Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Download These Songs?

(This is a long post. About Weird Al Yankovic. Because I can do whatever I want on my blog.)

Weird Al Yankovic has been more sensitive than most popular musicians to the changes in the media landscape over the past decade. Like all of them, he has had to figure out how to deal with online piracy. The industry, though concerned about the rise of Napster, was still doing well in 2000, and so Running With Scissors was a “conventional” album, without any extra features. By 2003 Napster was dead but a multitude of file-sharing programs sprung up in its place, and so Weird Al’s Poodle Hat included some, remixes, photos, and home videos to encourage people to buy the CD. 2006’s Straight Outta Lynnwood continued this trend by including on the other side of the disc a DVD with a 5.1 mix of the album, karaoke tracks, and high-quality videos for five of the songs, animated by some major names like Robot Chicken’s Seth Green and Ren & Stimpy creator John K. (It also had for its last song a delicious “We are the World”-style track called “Don’t Download This Song.”) The album went gold, so he must have been doing something right.

But along with rapid technological changes—in some ways, because of them—Weird Al has also had to contend with the atomization of the pop culture landscape. Few groups command the attention that Madonna and Michael Jackson did at the beginning of Al’s career, which makes for an almost complete dearth of targets for parody that a general audience would recognize; the fact is, there hardly exists a general audience anymore. And with the rise of YouTube and internet memes, pop culture is moving faster than before, increasing the challenge Al has always had, parodying the songs of yesteryear and trying to keep it timely.

Success has been more mixed on this front. Poodle Hat included a Backstreet Boys “I Want it That Way” parody about Ebay that was years too late, and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” redone as “Couch Potato,” was amusing, but it covered familiar ground (there’s a whole Weird Al compilation album about TV-based songs). Straight Outta Lynnwood was a much stronger album, even though the most recognizable song parodied (“American Idiot,” which became “Canadian Idiot,” natch) was by a 15 year-old pop-punk group. It helped that all of the songs, even the artist-stylistic parodies not based on any single song, had very particular targets to focus the lyrics’ silliness.

Since then Al has decided to release his music exclusively online, often on a track-by-track basis, the better to capture the zeitgeist of the week. Internet Leaks, which I only just found out a few days ago even though the songs have all been out for a year or more, is an online EP of five songs put out over the past couple years, put together in anticipation of a full album that is supposed to be released this year (last year?). I hope Al is saving the best tracks for the album, because the material here is all over the place.

As a song about being poor in the midst of the present economy, “Whatever You Like,” conceptually, has potential, and there are some funny likes (“Yo my wallet’s fat/Full of ones/It’s all about the Washingtons”). But the structure of the original song, also called “Whatever You Like” by T.I. (who?), straightjackets it with too many repeated phrases where there could be rhymes, and the name-dropping of things like HBO and Kinko’s is distracting.

“Craigslist” covers a lot of the same territory as Ebay, strange items to buy and sell online, and so is lyrically disappointing. But the song is a stylistic parody of the Doors, and a pretty good one too. Al does a surprisingly good Jim Morrison and the band does a pretty spot-on replication of the group’s signature keyboard-guitar mixture—Ray Manzarek guest keyboards!— and this ends up being enough to make it entertaining.

“Skipper Dan,” about a failed actor, is the best song of the five. The name-dropping here is almost exclusively movie- and theatre-based, which makes for some unexpected and funny rhymes: “The critics, they used to say/I was the new Olivier.” The bounciness of the music—a riff on Weezer, according to Wikipedia, final authority on everything—also makes for a nice contrast to the lyrics’ dourness. Bonus points for mentioning Speed the Plow.

The remaining two songs are throwaways. “CNR,” a White Stripes take-off, is about a man’s impressive accomplishments, sort of like Chuck Norris but merely randomly silly instead of reality-bendingly ridiculous. “Ringtone” doesn’t have much anywhere to go lyrically–no one likes Al’s ringtone—and as an attempt at mimicking Queen musically, it lacks the group’s lush song construction and Freddy Mercury’s camp theatricality.

Weird Al is at his best when he picks topics that either everyone is familiar with (Star Wars Episode 1 mashed up with “American Pie” for “The Saga Begins” is probably the best example), or that are at least specific enough that the ridiculousness and scattershot references come naturally (think nerd culture mixed with gangsta rap tropes in “White and Nerdy”). Too often here he just reaches for the goofy, such as CNR’s “He trained a rattlesnake to do his laundry,” that isn’t grounded in anything. This is, as mentioned, harder than ever to do, but in a world of Lady Gaga and Twilight—imagine, “Stokerface”!—it’s certainly not impossible. I’m still looking forward to the album.

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