Music

Meet 'Weird Al' Yankovic, Stealth Pop Musicologist

Behold, the video for "Weird Al" Yankovic's latest single "Craigslist," which hit the Internet in the past week. It's already inspired Michael Ian Black (of The State, Stella and Pets.com fame) to write an eloquent and dead-on post about how and why Yankovic has endured for three decades now. (Short version: he was never cool, which insulated him from the ravages of time and shifting trends.)

Yankovic, of course, is best known for song parodies like "Eat It," "Smells Like Nirvana," "Like A Surgeon" and "White And Nerdy." It's his m.o. of rewriting the lyrics to popular songs into paeans to junk culture (and junk food) that once caused rock critic Robert Christgau to refer to him as Mad Magazine for the ears.

"Craigslist," on the other hand, is the type of song he typically gets less credit for, where he takes on not a specific song but an artist's style (in case you missed it, it's the Doors). And it marks the latest appearance of a fellow I like to call Weird Al, Stealth Pop Musicologist.

More from Weird Al, SPM, after the jump...

And now you're thinking: "Huh?" Here's the thing: there's actually a pretty deep vein of artist-specific parodies running through his catalogue. Think "Dare To Be Stupid" (Devo), "Mr. Popeil" (the B-52's), the incomparable "Christmas At Ground Zero" (Phil Spector, and specifically his A Christmas Gift For You album).

In order for those songs to work musically, Yankovic needs to have a reasonably deep understanding of what factors make up somebody's sound. Like Mel Brooks with Young Frankenstein and Tom Lehrer with his piano mastery of any number of genres (from light operetta to tango to ragtime), Yankovic has to know what goes into (in this case) a Doors song and be able to replicate the style.

That goes far beyond simply knowing what instruments to use on the song. It's also about understanding dynamics and delivery, which chords to use and in what order, what melodies to sing and what words to hit. It requires that Yankovic be a diligent student of the thing he's parodying so that he can properly deconstruct his source material and rebuild it into something recognizable but still new.

He gets it right on "Craigslist." The keyboard flecks call to mind "When The Music's Over," the rant in the middle is a pitch-perfect rip of Jim Morrison's "The End" doggerel, the meandering solo section seems to have wandered in from "Light My Fire." There may be others, but you'd have to be a Doors fan to catch them, which: no thanks.

Yankovic had help, of course, thanks to the assistance of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek (and Doors bassist Ray Manzarek's Left Hand). But he also nails the caustic groan and light bluesiness of Robby Krieger's guitar, as well as the condescending sneer of Morrison's vocals. (He really has it in for that barista.)

Obviously, Yankovic's not unique in this regard. There's an argument to be made that the same thing happens any time a Walk Hard, Music And Lyrics or That Thing You Do! comes out.

The difference is that Yankovic has made a career of it. And for a guy who's usually talked about as though he has nothing more to offer than wacky karaoke, it's always a pleasure to be reminded of the stealth musicologist lurking underneath, figuring out what makes pop music tick. And then singing about nuclear annihilation on top of it.

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