Friday, July 25, 2014

"Straight Outta Lynwood" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

Now we're going back substantially enough to be in a different part of my life: I was in high school when Weird Al's 2006 album hit the scene, and I remember that clearly because I overheard some of the other students, the kind of people who normally would never have listened to Al apart from maybe a few obvious tracks, singing 'White & Nerdy,' the new single which had found itself on the Top 10. I believe the video was getting a lot of airtime. As of my writing this, Straight Outta Lynwood came out nearly eight years ago, which is bizarre to think about, because a lot of the tracks seem so fresh in my mind. That's probably because it's such a good album, in my opinion. Of the 2000s Al albums it's definitely my favourite, being rife with good parodies and funny tracks.

White & Nerdy
Probably one of Al's most famous parodies these days, it takes a rap I've never heard by some guy I've never heard of outside a Weird Al context and fills it with masterful lyrics about being a nerd. This song is very much the follow-up thematically speaking to 'It's All About The Pentiums,' featuring as it does innumerable comments about elements of culture which run the full gamut of 'nerdy' and 'geeky': MIT, Stephen Hawking, calculus and chess as well as D&D, action figures, Star Trek and X-Men. It's kind of interesting, actually, because it's very much the sort of cliché presentation of nerdy people, and satirising the fact that really you can boast about anything if you accompany it with 'badass' sounding music. The reason I say it's interesting is because, as I've approached expressing on this blog before, there's actually often a substantial divide between the things I've categorised first as academic pursuits, and the others as being cultural ones, and a certain percentage of 'geeks' who like comic books and sci-fi are actually fatuous anti-intellectual dullards with unconcealed resentment of the fact that society thinks they're intelligent but they actually aren't. As such I really see this song more in the sense of poking a little harmless fun at hip-hop or rap culture, suggesting that you can talk a big game about anything if you put your mind to it: in the end it's all just hot air.

Weirdly enough, it's a song about a bodily organ where Al never says 'internal organ,' which is of course one of his favourite phrases. It's basically just a style parody of the Beach Boys, especially stuff like 'Good Vibrations,' except about the human pancreas. My favourite part is probably where Al somehow works into the lyrics Newton's formula of universal gravitation, which is to say that the gravitational force between two objects is the product of their mass divided by the square of the distance between them multiplied by the universal gravitation constant. Well, it's simplified from that, but it's still clever. It's probably the oddest item on the Straight Outta Lynwood menu but it has its place.

Canadian Idiot
The title change is probably about as obvious as the satirical content is sharp in this, probably the most keenly-observed track on the album. The basic gist is using lyrics ostensibly expressing a stereotypical view of Canada to poke fun at stupid things about America: their ineffective gun laws, their pollution, their poor public health system and their high crime rates. The joke, of course, is the singer acting like Canada's numerous serious social advantages over the USA are outweighed by trivial elements of Canadian culture. Coming as it does right in the middle of George W. Bush's second term as president, the line about 'a preemptive strike' is probably the most cutting line in the piece. It's probably one of the most political songs Al's written in quite a while, if not ever.

I'll Sue Ya
Making jokes about the supposed American obsession with litigation is maybe a bit passé these days but when this came out it was spot on during a period in which there was as much humour about frivolous lawsuits as there were frivolous lawsuits. The funniest lines are probably the ones about suing "Delta Airlines/'Cause they sold me a ticket to New Jersey - I went there, and it sucked," as well as "Fruit Of The Loom/'Cause when I wear my tighty-whities on my head I look like a jerk" and "Ben Affleck/Aww, do I even need a reason?" not because they're the most groundless but because the have the least to do with the actual defendants suggested. The final repetition of "I'll sue ya if you even look at me funny," is good too. It's one of my songs of choice on the album.

