In the mid-70s, an accordionist by the name of Alfred Matthew Yankovic took a staple of FM radio, the humorous song parody, and turned it into a cottage industry that’s transformed him into a cultural icon known as Weird Al. Starting with song parodies for which he accompanied himself on the accordion, his work has grown more musically complex as his popularity has increased. He doesn’t simply mock a given song; in most cases, he totally reimagines it, and sometimes his parodies become more popular or better known than the originals. He’s also become an important industry barometer. A musical artist or act knows that it has arrived if Weird Al lampoons one of one of their songs.
The secret to Weird Al’s success, beyond his obvious musical talent, is his attention to detail. Unlike some radio deejays, he doesn’t record his lyrics over top of someone else’s music, he totally mimics the music, effects, and frequently the videos of popular songs. What gained him his first major attention in the eighties was the video of “Eat It” filmed on the same set and using the same cast and crew as the song it was mocking, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. His cover was as musically masterful as the original. He turned to All-American Boy Rick Derringer to handle the guitar solo, performed on the original by Eddie Van Halen.
The typical Weird Al album contains several types of novelty songs: direct parodies of pop songs (Eat It, I Lost on Jeopardy); sound parodies of a given artist (B52s on “Mr. Popeil”, Devo on “Dare to Be Stupid”); polka medleys of top songs (“Hooked on Polkas”, “Polkas on 45”); and original comic songs (“Slime Creatures from Outer Space”, “Albuquerque”). His original work is as inventive as his parodies, employing the latest technology for humorous effect. Recently, Al toured with an evening of original tunes, many of which are as popular as his parodies.
Like most people of my generation, I first heard Weird Al on the Dr. Demento show. Al was a particular favorite, and recorded “Another One Rides the Bus” on air during a visit. I don’t remember which song I heard first, “I Love Rocky Road” or “Another One Rides the Bus”, but I hardly imagined the singer would go on to become the cultural touchstone he has. I saw him as another strange artist on a show that specialized in them. It wasn’t until “Eat It” when Weird Al took his song parodies to the next level that the world came to realize his true comic genius. The scene by scene perfection of the parody video had everyone howling, while the accompanying album introduced a number of Weird Al staples.
What sets Weird Al apart from others who parody songs is the fact that many artists encourage him to mock their work. Michael Jackson was a huge fan, and Madonna reportedly suggested the parody title “Like a Surgeon” to Yankovic. More recently, Lady GaGa suggested a parody of “Born This Way”, which Yankovic rendered as “Perform This Way”. Almost every emerging artist hopes for a send up while the general public eagerly speculates on which songs might catch Weird Al’s ear and what he’ll do with them.
That being said, not every performer likes having his or her work skewered. One artist who very strenuously objected to the Weird Al treatment was Coolio, who expressed displeasure with Al’s “Amish Paradise” cover of “Gangsta’s Paradise”. Following the fallout from this, Weird Al has made it a point to specifically solicit the artist’s approval and not just the record company’s. He’s said to have some takes on songs he only does in concert because the original songwriter wasn’t totally onboard with his treatment.
Weird Al proves the adage that anything worth doing is worth doing right. For over forty years, he’s been poking fun at the likes of Michael Jackson, Huey Lewis, Madonna, Taylor Swift, and Pharrell Williams with a style all his own. In doing so, he’s outlasted many of those he’s parodied. He’s living proof that it pays to forge one’s own course in life and to always make the most of one’s opportunities and talents.
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I saw him as he finished the tour during which his parents were found dead. It was fantastic, though bittersweet. Each song a journey to a new but oddly familiar place, we happily joined him. Felt like he was glad to have us keeping him buoyed. We all need some Al from time to time.