Sunday, April 26, 2020

Books: On The Genius Of “Weird Al” Yankovic

Weird Al: Seriously
By Lily E. Hirsch; foreword by Dr. Demento
Rowman & Littlefield; hardback, $28.00; eBook, $26.50

"Weird Al" Yankovic is one of the most recognizable recording artists, and possibly the most unique talent, as he has made a four-decade career out of creating classic hits out of major hits, such as "Eat It," based on Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and "Amish Paradise," a take-off on Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise."

Instantly recognizable by his stringy hair, glasses, and Hawaiian shirts, as well as his trademark dance moves, Weird Al has one of the most devoted followings in the music world. His fourteen studio albums prove there is a lot more to the man than comedic music's reputation suggests.

Lily Hirsch, in the highly entertaining Weird Al: Seriously, gives the full picture of the artist, weaving together original interviews with the prince of parody himself, creating a fresh take on his mix of comedy and humor. One revealing thing is that his songs have always had a deeper meaning, focusing on topics such as bullying, celebrity, and racial and gender stereotypes.

Weird Al has never been deterred by those who say funny music is a low-brow pastime, and in the process has kept his good-guy grace intact. One refreshing thing about him is how he has remained unapologetically true to himself, willing to welcome anyone else into his world of mischief and merriment.

Hirsch writes of Weird Al's staying power, unparalleled in the comedy music genre: "To date, Yankovic has produced fourteen studio albums featuring his parody songs, original compositions, and accordion medleys. His most recent, Mandatory Fun (2014), was the first comedy album to debut at number 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and won him a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, adding to a Grammy collection that began in 1984 when 'Eat It' won for Best Comedy Recording. In total, he has had sixteen Grammy nominations and five wins, including the 2019 Grammy for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for Squeeze Box: The Complete Works of "Weird Al" Yankovic. He has had a song in the Top 40 in each decade since the 1980s - only the fourth artist to do so. He created the 1989 cult-hit film UHF, AL-TV on MTV, and The Weird Al Show on CBS in the late 1990s. He has also appeared on The Simpsons30 Rock, The Goldbergs, and, as cohost and bandleader, Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC. He's also done voiceover work for a diverse array of animated entertainment, from My Little Pony to Pig Goat Banana Cricket. And this list is woefully incomplete. Since releasing his song 'My Bologna,' a parody of the Knack's 'My Sharona,' in 1979, Yankovic has maintained a fame few have rivaled. On the eve of his sixtieth birthday, he wrapped up his sixteenth tour. His fifteenth, The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent one, was a huge success, despite the title's misleading self-deprecation: Most of the seventy-seven shows were sold out.
Unless you are already a Weird Al fan, this list of achievements may seem startling. Especially based on his press. In 1992, Los Angeles Times journalist John D'Agostino declared that Yankovic's 'shtick' was 'tiresome.' Starting that year, headlines made clear a sort of astonishment that Yankovic was 'still' in music. 'still' going, 'still' weird. An Austin American-Statesman headline from July 13, 1992 announced, 'Weird Al Still King of Parody.' A Chicago Tribune headline on August 2, 1997, exclaimed, 'Yankovic Still Weird, Still a Master of Parody.' Fourteen years later, the headlines had hardly changed. On November 7, 2011, the Modesto Bee declared, 'Performer Weird Al Yankovic Still a Master at Musical Manipulation.' Why the consistent emphasis on 'still,' the adverbial 'even now'? The 'still' seems to betray a certain insult, as if Yankovic's career was in doubt from the start. Even after several decades of success, the doubt remained. A thriving career seemed to do little to dispel the disbelief about his talent and enduring popularity. Somehow, his success was not enough to prove he was in fact successful.
When I interviewed Yankovic for the first time - in his sleek, modern West Hollywood Hills home in the heat of July - I brought up this consistent 'still.' Yankovic revealed, 'It's kind of a running joke with me and my crew that every single album that I've put out is a comeback album.' Laughing, he summed up the sentiment: 'Can you believe it? He's back again.'
It seems Yankovic's career was never expected to last long, and predictions started early that his popularity would soon wane. Reporters felt compelled to underscore his unlikely longevity. Even Yankovic's bio on his own website begins by highlighting a similar disbelief - a disbelief that he ever made it at all. 'Few would have guessed that 'Weird Al' Yankovic - who as a sly, accordion-playing teenager got his start sending in homemade tapes to The Dr. Demento Radio Show - would go on to become a pop culture icon and the biggest-selling comedy recording artist of all time.' In the 'Ask Al' forum on his website, Yankovic does little to set the record straight. In 2006 a fan asked, 'I thought I had heard a rumor about the upcoming album being your last one. Is there any truth to this?' His answer: 'Absolutely not. 'Poodle Hat' was my last album. My upcoming album is my next one. I don't know how these silly rumors get started.'"

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