Monday, July 21, 2014

"Mandatory Fun" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

What is it with being a big nerd and liking Weird Al? I don't know, but I do know that when I was a kid listening to Weird Al made me feel like it was okay to be "weird" - a common schoolyard insult - and that maybe being weird meant having your own fun. I don't know what I'm on about. My point is, I like Weird Al. And by "I like Weird Al" I don't mean "I can remember some of the lyrics to 'Amish Paradise'." I'm not some kind of small Weird Al fan. What I mean is that if Al's out here, I'll go to as many shows as he does in my home town, as in I've met him twice, as in I could recite most (but not all, I admit) of the lyrics to most of his songs - albeit maybe with a little musical prompting. I'm not going to say I'm like the guy with the chip in his head that plays Yoda like in the Weird Al "There's No Going Home" short - my knowledge of which might also be suggestive - but rather I just want to suggest that I'm a reasonably substantial enthusiast for Weird Al. So I like to think that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to Al, although in terms of general musical knowledge I'm a complete ignoramus. My taste in music is scattergun and inconsistent, I can only play the piano very badly and I know nothing of any other instruments, writing music or musicianship.

So Weird Al's new album is out. It's called Mandatory Fun. It's his last album on a recording contract he's had for decades and its artwork is themed around communist propaganda. As usual it follows Weird Al's regular pattern of taking the popular music scene from the last couple of years and improving it by updating catchy if shallow pop music with more interesting and intelligent lyrics, along with a bit of pastiche and satire. Let's check it out.

It's a parody of some pop song I've never heard by some singer I've never heard of. That's the thing about Weird Al: you can hear music you'd probably never listen to otherwise - at least if you're a shut-in like me who never hears anything current except by accident - and get a laugh out of it at the same time. Its lyrical content is very much along the lines of 'Hardware Store' from Poodle Hat, 'The Plumbing Song' from Off the Deep End and the never officially released Rembrandts parody "I'll Repair For You." In fact it even shares a lyric (sort of) with that unreleased track. It's pretty familiar ground for Weird Al, continuing as it does a theme reflecting the apparent American obsession with hardware and DIY.

Lame Claim to Fame
It's a style parody, but I don't know the band whose style is being imitated. Thematically comparable to They Might Be Giants' 'Famous Polka,' it's a reflection on the particular desire to construct a meaningful life narrative or self image around extremely tenuous, borderline non-existent connections with celebrities and famous and important people. Although as I say I don't know the band being pastiched, the sound does seem to reflect well with the kind of desperate self-delusion associated with this kind of behaviour. The lyrics also reflect a more recent Weird Al theme of the influence of social media and interactivity on culture.

It's a Weird Al food song with a twist, because the subject matter also lets him make jokes about conspiracy theories. This is another parody, this time of a song by a singer whose name I always get confused with those guys who dressed up in goblin suits and won Eurovision a few years ago. It's also the second time Weird Al finds an opportunity to use the phrase "doggie bag" in a song, which is always welcome. One might also see some lyrical similarities with 'Everything You Know Is Wrong.' It's also sort of the reverse of 'Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me' as well. I like the idea of someone simultaneously finding value in aluminium foil for both food storage and conspiracy theory reasons. I also find amusing the suggestion that the foil hat will be some kind of defence "if an alien's inclined/To probe your butt," which is an appropriately mandatory lyric considering the subject manner while totally inexplicable insofar as foil hats are concerned.

Sports Song
One of the more overtly satirical tracks on the album, this parodies what I believe are termed "fight songs" for sporting teams, particularly at the college level, in the USA. The lyrics present this kind of enthusiasm as meaningless bravado-laden posturing which comes down to one side bigging itself up while slandering the opposition. It's the classic Weird Al method of taking an arguably pretentious musical style and replacing it with straightforward and self-reflexive lyrics, not unlike 'Don't Download This Song' or 'This Song's Just Six Words Long.' Observe that these are all songs that are aware of the fact that they're songs.

Word Crimes
Another parody of a song I don't know by a musician I don't know. Here Weird Al flexes his talent for creative wordplay and skilful rhyming of technical language, as well as a good opportunity for mentioning how "could care less" is a misuse which actually contradicts the intended meaning and how irony is not coincidence. It's also arguably a less family friendly instalment than some, Al managing to find a place for the phrase "cunning linguist" as well as an unfortunate rhyme that he apparently didn't realise was more offensive in some parts of the world than others. It's of course a particularly cutting attack on the fatuous illiteracy of many online commenters, while simultaneously satirising the sanctimoniousness and affected superiority of grammar perfectionists, an aspect which some of its critics have seemingly missed. 

My Own Eyes
It's a style parody of Foo Fighters apparently, whose music I probably have heard but wouldn't be able to identify if I heard it. They must be the guys who produce all that generic pop rock music you hear on the radio, because this sure sounds like one of those songs. The premise is about seeing strange things, I guess, and how you wish you could forget some things you've seen. It seems to be another one of those internet-themed ones, albeit taking a relatively soft approach which leans far more towards the simply strange than the genuinely horrific and disturbing, which might be an exercise for a different kind of musical humorist.

