Is Weird Al a Closet Punk Icon?
It’s no doubt that in recent years the nostalgia of countless culture nerds has been kind to Alfred Yankovic, who is known amongst other things for his penchant for being weird. It seems like not a day goes by that you can’t find him lending his voice to something on Adult Swim or some godforsaken podcast, where schlubs with pizza filled guts rap about Star Wars or some other pop contrivance, as if this were a discourse we were sorely lacking in today. Needless to say, the man is funny and affable enough to generate a lot of good will so that he could theoretically lend his talents to almost any program and people would like it, although not enough to actually buy his new album.
Any new material he now releases is basically consumed by either unabashed loser man-children or likely literal children. And that may be the rub that makes praise or fondness for “Weird Al” so divisive. Despite all of his cleverness, he sort of exists is an odd nether realm that makes him little more than a culturally astute version of Raffi. So although you might enjoy his Funny or Die or Tim and Eric appearances, when Yankovic is solely at the helm of a project himself it’s strictly for ages 8 and up. Speaking as a childhood Al devotee myself, I can confirm this, but I can also say that my first steps towards becoming the omniscient cultural critic I am today were taken by tracing and documenting the Yankovic discography. (Remember that nostalgia I mentioned?) But from what cloth is this man cut? What were the essential ingredients that made the man who he is today?
Now song parodies have been with us a good long time, but if we’re looking the beginnings of what likely marks its modern era, it would probably begin with Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, and Tom Leher, all noted Yankovic influences. But we can at least gather that the man is built from somewhat sturdier stuff. In fact, judging from some of the styles of his songs when he’s not making jokes about food one could gather that “Weird Al” is likely a fan of and was influenced by of any or all of the following: The Stooges, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Devo, Talking Heads, The Residents, Oingo Boingo, and of course Nirvana.
Now it’s not as if any of these names are too obscure, it’s basically Punk/New Wave and their influences 101. And I suppose, I’m not advocating the guy’s some crust punk trapped behind the persona of a Hawaiian clad jester, but what we may be looking at here is “Weird Al’s” tangible connection to legitimately interesting things. And if we’re looking for evidence, just look at his early period.
Now if you watched that video, it either likely confirmed your suspicion that Mr. Yankovic is very nasally voiced and highly annoying, or you may be taken aback by what appears to be definitive lo-fi and primitive roots (Hey! I like those!). The trend is also seen to some extent in his first album with the rather poor and cheaply recorded rendition of “Another One Rides the Bus” and the unrelenting cynicism behind some tracks such as “I’ll be Mellow When I’m Dead”, “Mr. Frump In The Iron Long”, and “Happy Birthday” the latter most of which being the closest Al gets to a legitimate punk song.
With lines like “There’s an Arab on the corner buying everything in sight/There’s a mother in the ghetto with another mouth to feed” one could almost swear it came from a lost track off of “Flogging a Dead Horse”. "Frump" was a song that positively weirded me out as a kid, until I recognized dying in an iron lung as the ideal that it was and “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead” rails against hippies. And really, there’s nothing more punk than hating hippies. Then again, there’s also tracks like “Gotta Boogie” which takes the double entendre of the song’s title to its most obvious conclusion, and “Buckingham Blues” which may rank among his worst and most dated songs, so this argument may fast be becoming as stupid as it is pointless.
Is “Weird Al” Yankovic the closet punk that my blatantly sensational title may have led you to believe? In all the ways that matter, he is not. But in all the ways that don’t matter, even less so.