In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking songs that saw an artist bounce back after releasing a dud of a record.
“Weird Al” Yankovic’s 2003 album Poodle Hat wasn’t exactly a flop—it charted well on Billboard, and earned the beloved parodist his third Grammy win. But it’s hard to listen to the album’s inoffensive parodies of Eminem, Avril Lavigne, and the Backstreet Boys now and catch any glimpse of the revitalized comic force the 40-year musical veteran has since become. Instead, Poodle Hat suggests a different, safer late-career arc for Yankovic, one that once seemed practically inevitable as the years ticked on: a quiet semi-retirement as a cultural footnote, gently regurgitating the day’s pop music to an aging segment of nostalgic fans. Outside of a spirited Ben Folds collaboration, and one of Yankovic’s better polka medleys, there’s no hint of the energetic full-court press he’d unleash a decade later, releasing daily music videos to promote 2014’s Mandatory Fun, assaulting the podcast circuit with relentless good cheer, and taking the band leader’s podium on Comedy Bang! Bang! To find the seeds of the current “Weird Al” renaissance, you have to look three years past Poodle Hat, to 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, and its biggest hit, “White & Nerdy.”
Yankovic’s most successful single ever—surpassing the previous record holder, “Eat It”—“White & Nerdy” uses Chamillionaire’s “Riding” as the launching point for its steady stream of jokes about guys who love Klingons almost as much as they do mayonnaise. And while it never matched the original song’s quadruple-platinum success—neither could Chamillionaire, as it turned out—it’s still worth examining why “White & Nerdy” became such a major hit. There was, of course, the natural tendency of nerds—always “Weird Al”’s most stalwart demographic—to laugh at references and knowing jokes about themselves and the things they love. There was the clever music video, full of celebrity cameos—including a young Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele—and layered inside jokes.
“White & Nerdy” didn’t save “Weird Al” Yankovic’s career: The subsequent years have shown that his willingness to hustle with a smile was always going to carry him forward in one way or another. But it was a wake-up call for the rest of the musical world, a reminder that the king of parody held his title for a reason, and that he was more than just the guy with the loud shirts and the accordion goofing around on MTV.