The King of Pap
The crowd ranged in age from eight to 80, most sporting a few extra pounds and many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with superhero logos or geek humor. They laughed at video highlights from a 15-year-old cult film and cheered obscure pop culture references. They were overwhelmingly white. At one point in the evening, a guy in full Jedi vestments swung his plastic lightsaber around his head in a celebratory arc.
A comic book show? A science fiction convention? Not exactly. Welcome to “Weird Al” Yankovic, live in concert.
Though he has enjoyed a modest revival in recent years—his installment of VH-1’s ubiquitous Behind the Music series was voted fourth most popular of all time in a fan poll, and his 1985 album, Dare to Be Stupid, went platinum in February—Weird Al remains music’s longest-running novelty act. The uninitiated, if they think of him at all, likely remember him as the goofy-looking, glasses-wearing crown prince of ‘80s music videos and not as a live performer capable of filling a 7,000-seat amphitheatre with screaming fans, as he did on this night. Much of the actual screaming took place before the show started and was provided by fans from the under-12 segment, which made up a large chunk of the audience and mostly seemed to be screaming for screaming’s sake.
After a 45-minute delay and a mercifully brief performance by a comedian whose main shtick consisted of ventriloquist dolls making poop jokes, Yankovic finally took the stage with the rest of his five-piece band and jumped into “Angry White Boy Polka” from his latest album, Poodle Hat. It’s one thing to hear contemporary tunes polkafied on a recorded track from a CD; it was quite another to see a band headbang their way through oddly compelling, accordion-driven renditions of the Vines’ “Get Free” and Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” as the actual music videos for those songs, adjusted for the frenetic tempo, were projected onto a large video screen that hung from the cavernous roof of the theater. The energetic polka set an appropriately irreverent mood and was a good way to start the show, but the buzz proved short-lived when this opener was followed by a series of tedious original songs.
Al Yankovic is a smart man. According to his web site, he graduated as valedictorian of his high school at age 16 and holds a degree in architecture. But he either hasn’t figured out, or doesn’t care, that the vast majority of his fans just want to hear his parodies of popular songs. This was starkly evidenced by the crowd’s reaction to the original material, which consisted of 7,000 butts planted firmly in seats amid wincingly polite applause. Nobody seemed too amused by the lyric “it won’t cost you an arm and a leg,” or any of the other obvious puns in “Party at the Leper Colony”, and after sitting through two more of these contrived clunkers, the crowd was anxious for Yankovic to give them the goods. He obliged with “A Complicated Song”, a reasonably good parody of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated”.
That parody turned out to be the easiest part of the evening for Lavigne, who was viciously skewered by the first of several “Al TV” video segments that played during the band’s costume changes. The skits, which have previously aired on a MTV special, featured Yankovic conducting absurd “interviews” with celebrities through the use of out-of-context sound bites. Celine Dion and Eminem were the night’s other victims, with Weird Al using the latter to denounce Eminem’s refusal to green light a video parody of his recent hit, “Lose Yourself”.
The “Lose Yourself” parody, “Couch Potato”, received one of the strongest receptions of the night. Weird Al is a clever mimic of body language, and he expertly imitated Eminem’s sullen power slouch as he strode around the stage in baggy sweats and a knit cap. The show’s other rap parodies were also well received: “Trash Day” (to the tune of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”), “All About the Pentiums” (“All About the Benjamins” by Puff Daddy), and “Amish Paradise” (“Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio) all got the crowd on their feet, arms waving.
Each of those songs, and many of the others, necessitated another costume change, sometimes by the entire band. When they left the stage, on came the video screen. Excerpts from UHF, Weird Al’s 1989 cinematic bomb, supplemented the “Al TV” bits. The video segments were generally too lengthy, however, sometimes running as long as the songs they separated. It was tough to tell whether that was by design—after all, Yankovic seems like the kind of guy who’d be more at home doing a variety show on the Cartoon Network than playing a concert venue. Regardless of the intent, the video vignettes broke up the show’s flow and were a weak substitute for seeing the headline act actually perform on the stage. The fans deserved better, especially those for whom the $50 ticket price represented a whole month’s allowance.
Maybe Yankovic felt guilty for the absences. Late in the show, he tried to make up for the lost time with a disjointed medley that crammed 60-second snippets of his best material into a schizophrenic jam session. It’s not easy to segue from Dire Straits to Nirvana to Michael Jackson in a three-minute span, and it didn’t sound easy, either. Weird Al’s decision to truncate and bury “Eat It” in this revue was especially inexplicable, given that the parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was the song that launched his mainstream career. It deserved a full rendition.
That honor was reserved for the other big Michael Jackson parody, “Fat”. Donning a massive, black fat suit, complete with Jacko’s traditional array of extraneous hooks and belts, Weird Al shook his prosthetic belly and chins around to the upbeat tune of “Bad”. At the conclusion of the song, the band left the stage. If Yankovic hadn’t first said, “Good night,” the crowd would have been craning their necks to the video screen again, but because he did, it was understood that he’d return momentarily for encores.
As the band came back on to play “The Saga Begins”, a Star Wars-themed parody of Don McLean’s “American Pie”, the fan with the plastic lightsaber revealed himself about ten rows from center stage. He waved the big, glowing toy around like a conductor’s wand as the rest of the crowd, who knew every single word of the Yankovic lyrics, sung along in their most enthusiastic response of the night. Weird Al continued to use the Force for the second and final encore, “Yoda” (a parody of the Kinks’ classic, “Lola”). “Yoda,” sang the audience, including at least one man who looked old enough to be George Lucas’ father. “Y - Y - Y - Y - Yoda!”
Weird Al is unquestionably the most prominent musical satirist of his generation, a distinction for which he hasn’t received his due acclaim. He outlasted the critical naysayers who panned his earliest albums. He even outlasted Michael Jackson, and who’d have thought that in 1985? The industry that gives him a steady source of material is a bit different today, of course. Pop music has become so riddled with ephemeral hits and six-month superstars that it may soon lack enough steam to tow Weird Al’s hitched wagon. Again, though, he is a smart guy—smart enough to get out while the going is good. If tonight was any indication, he may already be thinking about it.