Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ranking Al: #5-1

Here we are: the final installment of my increasingly esoteric ranking of "Weird Al" Yankovic's songs. If you feel like catching up, here are the previous installments:

I've been doing this since the end of February, so considering how much blogging I don't do in my usual summer depression period, ranking Weird Al has more or less defined 2015 for this blog. Huh. Didn't expect to do that, but there's a part of me inside that's feeling very, very vindicated getting this months-long chance to celebrate something that people teased me terribly about liking as a kid. I feel a little more... over it. Like, able to put some of that stuff in the past and stop letting it affect me today.
So, without further meandering, my (current, at least) top 5 "Weird Al" Yankovic songs.

5. "One More Minute"
(Original; from Dare to Be Stupid, 1985)
Al wrote this song to get over a breakup, and I think he pulled out the most perfect musical genre he could have for a funny, exaggerated song about heartbreak: doo wop. Doo wop is always appropriate for either teenage unrequited love, or the tragedy of suffering through a bad breakup. But Al, of course, takes it to the extreme, taking that weird, passionate anger you feel when it's ended badly and lists an increasingly gross and over-the-top list of all the things he'd rather do than still be with this person who's made him feel the way he's feeling now. This always sounded to me like the inevitable flip-side of "Tears on My Pillow" by Little Anthony & the Imperials. When you have one of those times where you just can't crawl out of your own emotional spiral, these are the kinds of songs that seem to know on a deep level exactly how you feel. If you can turn it into something you can laugh at and exorcise it away, that's plain genius.

4. "Jackson Park Express"
(Style parody of Cat Stevens; from Mandatory Fun, 2014)
I can understand if you're skeptical of this song being so high; I do kind of hate it when people make lists of the greatest whatever of all time and then they have something from the past six months up in the top 10, and you're just like, "Ugh, I get it, you're enthusiastic about something new, but come on, calm down." The new album did only come out a year ago, but it's been an ample amount of time for me to internalize this song. Even making this list helped; every time I went to add it, I'd listen to it, and it just kept climbing higher and higher and higher up over the months it took to get here.

I admit, a key part of it for me is that I love Cat Stevens. When I was in grade school, my Mom saw a copy of Cat Stevens' Greatest Hits at a music store and bought it in a fit of nostalgia, having loved Stevens when she was a kid. It struck a chord with me right off, and I soon realized that we still had her old Cat Stevens records and a couple of 8-tracks, so I just immersed myself in the man's work. To this day, I absolutely love his music. Tea for the Tillerman is one of the albums I'd call perfect. And Weird Al does such a great mimicking of his style here, especially of longer pieces like "Foreigner Suite" or the album Numbers. I've come to really love the way Weird Al does a longer parody at the end of his albums now; I look forward to them more than I do the polkas, because I know they're going to be brilliant. And for the new one to be Cat Stevens is just kinda mind-blowing for me.

But I think my favorite thing about this song is that Weird Al has gone from celebrating the mundane, then past making a miniature epic of our selfish frustrations, to finally just creating a dramatic epic out of something that, more or less, only exists in our minds. This song is told from the point of view of a man sitting on the bus who sees a girl, immediately falls in love with her, creates a whole life for them, thinks earnest/creepy thoughts of poetic horror about how beautiful she is and what he wants to do with her (like, say, never teaching their kids math and starting a mobile pet-grooming service), and then loses his dream as she gets off at her stop. Over the course of nine minutes of hilariously bizarre lyrics (my personal favorite: "I would sacrifice anything for your love--goat, chicken, whatever") detailing the disgusting ways he wants to express his love for her (french-kissing her internal organs and wearing her skin "but not in a creepy way"), the narrator only interacts with his object of infatuation a single time, signaling her that she has some food in the corner of her mouth.

The whole thing takes place in his head, so he doesn't realize that his declarations of love sound incredibly horrific. It's pretty brilliant, because Al is taking the style of a singer known for writing about love and spinning tales of understanding, and turning it into the obsessive thinking of a man who barely understands himself, much less love and how human interaction works. It's... well, it's 21st Century America. It's one of the finest, funniest songs Weird Al's ever written.

3. "Trapped in the Drive-Thru"
(Parody of "Trapped in the Closet" by R. Kelly; from Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006)
I have a weird relationship with R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet." I mean... it's the stupidest thing ever, but in a strangely compelling and delightful way. I've said this before, but R. Kelly is the Stravinsky of Stupid, an accidental master in the art of complete and total dumbassery. Kelly thinks he's writing some kind of rap opera, and he's doing what opera composers have done for hundreds of years--taking a situation charged with human passion and pitching it to a grand level. Except his version is just stereotypes screaming at each other over... not music, but a sort of atonal holding pattern that's reminiscent of music. It's all misogyny and infidelity and drugs and gun standoffs and talk shows and little people shitting themselves written by a guy who thinks he's writing something poetic about human passion which comes across like it was actually written by an alien who learned about humanity by watching Jerry Springer. It's amazing. It's one of the greatest things ever, but not for the reasons it was intended. It is sublime. It is a grand achievement in the history of dumb. It takes itself so seriously, and is approached with such naive earnestness, that it transcends normal badness and becomes... amazing.

