Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the final results

Here it is: the summary of a week's worth of listening to, thinking about, ruminating on, and studying the influences, ramifications, and manifestations of Weird Al's 35-year career, a process that has likely taken as much as 10-12 hours in total. It's arguably a lot of time to spend thinking on any one piece of pop culture, but what I've learned in the past week is that I have barely scratched the surface of investigating Al's work. I've ranked the albums and included the rankings and my thoughts here, in addition to some of the other thoughts I've had along the way. On to the final rankings!

Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1980s
Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 1990s
Click here for Ranking the "Weird Al"-bums: the 2000s (and on)

The final rankings and reflections therein

Let's start off with the final rankings, from worst to first, over the decades.

14. Polka Party! (1986) – 5.5/20
13. “Weird Al” Yankovic (1982) – 5.9/20
12. “Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D (1984) – 13/20
11. UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff (1989) – 14/20
10. Even Worse (1988) – 15.3/20
9. Straight Outta Lynwood (2006) – 15.5/20
8. Poodle Hat (2003) – 16/20
7. Off the Deep End (1992) – 16/20
6. Dare to be Stupid (1985) – 17.5/20
5. Mandatory Fun (2014) – 18/20
4. Bad Hair Day (1996) – 18.5/20
3. Alapalooza (1993) – 19/20
2. Alpocalypse (2011) – 19.5/20
1. Running With Scissors (1999) – 20/20

And, for reference, the comparisons between each decade period:
The 1980s: (68/114 = 59.6%)
The 1990s: (73.5/80 = 92%)
The 2000s/2010s: (69/80 = 86%)

So, that answers my initial question of where Mandatory Fun falls in, which corroborates my initial theory of a top 5 standing (at least according to my admittedly somewhat personally skewed ratings). And the final rankings were not all that surprising at all; although I didn't pre-rank the albums before going through this exercise, I imagine my list would have been relatively similar. But still, there were a few surprises along the way and a few things I learned through the process.

Ten things I've learned about Weird Al

1. Weird Al is surprisingly consistent. Over the past 26 years, he has released no albums that ranked less than 70% in my scale, and his last eight albums have been even better. His worst five albums were all in his first decade, but even those were mostly really good (and even those issues might have been solved in not releasing Polka Party!). Just try and think of other artists who are as consistent for as long - there are not many.

2. Weird Al is not finished by any means. Every so often, there's someone who rolls his metaphorical eyes and makes some kind of overture that Weird Al is outdated. (Here's the latest from Steven Hyden from Grantland as an example.) He's not; in fact, he's as relevant as ever, as evidenced by his contention this week for his first #1 album, and he is still finding new topics to explore and ways to parody (aside from the admittedly somewhat "been-done-before" parody "Inactive" - but I can forgive him for that).

3. Al is arguably one of the most accomplished musicians of the last four decades. Consider, for a moment, the number of genres in which Al is fluent: rock, pop, R&B, alternative, hip-hop, rap, country, and, of course, polka. He has come a long way from having to slow down the BPM of "U Can't Touch This" to where he is at now, which is a surprisingly well-regarded rapper by the rap community. He's impressive when his range and scope are considered, both within each album and over the course of his career.

4. Al is occasionally unfortunately juvenile, puerile, scatological, and unnecessarily gory. I noticed it most on Poodle Hat, but there are a surprising number of songs that are actually not really suitable for kids. I know that seems like an obvious point, but I was surprised at the frequency at times. I don't know why he does this, when he also juxtaposes those unfortunate references with...

5. Al is one of the most accomplished satirists in and of pop culture. Some of what Al does is merely parody - making fun of something for the sake of it - but there are times at which Al is a sharp satirical voice. The most prominent example for me is in the juxtaposition between Al's identity and hip-hop, which he has purposefully cultivated since 1990, with "White & Nerdy" as the apex, but there are many other examples: Al's connection with Michael Jackson in the 1980s, the way in which he satirizes music videos, his AlTV (or AlMusic, for us Canadians) specials. There are also several examples of how he satirizes artists through using their music by turning the subject of the song on itself or its performer ("Six Words Long", "Smells Like Nirvana", "Achy Breaky Song", "Perform This Way"). In addition, he has also found ways to satirize most of the significant (and insignificant) movements and developments of the past thirty-five years.

