Idle Thought

There’s a comedian musician named “Weird Al” Yankovic.  I’ll assume you’re familiar with the name for the sake of the post.

His music comes with one of five premises:

  1. Taking Pop music hits and re-writing the lyrics in an absurd parody
  2. Making a medley of some other pop music hits, in a accelerated pace and in a polka style
  3. Writing an original song with original lyrics…
    1. … in the musical style of a popular musician or band
    2. … focusing heavily on a single humorous premise, absurdity or satire
    3. … lampooning a songwriting tradition (usually these are love songs apparently written by sociopaths)

For example, on his 1988 album “Even Worse”, the track list is:

  1. Fat(type #1 – a cover of Michael Jackson’s song, “Bad”)
  2. Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White(type #3.2 – an original song, with original music)
  3. (This Song’s Just) Six Words Long(type #1 – a parody cover of George Harrison’s song, “I Got My Mind Set On You”)
  4. You Make Me(type #3.1 – an original song in the style of Oingo Boingo)
  5. I Think I’m a Clone Now(type #1 – a cover of the Tiffany song, “I Think We’re Alone Now”, which is itself a cover of the 1967 song by Tommy James & The Shandells)
  6. Lasagne(type #1 – a cover, of the Los Lobos cover, of the Richie Valens cover, of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba”)
  7. Melanie(type #3.3 – a psychotic writes a love song)
  8. Alimony(type #1 – a cover, of the Billy Idol cover, of the Tommy James and the Shondells song “Mony, Mony”)
  9. Velvet Elvis(type #3.1, an original song written in the style of The Police)
  10. Twister(type #3.1, an original song written in the style of The Beastie Boys)
  11. Good Old Days(type #3.1, an original song written in the style of James Taylor)

(Oddly, no polka medley on “Even Worse”.)

Folks generally either really like Weird Al, or they find him simplistic and stupid. Usually the folks who find him simplistic and stupid have only heard his straight parody songs (and only a few of them, and also they don’t have a weird sense of humor, and they’re dumb and wrong… but let’s not judge them too badly).

Sure, when I bought my first Weird Al cassette (his first album, Weird Al Yankovic), I bought it for “Another One Rides the Bus”, but the two tracks on the album that have always made me laugh the most are “The Check’s in the Mail” and my all-time favorite Weird Al song, “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung”, both of which are 3.2s. This is common for his discography. I almost always like his darkest humor, and his original songs are usually the darkest ones.

But from the standpoint of musicianship, the ones that I admire the most… as a testament to Al’s actual skills… are his 3.1 songs. I suspect it’s pretty difficult to write original music that evokes enough of an existing musician’s style without a lot of hard work. A few artists that have had their work parodied or lampooned by Al mention that they occasionally think of his lyrics for their songs, which made me wonder…

Have any of them ever done a “reverse-Weird Al”?

I can think of two versions of this… one would be just covering Weird Al’s parody of your song (or covering his song written in your style) during a live event.  Turns out this has happened at least to some degree, according to Wikipedia:

The Presidents of the United States of America were so pleased with “Gump”, Yankovic’s parody of their song “Lump”, that they ended the song with his last line instead of their own (“And that’s all I have to say about that”) on the live recording of “Lump” featured on the compilation album Pure Frosting.

I’d call that half meta.  Or maybe 1/8th meta? I have to admit, if the Oingo Boingo guys were still doing the Halloween show, I’d pay serious money to hear them cover “You Make Me”.

The second version would be to go full meta and do a “reverse full Weird Al”.

Step One: Weird Al has written an original song in the style of your band, such as Velvet Elvis (The Police) or Good Old Days (James Taylor)

Step Two: the target artist turns around and writes a parody version of the Weird Al song, using their own made-up lyrics (presumably ones that are actually not absurd, but in your actual lyrical style).

I would be tickled to know if this has ever happened.

I’d be even more tickled if it happened, and then Weird Al went and included the parody version of his own song in the polka medley on a future album.

That would be meta-meta!


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Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution. ...more →

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38 thoughts on “Idle Thought

  1. When I was in college, I knew someone who was more familiar with the Weird Al versions of popular songs than the actual songs themselves.

    Popular music and “nerd culture” (by which I mean SF, Fantasy, Gaming, Anime, Comic Books, etc.) always seem to have some very weird clashes and don’t get along. I remember an older nerd talking about when the Beatles were all the rage in his junior high school. He and his nerd pals couldn’t figure out why anyone would rather listen to the Beatles and the Stones over Gilbert & Sullivan. I gotta say that struck me as strange because I have a special loathing for Gilbert & Sullivan and because it strikes me as being very out of time with your contemporaries. I think it would be very lonely especially because I get how being young in the 1960s and finding the Beatles and the Stones to be very exciting.

    Even when I was deeply into anime, I was out of place in the geek scenes for not really being into the geek music scene whether it was Goth (I remember Voltaire being big when I was in college among the geeks). There were a few people who listened to indie rock but not many.

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    • When I was in college, I knew someone who was more familiar with the Weird Al versions of popular songs than the actual songs themselves.

