Sunday, December 7, 2008

'Weird Al' Yankovic - Brilliant Innovator or Total Rip-Off Artist?

It has been drawn to my attention as of late that one of my all-time favorite comedic performers may not be as beloved by all.

Alfred Matthew Yankovic was born in Downy, California on October 23, 1959 and raised in the town of Lynwood.
During Yankovic's sophomore year as an architecture student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he became a disc jockey at the university's radio station, KCPR. Yankovic said he had been nicknamed "Weird Al" by fellow students and "took it on professionally" as his persona for the station.

He had already discovered an affinity in himself for absurdist humor and music. Combining his talents for both, he made a name for himself in 1979 with the underground hit, "My Balogna" - a parody of the recent radio hit by The Knack, "My Sharona".

Since then, 'Weird Al' Yankovic has released over a dozen records consisting of completely original compositions as well as a slew of parodies of popular songs. He has toured the world, be it in large venues or very small county fairs, for over 20 years. An overwhelmingly positive person, Yankovic has even used terrible personal tragedy as fuel for his creative fire:

On April 9, 2004, Yankovic's parents, Nick, 86, and Mary, 81, were found dead in their Fallbrook, California, home, apparently the victims of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from their fireplace that had been recently lit. The flue was closed, which trapped the carbon monoxide gas inside the house, suffocating them. An hour after his wife notified him of his parents' death, Yankovic went on with his concert in Appleton, Wisconsin, saying that "since my music had helped many of my fans through tough times, maybe it would work for me as well" and that it would "at least ... give me a break from sobbing all the time."

A pop culture staple in the 1980s, and a performer whose music was as omnipresent as Michael Jackson and Madonna (by means of his parodies of such superstars), 'Weird Al' Yankovic's career has been consistently changing. His look, his sound, and his ability have all evolved since then and continues to break new ground today. His music videos, often also parodies of the videos for the songs that are the basis of those parodies themselves, always strive to innovate as well as entertain; (case in point, his entire "backward" sequence in the video for "Amish Paradise", a parody of Coolio's "Gangster's Paradise" from 1996).

Sometimes Yankovic uses modern songs to parody an old subject (as in the case of "Beverly Hillbillies", a parody of Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing" on the subject of the hit TV show of the same name from the 1960s) or the opposite, writing a song about a current popular topic to the tune of an old song (as in "Jurassic Park" - a parody of "McArther Park" by Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb and lyrically-based on the blockbuster movie, or "The Saga Begins", a tune that tells the entire story of
Star Wars: Ep. I - The Phantom Menace to the tune of Don McClean's timeless anthem, "American Pie"). Sometimes his songs are only "style parodies", such as "Bob" - a song in the general style of a folksy Bob Dylan tune of the 1960s while rhyming lyrics that are all palindromes: written the same backward and forward - ("May a moody baby doom a yam?")

And sometimes, Yankovic's songs are not parodies of another song at all (like "Since You've Been Gone", "She Never Told Me She Was A Mime", "Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White", and "Hardware Store").

And although his direct parodies may lead one to call Yankovic a "rip-off artist" or claim that he has no "original creative talent" (direct quotes from someone I know), I would argue that it is the aforementioned "style parodies" and originals demonstrate that Yankovic is a talented and dedicated student of music theory, who then turns what he's learned on his practice and churns out brilliant originals concepts in the studio.

Beyond his own talents, Yankovic has long surrounded himself with apt musicians and technicians who can imitate any recording's sound to a tee for the sake of an accurate parody. Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz joined Yankovic as a drummer through a chance meeting in 1981. The following year, manager Jay Levey teamed them up with a full band.
Steve Jay became Yankovic's bass player, and Jay's friend Jim West played guitar. Schwartz continued on drums. Yankovic's first show with his new band was on March 31, 1982. This has been the band line-up ever since. It doesn't hurt that his band mates are... interesting-looking gentlemen, to say the least, as it plays well in their music videos.

His comedic acting in his film UHF (1989) as well as several other cameos in films and TV shows over the years, as well as his directorial abilities on his own music videos as well as for other acts (The Black Crowes) and films (Spy Hard opening credits), prove that Yankovic is an artist in his own right and a leader in the genre of musical parody humor.

Fast approaching th age of 50 years old, 'Weird Al' Yankovic is - in my opinion and that of many others - anything but a hack.
He has sold more than 12 million albums—more than any other comedy act in history— recorded more than 150 parody and original songs, and has performed more than 1,000 live shows. His works have earned him three Grammy Awards among nine nominations, four gold records, and six platinum records in the United States. Yankovic's first top ten Billboard album (Straight Outta Lynwood) and single ("White & Nerdy") were both released in 2006, nearly three decades into his career. These are all things that a "hack" simply cannot achieve.

