The Hard Drive Project Day One: Weird Al Yankovic

Cribbing a brilliant feature from The Onion A.V. Club called Popless, and spurred by a recent clean-up of my computer and external hard drive, I am setting out to listen to every song and every artist on said hard drive. This hopefully will incorporate new releases over the course of the journey as well. Mostly I’ll be running quickly through artists for whom I only have a track or two, but for more major artists, I will try to go a bit more in depth. The inaugural artist: Weird Al Yankovic.

Weird Al is a strange choice to start this endeavour, perhaps, but the parenthesis that begins his artist name in iTunes puts him at the top of the list. My first experience with Weird Al was a VHS tape my dad had, showcasing Yankovic’s greatest video hits. Through the parodist’s wacky (and often food-related) appropriation of whatever was in the contemporary zeitgeist (or at least the Top 40), I also had my first experience with Madonna, Nirvana, James Brown, Green Day, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, rap music, and the delightful musical form and style that is polka.

Most of the time, Yankovic simply appropriates the music and arrangement of a popular song and writes his own lyrics about one of his many preoccupations (food and TV, mostly). He really doesn’t go after an artist directly except for a rare instance – “Smells Like Nirvana,” obviously spoofing Nirvana’s signature song, amplifies Cobain’s mumbly-shouty singing to ridiculous heights (“Its hard to bargle nawdle zouss(? )/ With all these marbles in my mouth”), and in hindsight it reads also as a dead-on satire of the calcified, mainstream “rebellion” that arose in Nirvana’s wake. Otherwise, any overt mockery of an artist comes in more subtle, idiosyncratic moments. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru“, taken from R. Kelly’s immortal “Trapped in the Closet”, hilariously pushes to its annoying limit the song’s penchant for rhyming the same exact word, over and over. “You’re Pitiful,” Yankovic’s otherwise pedestrian take on James Blunt’s noxious “You’re Beautiful,” features my favorite such moment. In the opening of the original, Blunt sings a clipped “My life is brilliant” several measures before the verse actually starts. Weird Al tweaks it, singing the line as Blunt does, then awkwardly asking, “W-was I too early? … Should I …?”

For the vast majority of people, Weird Al is defined by his goofy but sharp parodies of the videos that accompany the songs he, um, modifies, and rightly so. Far from an Al cultist, I have followed Yankovic’s post-peak career from a distance; he gets a lifetime pass for his involvement in “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job.”

Strengths: You have to be a savvy guy to maintain a decades-long career as a novelty artist in an era when everything is already supposed to be sort-of ironic. Digging a little deeper, the “style parodies,” or originals in a style of a particular genre or artist without referencing a specific song, reveal the dude to be a pretty good songwriter in his own right.

Weaknesses: The nature of his act means often parodying a song that is a hit at the time but will ultimately be a dated relic … or forgotten entirely. (cough *Crash Test Dummies* cough)

The big hit: I actually don’t even have this one in digital form, but “Amish Paradise” might be his defining song for music fans my age.

Best song: “White & Nerdy“, a spoof of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin”, sounds just like the original but may have Yankovic’s funniest lyrics, riffing on his common trope of the nerd who is enamored of mainstream pop culture but can never partake (“Only question I/ Ever thought was hard/ Is ‘Do I like Kirk/ Or do I like Picard?”).

Other best song: “Dare to Be Stupid“, an actually fairly scathing spoof of Devo’s absurd synthy wankery. Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh has admitted he hated Yankovic after hearing the song, not because he was being mocked but because Yankovic had found a synthesizer sound even better than Devo’s.

Stab at pretension: Every Weird Al album features a polka-fied medley of pop hits from when the album was made; the mash-up of styles and artists, albeit pumped through an accordian, anticipates the iPod paradigm. “Polkarama” from 2006 is the apotheosis.

Most overrated: “Eat It.” Yankovic’s spoofs are usually technically dead-on, but the arrangement here sounds rushed and cheap compared to the industrial crunch of the original.

Most personal for me: I went to a preppy elementary school whose main purpose was siphoning the preppy kids into preppier high schools. I didn’t fit in at all. It kind of sucked. In sixth grade, our class took a week-long field trip to Chicago; on the drive through Illinois, I must have listened to “Alternative Polka” about thirty times on my Walkman.

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