Remember Weird Al Yankovic? That geekmeister from the '80s who did hilarious parodies of pop hits? He’s back, and critics are calling him one of the most relevant voices of the moment, one going so far as to pronounce him “America’s greatest living artist.” His new album, “Mandatory Fun,” just rocketed to the top of the Billboard 200 on its debut week — the first parodic album ever to do so.
Looks like something’s percolating in pop culture, revealing our growing discontent with America’s twisted brand of capitalism. Is it any wonder? We know we’re lied to. We know we’re manipulated. We get that the country is stuck in airtight self-obsession. So we’re starting to gravitate toward artists who confront our slow-boiling anxiety. If death-obsessed pop siren Lana Del Rey (whose “Ultraviolence” album topped the charts earlier in July) is the zombie bride of capitalism, Weird Al is the court jester.
Maybe we really need him just now.
Who is this guy, anyway?
Raised on Mad Magazine and encouraged by his parents to learn the accordion, Weird Al cut his comedic teeth on Dr. Demento's radio show in the late '70s and early '80s, where he began to conjure catchy parodies of songs like “My Sharona” (“My Bologna”) and “Another One Bites the Dust” (“Another One Rides the Bus”). If you’re Gen X, you remember gleefully sharing and savoring these tunes along with your Cheetos during lunchtime.
Eventually he grabbed the national spotlight with his 1984 monster hit “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” A hero to sci-fi nerds and to every kid burdened with an inner bullshit detector on high alert, Weird Al became a crusader against clichés and an antidote to the toxic inanities of pop culture.
Somewhere along the way, he started moving beyond simply goofy and spoofy to something deeper. Obesity, grunge rock, the Amish — there was no sacred cow he would not poke. He held up a funhouse mirror to our foibles. By 2006, he was introducing a younger generation to his comedic gifts with the hit “White and Nerdy,” a send-up of the hip-hop song “Ridin,'” in which he portrays a Dungeons & Dragons-playing science dork with dreams of bling and hangin' with the gangstas.
Off the Charts
Comedians typically get less cred than other artists, but that doesn't make them any less essential to us. With “Mandatory Fun,” Weird Al takes his rightful place among those who have explored our strained relationship with the American dream, forcing us to grapple with its contradictions and disappointments. From Charlie Chaplin up through the Yes Men, Russell Brand and Stephen Colbert, these clear-eyed tricksters have connected us to our pain and channeled our collective revulsion.
Why does Weird Al stick to comedy? His answer, in typical fashion, mocks the question and inverts its logic. “There's enough people that do unfunny music,” Weird Al once said. “I'll leave the serious stuff to Paris Hilton and Kevin Federline.”
For his most recent blockbuster album, Weird Al cleverly used social media to market and grab viral attention, releasing eight videos on YouTube one at a time. More than 46 million people watched. Album sales surged.
In “First World Problems,” done in the style of the Pixies, Al takes on our bourgeois obsession with comfort and consumption, while simultaneously poking fun at the indie rock preoccupations of suburban white kids who complain about their cushy lives: “My house is so big I can’t get wi-fi in the kitchen,” whines the douchey blonde kid Al plays in the video.
“Tacky,” set to the tune of Pharrell’s overplayed hit “Happy,” skewers not only the tackiness of dressing cluelessly, but wandering the Earth in a solipsistic bubble: “Nothing wrong with wearin’ stripes and plaid/I Instagram every meal I’ve had…Can’t nothin’ bring me shame.” The brilliance lies in the intimation that the happiness sold by slick pop icons like Pharrell is predicated on a state of oblivion that cuts us off from the plight of our fellow humans.
Perhaps the best song of all is the Crosby, Stills & Nash-inspired “Mission Statement,” made for everyone who has found herself sinking in the mire of meaningless gibberish that flows through the modern corporate office. In the video, which features that annoyingly overused trope of a hand scribbling illustrations, the despair of office alienation is juxtaposed with the relentlessly upbeat buzzwords and conventions taught in MBA schools. What’s particularly resonant about this song is how Al skewers the corporate capitalism which promised us all the wonders of efficiency, harmony and prosperity, only to deliver us to Dilbert’s cubicle of despair.
In “Mission Statement,” the dreams of love and peace echoed in '60s folk tunes have congealed into a nightmare in which we can’t escape capitalism’s relentless propaganda. Instead, we're brought to a kind of posthuman wretchedness in which we are forced to speak in the tongues of the market's abstract gods.
As students of the human psyche know, the line between humor and horror is often thin. Weird Al gets us to laugh when we might ordinarily scream. Lighthearted though he may seem, there’s a deeply moral theme in “Mandatory Fun,” about how capitalism’s servants — narcissism, greed, vulgarity, and all-around douchiness — have to carry out its orders to beat us into a pulverized pulp of compliance.
He gets our number because he does what we all yearn to do: He bites back.