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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Hail Yankovic, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Weird

"Weird Al" Yankovic

Weird Al Yankovic saved my life.

Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, not to mention overly dramatic, but it’s not that far from the truth. Weird Al did make my life better, especially during my horrific middle and high school years.

I was what you’d call the prototypical nerd as a teenager. Part of the reasons were due to the fates conspiring against me (my eyesight failing to the point where I needed Coke bottle glasses, being too poor for any clothing item that was remotely fashionable), part was of my own doing (preferring to spend my allowance on comic books, choosing to stay home and read instead of hanging out at the mall). Nonetheless, my later school years were a torturous day in, day out gauntlet of bullying. It would have been all but unbearable if it wasn’t for Weird Al.

Weird Al Yankovic burst onto the national consciousness in 1984 during my final year of middle school. While he had songs on the radio as early as 1976, and had released his self-titled debut album the year before, that was the year Al released In 3-D, his breakthrough album. Released at the height of the fervor surrounding Michael Jackson, its lead single, “Eat It”, parodied Jackson’s smash hit, “Beat It”. Since it was a time that people would buy anything even tangentially associated with Michael Jackson, In 3-D became a hit.

Another aspect that played a role in Weird Al’s rise to prominence was his skill in the realm of music video. MTV was in its infancy at that time, and, as anyone who writes about this era of the network’s history is legally mandated to point out, they actually showed music videos back then. Al’s video for “Eat It” was a shot-for-shot parody of Jackson’s “Beat It” video that worked on many levels. Though effective on the level of its playful silliness, it also operated as a witty satire on the more pompous qualities of Jackson’s original (the scowling, studded-leather-jacket-wearing gang members now faced off against each other not with switchblades but with plastic kitchen utensils — while each holding the leg of a rubber chicken). Naturally, it entered heavy rotation on the network.

I found Al to be hilarious. In 3-D became my escape pod. Whenever the bullying got too much, whenever there were days where I was overwhelmed with anger and frustration over my treatment at school, I’d pop the cassette into my cassette player. By the time both sides were done, I was feeling much better about my lot in life. Yes, the torment would start over again the very next day, but, for a brief period of time, I was able to escape my cares and woes. Al made me laugh when I needed a laugh the most. And, for that, I will always be a fan of Al’s.

On a deeper level, Weird Al served as an inspiration to me. Here he was, tight curly hair, thick glasses, a wardrobe that consisted of garish Hawaiian shirts and cheap sneaks, whose instrument of choice was the never hip, never trendy accordion — an instrument he’d occasionally play with his leg behind his head. He was, well, weird, and only a few degrees away from how weird I was.

But he never shied away from it. He didn’t hate being unusual, he reveled in it. He was so accepting of how weird he was that he made it part of his name. Maybe it was calculated image construct, but most likely it was genuine. Either way, he presented an image of a man who was confident in the person he was, weird though he may be, and was completely fine with the way he was perceived.

Al served as an example to me. I learned not to let what people thought about me get me down. I learned to accept myself the way I was, and if that was what other people considered to be weird, so be it. This isn’t to say I still don’t have more insecurities than you can shake a stick at. But I have come a long way from the geeky kid that would get so upset because he was being picked on. That’s all due to Al.

The benefits from the attitude change helped me in my post-high school life. On my worst days of being picked on, I thought that kind of abuse would continue for the rest of my life. I feared that the same type of bullies that made my life miserable in high school would be there in college and there in the work force. I thought my life would be a special Hell of continuous bullying.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. But the new self-confidence I picked up from Al helped me fit in better with the people I met in my adult life. And the sense of humor Al helped me develop in myself helped as well.

I learned the value of humor from Al. I understood how by being funny, more people would accept you. Over time, I became someone who was quick with a joke, jokes that ran the gamut from corny puns to sarcastic jibes. This helped me make real and lasting friendships as a young adult.

More than that, I firmly believe that one of the only reasons my wife puts up with me is the fact that I can make her laugh. It might be too much to credit Weird Al Yankovic with keeping my marriage strong, but, in reality, you could make the case that I might not ever have gotten married in the first place if it wasn’t for the lessons I have learned from Al.

