In Brief: A slight improvement over Alpocalypse, but Weird Al is definitely at his best when he can get his parodies out the door in a timely manner. Since this is the last album on his contract, perhaps having to wait 2-3 years to release a parody of something current will no longer be an issue.
I go back and forth on whether Weird Al Yankovic has managed to stay relevant over the years, or whether he’s become a bit of a dinosaur. Neither one would affect my enjoyment of his music. I’m always happy when I meet a fellow nerd and our mutual admiration of Weird Al is one of the first subjects to come up in the conversation. But there are times when I think one of his parodies is spot on, and totally mocks the zeitgeist of contemporary culture with laser precision. And then there are times when I think, “Wasn’t the original version of this song cool like, forever ago?” and I have to groan and shake my head when he goes back to that same old well of food and fat jokes. The first of those two problems isn’t really Weird Al’s fault, per se. In fact his, new album Mandatory Fun is the last one for his current record contract, meaning he’ll be free in the future to release new parodies on an ad-hoc basis to strike while the iron is hot, rather than having to sit on them for 2-3 years while he gets a complete album ready to go. But the second problem… hey, I appreciate that Weird Al tries to keep things somewhat family-friendly when many other comedians spoofing popular songs or genres of music are much more foul-mouthed, but it often means that his subject matter can feel limited, and even a bit random given the song or artist that he chose to poke fun at. Mandatory Fun, like most of those albums sways wildly back and forth between the successful zingers and the humdrum “random lists of people doing weird and ugly things” that bog down his most forgettable material. But if for no other reason than the fact that everything on this album was kept tightly under wraps before its release, it beats out 2011’s Alpocalypse, nearly half of which felt played out by the time the album finally dropped. (Putting out eight music videos back-to-back during the week of its release also helped Weird Al to trend like a boss on social media, so there’s a check mark – or rather, hashtag – in the “still relevant” column.)
Mandatory Fun might be the first Weird Al record in over a decade that hasn’t had some sort of controversy, or at least a bit of record label orneriness, in its backstory. You know how it usually goes by this point – Al comes up with a parody idea and reaches out to the artist responsible for the original song, only to get a flat “no” from a humorless performer or an obstructive label executive. For the most part he’s been able to overcome this in the past, but the permission-getting process for Mandatory Fun was surprisingly stress-free, resulting in a much short gap than I would have expected between albums (it was five long years between Alpocalypse and its excellent predecessor, Straight Outta Lynwood). As is generally the case these days, I didn’t know at least half of the songs he was spoofing until after I had listened to the album and then gone back to check out the originals, just for context. Part of that’s just because I said sayonara to all forms of radio over a decade ago, and part of that’s because the overproduced pop and brag-heavy hip-hop party songs that tend to score high on the charts these days are generally better fodder for comedy than your average mopey rock song would be. (I would kill to hear Weird Al do an “Indie Hipster Polka” or something one of these days, but a majority of his listeners probably wouldn’t get the joke, so I’ll just have to hope there’s some younger, more bleeding-edge comedian out there who’s trying to get that niche locked down.) At least I can genuinely say that for the first time since “Canadian Idiot” in 2006, Weird Al has actually parodied a song that I genuinely like on this album. I guess I’m not as out of touch with pop culture as I thought?
Of course, the parodies tend to get all of the attention, but those tend to take up a mere five slots per album, with the expected polka medley cleaning up the leftovers from all the songs Weird Al wanted to goof on, but couldn’t think of an idea that would sustain a full song. The other six slots are the “style parodies”, which generally don’t have that immediate “you gotta hear this!” quality because that’s where Weird Al gets to goof on artists he’s a personal fan of but that aren’t necessarily currently popular, or in some cases even still alive. It takes a bit more work to figure out what he’s doing with those (at least, it did before he started crediting the direct inspiration for each in his liner notes), and so those are more heavily dependent on their subject matter. This is where your mileage will vary the most with Weird Al – and he’s more or less 50/50 on the good ones versus the stinkers this time around. The upside is that this where the folks whose tastes skew more towards rock music will get a break from the cheesy keyboard-driven pop stuff that tends to dominate the current parodies. It’s a good reminder that Weird Al has a solid (and highly underrated) backing band who can emulate pretty much anything, even when it means inventively rearranging the tropes and odd quirks of a particular band’s sound instead of just trying to copy the backing track of a song verbatim. I suppose you have to be enough of a geek to have seen Al in concert (check!) to fully appreciate that. But it’s something that makes me smile even during some of Al’s most insane and painfully unfunny material.
