“Weird” Al Yankovic was as central to my musical experience growing up as the performers that he parodied. His career and that of Michael Jackson’s will forever be linked in my mind since they rose in prominence around the same time – Jackson will the release of his musical masterpiece, Thriller, and Weird Al with his breakthrough parody of “Beat It.” As a kid of the 80s, I looked forward to two things – the release of new popular music and then Weird Al’s inevitable parody of the big hits of the day. In a way, I was able to enjoy the same song twice, since Weird Al’s take on a song was often reliant on you being familiar with the song that he was borrowing from. So when he released a song like “Like A Surgeon,” you couldn’t help but want to listen to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” again. In a lot of ways, Weird Al actually helped the artists that he was parodying. I may have been tired of a song, but hearing Weird Al’s take on it breathed new life into it and made it tolerable again.
Weird Al also served as one of my primary instructors on what parody was and the comedic possibilities that it opened up. At the tender age of eight, I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to parody before Weird Al came along with “Eat It,” but I immediately found it funny and appreciated that type of comedy. Once I understood what parody was exactly, my options for comedy became exponentially wider. Parody became one of my favorite types of comedy; Weird Al served as a gateway to Saturday Night Live, Mad Magazine, Spaceballs, the Naked Gun movies and eventually to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. For someone like me who consumes an inordinate amount of pop culture, parody takes advantage of the wealth of references that I have rattling around in my brain. I would have discovered parody regardless, but Weird Al’s popularity when I was relatively young gave me a head start on enjoying a subset of comedy. When I taught Civil Liberties to college students, we did an entire section on parody and its protection under the First Amendment – and Weird Al was probably the reason for that.
Today’s is Weird Al’s 54th birthday and though my affinity for his work has ebbed and flowed over the years, I’ve always had a soft spot for him even when it wasn’t necessarily cool to like him. So in honor of him and today’s special occasion, here are my five favorite Weird Al music videos.
- The Saga Begins
This song made the list even though I don’t really like Star Wars; I did, however listen to a lot of Don McLean’s “American Pie” when I was a kid, which probably accounts for my appreciation of this song. Plus it does help me know some Star Wars references to drop so that I don’t lose my pop culture street cred; not digging Star Wars is unheard of in most of my social circles.
- Word Crimes
This is off Weird Al’s most recent album, but it has two things going for it that help it crack my top five – I am a person who totally judges people by their grammar and it is a parody of “Blurred Lines,” a song that I still find ridiculously catchy despite the fact that it was way overplayed last summer and Robin Thicke is a douche.
- Bedrock Anthem
This one mashes up multiple Red Hot Chili Pepper songs in a tribute to The Flintstones – what’s not to like about that? He nailed the visual aesthetic of the original Peppers’ video
- White & Nerdy
Weird Al and rap on paper don’t seem like the most logical combination, but with “White & Nerdy” he was able to stay true to the original song while at the same time making it something that was completely his own. And please note that’s Key and Peele in the beginning of the video.
- Smells Like Nirvana
This is a great parody not only because I really loved Nirvana back in the day – I still remember exactly where I was when I heard that Kurt Cobain had died – but because this was a song that I never actually expected Weird Al to successfully be able to pull off. When you think about it, doing a song about how it’s impossible to understand what Cobain is singing is pretty brilliant, but I don’t know that it was an obvious joke to make. Even Nirvana assumed that the song was going to have something to do with food, since that had played such a large part of Weird Al’s previous hits. Weird Al just did a really solid job on this one; his eye for detail and the musicality of all of his songs always impresses me. This song came something after a lull in Weird Al’s career and helped make him relevant again.
Now it’s your turn – have a favorite Weird Al song? Sound off in the comments below.