as those same lyrics are sung with an unabashed cheerfulness usually reserved for, well, teenaged girl singers talking about partying. I would have liked it if Al had eschewed the “like yeah”s of the original song in his parody, but it’s a minor quibble to an otherwise solid, if odd, song.
“Ringtone”: “Ringtone” is another of the Internet Leaks songs, and it’s one that took a while to grow on me. It’s admittedly rather thin premise is that this guy’s cell phone ring tone annoys everyone around him. And initially this song managed to annoy me itself. But I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve listened to it more. There’s a Queen vibe to this song, apparently deliberately, and it comes out with some of the stronger aspects of the musical arrangement. And while the sudden “Ringtone!” annoyed me at first, it now seems to fit in better to me.
“Another Tattoo”: A parody of B.o.B. and Bruno Mars’s “Nothin’ on You”. Eh, it’s all right. That’s about all I have to say about it right now.
“If That Isn’t Love”: This may be the most straightforward love song Al has ever done. Of course, it’s about ignoring and overlooking all the irritating things his significant other does, while just barely refraining from doing irritating things himself. But this is probably more realistic than most “serious” love songs get.
“Whatever You Like”: A parody of T.I.’s song by the same name, this song stays very close to its source while skewing the premise by making it about trying to do right by his girl while the economy is in the toilet. It’s somewhat discouraging to think this song was first released as a single almost exactly three years ago and it’s not dated yet. Lyrically, it’s a moderately enjoyable song with an occasional laugh-out-loud line thrown in there.
“Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me”: A softly-song Al original with piano backing. It’s quiet, low-key, and very emphatic about wanting an end to all of the pointless forwarded messages that can dominate a person’s inbox (or, for that matter, Facebook page) from well-meaning but thoughtless people who don’t realize that not everybody is interested in chain letters or jokes about cats. I can relate, and this is another of my favorite songs on the album.
In summation, while my distancing from the pop songs that are parodied hinders my ability to enjoy them to some extent, I still found most of the album quite enjoyable, particularly the originals. It’s not his best album, but it’s still one that any fan would like. I’m still holding out hope that eventually he will do an album that’s just Weird Al originals, though; sure, it’s possible only the die-hards would buy it. But you never know, and besides, that’s probably the majority of his buyers anyway.