Sunday, January 17, 2010

250. "Weird Al" Yankovic: Bad Hair Day (1996)

Between the ages of 17 and 19 I really got into Kurt Vonnegut's novels. I bought and read every one of them, finding that each one more revolutionary and spell-binding than the last. During that time, one of my dad's friends, a bookstore owner said, "Ah, I remember my Vonnegut phase too. I'm glad I outgrew that."

I was kind of stung by that at the time, at the idea that my interest in this great and important author was nothing more than a developmental stage. And though his comment was mostly callous and condescending, it had a patina of truth. Namely that lots of forms of entertainment are developmental.

I bring that up because Bad Hair Day is "Weird Al" Yankovic's ninth album and yet it shows very little evolution from his first one. And I don't mean that musically; Al has had the luxury of being able to evolve along with the musical times. It's his sense of humor has remained exactly the same throughout. And if I had to put a number on it, I'd say it's the sense of humor of a boy between the ages of 10 and 15 (From 16 on, most of us move on to things slightly more sophisticated, like dick jokes).

The question is this: Does Al actually have the sense of humor of a 15 year old, or is he just shrewdly good at knowing and appealing to his audience? Either way, it's a striking thing. Bad Hair Day is an especially good example of Al's arrested sense of humor, and it's no coincidence that it marks the point where my love for Al's music became compulsory rather than passionate (I was 19 when it came out). Sure his songs continued to give me a chuckle, maybe a guffaw or a snort now and then, but never the belly laughs that his earlier work elicited.

The most notable parody on Bad Hair Day is Amish Paradise, a spoof of Coolio's 1995 hit Gangsta's Paradise (which itself is an interpolation of Stevie Wonder's 1976 tune Pastime Paradise). In the song, Al takes on those goofy Amish and their old-timey ways (they don't have electricity, they're peaceful, they have Biblical names). It's an easy and unnecessary target. Had Al done some true research into his subject and made the content more than stereotypes, I might admire the song a bit more. As it is, the only true humor in the song comes from the juxtaposition of style and content. It's also worth noting that Al incorporates the Gilligan's Island theme song ("there's no phones, no lights, no motor cars, not a single luxury") basically recycling a joke from Isle Thing on UHF.

The next three parodies are obvious in subject matter if not in conception. Usually Al takes a song title, finds a phrase that matches the rhyme and syllables, and goes from there. And usually, the song title gives away the whole joke. But in the case of Cavity Search and Syndicated, Inc. he approaches it differently. Cavity Search is a parody of U2's Batman Forever theme Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me. As you might have deduced, it's about a visit to the dentist (not, as you may have guessed, about a trip through airport security). The title phrase becomes Numb Me, Drill Me, Floss Me, Bill Me on the chorus, but why Al didn't use that as a title is a mystery. Syndicated Inc. is also oddly-titled, but that's because its source, Soul Asylum's Misery, is oddly-titled itself. That song featured the words "frustrated incorporated" in its chorus. Not surprisingly, Al makes it a song about watching reruns and daytime talk shows. It doesn't seem like he was exactly keeping up with the times though, because most of the shows he lists are old and likely weren't even available in reruns in 1996 (Mayberry RFD, All In the Family, Dynasty, etc.)

Phony Calls, a parody of TLC's Waterfalls, is not obvious either, but mostly because no one calls them "phony calls". They're called prank calls. Either way, it's not a good song. Al's version just made me want to hear the original. Notably, he replaces Left Eye's little rap with a clip of Bart Simpson prank calling Moe, but even that's not enough to make it funny.

Finally, there's Gump, a take on the President of the United States of America's hit tune Lump. And, yep, it's basically a rehashing of the plot of Forrest Gump. It's somewhat impressive how Al made it all work, and the "Run, run now Forrest run" chorus is cute. It's probably the best parody on the record, even if that's not saying much.

Style Parodies:
Thankfully things get a little bit better on the style parodies. Well, at least after you get past the warmed-over Nirvana of Callin' In Sick. It's a Crazy List song about a guy who'd rather spend his day at home doing ridiculous things rather than going in to work. From there, things are pretty good.

I'm So Sick of You is an anti-love song. The theme is nothing new for Al (see You Make Me, Good Enough For Now, You Don't Love Me Anymore, etc.), nor is the format (yep, it's a Crazy List song), or the humor (in fact, with the references to back hair and butts that jiggle like Jell-O, it's even more sophomoric than usual), but the whole thing is mostly salvaged by the music, which apes the organ-driven style of Elvis Costello and the Attractions circa This Year's Model.

Since You've Been Gone takes the same theme with better results. In a capella doo wop style, Al compares his heartbreak to various forms of physical pain (e.g. ice cream headaches) before declaring in the song's final line: "I feel almost as bad as I did when you were still here." It's a pretty good punchline.

And saving the best for last we have Everything You Know Is Wrong, a song that mimics They Might Be Giants musically and lyrically. That might seem strange at first, but think about how much "Weird Al" and TMBG have in common: Both are stylistically diverse, feature accordion as a prominent instrument, and have an affinity for the absurd, though TMBG's humor is a bit more cerebral and subtle. In fact, a fan who finds himself growing out of Al's humor might find TMBG to be a logical follow-up crush (I certainly did). Anyway, Al does a decent impression of John and John without being completely derivative, and the melody is one of his all-time best.

Polka Medley:
The Alternative Polka finds Al blending together some songs from the fruitful mid-'90s scene. Here they are: Loser (Beck), Sex Type Thing (Stone Temple Pilots), All I Wanna Do (Sheryl Crow), Closer (Nine Inch Nails), Bang and Blame (R.E.M.), You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette), Bullet With Butterfly Wings (Smashing Pumpkins), My Friends (Red Hot Chili Peppers), I'll Stick Around (Foo Fighters), Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden), and Basket Case (Green Day).

What The?!
I dropped this category out on the last couple of reviews, but it roars back for Bad Hair Day. I Remember Larry and The Night Santa Went Crazy are both unsettling and disturbing. The former is a Lemonheadsish rumination on the titular Larry, a complete jerk and borderline psychopath whom the narrator ends up murdering. Yes, you read that right. And the latter is a Christmas song wherein Santa loses his shit and opens fire on all the reindeer and elves. Yes, seriously. Al describes the scene in graphic and gleeful detail. If a song making fun of workplace killings was in poor taste in 1996 (and I think it was) it certainly is now after the shootings at Columbine in 1999 and the multiple similar scenes that have played themselves out in the manner the song describes. Icky. Add the fact that the melody is a nearly direct rip-off of Soul Asylum's Black Gold (TWO Soul Asylum parodies on one album, really?) and I nominate this for worst "Weird Al" song ever.

So that's Bad Hair Day, the grab bag of overly-obvious jokes, tasteless jokes, and small flashes of brilliance that typify Al's later work. Or at least that's the view of an adult. If you're a 13 year-old-boy, add at least one letter to the final grade at the end. I certainly don't mean that in a condescending way.

References to food: 0
References to T.V.: 4
Grade: D-
Fave Song: Everything You Know Is Wrong

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Totally with you on "Everything You Know Is Wrong" ... one of my favorite memories was being with my daughter, who was an early tween at the time, with a group of girls who were doing tweeny-a capella karaoke. After all of them did their best Mariah or Whitney or Britney or what-have-you, my daughter stood up and did her a capella version of "Everything You Know Is Wrong." She always did have good taste in cover songs.