When I was a child, I listened to music as a child. I went to a Sharon, Lois and Bram concert (mom bought me a tiny Mon Cheri chocolate box, which I remember more vividly than the music). I had a record of the songs and poems of Dennis Lee (and stared at the album cover for hours and still remember the cadence of most of the poems.) But as my brother and I grew into the older elementary grades, we shared two cassettes that we listened to over and over: Weird Al’s self-titled first album and The Chipmunk’s Chipmunk Punk. The appeal was kid-friendly versions of (relatively, the albums were not new at the time) current pop songs.
As I entered junior high, I continued to listed to Weird Al, especially enjoying the comedic lyrics to his pop song parodies (I remember trying to think of other possible lyrics to Eat It with a friend). I also remember being shocked at the swearing in “Nature Trail to Hell”, though I think it was not too long before I was blase about the word Hell (my brother was not shocked at all and enjoyed my discomfort when the song came on).
Going on to college, I met fans of the Dr. Demento show. I had never actually heard the radio program, but I did have a couple of his Rhino compilation records (best of the 50s and best of the 60s, which I wish would be re-released, if only for “Pico and Sepulveda”) and knew of his pivotal role in the genesis of Weird Al’s first hit, “My Bologna.” I heard a wider range of comedy and parody pop (and comedy and parody music hall/classical, thanks to pals who made tapes of Flanders and Swann, PDQ Bach, Tom Lehrer, and Instant Sunshine– won’t someone release an Instant Sunshine box set?). I continued buying and listening to Weird Al, now seeing more of his craftsmanship in composing and arranging his songs. They were miles more carefully crafted than the wacky morning DJ hits that sometimes filled out a comedy music playlist.
As my non-parody music exposure also grew, I began to understand Al’s style parody songs– not parodies of a single song, but parodies of the songs of a particular artist or an entire musical genre that required a deeper level of musical literacy to appreciate and highlighted Al’s very experienced ear to pick out the most recognizable musical habits of so many musicians. I also started to enjoy that so many of the songs were about television and food, oft-neglected topics in mainstream pop but ones that a broad audience could connect to. We have not all stayed in Hotel California (much less stabbed beasts with steely knives) but most of us have eaten lasagne.
Al’s music videos display the same fluency in the language of pop culture as his music, plus visual literacy in music video history and art. Al commissioned work from great artists in animation and effects, acting as their friendly introduction to fans.
A moment now for television and film. I ardently loved the video The Compleat Al (another much-wished-for re-release) decades before I recognized the tributes to a shelf’s worth of influential music documentaries. Al hosted many hours of MTV, most of which I missed due to my family’s (probably wise) decision to not have cable while the kids were at home. As much as I did see, I’m sure I missed the references to OTHER MTV shows which I also missed. I only saw Al’s children’s show on DVD, not being the right demographic to catch it when it originally aired. I am glad I got to see it with his commentary: he explains the network and legislative requirements to provide moral lessons and clean-living tips that ended up shoehorned into Al’s vision for an anarchic kiddie show operating in its own world, complete with loving tributes to kid classics.
Just like people re-purchasing Pink Floyd, Al deserves to have his full catalog in print. As I grow older, I appreciate the musicianship of a dedicated artist. I appreciate his conscious choice to have his work be accessible to children. I am now enjoying the work of several generations of comedians, musicians, writers, and friends who have been lifelong fans. Al’s later albums often feature contributions from parodied musicians who are honored to take part. Did you see his episode of Behind the Music? There are dozens of artists who understood (and were deeply proud of) their own success after Al’s musical attentions. I feel that while the top pop songs of past decades may not age well, their parodies do (and are perhaps less embarrassing to own as an adult?).
I have never been to one of his concerts, but to a man every person who goes to one comments on how amazing the show is and how much goes into the performance. Everyone leaves happy.
While I try to remember that I don’t really NEED the artists I admire to have an admirable personality or personal life, I am quite pleased that Al seems to be a genuinely good person. While I never got my membership packet when I sent away in the mid-80s to be a Close Personal Friend of Al in his fan club, I do still consider him to be a Close Personal Friend I have never met.