So, what's your opinion? Weigh in on the debate and put this argument to a vote. 'Weird Al' - love him? hate him? don't care? mildly amused? Let me know! Comment below!

P.S. / Update

For example - here's a little slice of brilliance I mentioned before. This is an original, non-parody, non-polka 'Weird Al' Yankovic song about a guy who's wayyy too excited about the opening of a new hardware store. The design and execution of the layered vocals in the chorus, along with the amazing breakdown listing all the great things this hardware store has to offer, make this one of my favorite songs of his. And it's just stupid funny.



[sound effects from tools]

Nothin' ever (ever) happens in this town
Feelin' low down (down), not a lot to do around here
I thought that I would go right out of my mind
Until a friend told me the news

He said, "Hey, you know that vacant lot
Right beside the gas station? Well, somebody bought it
And on that spot they're gonna build a shop
Where we can go buy bolts and screws"

Since then I've been walking on air (air)
I can barely brush my teeth or comb my hair
'Cause I'm so excited and I really don't care
I've been waiting since last June

For this day to finally arrive
I'm so happy (happy) now just to be alive
'Cause any minute now I'm gonna be inside
Well, I hope they open soon

I can't wait, (no I) I can't wait (oh when)
When are they gonna open up the door?
I'm goin' (yes I'm) goin', I'm a-goin' to the
Goin' to the (hard) ware I'm goin', really goin' to the
Goin' (hard) I'm goin' to the (hard) oh yes, I'm goin' to the
Hardware store

In my sleeping bag I camped out overnight
Right in front of the store, then as soon as it was light out
I pressed my nose right up against the glass
You know, I had to be first in line

Gonna get me a flashlight and a broom
Want a pair of pliers for every single room of my house
See those hacksaws? Very, very soon
One of them will be all mine

Guys with nametags walking down the aisles
Rows of garden hoses that go on for miles and miles
Brand new socket wrenches in a plethora of styles
All arranged alphabetically

And they're doing a promotional stunt
There's a great big purple sign out front
That says every 27th customer
Will get a ball-peen hammer free

I can't wait, (no I) I can't wait (oh when)
When are they gonna open up the door?
I'm goin' (yes I'm) goin', I'm a-goin' to the
Goin' to the (hard) ware I'm goin', really goin' to the
Goin' (hard) I'm goin' to the (hard) oh yes, I'm goin' to the
Hardware store

I'm goin' (yes I'm) goin', I'm a-goin' to the
Goin' to the (hard) ware I'm goin', really goin' to the
Goin' (hard) I'm goin' to the (hard) oh yes, I'm goin' to the
Hardware store

Would you look at all that stuff ...
They've got allen wrenches, gerbil feeders, toilet seats, electric heaters
Trash compactors, juice extractor, shower rods and water meters
Walkie-talkies, copper wires, safety goggles, radial tires
BB pellets, rubber mallets, fans and dehumidifiers
Picture hangers, paper cutters, waffle irons, window shutters
Paint removers, window louvres, masking tape and plastic gutters
Kitchen faucets, folding tables, weather stripping, jumper cables
Hooks and tackle, grout and spackle, power foggers, spoons and ladles
Pesticides for fumigation, high-performance lubrication
Metal roofing, water proofing, multi-purpose insulation
Air compressors, brass connectors, wrecking chisels, smoke detectors
Tire gauges, hamster cages, thermostats and bug deflectors
Trailer hitch demagnetizers, automatic circumcisers
Tennis rackets, angle brackets, Duracells and Energizers
Soffit panels, circuit breakers, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers
Calculators, generators, matching salt and pepper shakers

I can't wait, (no I) I can't wait (oh when)
When are they gonna open up the door?
I'm goin' (yes I'm) goin', I'm a-goin' to the
Goin' to the (hard) ware I'm goin', really goin' to the
Goin' (hard) I'm goin' to the (hard) oh yes, I'm goin' to the
Hardware store

I'm goin' (yes I'm) goin', I'm a-goin' to the
Goin' to the (hard) ware I'm goin', really goin' to the
Goin' (hard) I'm goin' to the (hard) oh yes, I'm goin' to the
Hardware store

I'm goin' (yes I'm) goin', I'm a-goin' to the
Goin' to the (hard) ware I'm goin', really goin' to the
Goin' (hard) I'm goin' to the (hard) oh yes, I'm goin' to the
Hardware store


Schwartzilla said...

