The Presidents of the United States of America were on top of the world in 1996 when their quirky earworm, “Lump”, earned one of the highest honors a song can achieve: a parody by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Nearly a quarter-century later, though, the artist who cemented their arrival is still thriving.
It’s the natural order of things in the music world: Pop stars come and go, but “Weird Al” Yankovic is forever.
“Al is like Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused,” says Nathan Rabin, coauthor (with Yankovic) of Weird Al: The Book. “He gets older and they stay the same age.”
Since recording his eponymous first album in 1982, “Weird Al” has remained among the most consistently relevant forces in music, getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (finally!) in 2018, just as he was coming off his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, and winning the latest of his five Grammy awards in 2019. While Yankovic’s popularity level has seldom shifted over the years, though, the winds of change have been blowing through the music industry nonstop at hurricane speeds the entire time. Amazingly, the world’s premier parody and pastiche artist has managed to always keep up no matter what comes his way, making his back catalog double as a concise chronology of the past 40 years in music.
Since pop-culture chronicler Nathan Rabin obsessively wrote about every single Yankovic tune ever for his new book, The Weird Accordion to Al, he might be more familiar with that catalog than anyone else, save for Yankovic himself. Here is what he learned about the four-decade trajectory of pop music from diving off the deep end into the weird world of Al.
If “Weird Al” parodies you, you’re probably peaking
Yankovic has an incredible ability to know exactly when the iron is hot enough to strike, and it has led him to pay tribute to artists, over and over again, at what would later be known as the height of their powers.
“Any time Al has hit the Top 40, it was because he had latched onto a huge cultural phenomenon and captured the zeitgeist in a really canny, savvy way that overcame the inherent drawbacks and limitations of being a comedy musician and parodist in a pop realm that doesn’t seem to have much use for either,” Rabin says. “With ‘Eat It,’ Al got Michael Jackson, the biggest artist in the world, exactly right, to the point that Al and Michael Jackson’s legacies are inextricably intertwined forever. Obviously that’s much more of a mixed blessing now than it was in 1984, when there was no downside to being linked to the hottest, most talented megastar alive. And Al got Nirvana and grunge just as right. Al needed Nirvana just as much as pop music did, because without Kurt Cobain’s iconic genius, the artists parodied on his Off the Deep End album are a decidedly low-wattage group: pop rap bozo MC Hammer, New Kids on the Block, Gerardo, and Milli Vanilli, who were less a bona fide act than a low-level criminal enterprise, fraud with a Euro-trash beat. But Al usually only parodies a song if it’s a hit. I can literally point to the one time he didn’t, and that was when he parodied Mick Jagger’s solo nonhit ‘Ruthless People’ as ‘Toothless People.’ He learned his lesson from that.”
It’s no coincidence that Yankovic’s rise parallels the rise of hip-hop
Some of Yankovic’s biggest hits have parodied hip-hop artists, from Coolio to Chamillionaire, but Al first tapped into the genre with 1988’s Beastie Boys pastiche, “Twister,” which arrived just as hip-hop began its journey into the mainstream.
“‘Twister’ was definitely the first rap track to appear on one of his albums, and it’s fascinating to me that Al was both capturing an era of the Beastie Boys’ evolution that they’d already moved past by that point, being deep into the process of evolving into the warped geniuses of Paul’s Boutique. [It shows] the lengths Al would go to in order to capture, as realistically and convincingly as possible, the sound, feel, texture, and ethos of what he’s paying tribute to,” says Rabin. “To me, there are so many fascinating commonalities between Al’s parodies and hip-hop, though. Both are historically built on the music and artistry of other artists. In hip-hop, that’s the music that’s being sampled; in Al’s parodies, it’s the music being spoofed. They’re both also piggy-backing on the audience’s almost Pavlovian love of the smash hits (and Al only parodies smash hits) that constitute the soundtrack of our lives.”
As the music industry and tech changed, “Weird Al” took advantage
Relatively late-period “Weird Al” tracks such as 2006’s “Don’t Download This Song” and 2011’s “Ringtone” lyrically address how the music industry was changing all around Yankovic, but he addressed the era’s changes in other ways as well.
“A good example of how the industry was changing, and Al’s music changing with it, is Al’s parody of T.I.’s ‘Whatever You Like,’ which has the distinction of having the same name as the song it’s parodying but also being released while T.I.’s song was still riding high on the pop charts,” Rabin says. “Digital distribution was a game changer for Al. It allowed him to release songs like ‘Whatever You Like’ [in 2008] or the other four songs on his digital EP Internet Leaks. Al was liberated by YouTube and digital distribution. He didn’t have to wait to release an album and then put all of his hopes and dreams in the first single doing well. He could release low-budget but tremendously funny videos for every song on an album and have his audience follow him on YouTube. Then there’s ‘White & Nerdy,’ where Al’s lyrical focus reflected a cultural shift from television being the primary outlet for music videos, and not coincidentally also the subject of some of Al’s best and most enduring songs, to the internet and YouTube specifically being where we watch and listen to music.”
Yankovic’s catalog separates the trends from the blips
Between “Smells Like Nirvana” in 1992, “Callin’ In Sick” and “Alternative Polka” in 1996, and later “My Baby’s in Love with Eddie Vedder” in 1999, “Weird Al” clearly had a sense of just how culturally important grunge and alternative music in general remained throughout the 1990s. Other trends, however, he relegated either to one song or a tiny suite in one of his famous polka medleys.
Yankovic always had an awareness for who and what might have staying power, which is probably why he never created a dubstep parody.
“One of the things I loved about the turn of the millennium is how stupid and fizzy and disposable pop music became, with fads like third-wave ska and swing darting across the pop landscape like a meteor and burning themselves out immediately,” says Rabin. “Al captured both what made them irresistible and fun and goofy [on songs like ‘Your Horoscope Today’] and also ephemeral and absolutely destined to end quickly. What I really like about [the Taylor Hicks parody “Do I Creep You Out”] is not the lyrics but the production and the way it captures the schmaltz and the sentimentality and phony showmanship not just of this particular cheeseball but that entire field of talent-show glossy hyper-pop. Taylor Hicks is disposable and forgettable, but American Idol is exactly the kind of bloated, self-important pop-culture phenomenon Al was put on earth to genially mock. I think artists like Taylor Hicks or flat-earth proponent B.O.B. were going to fizzle quickly no matter what. They were just lucky to be popular and catchy enough to inspire a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic parody during the brief time they mattered culturally.”
If you live in Los Angeles, tickets are available for a “Weird Al” event called A Weird And Insane Afternoon with Nathan Rabin, with guests such as Jonah Ray and DC Pierson, at Dynasty Typewriter on February 22.