This is the first in an ongoing series of short posts called “Appreciation Cycle.” In these posts I’m going to talk about a musician or artist whose had a significant impact on me. I want to talk about them in terms of either why they should be appreciated more than they already are, or if they’re already quite popular why I think the discussion around their work could be framed differently.
A lot of my early musical obsessions came from my older brother. I have no idea how he found the things he liked but from digging through his CDs and cassettes when he wasn’t at home I discovered AFI, Anti-Flag, NoFX, Bigwig, Small Brown Bike, Hot Water Music, Pennywise, Rancid, The Violent Femmes, Refused, Operation Ivy, Pulley, Catch-22, Fugazi, and Modest Mouse. This was all before I started junior high. I was super lucky. There were also some other bands he had in his collection that I never got to listen to before he moved away with the CDs but I remember I would memorize the artwork and look for it in stores (because I was definitely not bright enough to look things up on the internet - this would have been around 2001, 2002.) and those included Broken Social Scene, Neutral Milk Hotel, Godspeed You Black Emperor, The Fiery Furnaces, Allister, and Silver Mt. Zion. Needless to say, I owe a lot of my musical taste to those afternoons spent listening to his music collection.
BUT there was a discovery I made before any of those bands. AT the tender age of 5 or 6 I found a cassette called Bad Hair Day. I put it in...I put it in something. I’m not sure. I have no memory of owning a tape player but I must have had one if i was listening to that cassette. I still actually have the cassette which is pretty cool. But anyway, I put it in and my 6 year old mind was totally unable to handle or process what I was hearing. Weird Al fans out there know that the first track on Bad Hair Day is “Amish Paradise,” a parody of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” There was no way I could have known the original song at the time, so my first thought was that this guy was just rapping about Amish people. Which I thought was awesome. I probably barely even knew what the Amish were but it didn’t matter to me because the song was great. I even loved how the song ended up with a choir just screaming “ICK!” The rest of the album was great too. I actually think this is MAYBE the best record to get into Weird Al with. A fair number of his other parodies I think don’t work as well if you don’t know the original, but the best works are the ones where it doesn’t matter if you know what he’s making fun of or not. “Amish Paradise” and “Gump” work because you don’t have to know the original works. They work on their own. I think a song like “Party in the CIA” for example doesn’t function as well if you don’t know the Miley Cyrus original.
Well I was hooked. Weird Al was the perfect music for a hyperactive kid like me, who simultaneously dreamed of being a comedian and a research scientist. I listened to that cassette all day every day. At the time I didn’t have a frame of reference for understanding that artists would put out multiple records, so imagine my surprise when I learned that Bad Hair Day was his NINTH album. God bless my parents for buying me every Weird Al CD I asked for. I was obsessed and it was the beginning of me learning about collecting music. I loved the feeling of getting a new album and putting it in alphabetical order. (At the time my little mind would have exploded with delight if I had known that in 20 years my CD and record collection would be pushing into the quadruple digits).
I even got to see Weird Al perform live. Actually I’ve seen him five times I believe, the most recent time being last March. Let me say this. I’ve been to probably about 1,000 concerts in my 26 years. They range from basement shows to orchestral performances to chamber concerts in yoga studios to club and stadium rock shows. Almost nobody holds a candle to Weird Al as a live performer. He gets pegged as a comedian, which is totally true, but he’s first and foremost a musician and performer. Nobody knows how to command a stage like he does and nobody has the kind of unbridled energy that he does. Even in 2018 he’s still absolutely killing it live. Seeing him perform was definitely the first thing that made me want to become a musician. I couldn’t have been older than 7, but watching him walk out on stage and start playing one of his polkas just made me think, “I think I could do that.” It sounds kind of silly. Other musicians have stories about hearing Lou Reed or The Sex Pistols or whatever, but mine is Weird Al and I’m really proud of that. Weird Al made me want to do I what I do.
But he taught me a lot about music too.
First, he taught me that an in depth understanding of multiple styles and instruments informs your work. Al plays guitar, piano, accordion, and has an amazing voice. He actually has a huge vocal range and is capable of a huge number of vocal styles. On the first album he kind of had this punky drawly whine thing in his high range that was pretty cool. But he can croon, he can sing in falsetto, he can sing bass like it’s his only fach. He can perform jazz, rock, all styles of pop, ballads, punk, whatever you want. Not to mention that he can write and perform polkas. Like these really challenging and hilarious polka numbers.
Second, he taught me that you have to stick to your guns, even when you’re doubting yourself. Reading stories about him trying to make it as a performer, before he had a band or a record contract, and getting laughed off the stage (and mugged in a parking lot behind the venue!) was empowering for me. He just got back on stage again because he believed in what he was doing and this was a super big deal for me when I was working hard on Dérive and thinking maybe I could write operas too.
Third, he taught me how important humor is. Obviously he’s not going to release a song under his name that doesn’t have some aspect of comedy, but I went through a period right after high school and when I was starting college where I didn’t want any of my music to be funny. It was all serious all the time. But when I really assessed the things I was writing I realized that I wasn’t happy and it’s because that there wasn’t any humor in my music. I don’t think my work is necessarily funny but I do think that a lot of it has some aspect of humor. I’m not sure I would have gotten there without Weird Al. I think hearing him and bands like The Aquabats taught me that you could take your work seriously but not take yourself too seriously. That’s an important distinction.
Finally, he taught me how important orchestration is. The only mistake Weird Al has ever made in his career is not making at an attempt at writing a symphony. He’s a master of coloring his music with all sorts of instruments - actually I think an essay on musical semiotics in his work would be really cool to read - without it ever feeling superfluous. I mean, all of his stuff is extravagant and overblown, but every little sound in the work has a purpose. It’s all very tightly controlled. So when you hear a melody in a polka doubled on the clarinet you know that he’s really thought about it as a whole composition.
I love Weird Al. I love him because he’s hilarious and serious all at once. I love him because his music is a cultural barometer that tells us what was important for a generation at the time the record came out. I love him because nobody else can truly do what he does. He’s not the first or the last person to write parodies, but he truly takes the time to make sure every sound in his parodies works against the original. If you’ve ever been in a recording studio before you know how long it can take to get the right snare drum sound. Imagine trying to get your snare to replicate the EXACT snare sound on “Beat It” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I love him because he was my first musical love and he taught me so much about music and art.
Put my cassette copy of Bad Hair Day in my coffin.