Splitsider

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Weird Al's Mean Streak

“Weird Al” Yankovic is untouchable. He’s given us so much, beginning with song parodies like “Amish Paradise” and “Fat” that are still funny upon multiple repeat listens many years later, as well as musically sound original works (“Dare to Be Stupid,” “One More Minute”), and screen entertainments such as the classic UHF and underrated Al-TV specials. Most novelty song performers end up dated, corny, and obscure, but Yankovic has been around now for more than 30 years, longer than most non-funny musicians. Today, he’s basically a part of the L.A. alt comedy community out of appreciation, nostalgia, and the fact that he’s widely regarded as one of the nicest people in entertainment. He won’t even officially release a song parody unless the original artist approves it. This isn’t a legal requirement; it’s a gesture of goodwill.

Those parodies are, as such, usually innocuous, and concern themselves more with wordplay or topics like food or crappy television. But Yankovic is human, and as such, he’s got a mean streak that occasionally, and fascinatingly, rears its curly head. It’s led to some truly cutting, brutally funny stuff.

“It’s Still Billy Joel to Me” (1980)

Billy Joel has always seemed like a real smug and cynical piece of work. Not a light heart for a guy that plays pop piano. Joel’s “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me” is a smug song in which Billy Joel gives approval to new and emerging rock subgenres, particularly New Wave, which was the style at the time. As if the world needed or wanted Billy Joel’s permission or opinion on the matter. So while Joel gives his unsanctioned thumbs-up to musical variety, Yankovic made “It’s Still Billy Joel to Me” (it was never officially released) to call out Billy Joel on just how awful the music of Billy Joel is, because no matter what he might try, it’s “still Billy Joel,” and ultimately pointless and bad.

“(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long” (1988)

After gently parodying Michael Jackson, (“Eat It,” “Fat”) only Yankovic could get away with taking the piss out of a Beatle. Evidently none too impressed with George Harrison’s improbable late career comeback with “Got My Mind Set On You,” Yankovic points out that the song was repetitive, very slight, and sing-songy (which is of course fine, if you’re Paul McCartney). The parody is meta and self-referential, positing that the song in which he is currently singing is “just six words long” owing to songwriting laziness and how hard it is to write lyrics, a criticism of pop and rock music in general.

“Buy Me a Condo” (1984)

A twist on the American and British cultural phenomenon of suburban white kids who hijack an ethnic culture as their own, “Gonna Buy Me a Condo” isn’t a parody of any one song. Instead, it’s an original reggae song about a Jamaican guy who moves to an American suburb and tries to fit in by doing the blandest, most suburban things possible, such as installing wall-to-wall carpeting, and trading in all of his Bob Marley records for some Jackson Browne. All hail Jackson Browne, king of awful white person music!

“Achy Breaky Song” (1993)

Rarely does Yankovic use a song to directly mock its original artist. But not too long after line dancing fever hit the country (and which still to this day continues to hit a large swath of the country, I can report), Yankovic presciently used “Achy Breaky Song” to place Keith Urban Billy Ray Cyrus and his “Achy Breaky Heart” into the pantheon of the all-time most annoying, disposable, shameful musical fads: Donny and Marie, Vanilla Ice, New Kids on the Block, and, most disparagingly, Barry Manilow. (You just don’t compare another man to Barry Manilow. It’s coldblooded.)

Yankovic used a similar technique a year earlier to make fun of Nirvana with “Smells Like Nirvana,” (“sing distinctly / we don’t wanna / buy our album / we’re Nirvana!”) but he was kind of off the mark on that one, as Nirvana wasn’t a glorified novelty act who went on to whore out his daughter to the Disney corporation.

Brian Boone writes about music in a funny way, but more importantly, lost on Jeopardy!

Tags:

music, weird al

  • micguar

    You lost me when you said Jackson Browne's music was "awful."

  • AYL

    I've Got My Mind Set On You is a cover song, originally written by Rudy Clark and originally recorded by James Ray in 1962. Still repetitive, by don't blame Harrison for the lyrics.

    • Brian Boone

      @AYL I think it's a dig on '80s pop music, not necessarily Harrison. He actually tried for years to get the Beatles to record it, but they all hated it. Even Ringo thought it was terrible.

  • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick Mortensen

    I saw an interview where Yankovic said he asked Cobain permission to do a parody of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and Cobain said, "Sure! Is it about food?"

  • Jeanisdead

    When I saw the headline, I thought this was going to be a post about the mean streak that runs through his original songs about relationships, from the stalker anthem "Melanie" to the similarly themed "I Was Only Kidding" and "I'm So Sick of You" ("ha ha, telling my girlfriend she sucks and is worthless is funny!").

    • Catherine Martin@twitter

      @Jeanisdead I like some of Weird Al's original music better than his parodies. And I'm not ashamed to say it! I'm always in the mood for Pancreas.

    • hypnosifl

      @Jeanisdead But "I'm So Sick of You" is intentionally cartoonish enough that you can't really believe these are his real complaints about a real girlfriend–doubt he ever had a partner who chewed her toenails, used his razor to shave her back hair, snores when she's wide awake etc. It's more like if Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes decided to write a song about everything he hates about Susie. As for "Melanie", the whole joke of the song is that this guy is a creepy insane stalker, I feel like an actual stalker anthem would be one that mythologized stalking in a way that fits the stalker's image of themselves (like "Every Breath You Take", say). These songs show a certain dark streak in his sense of humor (as do others like "The Night Santa Went Crazy"), but I don't think they show him to be some kind of genuine misogynist…

  • that guy

    Buy Me a Condo satirizes 80s-era yuppies and white people but it's really not that mean — its humor comes from the contrast of spiritual reggae music and consumerism. If you're looking for ice-cold meanness, "Good Enough for Now" off the Polka Party album offers a very dark, cynical take on relationships, but it's also a hilarious country music parody. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbFU6w7q3dQ

  • buickgnx88

    I'd have to say that "It's All About the Pentiums" is one of my favorites, both because of the song style as well as the fact that he got Drew Carey to be in the music video.

  • Pulse

    Amish Paradise and Fat are classics.