OK, full disclosure: I know nothing about Iggy Azalea, aside from a brief glance at Wikipedia telling me that she’s a female white rapper from Australia. I suppose any of those attributes might have made her a novelty twenty years ago. In this day and age, when all she’s got to differentiate herself is yet another tired song of bragging about how her style and bling and whatnot is better than anyone else’s, I’m not sure how she even managed to get noticed. Anyway, this is a popular song that all the kids were talking about at one point, or at least that’s what Al’s daughter told him, so here we have the obligatory parody. The good news is that braggadocio tends to give Al his best material, because he usually turns it into boasting about something incredibly geeky or mundane. In this case, he’s the world’s best Handyman, able to MacGeyver a solution for any plumbing or heating or dryrot problem your house might have. It’s not super-hilarious in this case, but it’s more fun than the source material, and I will admit I’m amused by the shout out to Jay-Z (itself a shout out to Ice-T, as it turns out) when he claims “I’ve got 99 problems but a switch ain’t one.” I realize that line’s been quoted and parodied and deconstructed to death, but for some reason it’s still funny to do so after all these years.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: Stupid song? FIXED!
2. Lame Claim to Fame
The chicken-fried alternative rock stylings of Southern Culture on the Skids are sent up here in the first “original” entry, and I’ll be honest – at first, I didn’t get what was so funny about Al name-dropping various celebrities and claiming to have a connection to them that was tenuous at best (“My dentist accidentally sneezed on Russell Crowe“, that sort of thing).It’s basically another one of those “wacky list songs” where the humor comes from the increasingly unlikely scenarios that get described (and for folks like me who are songwriters at heart, the unexpected rhyming of things like “uncle” with “Art Garfunkel“). Al’s band is at its best here, showing off some slightly deranged and sorta-rednecky guitar riffs while a cowbells clangs along loud and proud. So it’s a fun song to listen to. And I start to warm up to the silly premise of it more when Al pulls off an incredibly clever Kevin Bacon gag in the bridge.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: Six degrees of moderate chuckles.
I’d heard a lot of buzz about Lorde, but for whatever reason I’d never actually heard her song “Royals”, which as it turns out, is right up my alley due to its minimalist (but paradoxically catchy) deconstruction of the boasting about meaningless material things that tends to pass for popular music nowadays. I guess this would be the rare case where Al parodies a song I’ve never heard before, and I end up liking the original more than the parody. The very idea of it just seems stupid at first glance – seriously, was he so desperate to make a recognizable version of this song that he settled on the first word he could think of that rhymed with “Royals”? Tinfoil just isn’t a particularly inspiring subject for a song, and I have to roll my eyes when the entire first verse and chorus end up being about what to do with your leftover food. To Al’s credit, the song takes an unexpectedly dark turn from that point on, almost like the sort of bait-and-switch that The Lonely Island might attempt, minus the toilet humor. I figured out pretty early on that he’d probably reference tinfoil hats and conspiracy theories, so it’s not that much of a left turn, but the music video definitely helped me to appreciate what a weird mood swing it was to go from one topic to the other. Still, by the time that joke’s been unveiled, the song is pretty much over, and at just over two minutes, I have to wonder if Al just plain ran out of ideas, considering the original is over three.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: You can shine like silver all you want, but you’re just aluminum.
