Interview: Weird Al Yankovic
Weird Al Yankovic
White And Nerdy
By Dave Harmon
A couple of weeks ago, dining with friends at a local pub bistro, I realised that the weekly karaoke competition was about to begin. Drunk-person-stage-singing being something I catch as often as humanly possible, I was able to enjoy some of my favourite karaoke clichО moments: the guy in a suit who busts out Sinatra; the girl who knows every move of the ‘Single Ladies’ dance; and, of course, the chubby, friendly-looking guy who belts out, from memory, a set of alternate parody lyrics to a rock staple, penned by the man whom the poets named ‘Weird Al’ Matthew Yankovic.
Weird Al holds the distinct and somewhat dubious honour of being the only artist, alive or dead, who can reliably write new lyrics to an existing song, get someone else to memorise and perform it at an open mic karaoke night, and have anyone present think that what they are witnessing is in any way acceptable. It’s a power that comes from a career spanning some 30 years and 12 studio albums, and has seen him make the transition from loveable, accordion-wielding pop-culture snark to actual pop-culture product. The bizarre nature of this transformation is not lost on Al, least of all after the release of his new and extended Essentials compilation release: Essentials 3.0. “It feels a little odd,” he tells me. “I’m in the rack next to Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, which feels a little odd and ironic.”
Thanks in no small part to Weird Al, music comedy has become almost indistinguishable from popular music; these days musical comedy acts like The Lonely Island and the recently-separated Conchords are achieving a kind of rock-star status that’s every bit as legitimate as the acts they’re riffing off. But for Yankovic, the trail blazed must have been a surreal one, punctuated with especially strange moments – like at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, where Nirvana turn up to win a gong for Smells Like Teen Spirit on the same stage where Al was hoping to win for his own music video, ‘Smells Like Nirvana’. “Nirvana was supposed to open the show [with a certain song] and they didn’t want to do it. MTV’s threat was, ‘Well if you don’t want to open the show, we’ll get Weird Al to do you and open the show.’ I was on hold to open and Nirvana was like, ‘Oh… OK. We’ll do it.’ I was the bargaining chip!
“I’ve always been like this guy on the outside of the circle poking fun at the elite on the inside,” he continues. “[But] after being around the industry for so long I’ve sort of, through osmosis, gotten into the same circle – so I now go to the same award shows, the same parties and functions as some of these people and, you know, I’m treated with as much respect sometimes as the people I’m making fun of. And that is odd.”
Weird Al is about to hit Australia for this third tour since first visiting in 2003, this time peddling not just a CD but his New York Times best-selling children’s book – When I Grow Up. It’s a cute story for kids, with the prerequisite dose of Weird Al’s offbeat lyricism, and a rather sincere message, from the new father: don’t feel you need to plan out your future too early. “I remember when I was twelve years old, I told [our guidance counseller] that I wanted to be a writer for Mad Magazine. He basically told me, ‘You know… You’re a good student and you’re good at math. Why don’t you be an architect?’” The fact that Al actually enrolled, completed and passed a long and complicated architecture degree with no desire to use it seems telling of his work ethic. The fact that the MTV funnyman is a qualified draftsman seems important, too. Would he feel comfortable designing a house if the situation called for it? “…Not at this point,” he says, after a beat. “I can still print pretty neatly, though.”
A children’s book may be an unexpected development in his career, but reinvention has been a constant element in Al’s life. The act of parodying American popular music for 30 years has, out of necessity, transformed Al’s discography into a sort of patchwork history of the evolution of American pop. The decline of punk, the rise of grunge, the fall of grunge, the rise of hip hop, emo and indie are all represented and accounted for – certainly, Al must have been one of the only professional outfits to cover Coolio and Avril Lavigne in the span of a single career. And as he’s donned new style after style, something has happened to the whole genre of musical comedy. “There’s been a sort of mini-resurgence of funny music in the last decade,” Yankovic notes – “there’s a good handful of acts doing very well.” With musical comedy acts getting their own TV shows, movies and world tours complete with screaming fans, I’m inclined to agree. Is there a correlation between the rise of the musical comedian – the quintessential nerd rockstar – with the rise of the hipster geek, and that ironic geek style? “I think so,” he replies. “I mean it is sort of the revenge of the nerd, this last decade or so. People are starting to realise that nerds do in fact rule the world – and I think that it’s OK, once again, to like comedy music.” For a boy who was good at math and took accordion lessons from the age of six, he tells me ‘White and Nerdy’ was the easiest song he ever wrote: “I’d already done a lifetime’s worth of research.”
What: The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic 3.0 is out now through Sony; When I Grow Up is out now through Harper Collins
Where: The Enmore Theatre
When: March 18 & 19