Brian Mackey: Weird Al - the voice of a (nerdy) generation?
The time has come to begin taking “Weird Al” Yankovic a little more seriously.
If Bob Dylan can be known as the voice of a generation, surely that leaves room for Yankovic as the voice of a demographic.
In song after song over the course of three decades, he has rung a consistent theme that comes through loud and clear: We’re here, we’re nerdy, get used to it.
Arguably the most successful song parodist in the history of popular music, Yankovic's music is not the stuff of teenage dreams or clamoring paparazzi. No, this is the secret life of that guy you only call when your computer breaks down.
“I’ll ace any trivia quiz you bring on / I’m fluent in Java Script as well as Klingon,” Yankovic sings on “White & Nerdy,” a parody of “Ridin’ ” by the rappers Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone.
In an extended riff on his epic “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” — based on R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” song cycle — he perfectly captures the inane conversation that’s a hallmark of even happy marriages.
A couple is engaged in an extended debate over what to have for dinner, and whether to stay in or go out: “I said, ‘Well, there’s tuna, I know.’ / She said, ‘That went bad a week ago.’ / I said, ‘Is the chili OK?’ / She said, ‘You finished that yesterday!’”
His lyrics are grounded in a workaday reality that’s rarely reflected in popular music.
“First and foremost, it is a comedy album, so I’m trying to be funny,” Yankovic said in a recent telephone interview. “But for a song like that in particular, I think people will appreciate it more the more it does feel true to life. Several of those conversations could have been verbatim taken from my own marriage. We have had conversations very much like that.
“The whole point of the song was to make it as mundane as possible and have pretty much nothing happen for 11 minutes. Because I couldn’t figure out how to make the R. Kelly song any more bizarre than it was already, so I thought I’d go the other direction and make it as banal as possible.”
Yankovic first hit it big in the 1980s with parodies such as “Another One Rides the Bus” (Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”), “I Love Rocky Road” (Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll”), “Eat It” (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) and “Like a Surgeon” (Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”).
“Alpocalypse,” his 13th studio album, is due out June 21. It’ll have parodies of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” and T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” plus a polka mix that covers more than a dozen pop songs (Yankovic is an accomplished accordion player).
Over the years, Yankovic’s live shows have become increasingly elaborate.
“When I first started out, (it) was just the guys on stage playing their instruments,” Yankovic said. But his first single, “Ricky” (an “I Love Lucy” parody based on Toni Basil’s “Mickey”), presented a problem: the woman who sang the female part on the album wasn’t part of the band.
“We couldn’t play that one live, so when it came time to represent our big single at the time, we hauled out a 16-millimeter projector and played the video, which wasn’t the most satisfying experience, I’m sure, for our audience, but it was all we had, it was the best we could do,” he said.
The next year, “Eat It” was released, and Yankovic added his elaborate jacket to his act. Little by little, the setup grew into the multi-costume, multi-media extravaganza it is today, with video screens, animations and — if “White & Nerdy” is on the set list — Yankovic riding out on a Segway.
“Now it’s like, every time we go out on tour, we’re just trying to top ourselves and make it bigger and better,” he said.
Set lists are drawn up to appeal to his broad fan base, from young people just getting to know him to those only familiar with his early work from the ’80s.
“It’s always a balancing act because I try to make the tours as different as possible from year to year,” Yankovic said. “At the same time, about half of my set list, I have to play. People are always going to want to hear ‘Fat’ and ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ and ‘Amish Paradise’ and ‘Eat It’ — there are a number of songs I can’t get away with not playing.
“So I’ve got that, I’ve got new material, I try to give a good sprinkling of oldies and deep album cuts and a few surprises here and there. Like a fine recipe, it’s just got to be the right blend.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.