4. Sports Song
Speaking of short songs, this is the tiniest little track on the album at barely two minutes, but it’s also one of the funniest – at least if you’re like me and you think people get a little too invested in rooting for their favorite sports team. This one’s done in the style of a football fight song, marching band and all, and it does a great job of saying what those sports fans are probably all thinking about the opposing team: “We’re great, and YOU SUCK!” It gets a bit repetitive midway through, but that’s part of the humor, since the intent of it is to be thoroughly condescending and phrase its put-downs in small words that the opposition can understand.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!!!
5. Word Crimes
“Blurred Lines” was such an infamous pop culture phenomenon that of course Weird Al would have to offer his take on it. Like most sensible people in this world, I have no love for Robin Thicke and his playful misogyny, no matter how much he tries to insist after the fact that it’s some sort of pro-feminist satire that we’re all too dumb to get. This one’s already been spoofed several times out there on the Internet, generally with the intent of making vicious commentary on Thicke’s apparent attitude towards women, so Al knew he had to come up with a different angle for this admittedly catchy R&B/disco throwback song, and he chose to nitpick people’s terrible grammar instead. That may be a disappointment for anyone expecting biting satire, but Weird Al just isn’t that guy. He tries to keep things family-friendly (occasional bits of punny innuendo notwithstanding – “cunning linguist”, anyone?), and this time around he’s downright educational, employing his best falsetto and layering himself several times on the background vocals to recreate the aural party of the original. The lyrics are a zinger a minute here, effectively skewering folks who can’t bother to remember the different between irony and coincidence, figurative and literal, or even “it’s” and “its”, before hurriedly posting their ill-informed views for the entire Internet to see. You know these folks. At some point you’ve either been one of these folks or you’ve been cruelly condescending to one of those folks (I’ll admit to both). And the tone of the song gets “condescending grammar Nazi” down pat. Not only is this Mandatory Fun‘s first true home run, it’s easily funnier than anything on Alpocalypse.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: I literally died laughing! Wait, I mean… aw, crap.
6. My Own Eyes
Next on Weird Al’s personal to-do list is a Foo Fighters impression. At least that’s what it says there in the liner notes. I don’t much about the Foo Fighters beyond a few of their radio singles, so I’ll take Al’s word for it that he’s dug deep enough into their discography to emulate several of their mannerisms here. The song’s certainly got some strong lead guitar work and heavy drums and bass, and it feels like the sort of hard-driving thing that might have lit up alternative rock radio in the 90s. But Al can’t even come close to imitating Dave Grohl‘s… um, grohl. His nasal, mocking tone just results in a lot of goofy shouting, to the point where it sounds like he’s just hamming it up instead of trying to sound like an actual band. The lyrical premise of the song is that a guy’s seen a lot of strange and disturbing things that he’d like to forget, which of course means the entire song’s going to be spent on another list of far-fetched scenarios, some gross, some downright bizarre, and some physically impossible. Most of them aren’t terribly funny. It’s one of those “throw wacky ideas at the wall and see what sticks” kinds of songs, and it’s sort of thing that gets me funny looks when I tell fellow adults I’m a Weird Al fan. (Side note: Did he rip off Velvet Revolver‘s riff from “Slither” in the bridge of this song? Only reason I recognize it is because he used it in “Polkarama!” a few years back, so… I guess he still has permission? Pretty weird when this one’s supposed to be goofing on a different band.)
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: There’s so much I wish I could un-hear with my own ears.
7. Now That’s What I Call Polka!
I suppose I can’t blame Al for his polka medleys getting less and less interesting over the years if I’m the one who no longer recognizes most of the snippets from the popular songs of the day, and who therefore can keep a straight face as the lyrics from them are thrust into a purposefully dorky musical environment. At this point I figure it’s more tradition than inspiration – Al has to do one of these on every album, or most of his fans will riot. I just figure, since he’s pulling in a lot of different songs from disparate genres and trying to juxtapose them in funny ways, maybe he should cast his nets a little wider and goof on some of the indie buzz bands that hipsters are fawning over (okay, so maybe Foster the People count, and Gotye, if you really stretch your imagination), instead of just limiting himself to mainstream radio hits. Put something in there that makes people wonder, “Where the HECK are those odd lyrics from?” Because I feel they were chosen more for recognizability than for genuine humor value here. By the time the medley wraps up on a far too repetitive snippet of Daft Punk‘s “Get Lucky”, the joke has long since worn out its welcome. (Side note: How is this album called Mandatory Fun, and yet there’s no fun. parody anywhere to be found, not even a few seconds’ worth of the polka?)