The man is a living legend. Nobody makes spoof songs like Weird Al, and UHF is still one of my all time favorite dumb comedies.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is sucking on Haterade.

E said...

I've always loved Amish Paradise.

Stephen S. said...

Naturally, I love Weird Al.
I have all his albums, and have seen him in concert four times.
Pancreas = Best Song Ever!

Doug Cox said...

weird al is a misunderstood artist. Nobody even pays attention to his more serious work. ie. "Amish Paradise" And any man who writes a polka titled "My baby's in love with eddie vedder" is a frigging genius.

Anonymous said...

must be a bummer to put all this time in and realize that only two people are reading this. you have nothing to contribute.

if a tree falls in the forest..

good luck - b-bye

Mike Wood said...

Way to count, moron. By the way, I've noticed NOBODY reads or comments on your blog posts. So, as juvenile as this has all been... you're the loser, LOSER!

We're all glad to be rid of you.

Vanilla Ice said...

Brilliant note for note recreations (i.e. copies) of songs written by other people with different words...genius? You said yourself in the blog that he is more well known for his parodies than his original music. And his original music is all POLKAS! HELLO? That has been around forever! It's like the mexican tuba music you hear all the time in SD...not too much talent in writing that.

He is a character, but NOT an innovator or genius. Ever heard Jingle Bells, Batman Smells? Or what about my "cheese vomit" line to that MGMT song in the car driving home from Thanksgiving? Give me an original songwriter and/or musical instrument virtuoso any day, you can keep your Weird Al.

Mike Wood said...

Well, here's the thing, Sean (aka, Vanilla Ice)...

"Polka" isn't the only genre in which 'Weird Al' writes music. As I stated in the blog, he has many "style parodies" he does, writing original comedic songs in multiple varied musical genres or as an ode to a particular artist's particular style (including "Dare to Be Stupid" - a style parody of Devo; "You Make Me" - a style parody of Oingo Boingo; "Germs" - a style parody of Nine Inch Nails; and the latest, "I'll Sue Ya" - a style parody of Rage Against the Machine). Polka just happens to be a really funny type of music in which to translate any pop song.

And while there's nothing inherently brilliant about doing a "character study" of a particular artist, 'Weird Al' has also recorded dozens of totally original songs in no particular derivative style (like "Since You've Been Gone", "Talk Soup", or "Waffle King").

And what's more, his songs are FUNNY! They tell stories and entertain with the same talent of some of the best absurdist humorist comedians. And I didn't even really mention his movie, UHF! It's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen!

But if he's not your style, that's cool.

I'm starting to notice one of the biggest differences between you and me, as far as musical tastes, is that I don't need a band or artist to be inventing a whole new sound or genre for me to be way into them. I didn't need AC/DC, Van Halen or Aerosmith to invent rock and roll, just to be really good at it, for me t be a huge fan. But I do notice that you're always into the most cutting edge bands long before I can even tell what it is I'm hearing. So, that may be why 'Weird Al' never did anything for you - he didn't invent satire or parody, but he certainly became one of the mainstays of the genre. That's why I dig him - he did it best.

Schwartzilla said...

I was supposed to return to this comment section to bust a cap in Vanilla Ice for talking shit on my boy Al. But who the fuck drops into some dude's random ass blog and talks shit to make his small e-penis feel better. Somebody call that little cock smokers mom and tell her that junior hacked the family AOL account again. Jimmeny Christmas! Damn kids and their rap music...

Back to Vanilla Ice, nice choice in innovative musician by the way. If you've ever seen Weird Al and his band in concert you'd give him more props than you are currently giving him. But hey, at least you aren't randomly sniping other people's blog sites unlike that little shit stain that posted above you.

That's all for now, I still need to clean guns, get drunk and eat a donut before I go to bed. A cops work is never done.

Remember, the S in Schwartzilla stands for Shut your cock holster.

Danger: Russ said...

Weird Al NOT innovative?! Who else rocks an accordian? Who else can look like a total geek and still be popular 30 years after his first hit? The man is a part of music history, the court jester in the parlament of rock gods.
"You know you've made it when Weird Al does a parody of one of your songs."
Weird Al is (I can't believe I'm saying ths) good, clean, wholesome fun. He's funny, and has been for 30 years, without sinking to dirty, blue, raunchy, trashy humor. I've never heard the man swear. I mean shit! What the fuck? No Leeza Gibbons giving us the details of Als latest DUI or cocaine bust. Fuck! Even Danny Tanner is a dirtbag!

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