As snarky writers go, I’m pretty good at admitting whenever one of my flippant comments goes awry — especially when it’s one about a musician who’s built an enduring four-decade career out of snark.
I couldn’t help but slip in a little cynicism when, back in early December, the Minnesota State Fair announced that ’80s pop-music satirist and onetime MTV star Weird Al Yankovic would be among its first two 2019 grandstand headliners. It didn’t help that Hootie & the Blowfish was the other.
In 1985 I was the perfect age, 12, when Weird Al first hit it big with “Eat It,” his gluttonous spoof of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Even back then, though, I wondered how long the hits and the yuks could last.
Turns out there are plenty current and former 12-year-olds who are still very much into the accordion- and punchline-squeezing satirist. I heard blowback right away from many of them about his grandstand concert coming up Tuesday — part of the Strings Attached Tour with a full orchestra, a large production that underlines how serious things can get in Weird Al land.
“He seems to take his music and comedy very seriously,” said Jon Copeland of Minneapolis, a regular at First Avenue and other underground shows, explaining why his teenage son and daughter are also now Yankovic fans.
“He writes clever, well-crafted parodies that are funny and silly but never seem mean-spirited. In fact, the bands and artists he parodies are often in on the joke and honored.”
Andrew Bursaw, a longtime fan from St. Paul, put it this way: “He’s a niche artist that has transcended time with parody songs that found a way to be catchy while poking fun at the songs’ original counterpart.”
Even some musicians and tastemakers in the cool Twin Cities scene came to Yankovic’s defense.
“He truly has been a meme generator before memes ever actually became a thing,” said writer, drummer and DJ Danny Sigelman, whose first concert was a Yankovic appearance at Valleyfair when he was in fourth grade.
“The fact that Nirvana were more excited about receiving a call from Al while in the dressing room at ‘SNL’ to parody ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ than they were about their appearance on the show that night should tell you enough.”
Singer/songwriter Ben Cook-Feltz, who traveled with friends to see Yankovic perform a few weeks ago in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, thinks his musicianship alone is vastly underrated.
“He’s a virtuoso at accordion, and his skills as a producer and arranger are tremendous,” Cook-Feltz said. “He’s also created stylistic tributes to Frank Zappa, Brian Wilson, Devo, the Pixies etc., all of which are disturbingly spot-on and creative.”
Jillian Rae, another reputable musician and songwriter, applauded Yankovic’s silly side in these not-so-laughable times.
“I think the magic of Weird Al — and why so many of us love him — is because he’s all about not taking anything too seriously,” she said.
Word from Weird Al himself
Those fans had a lot more to say about the enduring appreciation of Weird Al than Weird Al himself did, talking by phone three weeks ago when his orchestral tour stopped in Las Vegas.
“I really can’t explain people’s tastes,” said the 59-year-old industry vet, who proved as humble and outright likable as any Grammy-winning, platinum-selling musician I’ve interviewed.
“I just keep doing what I think is entertaining and hope people agree with me.”
Yankovic tested just how steadfast his fan base is during his last road trek, which he dubbed the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour. That one featured none of the parody songs or prop-filled stage productions he’s famous for; it was just a straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll show with original songs. And it was an unequivocal hit.
“As much as I love this tour, the Vanity Tour was the most fun I’ve ever had on the road,” he said. “What we’re doing now is big and bombastic, it was just a very different vibe to not do a capital-S ‘Show’ but something just more about the music and the humor. I had so much fun and I think a lot of the fans had fun, too.”
When pressed for further explanation, Yankovic did finally credit his enduring fan base to a certain ageless aspect of his music. There are funny parts in all his songs that today’s 12-year-olds will enjoy, alongside sharper/subtler humor that adults pick up on.
“I look out at the audience and see a broad spectrum of ages,” he said with a sense of wonder. “A lot of the people who were into me in the ’80s are still into me, and now they’re bringing their kids and in some cases grandkids, and they all enjoying the show on different levels. Different ages respond well to different jokes.”
He also noted with a bit of humility that Minnesota is something of an anomaly: He’s bigger here than he is in a lot of other places.
“Minnesota has always had an unusual affinity for my humor, for whatever reasons, good or bad,” he said with a laugh, proudly noting that around 12,000 seats to Tuesday’s 15,000-capacity grandstand had already been sold — making it one of the fair’s hottest tickets.
And with that news came the one bit of cockiness from the man who turned his own “white and nerdy” self-proclamation into rapper braggadocio: He promised a big show suitable for the large crowd.
“This is sort of a greatest-hits tour, with some deeper cuts and a few songs I thought I’d never do live because it only really works with an orchestra behind us,” he said.
“Having the orchestra makes the material more majestic and just gives it gravitas. I think the high concept of it is really what’s funny. Just the thought of Weird Al and full symphony orchestra — those are not two elements people would naturally put together [laughs]. But it works. The songs are ridiculous, but they come off really, really good this way.”
More from Weird Al
On how he keeps his old song parodies fresh for audience members not even born then: “One of my rules for a good parody song is it has to be funny on its own even if you aren’t familiar with the original source material. The best example is my ‘Star Wars’ parody ‘The Saga Begins,’ which is based on Don McLean’s ‘American Pie.’ These kids have no idea about that original 1971 song, they just respond to it on the level of it being about ‘Star Wars.’
“The funny thing is, not long after my version of the song came out, Madonna came out with a disco version of ‘American Pie’ and all these kids were saying, ‘Why is Madonna doing an unfunny version of a Weird Al song?!’ ”
On the lasting legacy of “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” his 1989 hit based on the tourist stop in Darwin: “I’ve only been there once and it was after I’d written the song. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but I’m glad I made the pilgrimage. Now, they have pictures of me up there on the wall. I talked to somebody recently that had some kind of affiliation with the place, and they gave me some kind of figure, like 80 percent of the tourism they get is because of me. That’s nice to hear if true.”
On what would have been his other big Minnesota connection, several proposed parodies that Prince repeatedly turned down: “One of my ideas was to use the music of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ with the lyrics of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ theme song, which was actually going to be the centerpiece of [Yankovic’s self-made 1989] the movie ‘UHF.’ After Prince turned it down, then it became Dire Straits blended with ‘Beverly Hillbillies.’ I had more ideas, too, but after a while I just got the message and stopped asking, and that’s totally fine.
“I’ll never do a Prince song at this point. Legally, I could go to the estate and ask permission. But ethically, I wouldn’t do it because I’ve always respected the wishes of the artist. And Prince made his wishes exceedingly clear.”