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: Now that’s what I call mildly amusing.
8. Mission Statement
This is one of those songs that will strike you as either hilarious or pointless, depending on how much experience you’ve had with corporate America. It’s a style parody of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and while the lyrics in and of themselves aren’t jokes or puns, it’s the bizarre juxtaposition of hippie-friendly 70s-era soft rock with just about every big-business buzzword in the dictionary, all sung in gleeful three-part harmony: “We’ll set a brand trajectory/Using management philosophy/Advance our market share vis-à-vis/Our proven methodology/With strong commitment to quality/Effectively enhancing corporate… SYNERGY!!!” I’ve been working in the tech sector for fifteen years, so I can recognize and cringe at a lot of these words that might be meaningful to management, but that come across to us underlings as pure gobbledygook most of the time. If you life your live outside of a cubicle, you might not understand or care for the song, and due to its semi-prog-rock nature, you might even find that it drags on for longer than necessary. I really enjoy the acoustic vibe of the song, and how it changes mood and tempo over time. Which means I should probably add CS&N (and sometimes Y) to my list of “classics” that I need to go back and better appreciate, I guess. Unlike a later song on this album that hearkens back to the good old days of long-haired dudes strumming their guitars for the sake of peace and love, four and a half minutes of this is just enough for it to not overstay its welcome.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: Laughing my assets off!
We rocket back to the modern age as Al transforms Imagine Dragons‘ post-apocalyptic “Radioactive” into yet another ode to being fat and lazy. I go back and forth on whether the imagery of a guy lying around his apartment covered in food residue, with his muscles atrophying and such, is funny or just plain gross. (Or perhaps just a good source of motivation for Al to maintain his strict vegan diet. Which I could never do, but I respect him for it all the same.) This one probably could have been a whole lot more awesome if Al had gone with the remixed version that adds a Kendrick Lamar rap to the original, simply because it would give him more lyrics to work with. But short and to the point seems to be the rule for the specific song parodies on this album. Strangely enough, even though the guys from Imagine Dragons gave Al specific instructions about how to recreate the bass-and-reverb-drenched sound of the original, this is one of the few cases where his band gets it wrong and the chorus lyrics are rendered almost inaudible as a result. That’s pretty much the kiss of death for a comedy song. So while this one’s fun for superficial listening, it’s only the case because the original song is, too. It’s not one of the more brilliant entries in the Weird Al canon.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: My gut’s not busted ’cause it hardly even moved.
10. First World Problems
Much like “Skipper Dan” on the previous album, I wouldn’t know that this one was aping a real band because it just sounds too cartoonish to be the case. But Al does his homework when it comes to this sort of thing, and The Pixies were apparently quite influential on the alternative rock movement, so I’ll take his word for it that this song samples their quirks with some measure of accuracy, perhaps with a little added vocal silliness because that’s just who Al is. Much like “Mission Statement”, this one humorously merges decades-old rock tropes with the sort of silly modern-day speak that you just have to shake your head at, though in this case the appeal is more widespread, because who hasn’t come across the “First World Problems” meme in this day and age? We’ve all fallen into this at one point or another, getting worked up over some petty little annoyance that might be valid to complain about, but that seems rather trivial when put in the perspective of the world’s true problems. So while the mostly spoken and screamed vocal delivery might get a tad annoying, it effectively satirizes modern life in general, capturing years’ worth of goofy image macros in a painfully accurate set of lyrics.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: Can’t complain.