      You knew me in college?

      I have always had a very casual relationship with popular music. I pretty much didn’t listen to it until college, but it was so much the environment around me that I knew the popular songs in a vague sort of way. At the same time I was a white nerd and ran with other white nerds. Weird Al was very much a part of that culture. So I have to stop and think what was the original that “Another One Rides the Bus” was parodying.

      In related news, there are elements of ’50s and ’60s culture that I knew first through Tom Lehrer. In some cases it was decades before I figured out what he was referencing. Then there is the popular music of a generation before that, which I still know best via Spike Jones and his City Slickers. These are songs that when I hear then done straight just don’t seem right without the glug-glugs.

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      • I was going to ask that same question.

        (E.g.: I know “White and Nerdy” far, far better than I know its source material – I think I only every heard the original song a year or two ago. And I know “Word Crimes” a lot better than “Blurred Lines,” though that one is arguably now because I’m old).

        I was in college in the late 80s and early 90s but I was also pretty much a hermit. I listened to classical music (still do, mostly). I got the Weird Al parodies of the really popular music (e.g., “Fat”) but some of the more subtle ones, I would know his version better.

        Confession: I kinda like Gilbert and Sullivan. You have to be prepared for anachronism and silliness, but the songs are certainly catchy.

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    • Many people into geek culture place a lot of emphasis on being different from normal people. I remember that average people used to be referred to as mundanes and latter muggles when Harry Pottet came out. Some prefer to express cluelessness about pop culture and others direct hostility. It’s also why many geeks like dressing unfashionably or strangely, ignore common etiquette, etc.

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      • Ah, “mundanes.” A key point in my maturation was when I realized what was so terribly wrong about that usage and dropped it from my vocabulary. That being said, many (most?) (all?) groups have terms for persons not in the group. These terms rarely come across as respectful, even when they strictly speaking are neutral.

        I don’t think you have the causation right about geek culture. I see geek culture in the broad sense of the term as the various sub-cultures of people more interested in some subject than is generally considered normal. This might be because any interest at all in the subject is unusual, or because the interest is a bit too intense. My being interested in baseball is normal. I can go to a game and have a completely non-geek conversation about it with the person sitting next to me. My being interested in 19th century baseball is totally geeky. I don’t raise the subject when I am in “normal” mode. In a week I will be attending the annual 19th century baseball conference in Cooperstown. I will totally geek out.

        The thing is, life is short. If you are fascinated by the nuances of depictions of daleks over the decades, the time and attention you are devoting to this is time and attention you aren’t devoting to keeping up with normal popular culture stuff. Yes, many geeks make a virtue out of this, often being obnoxious about it, but they are geeks because they prioritize other stuff than popular culture, not the other way around.

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        • The line between geek culture and popular culture isn’t as clear as a lot of geeks think. Things like Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and at least some comics have a lot of mainstream appeal even if most people aren’t into them as geeks are. They wouldn’t be big money makers for corporations otherwise and wouldn’t get so many movies. Geeks might make an important and substantial financial contribution to the entertainment industry but not enough to support it alone.

          Incidentally, I think the biggest difference between Japanese and non-Japanese geek cultures was that Japanese companies figured out how to commercialize and monetize geek culture long before American and European companies did. it took decades for Hollywood studios to realize that geeks are a good source of income and that getting big name celebrities to the conventions is a great commercial opportunity. The Japanese companies figured this out by the early 1980s at latest but probably sometime during the 1970s. This is also why Japanese companies are more tolerant of things like doujinshi than American companies were of fan fiction and fan comics.

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          • Lee,
            Geeks, in general, are market share. Real market share, in a way that trannies and … (grasping for the right word here — I’m getting fag hag, but there’s no way that’s polite. Help?). And, yes, there are levels of geek, where some people are less interested in every nitty gritty detail… but there is entertainment out there that only appeals to the Geek, and it sells well.

            In Japan, being a geek is a respectable thing — in fact, that you are so passionate about something is considered a good thing.

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            • If you are wondering, “Is this word a slur?” isn’t it simply prudent to eschew its use?

              Maybe this is one of those phrases that people within the group can use about themselves, but those of us on the outside of the equation should probably avoid if possible.

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              • Burt,
                Yes. I am merely casting about for someone, anyone, who can possibly give me a word that will capture the denotation while removing the negative connotations.
                As I do not exist within the culture, I feel rather uncomfortable coining a neologism (Although, I suppose I might have gone with Dorothy).

                I’m trying to avoid it, I’m just not sure what to use instead.

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            • The Japanese do not respect geeks. Most ordinary Japanese find otakus and otaku culture just as weird and off-putting as many Americans do or at least did. This is the country that gave us the phrase “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down” and as a very big bullying problem in their schools that the government recognized decades before bullying became a political cause in Western nations.

              What Japan does seem to allow is more public displays of geek behavior on a semi-regular basis than Western countries. I can’t imagine that something like Harajuku, an area of Tokyo where Japanese young people gather up in costumes on Sundays for a few decades now, would have been allowed to thrive in most American cities. I can’t imagine New York City being kind to teenagers descending on Union Square every Sunday from the boroughs and suburbs in costume and hanging out for several hours.