Al also introduced me to another aspect of humor — the professional practitioners of it and the history behind them. Through Weird Al, I was introduced to Doctor Demento. Doctor Demento was a disc jockey who had a weekly syndicated show devoted to novelty and humor recordings. The Doctor was an early supporter of Weird Al, and would often work his songs into rotation. Knowing this, I became a weekly listener.

The Doctor Demento Show broadened my comedy horizons. I was exposed to classic satirists such as Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg, Spike Jones and Tom Lehrer. I got to listen to early stand up from comedians like George Carlin and Steve Martin. I was treated to talent novelty and comedy acts that never caught on like they should, like the Frantics, Emo Phillips, Julie Brown, and Kip Addotta. This led to me becoming a student and connoisseur of comedy. If it wasn’t for Weird Al leading me to Doctor Demento, I’d be missing out.

I’m not certain every Weird Al fan has had a similar experience to mine. But Al does inspire a loyal and dedicated fan base, one whose passion is directly proportional to what I perceive as a lack of respect Al gets from some sectors in the general public and the rock and roll establishment. It’s easy for some to dismiss Al as just a guy who writes new lyrics to songs, not that much different from your drive-time disc jockey. No thought is given to the impact he has had on his fans lives or his musical talent. Fans feel that they are in the unenviable position of having to constantly defend their favorite star.

It’s unenviable because, in our minds, there should be no need to defend him. Even if all he did was write funny lyrics to popular songs that would be a respect-worthy accomplishment in and of itself. Try to come up with a parody to your favorite song and see how hard it is. Try writing lyrics that fit the rhyming scheme yet still tell a story. Then try to arrange a pitch-perfect mimic of the original music. It’s not easy.

Since the casual Weird Al fan is only familiar with his song parodies, that’s all that they think he does. But his talent as a musician really shines in his style parodies. Seldom released as singles, these songs are done in the style of artists such as the Talking Heads and the Beastie Boys, yet do not copy any particular song. This is an incredibly difficult task—to make a song sound like it belongs in an artist’s repertoire but not basing it on a particular work—and Weird Al makes it look easy.

Weird Al and his band — Jim West, Steve Jay, Rubén Valtierra, and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz—are some of the most talented musicians working in the industry today. But since they work in the realm of comedy, they don’t get the accolades and respect other artists get from music journalists and executives.

For example, a group has been trying to get Weird Al a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame since at least 2006. He has been passed over in favor of such luminaries as Howie Mandel and Tinkerbell (yes, the Tinkerbell from Disney’s Peter Pan). Another group has been working to get Weird Al into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor which he has been eligible for since 2004. He has yet to even get on the short list of nominees for admission.

While Weird Al Yankovic might seem like the Rodney Dangerfield of the music world, he does get some respect from one group… musicians. Artists ranging from Nirvana to Lady Gaga have stated that being parodied by Weird Al was a sign that they had really made it. Michael Jackson was a supporter of Al’s, letting him use the subway set from the video for “Bad” for Al’s parody, “Fat”. Mark Knofler and Guy Fletcher of the Dire Straits performed on Al’s parody of the Dire Straits song “Money For Nothing” called “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies*”. And when Al did a style parody of Frank Zappa’s music, named “Genius in France”, Zappa’s son Dweezil provided the opening guitar riff of the song.

But perhaps even better than the acclaim he gets from his fellow musicians is the recent sales success. His last studio album, his 12th, 2006’s Straight Outta Lynwood, debuted at #10 on the Billboard 200 and was his highest charting album. The first single of the album, “White & Nerdy”, made it up to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, his highest ranking single. Almost 30 years into his recording career, and Weird Al Yankovic is having his greatest success. Not many artists can make that claim.

His continued success is a great thing for fans like me. One, it insures that he will be around making the music I like for a while longer. His latest album, Alpocalypse, arrives in stores this month and, personally, I can’t wait. But his longevity also allows me to one day share Weird Al with my daughter. Hopefully, some of the positive lessons I picked up from Al will be passed along to her. With any luck, she will learn that she should feel confident to be herself, regardless of what people think. Because the one thing that would please me most is for my daughter to be as weird as she wants to be.