Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Weird Al” Yankovic smartly skewers, embraces pop culture

Weird Al Yankovic
Robert Trachtenberg

Of all the musicians who came of age in the ’80s, the artist that’s remained the most relevant might be a surprising one: “Weird Al” Yankovic. The master accordionist/humorist has endured thanks to some savvy career diversification. Yankovic knows he’s only as good as his most recent parody, and so he’s always been a serious student of pop culture’s hot topics and new musical trends. But he’s also taken great pains to emphasize that he has more to offer than novelty songs or polkas. On every album, these lighthearted moments dovetail with shrewd social commentary and straightforward, earnest songwriting.

The excellent Mandatory Fun is no exception. The record parodies Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” while simultaneously mocking gauche people (“Tacky”), boasts a dead-on Foo Fighters homage (the roaring, absurdity-laden “My Own Eyes”), and ends with the nine-minute epic “Jackson Park Express.” The latter is the type of quietly brilliant song you’d expect to hear from Ben Folds; it’s an in-depth vignette about a bus-ride-length romance that’s really a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Such cleverness also makes Mandatory Fun’s versions of overplayed songs feel fresh. “Handy” is a meticulous ape of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” down to the booming electronic production and Al’s hip-hop delivery, while doubling as a boastful handyman’s theme song. The record’s Top 40 polka, “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!” amplifies the ridiculousness of today’s hits with vaudevillian flair. (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” envisioned as a Russian high-step with horn accents? Check!) Better still is the “Blurred Lines” parody “Word Crimes,” which emerges as a modern-day “Conjunction Junction”: The song combines cheeky grammar lessons with a lamentation for society’s diminished writing skills.

Mandatory Fun’s originals also boast some rather pointed cultural commentary. Highlight “Mission Statement” skewers the inanity and emptiness of corporate jargon by stringing together meaningless buzzwords such as “monetize our assets” and “cross-platform innovation.” (That the song’s done in the rootsy, country-rock style of noted anti-corporate hippies Crosby, Stills And Nash—even  going so far as to sample “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and incorporate the group’s stacked harmonies—is an added layer of genius.) Another standout, “First World Problems,” is a punky Pixies homage—dig the opening nod to “Debaser,” off-kilter guitars and a Black Francis-esque raucous vocal delivery—that lampoons the perceived issues of spoiled rich people.

These quality songs thankfully overshadow Mandatory Fun’s weakest links—“Sports Song” is a passable but not particularly inspired take on rabid fandom, while the Imagine Dragons parody “Inactive” focuses on an unappealing, apathetic character. Despite these missteps, the album is a rousing success; it’s both a smart meta-commentary on pop music and a collection that never takes itself too seriously.