I actually knew a handful of the tracks from this, mostly from the radio on the way to school and things the other kids used to sing in the corridors: 'Let's Get It Started,' 'Take Me Out' of course, 'Speed of Sound' and 'Somebody Told Me.' The opening with the Chicken Dance sets the mood very well, and this is a very fun polka to sing along to because of its pacing and the way in which Al censors some of the lyrics of the source material. The polka version of 'Drop It Like It's Hot' is particularly amusing when the subject matter is contrasted to the tune. There's a gunshot sound in 'Take Me Out' to reference other lyrics from the original too. I don't think there are any questionable polkas but this is definitely one of the best, and fits the general tone of music featured in the albums from this period very well.

Virus Alert
Here's our 'Al lists a bunch of stuff as lyrics' track of the album, but they're very funny lyrics, and I enjoy the implication that the 'virus alert' is itself a virus trying to fool people into spreading it. There's comedy to be done about the fake antivirus software that is actually itself a virus. It's of course also part of Al's more recent tread of technology-themed music and obviously forms a fairly clear link through from the first to the final track on the album. I'm not familiar with the band of which this is a style parody, but it's amusing nonetheless. Preferential lines include the idea that it will erase "the hard drive of anyone related to you" and that "It's gonna melt your face right off your skull/And make your iPod only play Jethro Tull." This is particularly amusing to me because there is a very divided opinion regarding Jethro Tull in my household - I personally, for reasons I can't actually articulate, find their music quite irritating. It's another instalment on the album which to which it is very entertaining to sing along.

Confessions Part III
Another listing song, in my opinion this is the funniest song on the album. It's a parody of a rap song ('Confessions Part II') but presents itself as following on from the revelation of the arguably serious but nonetheless generic 'angsty' indiscretions of a man towards his partner with an unrelated series of trivial, bizarre and ridiculous matters to which he also needs to own up. My favourite lines are "Once I blew my nose and then I wiped it on your cat" and the line which put tears of mirth in my eyes when I was recently refreshing my memory of this album after a long time, "remember when I told you that I knew Pauley Shore, Pauley Shore/That's a lie, I don't know what I said that for." For whatever reason, that kind of humour particularly cracks me up. I think I like the idea that he is confused himself as to why he ever told that lie in the first place. Thinking about it now has me chuckling. Another great moment is when Al sets up the rhyme "I shouldn't say anymore/'Til I give you part four." I think I just really like the idea of a humorous addendum to someone else's serious composition. It's a really clever parody in my view, especially as a send up of these kind of absurd acts of contrition, often about misdeeds that would probably ruin the other person's life.

Weasel Stomping Day
It's the novelty item, here portraying a moronic national holiday about murdering innocent furry animals. The most overtly satirical line is "It's tradition, that makes it okay." If there's a theme to this album besides technology, it might also be considered the 'stupid American culture' album which satirises some of the hypocrisies and insecurities at the heart of the land of the free and the home of the brave. There's not much to say about it. The grotesque squelching noises were made by Al and co crushing watermelons, incidentally. It's an amusing little breather.

Close But No Cigar
Did I leave this off my list of Al's "self-love" songs? I did. Let me correct that, hang on. Okay, here we go. 'Close But No Cigar' is the first of two on this album of Al's customary compositions putting a humorous spin on traditional love songs, this one being about a guy who has absurdly high standards about completely amazing women, repeatedly finding utterly contrived and negligible reasons to break up with them. It's a pretty clear style parody of Cake, and arguably has some comparable lyrics to some of their songs, but turns them into unreasonable and arrogant complaints instead of desires. Jillian's oversized earlobe is probably meant to be a reference to the Short Skirt and Long Jacket, I expect. Part of the joke, I would argue, is the way that the singer makes obnoxious comparisons like "crazy like Manson about her" and "all choked up like Mama Cass" as well as stock cliché remarks like the title lyric. Of course he's mostly interested in them for their looks and prestige. My favourite lines include the one about "sweating like Nixon," which has become a favourite simile of mine, and "Are we doing government work here?" which tops off the lyrical theme as being both obnoxious and a cliché. It's a very intelligent portrayal of this kind of attitude, a funny and very entertaining song. The animated video clip is also extremely effective, personifying this kind of attitude in the shape of a cat: giving bad gifts and chewing the women up when he gets tired of them.

