Weird and Wonderful

Even as a parody act, Al Yankovic has his own place in the pop culture canon.

Say whatever you want about “Weird” Al Yankovic, but this is for certain: The man can get a crowd going. Like, really going. As in: hoots and hollers long before the 52-year-old joke-rocker appeared onstage at the Fox Theater last Sunday; shouts, applause, and uproarious laughter throughout his two-hour set; and reverent murmurs and mile-wide smiles all around after it was over. During “Amish Paradise,” Yankovic’s send-up of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” a thirtyish guy suddenly and wordlessly shot both fists in the air, the way you might when your team makes the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. At another point, a twenty-something girl with Coke-bottle glasses and a big sweater — possibly ironic, probably not — started cackling so hard at a diarrhea joke that her companion had to rush to get her water, presumably to prevent choking. This dude is a performance god.

Now on the umpteenth leg of his “Alpocalypse” tour — not to mention some one thousand shows into his career — Yankovic is surely used to it. At this point, the set list varies little between concerts: He usually begins with “Polka Face” (one of two Lady Gaga take-offs on his new album, also called Alpocalypse); runs capably through his biggest hits; and always, always, ends with a two-song encore of the Star Wars send-ups “The Saga Begins” and “Yoda.” On Sunday night, Yankovic took the stage promptly at 7:30, and stage banter was minimal-to-nonexistent, save for a couple short gags. Costume changes, moreover, were clearly choreographed and fairly rapid-fire: flannel for the Nirvana parody, a red leather Michael Jackson jacket for “Eat It,” and, somewhat more obliquely, a stuffed peacock outfit for “Perform This Way,” a takeoff of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” In between songs — and likely in order to facilitate those costume changes — a video screen played quick clips, channel surfing-style, of schlocky joke videos; of the many references to Al on television and elsewhere in the pop-culture canon; of Madonna, Celine Dion, Eminem, and other celebrities, spliced and diced against footage of Yankovic faux-interviewing them to comedic effect. The gimmick — like many of Yankovic’s songs — was funny, for the most part, but it had grown a bit tired by the end of the show. Not that it mattered.

That’s the thing: Most of these people had obviously heard those songs millions of times before, and many of them aren’t particularly funny or original to begin with, being, as they are, carbon copies of other songs, with only the words changed. And yet: screams, applause, singing along, and the general losing of shit at nearly every juncture. And even though he’s a parody act, there’s an unmistakable and suprising earnestness to Yankovic’s fanbase — or at least enough to make them impossible to make fun of, and to make it clear that there’s something bigger and deeper going on here than clever song take-offs and poop jokes. In subverting the lyrics of Top 40 megahits so they’re about the most utterly banal, unabashedly geeky things — so that Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’,” once an ode to unchecked lawlessness and wanton drug use, becomes “White and Nerdy,” a paean to decidedly un-gangster activities involving many-sided dice and Minesweeper marathons, or that Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” morphs into “Party in the CIA” — Yankovic is, in a way, exposing the sheer vapidity and imaginative smallness of mainstream pop music. It’s a classic emperor-has-no-clothes sort of thing, and it clearly resonates: As fringey as Yankovic may seem when it comes to the larger musical landscape, he’s still sold well over twelve million albums and become a veritable pop-culture icon.

He’s been name-checked on pretty much every mainstream American television show in the Nineties. He has provided a generation of misfits and Minesweeper addicts a model for how to be both weird and well-loved at the same time. And his shows have become a place to revel in one’s nerd-dom, surrounded by people who feel the same way — like when a quick video clip of someone amending a grammatically incorrect grocery store sign got massive applause, or when “Amish Paradise” came on and five-year-olds and sixty-year-olds alike sang at the top of their lungs, or when, after the show, a group of dancers still in stormtrooper costumes from the encore came into the theater’s lobby and were utterly besieged by people wanting photos.

Altogether, that’s probably why Yankovic has managed to outlast (and, in many cases, outsell) damn near every act he’s skewered; why, in an era where anyone with an Internet connection and a mic can make a parody track, he’s still the only one of his ilk packing venues like the Fox — and why, when at the very end of the show, he shouted, “I love you all!,” it felt less like lip service and more like an honest-to-God declaration. At any rate, it was clear how the audience felt.

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