Novelty reduxWeird Al milks the shriveled cow
by Scott Batiuk
Contrary to what some might think, "Weird Al" Yankovic did not invent the song parody. Guys like Allan Sherman and Spike Jones were lampooning pop songs decades before Al writhed like a surgeon on the E.R. gurney. The reason Al became the de facto name in song parody is simple: MTV.
Sherman or Jones may have done it well, or even better, but their acts weren't produced, edited and broadcast into millions of American homes.
Yankovic's "Eat It" video was perfectly timed, making light of Michael Jackson just as the future baby dangler was reaching über-megastardom.
MTV gave Al's Jacko parody exposure on a scale that he couldn't have achieved otherwise, no matter how many times Dr. Demento (the DJ who first played Al's demo on his "mad music and crazy comedy" show) played "Another One Rides the Bus" or "My Bologna." As it would do for other visually striking artists (hot babes, pop-punks, Coolio), MTV made the man.
But more importantly, this was the one time in Al's career that his music truly mattered. Finally, he transcended his novelty status and actually made a creative statement about one of the most important musicians of the era. And he did it on what would become one of the most influential media outlets for music.
True, he wasn't saying anything revolutionary. All he did was change the "Beat It" lyrics to food paeans. It wasn't anywhere close to high art, but no one had so visibly desecrated the sacred archetype of the pop artist. He was pissing in the tower of babble's playroom.
For one very public moment, Weird Al was a fresh concept. But it didn't last long. For his next single, Al pulled a dead rabbit out of the hat.
You see, Weird Al is a novelty act. His songs have very little enduring value. Sure, it was funny to see/hear him the first time, but as with snakes in a can or rubber turds, his gags grew increasingly stale each time he repeated them.
The very concept of a parody itself is a novelty, so not only do the individual songs get boring, but the fact that this kind of song exists at all gets boring.
Ten years ago, his Nirvana parody was a brief, shining moment. Why? Because he did a satire of the artist, rather than just changing the lyrics to something completely unrelated (yet zany!). And the lyrics were semi-witty.
True, Al doesn't only do song parodies. He does other things, too. Three, to be exact.
There's the style parody, where he mimics an artist's musical style and identity rather than just Mad-libbing lyrics. This strain of parody has more potential because there's room for musical creativity and, if done right, can expose the unspoken-and often compelling-alter ego of an artist. "Dare To Be Stupid"-Al's 1985 parody of Devo-was pretty solid. But generally they fall flat.
His second standard is the polka rendition-either of individual pop songs or a medley of songs. This was funny the first time he did it. Impressive, even. Twenty years later, they're good for one listen, two at most.
Finally, Al throws in a few Yankovic originals that are impressive if only for their mediocrity. It's not that Weird Al lacks musical talent; it's just that his sense of humor unfailingly gets in the way. He occasionally strikes gold, but for the most part his songs are only amusing to obnoxious 12-year-olds-of which there are quite a few in America, which might explain why in recent years Al's stomped around in a yabba-dabba-doo pull-over for shows billed as "family affairs." Which, of course, is code for "how to shut up your obnoxious 12-year-old for a full hour."
It was a difficult decision for me to say anything bad about Al. I have such fond memories of listening to the "Eat It" 7-inch on my Fisher-Price turntable while visions of utensil-wielding gangsters danced in my 6-year-old head. I used to love this guy.
But now, I'm staring at a picture of Al standing in a subway car with a poodle sitting on his head (it's the cover of his new album, called-get ready-Poodle Hat. Ha?), and it's making me sad. This is what the last 20 years have amounted to? A 44-year-old man with a poodle on his head?
My happy childhood memories have been tainted. I didn't want to say anything bad, Al, but you left me no choice. I'm sorry-you're your own parody now.