Do I Creep You Out
It's a song about a stalker, and as such it's kind of the complete opposite of 'Close But No Cigar,' lyrically speaking, although it's also a parody of a song I've never heard. The funniest element of it is how little it really takes to turn stereotypical 'love' lyrics into extremely 'creepy' ones about invasion of privacy and general obsession: "Call you every night/And hang up." The best one, of course, is the opening: "I know that you don't know me very well/We've barely met, but I can surely tell/No one will ever love you like I do." It's worryingly close to actual love song lyrics, but also funny as an expression of the way these kinds of insane infatuations develop. My favourite line, however, is "Every time I shake your hand now/Wanna stick your fingers in my mouth." Some of the other lyrics, about going through the garbage and sniffing people are quite common fare with the subject matter, but that one's extra amusing for how over the top and weirdly intimate it is. It's of course very similar to Al's other stalker song, 'Melanie' from Even Worse. I also like the implication that the stalker is a colleague or distant social acquaintance of the person being stalked - not that I think stalking is funny, but because it just adds an extra layer of amusing creepiness to the whole concoction. I might, to draw another comparison of this type, direct listeners towards 'You Don't Like Me' from They Might Be Giants' Join Us album, or perhaps their miscellaneous track 'I'm Your Boyfriend Now.' I wonder if Al or someone he knows has first hand experience with stalkers - it's worryingly probable in the trade, I suppose.

Trapped In The Drive-Thru
I believe the actual track being parodied here is a complete 'hip hop opera' as it is called, featuring typical hip hop subjects and surreptitious midgets. Anyway, Al continues his theme of subverting this kind of media by turning it into a story about a middle-class and probably white couple going to get burgers one night. There's a lot of classic Al humour in here: the couple with the tense, passive-aggressive relationship, the awkward and embarrassing moments, and of course food. It might even be possible to read it as a kind of satire of the assimilation of hip hop culture by the West during this period, expressing what such music would be like if it was actually relevant to the middle-class Western culture which has capitalised upon its popularity. The most humours bits are probably the repetition ("Did I mention the drive-thru?") and overemphasis of mundane actions ("Put my key in the ignition/Then I turn it sideways") as well as the various reactions of the people at the store, especially 'Eugene' and the wife's suspicion of why the husband's voice is familiar to the girl who takes the order. The final gag about the missing onions is predictable but funny for that very reason. This is the kind of material which represents Al putting his best foot forward in terms of satire, which contributes to how effective this whole album is.

Don't Download This Song
The last song on the album is also of course the final technology-themed track. It's a good example of Al's usual satirical leanings: it pokes fun not only at internet pirates but also at the hyperbole which comes from the music industry for example regarding piracy. We get a slippery slope fallacy ("'Cause you start out stealing songs and then you're robbing liquor stores/And selling crack and running over school kids with your car") and an ad hominem fallacy ("They'll treat you like the evil hard-bitten criminal scum you are") as well as amusing references to, for instance, Lars Ulrich. The line about not being able to afford solid-golden hum vees is particularly apposite. It's also, of course, parodying charity songs of the 'Aid for Africa' variety and turning them into something very self-serving. As I've argued with some of these songs, one of Al's greatest talents with his parody work is probably lampooning how seriously a lot of people and businesses take themselves. At the same time here he manages to put out an anti-piracy message in a way that doesn't whitewash a lot of the hypocrisies of the issue.

Straight Outta Lynwood is Weird Al in fine form, I would argue, mixing more whimsical humour with effective satire in a humorous blend. The music video for 'White & Nerdy' is probably the most recent example of a classic Weird Al video with lots of background gags and rapid-fire comedy. There's additional footage of Donny Osmond that gets used in concerts which is worth seeing as well. Examples can be found on the Alpocalypse live DVD. There are animated videos as well, with very straightforward interpretations for 'I'll Sue Ya,' 'Do I Creep You Out' and 'Trapped In The Drive-Thru' along with more off-the-wall ones like 'Close But No Cigar.' Overall this is a timely and well assembled album with an important but I think somewhat overlooked place in the Weird Al catalogue.

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