The first real ‘geek’ musician that I really followed was “Weird” Al Yankovic. His fantastic Star Wars parodies opened me up to quite a bit of new music, and frequently, I’ll hear a song on the radio that I’ll easily recall as a Weird Al song, but can’t think of the original title or lyrics. This past weekend, I got to see him in person – not only from the crowd, but with him right in front of me, on stage:
It was an outstanding time, and it’s a good excuse to go over Al’s music. While I first came across Weird Al with his song Yoda (a staple of summer camp campfire nights), Yankovic has been at the business longer than I’ve been alive: his first song, My Bologna, a parody of My Sharona, was released as a single under Capitol Records in 1979, and further popularity came with his parody of Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust, with Another One Rides the Bus. Yankovic got his start at the age of six, when his parents bought him an accordion for his birthday, a regular instrument with which he parodies the latest hits in a medley song on almost every album.
After pulling together a band in 1982, he released his first, self-titled album in 1983, and was catapulted to fame with his next two releases, “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3D (1984) and Dare to be Stupid (1985). The albums included such hits as “I Lost on Jeopardy”, “Yoda” and “Like A Surgeon”, in addition to a number of original comedic songs and additional parodies, bringing him more attention. His efforts garnered him eight Grammy nominations, and two wins. At the same time, he began to move to video, starring in a mockumentary called the Compleat Al, as well as music videos for his songs.
Along the way, Yankovic has turned his attention towards musical trends, keeping up with the songs in the public’s eye. Often satarical, and contrasting with the subject of the original song, Yankovic’s style has been described as an end in and of itself: some have mentioned that they know they’ve made it when they have a “Weird Al” parody.
1986 brought the album Polka Party, which recieved a number of negative reviews from critics, despite a Grammy nomination. After a short break, where Yankovic thought his career as a musician was over, the album was followed up in 1998 by Even Worse, a revitalization to Yankovic’s career, with a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” (called “Fat”). Jackson himself was a big fan of the song, and lent the subway set for the use in a new video. The song would become one of the singer’s greatest hits, winning a grammy for best concept music video in 1989.
In 1988, Yankovic, along with Wendy Carlos, released a reinterpreted story of Peter and the Wolf, as well as his first greatest hits album. The next year saw a movie starring Yankovic, UHF, along with a soundtrack. UHF follows Al’s character, George Newman as he rebuilds a local community access station with a variety of strangly hilarious shows. The soundtrack was a flop, and Yankovic’s career hit a lull.
The next album would come several years later, in 1992: Off the Deep End, Yankovic’s first self-produced album. The album as a whole parodies the sounds of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with “Smells Like Nirvana” as the lead single, poking fun at the up and coming grunge trend. The video for the song, like several of Al’s other videos, was a parody in and of itself of the original song’s video, even using many of the same extras.
1993 saw the release of Alapalooza, Al’s 7th studio album, containing several notable Weird Al songs, such as “Jurassic Park”, “Bedrock Anthem”, and “Frank’s 2000′ TV”. The album was successful, despite mixed reviews. 1994’s release was the second Greatest Hits album, and his 9th studio album, Bad Hair Day, released in 1996, was highly successful, with some of Al’s best known songs, “Amish Paradise” and “Gump”. The album hit some major controversy as Coolio, who’s song “Gangsta’s Paradise” was parodied, was upset about the song, making a statement at the Grammys. While technically falling under fair use guidelines, Yankovic works to get permission from artists before going forward. He issued an apology to Coolio, and works to secure permission directly from the artist.
Yankovic returned in 1999 with his 10th album, Running With Sissors, with a new look, growing out his hair and getting eye surgery to correct his vision. One of my personal favorites (this is the album where I really started listening to Al), featuring a number of notable favorites, including “The Saga Begins”, retelling George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace. Yankovic pieced together the plot from internet spoilers, attending a charity screening prior to the release of the film, only needing to make minor changes to the finished song. Other songs on the album included “All About the Pentiums” and “Albuquerque”.
Poodle Hat came in 2003, following Yankovic’s usual style of parodies, with only a single video (“Bob”) and single (“eBay”), coming off of the album. Personally, I find this one one of the more forgettable album that he’s released. Tragedy struck a year later, when both of Yankovic’s parents, who had encouraged him to go into music, passed away. He would go on stage that night, stating: “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.”
Major commercial succcess came with 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, Yankovic’s second most successful album on the charts, hitting the top ten list with “White & Nerdy”. Two other singles, “Canadian Idiot”, and “Don’t Download this Song” were highly popular, and “White & Nerdy” was certified Gold and Platnium by the RIAA.
Prior to the release of this year’s Alpocalypse, Yankovic has been begun to release songs on the internet, allowing him to capitalize on the every faster speed to which trends appear. Several songs were released as part of an album called Internet Leaks: “Whatever You Like”, “Craigslist”, “Skipper Dan”, “CNR” and “Ringtone”, all of which appeared on Alpocalypse. Alpocalypse, released in 2011, had some problems prior to its release: after approaching Lady Gaga’s agent for permission to release the song on the album, he was turned down, and it was only through the use of Social Media that Gaga first heard of the song, and allowed for its release. The album charted at number 9 on the Billboard 200, his highest ever.
Over a career that’s spanned over thirty years, Weird Al has remained a consistant, steady force for humor and built up a loyal, multigenerational fan base. Frequently geeky, his songs cover the shifts in musical and technical style present in the music industry. For us geek-music lovers, no songs are more popular than that of “Yoda”, “The Saga Begins” or “White & Nerdy”.