The Weird Al Paradox

Simpsons Weird Al Yankovic

So the news recently hit that Weird Al finally has a Top 10 record after all these years. According to Billboard, that’s 73,000 copies of Straight Outta Lynwood sold. Congrats to Al; he deserves it.

It’s worth noting, though, that album sales are down overall and that nearly equal sales of 72,310 only ranked a 16 on the Billboard 200 for 1999’s Running with Scissors.

But really, that news has got me thinking. 1) about Weird Al’s sustainability, and 2) About what his sustainability says about the state of the music industry.

Weird Al’s longevity over the years is based on the simple premise that he continues to draw his inspiration from current music trends and hits. Sandwiched between his original songs about food, dysfunctional relationships and extreme bodily injuries (as well as the ever-awesome polka medleys), one is always sure to find several tracks based on the trends and ideas that define the moments his records are released.

It’s his thing; that’s what he does.

The effect of this approach is that Weird Al tends to remain relevant in the here and now, ages after his older parodies (and the songs that inspired them) have become well-worn. Frankly, it’s quite amazing that he’s been able to adapt so successfully as musical culture has changed. White and Nerdy is a far cry from My Bologna.

Underlying that ability to remain relevant, however, is ubiquity. A large portion of Weird Al’s success is wholly dependent on his audience’s familiarity with the songs and artists he parodies. In other words, Weird Al’s appeal is strongly rooted in the appeal of his sources of inspiration .

I say this as a person who has paid little attention to radio hits and the comings and goings of would-be superstars in recent years. As a result, I’ve largely not been “hip” to the so-called mainstream. But don’t construe that as being out-of-touch; there’s plenty of culture going around that doesn’t make a blip on the big corporate media radar. It’s just that Eminem and Chamillionaire mean so little to me as a connoisseur of music that Al’s recent works have fallen a little flat.*

It illustrates the nature of the music market specifically and American consumerism in general. The truth is that the market for music is fractured, and increasingly so. More and more often, people aren’t relying on a single source for their purchasing recommendations.

Audiences for different styles of music are becoming progressively more mutually exclusive. The top of the music charts has become a battle to see which fan base niche market will turn out and buy the most records in a given week. But that fan base is only a relatively small portion of all music sales (think the long tail). That’s markedly different from twenty years ago when Michael Jackson could generate massive audience appeal in a more solidified market.

That’s the line Weird Al is going to have to walk in the future. In that regard, his latest album already has one casualty from my perspective: Before researching this, I had absolutely no idea who Taylor Hicks was, and still don’t understand why he’s inspired a Weird Al parody.

I imagine many people would have a similar reaction if Al released a parody of LCD Soundsystem’s Daft Punk is Playing at My House, a song that took the indie scene by storm last year (Though that song has 41,090 listeners on vs Hicks’ 1492).

He’s still a clever and funny guy, but to me, there’s a connection that’s missing from his lastest offerings and it’s likely to remain that way in the future. That’s ok I suppose; I’ve still got Smells Like Nirvana.

*That said, his parody of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet (Trapped in the Drive-Thru) is freakin’ spot-on.

Straight Outta Lynwood
"Weird Al" Yankovic - Straight Outta Lynwood - White & Nerdy (Parody of "Ridin'" By Chamillionaire featuring Krayzie Bone).

“difficult but rewarding”

I took an hour out of the tunequest this morning to listen to an episode of the Sound of Young America, a radio show/podcast that I discovered in January. In all seriousness, I’m not a fan of talk radio as a format; I find that listening to other peoples’ conversations grating. I’d rather be having my own conversations or listening to music.

SoYA instantly cut through that avoision. Besides host Jesse Thorn’s nearly-perfect-for-radio voice, the show’s attitude is, well, awesome. In fact, the show bills itself as "Dedicated to things that are awesome" and I can certainly get behind that. I think I fell in love with the show almost instantly one cold, wet, dreary and long Atlanta commute home. The guest was Josh Kornblut, who talked about his one-man Benjamin Franklin show.

