In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
For a long period of time, the shared document that stores The A.V. Club’s pitches for future Inventory pieces (mixed in with a handful of national secrets—shh! Don’t tell anyone!) contained the seeds for a “People Who Are Gateways” list. A spin-off of our Gateways To Geekery column, the feature would’ve comprised creative types whose work is so densely packed with references, homages, and/or debts to other pop-culture products that they provide doors-within-doors to new fascinations—your Beastie Boys, your Martin Scorseses, your Quentin Tarantinos. Though the list never came to be, I assume its ranks would’ve mostly been filled out by timelessly hip tastemakers—with “Weird Al” Yankovic (and maybe Amy Sherman-Palladino) representing for the perpetually earnest and idiosyncratically unstylish. The favorite musician of 12-year-old male social outcasts for four decades running, Yankovic’s longevity can be chalked up to the fact that he operates just on the edge of the zeitgeist, tweaking the mainstream in ways that appeal to his core fans without ever miring himself in any particular moment of pop history. Never cool but always savvy, Yankovic introduced you to some of your favorite obsessions—even if you were too busy giggling at the way he mutated some flavor-of-the-week chart hit to notice.
No matter the length of your “Weird Al” phase—mine spanned the releases of Bad Hair Day and Running With Scissors, with plenty late-night viewings of UHF in between—part of the fun of returning to his music years later is the constantly dawning realization, “Oh, that’s what he was going for there!” “Twister” is an obvious nod to Yankovic’s fellow human Gateways MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D, and the video for Dare To Be Stupid’s title track made explicit every Devo homage that the song’s hiccupping vocals and wound-up synthpop left unclear. (Cue Mark Mothersbaugh in the Behind The Music episode on Yankovic: “I was in shock. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else. And I hate him for it, basically.”)
Another “style parody”—Yankovic’s term for his compositions that boil an act’s entire discography into a self-contained stew of satire—Polka Party’s “Dog Eat Dog” does for Talking Heads what “Dare To Be Stupid” did for Mothersbaugh and company: The track extracts elements of the Heads’ sound, stitching them back together into a riff on corporate culture that’s only a slight exaggeration of David Byrne’s own treatment of such mundane topics. Humorous intent aside (and for all its artistic pretensions, Talking Heads was always a pretty funny band), “Dog Eat Dog” wouldn’t sound out of place on Little Creatures, which dropped a year prior to Polka Party.
For me, “Dog Eat Dog” flipped Yankovic’s role as a gateway inside out. It wasn’t until Talking Heads were the undisputed champions of my iPod that I discovered the track; by that point I was well equipped to identify the traces of “Once In A Lifetime” and “And She Was” in its DNA. The song led me down a rabbit hole of “Weird Al” recordings whose inspirations went over my head before they went into my ears, tracks like “Mr. Popeil” (A tribute to infomercial kingpin Ron Popeil by way of early B-52s) or “Everything You Know Is Wrong” (a parody of They Might Be Giants from the title on down). Even when the initial rush of the joke subsides, tracks like “Dog Eat Dog” weather the passing years better than most of Yankovic’s direct parodies, starting as they do with spare parts that already worked for a similarly talented audience, then building something new that goes beyond the cheap thrills of silly wordplay or twists of phrase.