6. The visual aspect of Al's career is almost as important as the musical aspect. No discussion of Al's work ever seems complete without reference to the visual aspects of his career, and there are few artists that can make a similar claim. Many artists can achieve success without a strongly directed visual identity, but few have it as crucial to who they are as Al does. In fact, I would argue that the short list for the top 6 in some order of confluence of visual and musical identities is Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, U2, Britney Spears, and Weird Al.

7. Weird Al is surprisingly creative. Considering that Al has released fourteen albums and around 170 songs, I expected to see more repetition between subjects. But despite his volume and the length of his career, there are few topics that Al has returned to between his parodies and his originals. Sure, he has had songs with similar themes - for example, TV ("I Can't Watch This" and "Couch Potato") and nerd culture ("It's All About the Pentiums" and "White & Nerdy") - but he has never seemed to repeat himself or do the same thing twice, which is no small feat.

8. Al is the consummate pop artist. I know some people call Michael Jackson "The King of Pop", but I think it's really Weird Al. His rise came at the perfect time for someone like him, just as music was diversifying, hip-hop was becoming mainstream, and pop music was emerging as one of the dominant forces in contemporary American pop culture. Al is the Andy Warhol of musical pop artistry, and I believe that his work and presence will stand as emblematic of many of the changes in the US (and arguably the world) from 1980 onward. Of course, I'm not convinced that Al will have lasting significance beyond the pop artistry of what he does, but I do think that there are more depths to be plumbed in the study of Weird Al beyond him being that weird parody guy - which brings me to the fact that...

9. There has been surprisingly little academic dialogue about Weird Al's career. Many of the articles I looked up focused on the pop aspects of each album and asking inane questions about "how do you come up with new ideas?" I found relatively few articles that attempted to go indepth at any length into Al's career and the ramifications thereof, aside from a few on the rise of musical parody in the early 1990s. I'm really interested in investigating this aspect more, and who knows, maybe even pursuing it someday. After all, someone other than Al himself needs to become an expert in Weird Al, right?

10. Al is better in moderation. After inundating myself with Al's work and listening to most of this albums this week, I remembered that he is better a little bit at a time. I'm not even sure that I really even enjoy listening to a whole album at a time - and certainly not almost exclusively for a week - but I have found that he is better when moderated and when the playlist is edited. I do enjoy, however, going on a blitz of videos on YouTube every so often, and I have enjoyed my journey into Al's psyche this week.

The future of Al

One of the questions that has come up in my research this week has been about the future of Weird Al's career. He is now finished his record career, and many of the questions he has been asked have focused on that development as well as how distribution has changed even in the past fifteen years. One commenter pointed out that Al has sold the same number of albums in the first week of release as he did in 2006 - around 70,000 - but that he was #10 then and is contending for #1 now. So, with some of those things in mind, what is the future of Weird Al?

As is evident from this past week, Al is as relevant - if not more so - than he ever has been. He partnered with eight different sites to deliver his new videos, and he continues to produce music and videos that appeal to and make an impact on pop culture. I think that Al will continue to parody songs, but that he will release those parodies as they are written and produced, so we will have material from Al more often. I think he will still release albums, but they will be more collections of the songs that have already been released with perhaps one or two new songs. I really don't think that there is any indication that Al is finished or done, and I think he will continue at his craft for sometime to come. And I'm glad for that, since it's clear that he still has more to offer us as fans.

Final reflections

So there you go - the results of a week of thinking about Weird Al, sifting through the ephemera and minutiae of one of the truly weirdest enduring pop culture phenomena of contemporary North American culture. It has been an entertaining thought experiment for me, as I was not certain of either the process or prospects of such an investigation when I started, but I am pleased with the results. And who knows - this might not be my last time spending time thinking about Al; I might end up being that scholar who writes a Ph.D thesis on Al's work someday. But for now, I think I'll have to settle for finding a way to see Al in concert, and I think that this tour might be the time to cross that experience off my bucket list. 

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