If there were an award for “Artist most frequently picked on by Weird Al”, then Pharrell Williams might have just snatched it away from the likes of Michael Jackson and Eminem. By my count, this is the fourth time Al has goofed on a song that had Pharrell’s involvement, starting with Snoop Dogg‘s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” a few polkas back, continuing with the aforementioned “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky”, and culminating in this inspired riff on “Happy”, a.k.a. the song Weird Al couldn’t not parody because it’s the catchiest song in the universe and it’s been freakin’ everywhere for most of the last year. Even I know this one, and love it. Sure, it might boil down to another one of those list songs about people doing random, goofy things (many of them clothing-related… and come to think of it, how did “wearing a big goofy park ranger hat” not make the list?) – but a good chunk of them such as “I Instagram every meal I’ve had” and “Think it’s fun threatening waiters with a bad Yelp review” are pretty much the epitome of social faux pas in our modern, social media-driven world. I’ll be honest, you could probably sing municipal penal codes to the tune of “Happy” and I’d still love it, but the song easily lent itself to a hilarious premise that’s been flawlessly executed by Al (right down to the one-take video that brings in a slew of appropriately tacky guest stars like Margaret Cho and Jack Black), so I don’t think I’ll get much argument when I say that this one ranks among his all-time best.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: This song’s so funny, I’m going to re-tell all of the jokes in it to other people… because I’m TACKY!
12. Jackson Park Express
Ugh. I was on such a high after “Tacky” that I figured can’t nothing bring me down… and then along came this sprawling mess of a finale. Ostensibly a homage to Cat Stevens, it isn’t the kind of song I’d be honored to have my name attached to, even if I were a celebrity with a decent sense of humor about myself. (I have no idea what Mr. Yusuf Islam, as he is now known, thinks of it, but somehow I doubt he’d be a fan.) It’s pretty much expected at this point that the final track on a Weird Al record is where he can truly go off the deep end and not care how long, tasteless, or downright insane things get. This has led to fan favorites like “Albuquerque” or the infamous “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, but it’s also led to clunkers like “Genius in France” that only end up revealing how old the joke has gotten by the time you realize you’ve still got over five minutes to go. And while the band weaves their way through this one beautifully, going from the symphonic bombast of the chorus to the most tender moments of the verses and back with flawless precision as if they were following in the footsteps of a forgotten epic from rock & roll’s formative years, the premise of the song just doesn’t hold my attention for more than about a minute. Okay, so a guy meets a girl on the bus and imagines an entire relationship with her without saying a word, through mere body language. That by itself would actually be a good premise for a serious love song (though then again, James Blunt has shown us why it’s a bad idea to try, and Al’s already spoofed that one for other purposes). But the notion that a single glance in his direction or some other non-verbal cue must obviously mean something outlandish like “Did you have a nose job or something?/I’m only asking ’cause your nose looks slightly better/Than the rest of your face” gets old once you realize that the song is headed for a long, long list of things like this. Midway through, they stop being innocently random and start to turn downright ghoulish: “Oh, I’d like to rip you wide open/And French kiss every single one of your internal organs/I’d like to remove all your skin/And wear your skin over my own skin/…But not in a creepy way.” Despite the unappetizing madness (which I guess you’ll find funny if the gross-out humor frequently heard on lesser Weird Al offerings like Poodle Hat is more your style), the song actually comes to a bit of a bittersweet resolution, as she finally gets off the bus and he imagines her saying goodbye and realizes the entire thing only happened inside his head. I just wish he’d saved an “Awww!” moment like that for a funnier song, where the sensitivity of it would really take us by surprise, rather than for the end of this tedious exercise in painfully floundering for a halfway decent joke.
The Laugh-o-Meter Says: I shoulda gotten off at the previous stop.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Lame Claim to Fame $1
Sports Song $1.50
Word Crimes $2
My Own Eyes $.50
Now That’s What I Call Polka! $.50
Mission Statement $1.75
First World Problems $1.25
Jackson Park Express –$.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: