“Weird Al” Yankovic prepares to smash an acoustic guitar. Like a real-deal rockstar. Only weirder. Matthew Daley/Torontoist.
“Weird Al” Yankovic
June 16, 3:00 p.m
When you’re writing about a concert, or even if you’re just at a concert, one of the nice things to do straight away is note the eclecticism of the audience. Like the LCBO, concerts are the great leveler, flattening out all the differences of race, gender, class, et cetera. At concerts, fans new and old mix and mingle, clink plastic beer cups, and sing along together, humming the half-verses they can’t remember the lyrics to. And it’s fun to feign surprise at this; at the idea that people who dress different sometimes like the same things, and that a whole universe exists outside of your own personal processes of taste-making and self-cultivation.
You can’t really do this with a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert, though. (And, from here on, let’s drop the quotation marks flanking “Weird Al.” No, it’s not his real name. But it’s his persona. Weird Al.) The thing about a Weird Al concert is that it’s extraordinarily homogenous. And with regards to Saturday’s matinee concert at Massey Hall, the audience was almost entirely whitewashed. Like, pretty much all white people. Weird Al’s demographics can be handily summed up with the title of his 2006 parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin,” which name-checks MIT, M.C. Escher, Dungeons & Dragons, and Minesweeper in the first verse: “White and Nerdy.” And indeed, plenty of the white, nerdy people at Saturday’s concert gamely sported “White and Nerdy” T-shirts, like it was an attempt to reclaim the words “white” and “nerdy.” (You’ll also notice—and I don’t mean to be mean, but it’s true—that there are a lot of fat people at Weird Al concerts, which seems peculiar for about half-a-second. Then you realize that half the guy’s singles are hymns to lasagna, spiced ham, big tacos, couch potato-ism, and other hallmarks of a diabetically sedentary lifestyle.)
That people are pejoratively white (you know, “white” in the dopey, square way) and nerdy (and fat) at Weird Al concerts is okay, though. Because it’s an obviously dopey and nerdy thing, being into a parody songwriter and his parody songs to the point that they outgrow their novelty and become, for you, regular music, and to the point where you want to hear these parody songs back-to-back-to-back. (And to the point that, like the guy behind me, you drive the family all the way from Michigan to Toronto to see all this.) It’s hard to be cool at a Weird Al concert. But that’s okay. Too much energy gets wrapped in being cool, in these processes of taste-making and self-cultivation. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, strap on your billowiest Hawaiian shirt, knock down a double-shot of aerosol cheese, and dare to be stupid.
Weird Al and his band took the stage around 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, a quarter-hour past the posted 3 p.m. start time. Fashionably late, in true rock star form. Because the concert (and the later show, that night at 8 p.m.), were being filmed for a TV special, Massey Hall seemed deceptively full, with producers trolling the aisles and shuffling people around, making sure to pack seats on the floor and stacking the modest overflow in the balconies. Opening with “Polka Face”—the latest of Al’s trademark polka-fied pop medleys, including riffs on Bieber’s “Baby,” Owl City’s “Fireflies,” Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” (get it?) and about a dozen other foot-slapping samples—Weird Al bounded on stage, whirling around and high-kicking in white socks and black loafers. You could explain away his tardiness easily enough by just imagining him snorting Pixy Stix backstage. And through two hours, and a whole mess of costume changes, Al and his band maintained the rowdy goofball energy, working through numbers from their latest record, Alpocalypse, and old standbys like “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV,” “Amish Paradise,” and “Smells Like Nirvana” (complete with sullen cheerleaders and Al in Kurt Cobain get-up).
It’s probably not unexpected that a parody tunesmith’s concert is itself a parody of a rock concert, including one-note drum solos, one-note bass solos, smashed acoustic guitars, and two-note drum solo reprises. What’s surprising is how consistently entertaining it is. Fueled by Al’s manic comic energy, the gimmick doesn’t exhaust itself. It speaks both to Weird Al’s fantastic on-stage presence and the depth of his craft. It seems kind of unfair, even blasphemous, to call Weird Al a “parody songwriter,” as if he just takes existing songs and overlays lyrics about food or cable TV, though, really, that’s basically what he does. Beyond his knack for a funny turn of phrase, though, there’s a savage wit to Weird Al’s music.
Take “Smells Like Nirvana,” Al’s parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Besides poking at the band’s mumbled, unintelligible lyrics (“What is this song all about? / Can’t figure any lyrics out”), it also critique’s Nirvana’s eventual sell-out, marked largely by the success of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video on MTV (“Sing distinctly?” / We don’t wanna! / Buy our album! / We’re Nirvana!”). If there’s any thread that runs through Weird Al’s 13 studio albums (besides the polka stuff), it’s a critique of the disposability of pop music, despite shifts in form, content, and marketing. Madonna, Nirvana, Coolio, The Doors: they’re all more-or-less interchangeable, and they’re all fair game. Weird Al’s ability to not merely rearrange a lyric sheet for maximal jokey punch and Star Wars references, but ape the styles of popular musicians is doubtless a genuine talent, and not just a gimmick (“Dare to be Stupid” and “CNR”—parodies of Devo and the White Stripes, respectively—are remarkably spot-on).
For many people my age (well, me, at least) who didn’t have access to good music until they started running with kids who had cool older brothers who were already well into high school (or better, university) Weird Al was kind of like a gateway drug. “The Alternative Polka” from 1996’s Bad Hair Day was a handbook to good, or at least passably good bands like R.E.M., Soundgarden, and Beck, who you weren’t likely to learn about if you grew up in a town that didn’t have a college radio station, and where all the available rock ‘n’ roll FM bands played was blocks of Kansas and Bad Company. Weird Al is music’s The Simpsons. He offers up all the referential pop indexes and gives you the scent to go sniff out the source. If you’re young and dumb enough to unashamedly ask a clerk at Sunrise Records in the Seaway Mall in Welland, Ontario what that “black ol’ sun” song is from “Alternative Polka” is, and willing to weather the snark and eye-rolls, you’re well on your way to knowing about stuff and, way more importantly, becoming relatively industrious and able to find out about stuff for yourself.
So besides it being legitimately fun and raucously entertaining, seeing Weird Al live (save for all the dead space between costume changes, filled by old Al TV clips and other Al-centered television snippets), it can also be sweetly nostalgic and personal. It’s kind of like running into that friend’s older brother who introduced you to Weezer and told you what weed was, but if that guy was super famous and funny and awesome at parody songwriting. It’s great. And when Weird Al waddled out for the final number, the seminal Michael Jackson send-up “Fat,” in a variation of the pear-shaped fat suit from that music video, you get an odd, gleeful, tingly feeling, which I imagine is not unlike the feeling people get when they see the Mona Lisa or the canals of Venice or Mount Fuji in person, standing before it half-humbled because it’s so inexplicably different and overwhelmingly present: something more than the representations you see on postcards and in coffee table books.
And anyways, what’s not to like? As the fella once said: “The man who is tired of Weird Al Yankovic is tired of life.”