Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; unless it’s outright mockery—in which case it’s a 30-year career.
OK, that’s a lousy aphorism. But as applied to Weird Al Yankovic, you’ll agree, it’s tough to argue. Since the release of his first single, the 1979 parody of the Knack’s “My Sharona,” titled “My Bologna,” Weird Al has been America’s most popular song parodist. He’s earned multiple Grammy awards and he’s sold more than 12 million records. He’s quite possibly the most popular musical comedian ever.
Though Yankovic’s targets are necessarily high-profile, he’s even outlasted a handful of those artists whom he’s parodied: the aforementioned Knack, Toni Basil (“Ricky”), the Greg Kihn Band (“I Lost on Jeapordy”), Huey Lewis and the News (“I Wanna New Duck”), Survivor (“The Rye or the Kaiser”), etc.
So . . . why?
My own interest in his work has been slight, at best. When I was, what, 12 or so, I thought his take on Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (“Another One Rides the Bus”) was amusing, I guess. But I quickly lost interest in that kind of cleverness (there were shoes and navels to be gazed at, after all); and I was always perplexed by his fixation on food (he’s got a whole lotta songs about sandwiches!).
But when my own 9-year-old discovered him recently and was totally floored by his take on Lady Gaga (“Perform This Way”), I thought it’d be a good choice for her first “late-night” theater concert. It was.
Yankovic augments the live performance of his parodies with significant video support. It’s not just swirling lights or the random, provocative images of rock-show backdrops. It’s an integral component of the entertainment and the environment—which is unrelentingly satirical. Clips of his various MTV specials, “ALTV,” in which he fake interviews musical celebrities, edited to make them like absolute gibbering idiots, are paired with just dozens of pop-culture shout-outs to the man himself. Yankovic has got to be one of the most dropped names in entertainment: from The Simpsons to Top Gun to Everybody Loves Raymond to King of the Hill to Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. . . . It just goes on and on. This thread, combined with the costume changes and theater of the performances, works to reinforce the full-on assault of the pretentiousness of most rock and pop music. What, on record, is amusing but fleeting adolescent wit, is, live, a pretty delightful rip on the pomposity of performance.
Oh, some of it kind of rocks. The band—who were surprisingly tight and adept—did a bang-up job. My own favorites had—maybe not all but a lot of—the impact of the originals: “Smells Like Nirvana” was both heavy and funny. And the White Stripes-inspired “CNR” (that’s Charles Nelson Rielly, btw) is just a straight-up great song.
My kid most dug Yankovic’s romps through current pop tarts like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Pink, and the much-loved Lady Gaga.
But any day now, she’ll be ready for This Is Spinal Tap.