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              • Lee,
                It’s important to understand that bullying in Japan is a different situation than bullying in America. Bullying in America is an individual thing. Two or three people (like it is in IT or Stranger Things). Bullying in Japan is the entire class on your ass. (I’ll admit that this may exist in America, but it is certainly not the same thing in the cultural sense).

                The nail that sticks up certainly does get hammered down. But that’s why Japanese schoolteachers pay older kids to deal with bullies.

                Being an Otaku is a little different from just being a geek about something.

                In Japan, they still have cowboy bars.

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          • The line between geek culture and popular culture isn’t as clear as a lot of geeks think. Things like Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and at least some comics have a lot of mainstream appeal even if most people aren’t into them as geeks are.

            Hence my definition of “geek” allowing for being too much into something, even if that something is mainstream. Seen every Star Wars film? Mainstream. Seen every Star Wars film multiple times while cosplaying them? Totally geek.

            Dr. Who is an interesting case. New Who is pretty mainstream, what with it being available on cable and streaming on Amazon. Classic Who is a different matter. It was decidedly geeky back in the day (at least in America–I don’t know about in Britain). It was shown at odd hours on some but not all PBS stations. You had to actively seek it out. I still have a box full of obsolete VHS tapes I made of those broadcasts. Classic Who just recently was made available for streaming in the US via britbox.com, a partnership of the BBC and ITV to monetize their libraries, and God bless ’em for it! But if I am being brutally honest, the pacing of those Classic Who episodes can be a bit staid, running to stultifying. Their charm does not run to gripping plotting. I doubt that, even with this new availability, they will appeal to more than a niche market.

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      • I have weird interests and I wish I could cultivate that feeling a little more. I think it’s rude to refer to other people as “mundanes” or “Muggles” or “normies” (apparently the memetic version), but I also wish I could get past my eternal feeling of being on the outside of a party everyone else is enjoying and looking in. That is: I feel less “special and unique” for whatever geeky interests I have and more “weird and I don’t fit in”

        That said: I take v. kindly to people who express a shared interest in my personal odd interests, like the student who steps into my office and immediately identifies what classical piece is playing on my Pandora feed or something, and when I express surprise, they say, “Oh, I’ve always loved classical music” or “Oh, I learned to play a version of that on the flute” or something.

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        • I have a tendency to do the same thing, according to my wife. And like you it is not intentional but I do enjoy it when someone notices that I am playing/watching/reading something that I enjoy especially. But it has its downsides too, as she now feels that all most everything offhand I say is some sort of odd reference. This isn’t helped by my habit of doing something such as reply to any banal request with (in blandest voice possible) “I can’t do that C-.” or when going out for Japanese food “Sushi… that’s what my wife calls me.” Great memory for that sort of thing, but I will loose my keys in the front door.

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        • @fillyjonk

          I think there are ways that my interests in art and performance can be seen as intense and geeky. I even like some gaming.

          Art kids and geek kids tend to have weird relationships. We were all outsiders in high school but we never quite banded together and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at some geek event and had people make dismissive remarks about the intelligence of arts majors. Eventually it becomes a turn-off.

          As to Gilbert&Sullivan, I generally find the silliness off-putting (I’m a fairly serious person though might disagree based on today’s lunch.) Plus I loathe most 19th century Victorian art. When it comes to 19th century art, I prefer the starts of modernism with Chekov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Wilde, the Impressionists, and post-Impressionists to the high Victoriana of Gilbert & Sullivan.

          I’ve mentioned my general loathing of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as well.

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          • I’m quite fond of Gilbert & Sullivan, and one of the reasons that I am is that much of the silliness of their work was directed at poking fun at Victorian society and its mores. The Major General Song is about how the British Officer Corps was overloaded with ignorant toffs who knew a lot about history, classics and science but who knew absolutely nothing about fighting battles.

            The “switched at birth” twist that they pulled out so often was a reductio ad absurdum on the way misbehaviour was treated very differently depending on the offender’s social class. Having the entire cast change their opinion at the drop of a hat upon hearing who a character’s father really is was utterly absurd, and that’s the point.

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  2. They didn’t do a reverse parody, but I remember that Nirvana was delighted when Weird Al parodied “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

    I mostly love his straight parodies, even when they are simplistic and stupid. “I Want a New Duck” is legit one of my favorite songs.

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  3. The all-time best Weird Al straight up parody for my money was “The Saga Begins”, which parodizes Don MacCleans “American Pie” with lyrics drawn from the Star Wars prequels. I have heard it said that MacClean sometimes gets the lyrics confused with his own.

    Seriously, if you’ve never run across this, stop what you’re doing right now and watch at least the first minute. One minute, that’s all I ask.

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  4. My favorite take on Weird Al came from Chamillionaire: (paraphrased) “So you’ve got a hit album, you see it go all the way to #1, and you think that there’s no place to go from here. Then Weird Al calls you.”

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