NOW That's What I Call Polka!
Despite how little I keep up to date with pop music, I was surprised by how many songs were present in this medley which I recognised, although some of them barely and there don't seem to be a huge number in general. There are some extremely predictable but nonetheless amusing inclusions, like Gangnam Style and Call Me Maybe, along with some more unexpected ones, I would argue, like that Gotye song. Apparently these things are a nightmare to put together in terms of rights and royalties and Al might never officially release one again. They're still fun, though, and one can't help but think, in my opinion, that a number of these songs are rather substantially improved by the polka treatment. The medley particularly begins and ends well, to my mind. The final inclusion, Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky,' was a shoe in but is put to work in exactly the right way. It might be one of the strongest tracks on the album.

Mission Statement
It's a style parody of Crosby, Stills and Nash where the lyrics are entirely composed of empty corporate jargon. It's not one of the funniest songs Al's released in a while, but it's definitely another of the most significantly satirical on the album. You could read it in several ways, I suppose, perhaps as an indictment of how the optimistic baby boomer generation gave rise to the corporatocracy of the present day, or how the corporate world unironically and with no awareness uses and abuses art which is entirely contradictory to it for the sake of its own agenda. It gives Mandatory Fun an edge that not all Weird Al albums have, and contributes significantly to my perception of this album as generally less whimsical and upbeat than some others, especially in contrast to this album's immediate precursor, Alpocalypse.

I think I've heard the song this is parodying, but I'm not sure. It takes one of Al's favourite themes - being fat and gluttonous - and adds to it a new element: being lazy. Perhaps due to the constraints of the source material the lyrics don't have the flexibility that they might, but the music's sluggishness, lethargy and dark tone generally contribute to a surprisingly bleak image of apathy and hopelessness. A more negative person than myself might actually be able to interpret this song as an image of depression brought on by consumer-culture-prompted indolence. That's Weird Al for you!

First World Problems
Here's Weird Al once again seizing upon internet culture and keeping relatively up to date with common trends, although some of the 'First World Problems' here feel more specifically like 'Rich World Problems.' Nonetheless the lyrics are rather acute in addressing some of the rather petty issues that trouble luxuriant citizens of the west like ourselves, such as mild social embarrassment and having too much of necessities like food and rest. The musical style, evoking 'The Pixies' apparently, gives an appropriate shade of the pathetic to complaining about trivial issues.

The album's big parody, I've actually heard the song that is the source of this one. The tone of the music blends very well with lyrics which, to my satisfaction, cover a broad spectrum of tackiness: tacky appearance, tacky behaviour, tacky priorities and values, which fits because arguably the music itself is a bit on the tacky side. Interestingly its lyrical material ties in to a degree with 'Lame Claim to Fame' which might explain why these two tracks are so separated, although admittedly 'Sports Song' and 'Word Crimes' both make jokes about figurative and literal meanings and they appear one after the other. The music video for this song is fun too.

Jackson Park Express
Apparently it's a style parody of Cat Stevens. I guess I need to listen to more Cat Stevens. This is the 'long song' on the album, something Al's been doing since Running with Scissors (except on Alpocalypse) and which in its narrative style harks back to the patriarch of long Weird Al travelling songs, 'The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota' from UHF, although this one probably has the most in common with 'Albuquerque' in terms of its grotesque imagery and non-sequiturs. It's about a guy who fantasises a deep connection with a girl he sees on the bus through interpreting vague gestures and fleeting moments of non-vocal contact, and tries to communicate in kind, all while riding the bus. This also shares some themes, albeit different ones, with 'Lame Claim to Fame.' It's basically a way for Al to make a whole bunch of jokes that subvert the typical lyrics and narratives of love songs, as he is wont to do. It's not nearly as episodic as 'Albuquerque,' however, nor does it rhyme like 'Biggest Ball of Twine' or 'Trapped in the Drive Thru.' ('Genius in France' of course fits both of these categories) As such it's going to be a job to learn the lyrics. If it's to stand as the last track ever on a Weird Al album, assuming he devotes his career now to releases as they happen, it's a good summation of one of the recurring elements of his general style: humour poking fun at how seriously the mainstream music industry takes itself regarding cliché and repetitive subject matter.

Mandatory Fun is a pretty solid album. It's backed up by eight music videos, but produced as they are by the various comedy groups and sites with which Al has become associated in recent years, none of them are really the kind of background-joke and visual-gag laden extravaganzas that we haven't, in all honesty, seen since 'White & Nerdy.' My personal picks for the videos are 'Tacky,' where Al's guests have a lot of fun with the task of miming his singing in garish outfits, and 'Lame Claim to Fame' which uses a combined live action and animated style very creatively. 'Word Crimes' and 'Mission Statement' utilise lyrical representations more in common with the animated videos of recent albums past, the latter effectively featuring TruScribe which has been employed in a fair bit of recent visualisation for material such as lectures and academic papers criticising certain corporate trends in recent years. 'Foil,' 'Handy,' 'Sports Song' and 'First World Problems' all have fairly straightforward videos, with the last of those being probably the most amusing, featuring as it does Al marching around suburban Hollywood (by the looks of things) in long socks as a lonely, frustrated, rich layabout fuming and raging over minor inconveniences. It's like all those times he does his "pulling twisted angry faces" shtick rolled into one.

As I've already said, Mandatory Fun is arguably not as upbeat as some Weird Al albums of recent years, but it's got a bit of bite to it, and it's a good example of an Al production with plenty of memorable parodies and originals, although being biased I tend to think that's mostly true of all of them. I'd give it a hearty recommendation - as long as you're not one of those small Weird Al fans.

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