Music videos, leaked singles, and the pop-culture savvy of "Weird Al" Yankovic
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At this point, "Weird Al" Yankovic's career has outlasted—or, if you'd rather look at it from a crasser angle, outlived—many of the artists he's spoofed. It helps that pop-culture turnover provides him with several subjects ripe for parody every few years, but Yankovic is also blessed with an impeccable sense of timing. Before tonight's show at Summerfest, here are four examples of the accordion-playing clown prince of song seizing on a cultural movement at just the right moment.
Someone who sings about television as often as Yankovic had to be quick to realize the power of music video, and sure enough, his self-titled debut LP provided a fledgling MTV with two low-budget clips of heavily rotated larf fodder: an ice-cream parlor-set send-up of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" ("I Love Rocky Road") and "Ricky," a black-and-white, Toni Basil-fied tribute to the lovers' spats that fueled I Love Lucy. But it wasn't until the 1984 release of In 3-D that Yankovic fully utilized the network's growing influence—first through "Eat It," a shot-for-shot tweaking of Michael Jackson’s iconic "Beat It" video, and then Al TV, a four-hour special that applied Yankovic's MAD Magazine-influenced sense of satire to the entirety of MTV's programming schedule. The relationship proved fruitful, and though the network's cultural impact and commitment to music both waned with time, Yankovic has since accompanied all but one of his studio releases with an episode of Al TV.
Being pop music's preeminent joker for more than a quarter-century, Yankovic has had the distinct displeasure of having his name wrongly attached to every comical song from Bob Rivers' "12 Pains Of Christmas" to The Rabbit Joint’s "Zelda." (There’s a whole list at The Not Al Page, a confluence of two of the Internet's dorkiest preoccupations: correcting people and Yankovic-obsession.) File-sharing and peer-to-peer networks have only exacerbated this dilemma, but rather than letting these confusions cause a Lars Ulrich-sized chip on his shoulder, Yankovic embraced the Internet as a mode of distribution. Online misattribution may be entirely out of his control, but digitally releasing tracks like his recession-themed parody of T.I.'s "Whatever You Like" opened up a new avenue of timely humor for Yankovic. It has allowed him to blow off some steam, though: When the objections of Atlantic Records kept "You’re Pitiful"—a riff on James Blunt's ubiquitous "You’re Beautiful"—off of 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood, Yankovic simply offered the track as a free download on his website.
The rise of alternative rock
It’s been said that the members of Nirvana (either Kurt Cobain or Dave Grohl, depending on the source) didn’t feel like they "made it" in pop music until Yankovic asked for Cobain’s permission to parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But the band did Yankovic just as big a favor—perfectly timed with grunge’s chart-topping crossover, "Smells Like Nirvana" was the career-refreshing hit Yankovic needed in the wake of UHF's box-office failure. Not that it was the first time he'd dabbled in alternative: Yankovic established himself with goofs on superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna, but his early records lent an ear to mainstreaming underground acts as well, featuring original songs performed in the style of college-rock forerunners Talking Heads, Devo, and The B-52s. And on the UHF soundtrack, he directly parodied R.E.M.—the biggest left-of-the-dial success story before Nirvana—with “Spam.” However, as the rock underground bubbled up, over, and out of a concise definition, Yankovic’s finger slipped from its pulse. It’s anyone’s guess how Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" slots in with the 120 Minutes standards compiled by 1995’s "Alternative Polka," though it’s a less confounding inclusion than his trapping of the early '00s garage revival’s big four bands (The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, and The Vines) in the middle of the nü-metal circle pit of “Angry White Boy Polka."
Star Wars prequel backlash
The little good that came of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is found in the wave of mocking reactions to it—stuff like Patton Oswalt's "At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas With A Shovel" routine or Red Letter Media’s brutal, in-depth YouTube eviscerations of The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones. Released mere weeks after The Phantom Menace caused the fanboy sigh heard 'round the world, Yankovic's "The Saga Begins" initially reads as a fan breathlessly recounting his first taste of new onscreen Star Wars adventure in 16 years. Keep in mind, however, that the song takes its melody from Don McLean's "American Pie," whose overly earnest refrain about "the day the music died" could easily apply to The Phantom Menace's disappointing returns. (Or buyer's remorse stemming from the $500 Yankovic paid to see a preview screening of the film. At least it was for charity!) There’s a sound of resignation in the way Yankovic sings “We escaped from that gas / Then met Jar Jar and Boss Nass,” and if that resign is authentic, he was shrewdly ahead of the curve in voicing it.