(Aside: this is why I hate movies like Sharknado so much; you can't do so-bad-it's-good on purpose. Like Troll 2, it is a combination of good intentions, a lack of self-awareness, a severely misguided taste, and ineptitude.)

In a way, Al's epic can't quite compare to "Trapped in the Closet," and even he admits that. His original approach to the song was to make the original storyline even more convoluted, but it didn't work. Instead, he came up with the brilliant approach he used: take the most banal thing he could think of (getting dinner at the drive-thru), and told the story in tense, excruciating detail. And it works perfectly. Have you ever had those stupid arguments with your significant other about what to eat for dinner? I have. We used to have them all the freaking time. And this song captures it so perfectly... the tension at having no opinions on this basic-yet-kinda-disgusting life routine, the anticipation as something you can put in your mouth get nearer, and the way forgetting something, or not getting what you want the way you want it, can be a cosmic injustice.

2. "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota"
(Style parody of Harry Chapin; from UHF, 1989)
We used to drive to Iowa a lot as a kid to visit relatives--three or four times a year--but that's only a five hour drive. I've only made a really long family car trip once in my life, and that was in 1987, when we drove to, oddly enough, Minnesota. My Dad used to tell me about the time he and the family (and remember, he's one of seven kids) drove to California when he was about 16. So even though many of the references are really about Al's generation's childhood, I could really appreciate this song when I was a teenager. The specificity of the details (hairnets, Slim Whitman tapes, window decals for roadside attractions, pickled wieners) just help make this song what it is. What it is, is a folk ballad (he seems to have used Chapin's "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" as the clothesline for this one) about a family road trip to see the title attraction. What I like so much about this song is just the narrator's genuine enthusiasm for this trip, a dad taking his family to see something unusual; he sounds like this is one of the biggest things he'll ever do in his life. I love the music flourishes as Al contemplates why one man would wind up 21,140 pounds of string, as though this roadside attraction stands as a monument to the human spirit itself... or at least the human ingenuity to find ways to waste time. And the way someone will always find a way to make money off such things.

It kind of says everything about an America that's not quite there anymore. Except it is, but we've just moved it online and made them into Vines, because everything everyone does, says and farts now deserves preservation.

It's Al celebrating the mundane at both its stupidest and most innocent.

1. "Dare to Be Stupid"
(Style parody of Devo; from Dare to Be Stupid, 1985)
This video and song are, quite simply, the greatest accomplishments of human endeavor.

Okay, not really. They are, however, my favorite things Weird Al has done. Al's mission statement, certainly, and words I've tried with various success to live by in my life. This song is immersed in pop culture, made of reconstituted pop culture, in a way that I have always been, and even at 9 years old, this song just spoke to me and my sensibilities in a way that no other song ever has. Running from the discomfort of my real life interactions, I've always seen things through the prism of silliness, kitsch, pop culture, and a lack of seriousness. Maybe it's been an attempt to force the world to deal with a version of me that's not a hundred percent real, to remove myself to an ironic distance.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: it's more than just pop culture. What matters is how it makes you feel and figuring out why you put so much of yourself into it.

But that's my favorite Weird Al song, and I think his best creation. It's more than just a Devo parody (brilliant though it is on that level). It's a perfect pop song. It's a way of life. Don't take it too seriously. None of us get out alive. Try to make someone's day a little brighter just by being in it. Squeeze the Charmin. The future's up to you. Eat some fruit. Take a walk sometimes just because it's a nice day out. Truly dare to be stupid sometimes. Bah-weep-graaaaagnah wheep nini bong.

Thanks for sticking around on this journey. It's been a lot of fun for me, listening to 165 songs by one of my favorite musical artists. I hope you heard something you liked.


Roger Owen Green said...

Congrats. I've got Drive-thru and Stupid in my top 11.

Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, I have three songs from Mandatory Fun in my Top 20, including #2.

Roger Owen Green said...

My single favorite part of Drive Thru is when he's supersized for free and he says "oh..."

Nathan said...

The first time I heard "Biggest Ball of Twine," I kept expecting some sort of punchline about how the twine ball wasn't really that impressive after all, but after listening to it I realized that keeping the same tone throughout was funnier in the end.