Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An Open Letter to "Weird Al" Yankovic

Dear Mr. Yankovic,

Do you remember me? I last wrote you in 1988, suggesting that you parody Robert Palmer's hit Simply Irresistible using the title Simply Indigestible. I don't blame you for not taking my suggestion, but I still think it would have been pretty funny.

I'm writing now because I've just spent the past 5 months reviewing every single one of your albums on my blog, and I've got some thoughts and advice I'd like to share with you.

Let me start by thanking you for the joy you've brought me over the years. There have been laughs, of course, but you also introduced me to the kaleidoscopic menu of pop music. I'm guessing my tastes would be much more limited if not for your genre-hopping. Viewing your career in whole has been like taking a tour through the last 27 years of pop music history.

But I've also noted some disturbing trends in your career that I'd like to address. And remember, all of this is meant in a constructive way. I'm here to help.

1) Get some new themes. Everybody knows you have a food and TV fixation. I counted; in your catalog there are 31 songs that reference food and 25 that feature some mention of TV. You've even released compilation albums on each theme. There's nothing wrong with having motifs in your work, but I think this is excessive. The most disturbing repeated theme in your career is more under the radar; it's what I call the Crazy List. You know what I'm talking about. You pick a subject and then just list absurd events related to it. It's not that great of an idea in the first place, yet you've done it 24 times! That's an average of 2 per album. It's time to retire that schtick, or at least use it more sparingly. Oh, and you know there's more than just the first person perspective, right? I mean, a couple of your songs use the second, and a few less use the third, but the majority of them are all about I, I, I.

On a positive note, keep doing the polka medleys. I love 'em.

2) Deepen your sense of humor. Al, you're 50 years old now. Believe me, I'm all for staying young at heart, but often you're still writing jokes for 12 year-olds. I understand that this is part of your ongoing appeal, but you've shown yourself capable of so much more. In fact, your first album had some examples of sly social commentary (Happy Birthday, Buckingham Blues). And the songs where you tone it down a little bit (Frank's 2000" TV, Airline Amy, Skipper Dan, and others without people's names in the titles) are often your best. Don't be afraid to add some complexity and layers to your humor; don't always go for the easiest, basest joke. Specifically, would it kill you to tone down the violence (I'm thinking The Night Santa Went Crazy here) and fat jokes?

3) Remedy your cultural short-sightedness. Speaking of base, there's a small number of your songs that make you seem kind of like an ignorant dick. Or at least someone not aware of his own privilege as a white, heterosexual, protestant, and upper class male. So, Amish Paradise, Pretty Fly For a Rabbi, Whatever You Like? Throw them out. Dropping the names of other countries because they're "funny"? Forget it. I hope that you realized this yourself, because Canadian Idiot was an awesome condemnation of jingoism.

4) Stop stealing musical ideas. Before I embarked on this reviewing project, I would have defended you to anyone, pointing to your non-parody songs as a proof-positive of your limitless creativity. I've been especially enamored of your style parodies, where you write a song that sounds like it could have been by a certain artist, but is really completely original (Dare To Be Stupid, You Make Me, Everything You Know Is Wrong). But lo and behold I discover that many of these songs bear an uncanny resemblance to pre-existing songs. Take The Biggest Ball of Twine In Minnesota for example. Lyrically, it's brilliant. Musically, it's nearly a dead ringer for Harry Chapin's 300,000 Pounds of Bananas. Really, Al? Really? It kind of sours me on the whole thing. There are at least a dozen other similar examples in your song catalog. I don't mind so much that you pay homage, but in every case the only songwriter listed is one Al Yankovic. That means you are taking credit for musical ideas that were not your own. I'm surprised you haven't found yourself in a George Harrison vs. The Chiffons sort of situation because of this. My advice: Cut it out.

In conclusion, I'd like to thank you again for your work. I can tell you have great fun doing it, and that goes a long way. Please keep challenging yourself as you head into the future. Oh, and here's a list of your own songs that I think you should hold up as a standard.

Sincerely,
Paul Allen
A Close Personal Friend of Al