Weird Al And The Need For Parody

–Today’s album review comes from my good friend Daniel Barcroft. Daniel is a former radio DJ, very talented animator, and big fan of Weird Al. When the new Mandatory Fun album hit, I wanted a new voice to share their thoughts on where this release stands in the chronicles that is Weird Al. Too often music reviews ignore completely the previous work of the artist. Since Daniel is a fan of Weird Al’s entire 30 year songbook (like myself), his take on Weird Al and the need for parody in the age of Youtube is very insightful. Enjoy!–

MandatoryFun “Weird Al” Yankovic’s new album, Mandatory Fun, was released yesterday. I was part of an online conversation between a couple of friends including D. Grant, and he thought it would be fun for me to write a review up.

Right off the bat, let me make a confession. I’m going to fall into a well-known review trap by talking more about the artist, and in a sort of retrospective or summary way, than about the album.

So let me take care of some housekeeping up front: Is the album good? Should you check it out? If you are familiar with Weird Al, then you already know the answer in your heart. There’s nothing on this album that’s likely to magically convert anyone who considers him to be irritating. There’s also nothing on this album that’ll disappoint anyone who finds him great. It fits in alongside all his other work, and continues the trajectory of his last couple albums. (In my opinion, those two statements are ringing endorsements.)

If somehow you are unfamiliar with Weird Al and are wondering how to give him a try in album form, then here’s my advice: Check out one of his last three albums (2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, 2011’s Alpocalypse, or this one) so that you get a feel for Al at his most relevant before branching out into the classics.

The angle I thought might be more interesting here is, why would The Appetizer be interested in spending time on Weird Al? There’s really not an element of “independent” about someone whose comedy hinges on the cultural relevance of referencing the ultra-mainstream. Especially an act that’s had 30 years to wear thin.

My answer is that for me, Al’s body of work embodies the theme of discovery.

Sometimes this can work against him. He’s said before that a common reaction to his album is that it’s good, but not as great as whatever album was out when you were twelve years old. The subversive glee you get upon discovering that someone is turning pop music on its head is one that lessens with time, and Al’s career is built on doing essentially the same thing with each new batch of pop music culture.
But a 35-year career gives some other opportunities that I think are worth checking out.

One is the opportunity to look at his work through the lens of historical relevance. Al is breathing pretty rare air as someone who has broken through the concept of “novelty song” into sustaining a reputation for musical comedy. The history of comedy music is filled with Purple People Eaters, Monster Mashes, and Kings Tut — one-shot songs by folks that either didn’t remain relevant, or are better known for other varieties of music or comedy. It’s no wonder the term “novelty” used to be applied so heavily to this kind of thing.

The acts that we might think of as sustaining a comedy music career usually last a decade or so. Spike Jones and His City Slickers are (mostly) a ‘40s act, Allan Sherman has a nice body of work, but it pretty much reflects five years of his life (and even then, he’s far and away better known for a single song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”). Stan Freberg employed his brand of satire in various forms for a couple of decades (radio sketch comedy, advertising), but his singles focusing on the popular music of the day were essentially a late-’50s affair.

These are the artists that Al claims as his key influences in his decision to go into comedy music. And although Al isn’t the only comic musician with a longer streak of popularity (the name Ray Stevens might come to mind), I think it’s fair to say he’s one of very few with a “gold record” level audience sustained over more than a decade. The world noticed when he carved out his niche in the 80s with Michael Jackson parodies, but twenty years into his career is when he got his best-performing single (White & Nerdy). That’s a lot of space to experience Al as both the next logical step in a trend he didn’t invent, and as a hallmark that’s had an indelible influence on everyone currently doing musical comedy.
(Two side notes: it’s my opinion that anybody mentioned in those couple of paragraphs is well worth checking out if you’re unfamiliar with their work. And also, there are and have always been plenty of great musical comedy artists with smaller exposure or smaller audiences, also well worth discovering.)

Another aspect to consider is the level of craftsmanship Al brings to the table both musically and comedically.I feel like “craftsmanship” might be a loaded term. To me, craftsmanship is the ingredient in art that allows you to appreciate it all the more when you dissect it. When you can go all the way down to the brush strokes in a master painting and realize that an artist has used every element of their work to the greatest possible effect.
In Al’s case, it might be the care he goes to to make sure the instrumentation sounds just exactly like the original artist in a parody. Or it might be how most of the time, if you turn the volume way, way up as a song fades out, there’s a little wink to the listener in the last second. Or how he uses variations in background hooks and sounds (like “woo!” or “hey!”) in an R&B-inspired track (instead of repeating the same phrase) to add mini-surprises as the song goes on.

Or just an awareness that his songs “work” according to all the advantages and “rules” of stand-up or sketch comedy, as well as music. Or how he revisits certain themes fairly often and finds ways to keep it feeling like a great running gag instead of a tired one that falls flat.
To be blunt about it, there’s a lot of “pretty good” comedy music that just doesn’t have that level of excellence on that many counts. I don’t want to be overly harsh about this; sometimes it’s an understandable matter of small budgets. But when work has the luxury of excellence (whether it’s through an abundance of skill or an abundance of resources), it’s worth taking a second look at.

Add these two elements together and you can do with Al what you might normally do with musicians or comic actors or stand-up comedians, but usually not comic musicians — you can enjoy and appreciate the different facets and nuances of a career that’s evolved and grown through more than one generation.

I read yesterday a review of the new album that asked a pretty good and very pertinent question: Do we need Weird Al as the “king of parody” in a culture where YouTube users are capable of producing it in ways that might be more relevant? After all, it seems like that would essentially be the “indie” version of what Al does. Even Al has said that he’s looking for new outlets that might serve him better than the “conventional album.”

For me (and here I get into another of my fanboy areas), this is like asking if we need the Disney animation studios in a world that also contains Pixar, Dreamworks and other studios. In one sense the answer is “no,” in that we no longer need Disney as the one-stop source for great feature animation.
But if the world had dismissed Disney in the 80s when Don Bluth’s independent studio was outperforming them, we’d have never gotten to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin or The Lion King.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s work is such that his work has a lasting relevance, and that he’ll continue to have a place among the best of whatever comes out as a result, if we’re honest, of mostly following in his footsteps.

Daniel Barcroft is a pretty good cartoonist, a student of cartooning and animation, and a know-it-all fanboy on those and other subjects (including “Weird Al” Yankovic). Every now and then that finds its way into what he does for a living. Visit his website at freshfishcomic.com if you’re into comic strips that don’t update very regularly.

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DGrantSmith

Host of the syndicated radio program The Appetizer heard on public radio across Texas and online from our Listen Now link; enjoys conversations, music, food, art, storytelling, and people. Connect with me. Would love to hear from you.

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