The Surprisingly Weighty Songs of “Weird Al” Yankovic
“I did not enjoy silliness ever.”
That was how Marc Maron described his own taste in comedy, even as a kid, when music parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic appeared on his WTF podcast in February 2012. Though cordial and welcoming, Maron largely treated his guest as a birthday party clown who makes his money performing for eight year olds. It’s an understandable assumption: Al does a lot of songs about food (“My Bologna”) and old TV sitcoms (“Isle Thing”), and his music has long been popular with younger listeners. That dreaded word “silliness” became an unmistakable barrier between the two men over the course of the conversation, with Maron regarding Yankovic as a denizen of an entirely separate realm of the comedy world. “I respect what Al does,” Maron said at the time. “I talked to him a bit about how he got a lot of his fans when they were very young, and they loved him, and it was a very safe way to feel rebellious and have a good time.”
Though he made a few mentions of doing darker and more twisted comedy in his act, especially in his original compositions, Al Yankovic did little to challenge Marc Maron’s basic assumptions. If the famously cranky podcaster had explored his guest’s discography a little deeper, however, he might have found some songs that comment, either directly or obliquely, on surprisingly difficult and touchy subjects. While Al would never record an album as overtly political as hero Frank Zappa’s rancorous, often-acrid Broadway The Hard Way, the famed Hawaiian-shirt-wearing accordionist has not entirely shied away from potentially controversial topics in his career.
Here, then, is a crash course in just some of those songs and the important, real-world issues they cover.
End of Life: “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung” (1983)
This was the composition Al played during his unsuccessful audition for The Gong Show. Though “Mr. Frump” didn’t meet Chuck Barris’s standards, the tune was nevertheless immortalized on Al’s self-titled debut album. The track is based on a simple, tasteless joke: Al found that he could use the bellows of his accordion to imitate the wheezing sound of an iron lung and wrote a song around that gimmick. For those born in the middle decades of the previous century, iron lungs are a staple of so-called “sick” humor. The Coen Brothers put an iron lung into The Big Lebowski, and John Waters had one in his nostalgic musical Cry-Baby. The now-obsolete devices are so horrific that they are paradoxically comedic to many.
Yankovic’s song is sung from the perspective of a healthy, able-bodied young man who builds a one-sided “friendship” with the elderly, apparently comatose Mr. Frump, who is unfortunately confined from the neck down to a machine that breathes for him. In the song, Al’s treatment of the aged patient is the most cheerful, upbeat version of elder abuse imaginable. The narrator brings Frump “candy and flowers every afternoon,” knowing full well that the unconscious Frump will neither eat the candy nor even see the flowers. Why bother to do this? Al enjoys Mr. Frump’s complete passivity and takes advantage of it. “He never tells me lies, and, best of all, he never disagrees.” Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a right to die law in Al Yankovic’s home state of California. Perhaps shameful scenarios like the one depicted in “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung” can thus be avoided in the future.
Immigration: “Buy Me A Condo” (1984)
In her recent, raucous appearance on The View, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter declared herself to be “a one-issue voter.” Coulter’s chosen issue, of course, is immigration. Real estate mogul Donald Trump has been grabbing headlines and building a coalition of angry white voters in recent months with his reactionary, hateful anti-immigration rhetoric. In 2015, the unwanted foreigners we are being told to despise and fear are those from Mexico. Al’s faux-reggae tune, “Buy Me A Condo” from his In 3-D album, is about a Jamaican immigrant instead, but the core issue remains the same.
The “lonely Rastaman” in the song abandons his home country and moves to America in order to have a shot at material wealth and comfort, even if it means shedding his own ethnic identity and assimilating into a new culture. “Gonna cut off me dreadlocks, t’row away all me ganja,” Al sings in a dubious Jamaican accent. “I’ll have a Tupperware party, maybe join me a health spa.” The underlying irony is that, with his sincere desire for Izod shirts (“the T-shirts with the alligator on”) and Cuisinarts, the Jamaican transplant is actually the ideal American, the kind Trump and his ilk should be welcoming. The song’s very title, in fact, indicates the newcomer’s admirable desire to become a homeowner.
Gun Control: “Trigger Happy” (1992)
If there is one topic even touchier than immigration during this (or any) election season, it is gun control. The always-contentious issue flares up after each mass shooting and accidental gun death. “Trigger Happy” is example of how to win an argument by presenting the opposing opinion in the worst possible way. Al’s ironically merry, Beach Boys-style tune (likely inspired by “Skeet Surfin’!” from Top Secret!, Al’s self-professed favorite movie) was written at a time when there was a national debate over whether or not private citizens really needed to own assault rifles like the AK-47. The irresponsible, gun-toting narrator of “Trigger Happy” certainly believes he does, but his reasoning is shaky. “Well, you can’t take my guns away. I got a constitutional right,” he sings. “Yeah, I gotta be ready if the commies attack us tonight.” Even back in 1992, “the commies” were ridiculously outmoded bogeymen. And a lot of the narrator’s tough guy rhetoric is lifted from Dirty Harry movies released in the 1970s.
Even more troubling is the gun owner’s accident-filled track record. He manages to shoot his own father and the family cat during the course of the song, neither fatally but both unintentionally. This gun owner’s total lack of responsibility is further underlined when he suggests, “We’ll get all liquored up and shoot at anything that moves.” The NRA’s usual argument is that people need to own guns in order to protect their homes and property. “Trigger Happy” challenges that idea by showing how much damage a reckless idiot can do when given access to firearms. When he sings that he’s “praying somebody tries to break in here tonight,” it’s a funny line, but the lyric has some unmistakable sting to it.
The Death of the Music Industry: “Don’t Download This Song” (2006)
During that 2012 chat with Marc Maron, Al mentioned that Alpocalypse, his most recent album at the time was simultaneously the highest-charting and lowest-selling disc of his career to that point. The obvious problem, he explained, was that consumers simply do not purchase music anymore, thanks to the internet. Whereas musicians used to tour in order to sell albums, now they make albums in order to justify touring. Even though 2014’s Mandatory Fun topped the charts, a first for Yankovic in a three-decade recording career, Al announced that it would be his last conventional album. Music isn’t a salable commodity anymore, and besides, YouTube and Soundcloud allow amateur comedians and parodists to get their work to millions of people instantaneously. Who wants to wait around for a slowly-recorded album?
The death knell of the recording industry was heard on “Don’t Download This Song,” the final track from 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood. It’s an anthemic ballad that begs people to actually purchase physical albums and not just purloin the individual tracks as MP3s from some shady file-sharing site. “Don’t download this song,” goes the chorus. “The record store’s where you belong.” Al knows this is a losing fight, and he even acknowledges that the music industry is deserving of its technological comeuppance. “How else can I afford a solid gold Humvee?” he mock-sincerely asks. “And diamond-studded swimming pools, these things don’t grow on trees.” To add an extra layer of irony to the song, the arrangement is reminiscent of 1980s charity records like “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” relics from a time when the music industry wielded godlike power. Nine years after its initial release, “Don’t Download This Song” is like the musical version of The Last Days Of Pompeii.