It’s Cool to Be Smart — and Other Reasons to Still Idolize “Weird Al”

Well done, “Weird Al” Yankovic.

While scrolling through Twitter feeds, going through daily Internet rounds or — kicking it old-school — flipping channels this week, most people were probably were hit with one form or another of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s media blitz. The man who introduced his musical-parody genius to the world via cable juggernaut MTV 30 years ago, was now upstaging his millennial-generation pop-artist peers by seamlessly playing the viral-marketing game like a finely tuned accordion. Between the release of one new video per day on websites ranging from Yahoo to PopCrush, and appearances ranging from Conan to the Fox Business channel, it was, to steal from the man himself, an Alapalooza.

My G-d, did this business plan work. Al’s 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun, hit Number One on iTunes within one day of its July 15th release, and it is in an excellent position to become Al’s very first Number One album on the Billboard 200.

If you haven’t taken a moment to savor Al’s take on 2014 pop culture, watch these videos of two songs off Mandatory Fun. I’ll wait.

“Word Crimes”: a pitch-perfect parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” as well as a battle cry for all copy editors everywhere

“Foil”: It starts off using a common Weird Al formula (singing about food), but Al’s spoof on Lorde’s “Royals” takes an unexpected — and brilliant — shift

Sure, this was a successful marketing venture from both a financial and exposure standpoint. It’s pretty damn hard today for a 54-year-old man with corkscrew curls to trump artists half his age — and wearing half the clothing — in the entertainment industry, but Al has done it! But the heavy rotation of Weird Al on our iPhones and iPads has achieved something else, something more important. It’s caused the people of my generation (I’m somewhere around Generation X), the ones who grew up in the 1980s, for whom MTV was their Candy Crush/Twitter/Facebook/Spotify/BuzzFeed, to take a moment and reflect on how much this guy with the Hawaiian shirts, goofy glasses and mustache meant to our childhoods — and our appreciation of music and pop culture.

I was inspired to share my Al-ecdotes, if you will, by two posts this week. One was Vulture‘s “History Behind 12 Great Weird Al Videos,” which was a fun-filled romp down memory lane with insights provided by Al himself. The second was Bex Schwartz’s Awl piece 28 Years With Weird Al. Here was someone else who gobbled up “The Compleat Al” like it was candy (considering how many times my parents spent money to let me rent it from the local video store, I’m surprised they didn’t just purchase the damn VHS tape for me — I sure wore out Armonk Video’s copy back in 1985) and the one person who reassured me that there was nothing wrong with my spending this past week binge-watching Weird Al clips on YouTube.

It’s funny, in my line of work, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a multitude of celebrities, as well as just having them cross my path. There was that time I said hi to Paul McCartney in my office lobby. Or when Mick Jagger and Elton John walked by my desk (not at the same time). I’ll never forget greeting the Edge and shaking Bono’s hand. (It wasn’t work-related, but I once saw Kate Winslet in a doctor’s office) But sadly, I have not yet had the honor of meeting (or interviewing) the guy who brought so much joy and laughter to an eight-year-old girl who stayed up way past her bedtime whenever a new AL-TV special was broadcast. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to one of his concerts, and — don’t hate me, Al! — I’ve never purchased any of his albums.

So what was it that fueled my obsession if I wasn’t listening to the records or begging my parents to take me to see the weird one in concert? Well, why else would I write about this on my TV blog — it was the medium of MTV, namely videos, that allowed Weird Al to clinch my “compleat” and utter admiration. Sure, the songs are funny, but what really made Al stick out in my mind were his re-enactments of Michael Jackson‘s and Madonna‘s classic videos. It was his wacky “takeovers” of the network that made him a star, it was his willingness to poke fun at himself and it was his uncanny ability to consistently have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. So much so that I’m pretty certain I learned the lyrics to “Smells Like Nirvana” before I ever got my first copy of Nevermind.

The reason I felt so nostalgic for my history with Weird Al is because I realized this week that Al belongs to an elite group of music artists: The Eighties holdovers. Along with U2, Prince, Madonna and Metallica, Al’s career started and flourished in the Reagan era, and like the aforementioned artists, he has allowed himself to move and change with the times. Given his line of work, he has no choice if he wants to remain relevant in the age of YouTube, but Al’s incredible timing in poking fun at the right people at the right moment resulted in his having a more successful music career than several of the artists he’s parodied. See: Greg Kihn, El Debarge — yep, you read that correctly, El Debarge — Huey Lewis and the News and Robert Palmer.

Al made his name and career out of his playful, yet respectful, teasing of pop stars both he and the rest of the world adored. But too often, it’s his original songs that are overshadowed by tunes like “Perform this Way” and “White and Nerdy.” His Pixies style parody, “First World Problems,” got some Internet love yesterday as the sixth video released in the “Eight Days of Al” album rollout, but I highly recommend going back and listening to some of his “deeper cuts.” Here are my top five non-parody picks that showcase Al’s brilliance:

1. “Albuquerque,” Running With Scissors, 1999

This nonsensical tale about a sauerkraut-hating dude who journeys to the land of Blue Sky and Los Pollos Hermanos is a 12-minute rock epic that somehow never gets tiresome (The A.V. Club agrees). It’s one of the few Al songs I embraced without a corresponding video. Obviously this is a must-see for Breaking Bad fans, but the final shot of Al with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul is just an overdose of awesomeness.

2. “Skipper Dan,” Internet Leaks (EP), 2009

He has a sensitive side! This is the one Weird Al song that makes me all misty-eyed — a bittersweet story about an aspiring actor whose Juilliard training and unbridled ambition has only resulted in a career as a Disneyland Jungle Cruise tour guide. You try watching this without crying.

3. “Dare to Be Stupid,” Dare to Be Stupid, 2005

This was my introduction to Devo, Al’s heartfelt homage to the New Wave gods. It near-traumatized me when I first saw it at age eight on The Compleat Al, and to this day, I have no idea what is happening in this video. I just know I want to be a part of that yellow-suit clad band — hello, a guitar that also toasts Pop-Tarts????

4. “Christmas at Ground Zero,” Polka Party, 1986

I learned so much about my parents’ childhood and the “duck and cover” drills they had to do from this video. The track — a pastiche of Christmas pop songs — is just so catchy — I dreamed of being one of Al’s backup singers for it.

5. “Polka Your Eyes Out,” Off the Deep End, 1992

No Weird Al album is complete without one of his polka medleys — and this one has always been my favorite. Probably because it was the first Al polka I ever heard (Camp Chipinaw, 1992).

Thank you, Weird Al, for letting me grow up with you. Do you mind sticking around for another 30 years? We’re always gonna need your smart, on-point take on this weird world we live in.

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