Inside Weird Al’s Comeback

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This past weekend, Alfred Matthew Yankovic, better known as “Weird Al” Yankovic, appeared at All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Nightmare Before Christmas, which is to music nerds what the Borscht Belt once was to comedy fans. He was handpicked to perform by curators Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band so loved that no one every called them out on naming one of their albums Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. This ultimately begs the question: is Weird Al cool again?

The most important part of that sentence is “again.” From 1988-1999, Weird Al could do no wrong. During that time, he released Even Worse, UHF, Off the Deep End, Alapalooza, Bad Hair Day, and Running with Scissors. If you’ve ever heard a Weird Al song, it’s likely it was from one of these records, such as, “Smells like Nirvana,” “Bedrock Anthem,” “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” and “Amish Paradise,” which is where my fandom for Weird Al originated.

On the album that “Amish” appears on, Bad Hair Day, there are parodies of U2, the Presidents of the United States of America, TLC, and a song called “The Alternative Polka,” featuring non-parodied snippets of tracks by Green Day, R.E.M., Soundgarden and Beck. With radio hits like “Amish Paradise,” he was commercially popular (Bad Hair Day would eventually sell over one million copies); with songs that sample Beck and a Saturday morning Pee Wee Herman-esque show on CBS called, of course, The Weird Al Show, he was critically popular.

Running with Scissors, released in 1999, cemented me as a hardcore Weird Al fan. Instead of listening to the artists he was parodying, like Nine Inch Nails (“Germs”) or the Rugburns (“Albuquerque”), I was listening to Weird Al, instead. Especially “Albuquerque,” an 11-minute epic that I sang with my friend Tim so often in high school that it became our “Free Bird” (and us singing it annoyed as many as people as the guy who still yells out “Free Bird” in concerts). The album’s best song, and maybe Weird Al’s greatest song altogether, is “The Saga Begins,” an “American Pie” re-imagining of The Phantom Menace. Best of all: Weird Al wrote the song, which basically lays out the entire plot of the film (“We caught a ride back to Naboo, ‘cause Queen Amidala wanted to”), before even seeing the film; he found out everything he needed to know by reading Internet rumors in the months leading up to the movie. Ironically, though, it would be the Internet that would hurt his creativity – and popularity – for years.

Do you remember that bluegrass cover of “Gin and Juice” that was all the rage on Limewire and Kazaa in the early 2000s, the one that everyone thought was performed by Phish, when actually it’s by the Gourds? Even now, if you Google search “Gin and Juice Cover,” three of the selections on the front page mention Phish. Imagine that happening for every song of an entire genre. That’s what happened with Weird Al. Before iTunes made our lives easier, loads of songs were mislabeled, either with the song title, artist, or both, and Weird Al had to suffer through people thinking sub-par parody songs like “Yoda Smokes Weed,” “The Devil Went Down to Jamaica,” and “What if God Smoked Cannabis?” were actually by him. (For a full list, click here.)

The songs were often racist or sexual, and they were never funny – and they were all being labeled to an artist, Weird Al, who relies on being for his career. Between the mistaken identity factor and the disappointing Poodle Hat, released in 2003, Weird Al lost the cool factor he had earned in the past (*cue Behind the Music voice*), until he got a little help from a ‘millionaire.

In 2010, a white guy rapping has become stale. It’s been done so many at time this point that it’s beyond cliché; it’s just annoying. But in 2006, the gimmick was still, well, gimmicky, and Weird Al used it to his benefit.

For my money, “Ridin’” is one of Chamillionaire’s weaker songs, especially when compared to the brilliant “Hip Hop Police” (did I really just write that sentence?). But the song was a huge hit, landing at #1 on the Billboard charts in 2006. Although Weird Al had already made a nerdy rap song (“It’s All About the Pentiums”), he nonetheless made a parody of “Ridin’” called “White & Nerdy,” which ended up being the biggest hit of his career. The single went platinum and hit #9 on the charts, 23 years after his last (and first) Top-10 single, “Ricky.” Even Chamillionaire, who won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for the song, lauded Weird Al, saying, “He’s actually rapping pretty good on it. It’s crazy. He’s spittin’ just like Krayzie Bone on the second verse,” which I can only assume is something Weird Al hears all the time. Chamillionaire added, “He’s Grammy-nominated, man. He goes platinum. It’s really an honor when he does that. Weird Al is not gonna do a parody of your song if you’re not doing it big. You gotta be a big dog.”

With “White & Nerdy” and the album Straight Out Lynwood, released September 2006, Weird Al became a household name again. He even embraced the Internet with a free MySpace download of the James Blunt parody “You’re Pitiful” and the Internet Leaks EP in 2009 (and then shot it back down again with “Don’t Download This Song”).

So, yeah, Weird Al regained his commercial appeal, but what about his cult status? Well, since 2006, he’s appeared on Tim and Eric Awesome Show; made fun of Jurassic Park for RiffTrax; was a judge for the Independent Music Awards; did voice over work for Robot Chicken; finished #1 in a RollingStone.com poll for who should be nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; helped explain what AutoTune was in the Know Your Meme series; lent his appearance to a Funny or Die video for a fake movie entitled Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, starring Aaron Paul; and became the biggest selling comedy recording artist of all-time. He also has one of the funniest Twitter accounts out there, with nearly two million followers.

To answer the question then: yes, he is cool again. The ATP appearance only cements it. He’s even outlasted the careers of most of his parody targets (where are you now, Crash Test Dummies?) Somehow, a curly-haired polka musician who began his career with a song called “My Bologna” has pulled off the most rare of feats: he’s both cool and popular, even after 30 years in the business. I don’t listen to most of the artists I did in high school (those Dave Matthews Band albums are gathering dust somewhere, and let’s not even talk about that David Gray record I once bought), but I do still have every single Weird Al album released on my iPod, including Peter and the Wolf. Even though many of the songs he’s parodied have gone from Top 40 to Your Favorite Hits from the ’80 and ‘90s radio stations, his renditions remain as fresh (and funny) as ever.

But, like most things in life, I think his career can be summed up by something Homer Simpson once said: “He who’s tired of Weird Al is tired of life.”

Josh Kurp used to fall asleep at night listening to Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day.