Now, like any good American, I’m fond of the Founding Fathers for their intellectual, diplomatic and governmental achievements. But the flipside of that adoration manifests itself by thinking that it’s hilarious to place them outside of their historical context, like Ben Franklin besting Jimi Hendrix at air hockey "that’s game, Hendrix". And when Jesse Thorn seemed as excited as I did about Franklin, that sealed the deal right then and there. themodernista accuses me of having a man-crush on Jesse.

Unfortunately, with tunequest occupying up almost all of my free listening time, our affair has been scattered and brief. So today’s episode was not only a rare treat, but relevant to my project here because it dealt with the topic of "rock snobs" a phenomenon with which I can claim some familiarity. I freely admit that I have some rock snob-ish tendencies, which definitely shows through my desire to collect rare and obscure music and eschew the pop charts.

Though I think the term "snob" is a little inappropriate for me, since I honestly try to keep an open mind about music and try not to be too exclusionary. I’m not ashamed to say that my library contains some Eminem and even one Limp Bizkit song (okay, I am a little ashamed of that one. But it is a decent rock version of the Mission Impossible theme, so it gets bonus points from the Lalo Schifrin association).

(BTW, I can’t stand genuine rock snobs, so I try to avoid those circles. I don’t need to follow who’s acceptable to listen to this month. And I certainly don’t need anyone’s approval of my musical tastes; At my age, I don’t need much street cred. Plus, the inherent negativity of the generic rock snob is quite off-putting.)

Of course, I wouldn’t be undertaking the tunequest if my collector’s habit hadn’t gotten out of control.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The progression of a rock snob was discussed on the show, from the acquisition of a velvet underground record (or other acceptably legendary artist) at age 18 and the subsequent search for ever-more arcane and obscure music. Eventually, that search leads to music that is so unappealing that it can only be enjoyed intellectually, by telling oneself that it is brilliant and that if someone else doesn’t think so, then they just don’t get it. (On that point, the episode does make a slightly negative mention of Steve Reich, to which I must object. His Music for 18 Musicians is both listenable and provocative. But if you don’t agree, I won’t accuse you of not getting it.)

To the appropriately discerning ears, said music can be called "Difficult, but rewarding," an endurance test of sound and noise that for all the effort required, when it’s finished, you can say, "That was worth it."

Which, in turn, brings me to Chicago Underground Trio, a group who I’ve categorized as avant jazz. It is the type of music that fits the above description. It is a swirling cacophany of trumpets and drums that takes momentary breaks into recognizable forms of music before beginning the assault again. The musicianship of the performers is not in question–they are affiliated with Tortoise after all–but this record really is a chore to listen to. In the end, I found it difficult but not rewarding.

Cex – Lyrically Superior, & Random iPod thoughts

I know Apple has repeatedly assured the world that both iTunes and the iPod are truly random devices. And I know that by definition, randomness is unpredictable and that when I’m surprised that my iPod chose to play both Cex’s Being Ridden and Being Ridden Instrumentals within an hour of each other, it’s because my mind is seeking to add order to a chaotic system, searching for a pattern among the data points.

I know true randomness allows for, and even anticipates, such coincidences from time to time, but that doesn’t make the phenomenon any less disconcerting. Not that I’m complaining. Both of Cex’s Being Ridden albums are true works of lyrical and musical poetry and it was a joy to listen to both his nuanced, straight-ahead, hard-charging lyrics and his well-composed music. Without the lyrics, the instrumentals take on a smooth, relaxing, almost orchestral quality, the way the best idm does.

That Kid Rjyan has got some real talent and puts on a good live show too. Mix equal parts Fresh Prince and Eminem, but take away their schtick and you’ll get something close to these albums: a singable but poignant electronic-rocky-hip-hop-hybrid that’s really not like anything you’ve ever heard.

check out these lyrics from Earth-Shaking Event, easily Cex at his finest. Now there’s an ideal I can get behind.