Weird Al Yankovic
Straight Outta Lynwood
arody will always have a place in American pop. No matter what song is topping the charts, there's sure to be a gaggle of local radio morning zoo crews and Dr. Demento regulars ready to rewrite it with silly lyrics about food or current events. Given that their efforts sometimes better those of "Weird Al" Yankovic, one has to assume that he's held on this long by virtue of sheer careerist tenacity. It's easy to imagine that anyone who has a favorite "Weird Al" album would probably pick whichever one came out when they were 10 years old. (That's how old I was when I rewound a cassette of 1992's Off the Deep End over and over.)
That said, I'm happy to live in a 2006 where "Weird Al" Yankovic can crack the Billboard Top 10 for the first time with his 12th album, Straight Outta Lynwood. Whereas most pop culture satirists rationalize their hackery with a self-serving sense of justice, arguing that pop stars need to be taken down a peg, Yankovic seems to do it out of a pure love for the juvenile and the absurd (while staunchly remaining in family-friendly territory). His parodies rarely make direct fun of the original artist beyond aping their vocal tics or dance moves (you'd never catch him doing a song like "Eat It" and "Fat" if the source material was by an obese singer), and in the rare event that an artist take offense to his work, as Coolio famously once did, Yankovic seems genuinely apologetic and hurt.
Before his recent chart triumph, a few cultural shifts had called into question Yankovic's continued survival. His career began in the 80's, when the pop landscape was dominated by larger than life figures like Jacko and Madonna. With the charts increasingly fragmented by subgenres and demographic gaps, it's harder and harder to find targets that enough people even recognize to adequately spoof. Several of the songs parodied on Straight Outta Lynwood hit #1 on the Hot 100, but Chamillionaire is hardly the type of pop icon that every young American knows the name of.
The other roadblock to "Weird Al"'s current relevance has been the rise of hip-hop and R&B as the default sound of pop radio. The pop landscape in the 80's and early 90's was white enough that Yankovic's parodies could base their humor on something other than how funny it is to hear a geeky white guy rap. But the title of Straight Outta Lynwood, and the numerous pictures of Yankovic in ironic pimp/gangsta poses in the CD booklet, promise an unfortunate turn toward this territory. Thankfully, though, the album's only full-on foray into hip-hop is lead single "White & Nerdy," an update of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'." "Weird Al" handles Cham and Krayzie Bone's doubletime flows alarmingly well, even if the lyrical theme is practically a retread of 1999's Puff Daddy parody "All About the Pentiums." "White & Nerdy" is also a good example of just how much pride Yankovic and his backing musicians take in their musical mimicry—instrumental versions of any hip-hop single released these days are widely available, but they still went to the trouble of re-creating the Play-N-Skillz beat from the original as accurately as possible, right down to the same drum and synth patches.
The parodies of recent hits that follow don't quite meet the high bar set by "White & Nerdy" (including the recent internet-only James Blunt parody "You're Pitiful," which was kept off the album by Blunt's label), with the exception of "Confessions Part III" (in which, predictably, Yankovic lists some confessions that Usher forgot to disclose, which is actually way funnier than it sounds). The Green Day rip, "Canadian Idiot," is fairly toothless unless you're the kind of person who thinks pronouncing "about" like "aboot" never gets old as comedic fodder. This year's treacly American Idol victory ballad, "Do I Make You Proud," is lambasted in "Do I Creep You Out," but in true Yankovic fashion, he sketches a “benign” stalker character instead of talking about how creepy Taylor Hicks is.
The most divisive parody on Straight Outta Lynwood is sure to be Yankovic's take on R. Kelly's epic radio play "Trapped in the Closet." Some might argue that the original was funny enough as it is, although others might say it's primed for further ridicule. At nearly 11 minutes, "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" is one of the longest songs "Weird Al" has ever recorded, although he thankfully only does about three 'chapters' of the song, compared to the dozen that Kelly has released so far. The story, obviously, goes absolutely nowhere, which is kind of the point, but it's not necessarily that much fun to let the whole joke play out.
One hallmark of Yankovic's albums are "style parodies," which copy a band or genre's aesthetics while allowing "Weird Al" to flex his songwriting skills and pen original melodies. The most musically impressive of these on Straight Outta Lynwood is "Pancreas," a painstakingly faithful Beach Boys pastiche in which a narrator waxes sentimental about his favorite internal organ. "I'll Sue Ya," a limp attempt at aping Rage Against The Machine while ridiculing frivolous lawsuits, on the other hand, seems both lyrically and musically about ten years late. Most confusing, though, is "Close But No Cigar," which I regarded as a fairly straight-ahead rock song about romantic woes with a few silly lines thrown in, until learning that it was actually Yankovic's attempt at a style parody of Cake. "Weird Al" has a history of writing weak pastiches of alt-rock artists whose songs were already kind of goofy to begin with (Ben Folds Five, Beck, They Might Be Giants), but this one, er, takes the cake. "Don't Download This Song," a pastiche of "We Are The World"-style message songs that sarcastically supports the RIAA's war on file sharing, reads like a good gag on paper until you realize that "We Are The World"-style songs are always torture to listen to, whether they're serious or not. But "Virus Alert," a style parody of Sparks, continues in the tradition of Devo parody "Dare To Be Stupid" of proving that in an alternate universe Yankovic could have fronted a great new wave synth act.
Another "Weird Al" album hallmark is polka medleys, often one of the only times on his albums that Yankovic plays his trademark accordion anymore. Over an insistent oompa beat, he strings together the choruses of a dozen or so songs, usually recent hits, such as on Straight Outta Lynwood's hit parade "Pokarama!" Lyrics by Coldplay and Franz Ferdinand seem neither silly nor serious enough to benefit from their musical contrast with polka, and at first it seems like this one might be a bust. But it soon picks up, and hearing Yankovic sing "I'll take you to the candy shop, I'll let you lick the lollipop" might be the most immediately hilarious moment on the entire album.
Anticipating Yankovic's nerdy fanbase staying on the cutting edge of technology, Straight Outta Lynwood was released in fancy DualDisc format, with the CD on one side and the DVD on the other side. The DVD includes a short making-of documentary, and videos for six of the songs, animated by renowned cartoonists like Bill Plympton and John Kricfalusi. I should add as a note of caution to consumers, though, that the high tech disc doesn't play on many CD players and computers, including my Mac. So there's a good chance that if you want this album on your iPod, you'll have to acquire it some other way, lending an irony to "Don't Download This Song" that even Yankovic may not have intended.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-10-19