It’s time we all stopped being surprised by “Weird" Al Yankovic. Just a cursory Google search for concert reviews around the world tour for Mandatory Fun, Yankovic’s 14th studio album (so named because it fulfills his legendarily draconian 32-year long contract with RCA Records), reveals that even nearly 40 years into his consistent career, concert reviewers still present with annoyingly apologist rhetoric. The idea that we “can’t deny” how enjoyable he is to watch, or that this particular concert has established “once again” the longevity of his career seem trite and myopic.
Well, no duh we can’t deny it — what fun-hating troglodyte is left unconvinced of Yankovic’s talent and showmanship? And I implore you to find an artist who’s repeatedly had to prove himself “once again” more often than Weird Al. So I ask, as a long-time dedicated Weird Al fan, can we please, for the love of Twinkie wiener sandwiches, finally accept the fact that Al deserves as much, if not more, respect than any other pop artist out there?
Yankovic is a bottomless pit of energy, a perpetual motion machine that defies the laws of nature, and his performance at Mystic Lake Casino on Friday was no exception. He kicked off the show with the runaway hit of his eight-day, eight-video release last summer (a feat that earned him, and this still blows my mind, his very first No. 1 Billboard album), “Tacky.” Just as in the all-in-one-shot video, the song began with Al far backstage, while a camera followed him through the halls of the casino where he hassled employees and high-fived onlookers before emerging through the double doors in the back and flopping (Weird Al is the floppiest man in show business, no competition) onto the stage.
Al followed up with a number of other Mandatory Fun favorites, including “NOW that’s What I Call Polka!," featuring the enormous teary-eyed visage of Miley Cyrus mouthing along to his speedy accordion rendition of “Wrecking Ball." His first of about 47 billion costume change came with "Perform This Way," parody of Lady Gaga’s "Born This Way," for which he dutifully marched out on stage in a giant purple octopus costume, furry rainbow leg warmers, and an ice cream cone hat.
The Weird Al veterans in the audience perked up when Al next emerged in his classic plastic yellow suit, band members Steve Jay and Jim West donning red Devo cone hats. “Oh man! ‘Dare to Be Stupid’!” I yelled at the man sitting next to me with whom I was on a first date (I am not even going to begin to explain that one). “What?” he said, confused. But by that point I was far too busy sing-bouncing along to the Devo-style parody that Mark Mothersbaugh himself has said was “the most beautiful thing” he had ever heard. “Aluminum Foil” (Lorde’s “Royals”) and the marbley-garbley “Smells Like Nirvana” prefaced the concert medley, which featured nuggets of songs spanning his entire career, from “Party in the CIA” to “Gump,” “EBay” to “Canadian Idiot.” Al man-bunned his famously curly hair for his sultry (yes, I’m sticking to that description) rendition of “Wanna B Ur Lovr,” and I audibly bemoaned my mid-row seat as I watched him leap from the stage and gyrate like a gangly Weeble Wobble in the personal space of various women up and down the aisles.
After another brief video interlude, Al and the band circled up for an acoustic candle-lit session that kicked off with the guitar riff from Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” I registered my confusion, both out loud and in my notebook, and then came the lyrics. “How come you’re always such a fussy young man?” It was so smooth. “Don’t want no Captain Crunch, don’t want no Raisin Bran!” It was so chill. Is he ... is this ...
Yes, yes he/it was. Al treated fans to a hypnotic lounge-singer Richard Cheese-ification of “Eat It,” “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “Rocky Road,” and “Like a Surgeon.” I picked my jaw up off the floor just in time to enjoy “White & Nerdy,” the pedantically didactic “Word Crimes,” and “Amish Paradise.” (I had, by this point, happily resigned myself to the fact that if the first date sitting next to me thought watching me belt out the lyrics to this song was unattractive, then we just weren't meant for each other). As per tradition, Al strode back out berobed and trailed by a veritable conga line of Stormtroopers (and Darth Vader!) for “The Saga Begins” and “Yoda,” during which this completely biased reviewer might have gotten a little teary-eyed.
By the unexpected grace of whatever cosmic powers were arbitrarily looking out for me that night, I obtained backstage access to a very small meet-and-greet after the show. I quickly realized I was the only person in the room who didn’t know one of the band members personally. Al came in, offered hugs, shook hands, and chatted warmly with everybody else while I sat quietly and vibrated to myself, waiting for him to approach me. And then he did.
“Al! It’s so great to see you again! We’ve actually met two times before this.”
He pointed at me with both hands. “Do you sometimes wear a hot dog costume?”
I looked at him in stunned silence. “I ... uh ... I’m wearing a hot dog costume in my Twitter picture?”
“Yeah! I’ve seen it!”
“How in the ... how in the hell do you remember that?”
He answered with the most Weird Al answer possible. “Because I memorize the internet!” He was gracious, quiet, and almost certainly exhausted.
I followed up by asking him what his favorite way to prepare an avocado is, because I’m a really good interviewer who’s definitely done this before and certainly wasn’t extremely nervous and not really breathing properly. He likes to remove the pit and skin, mash them up, and eat them with chips. So now you know.
“Weird" Al Yankovic has an existentialist philosophy toward pop culture, but it’s far from nihilistic. The speed with which he tackles pop hit after pop hit is proof that no song gets to just sit and breathe and enjoy its fifteen milliseconds of fame before Al sinks his teeth into it, and rightly so. Pop music functions kind of like an electron cloud: The exact energy and exact position of an electron cannot be known simultaneously. The closer you get to calculating one, the more evasive the other will be. We can only ever understand these properties with a frustrating inexactness. The immediacy of popular music in the Internet age similarly means we tend to lose the trees for the forest. The more we have available, the less we can consume.
Pop music’s version of the Heisenberg Principle means that moments of cultural importance have collapsed to nearly absolute zero, and now more than ever Weird Al is right there, poised to take advantage of unsacred nature of pop music. Lady Gaga doesn’t matter, Madonna doesn’t matter, Nirvana doesn’t matter, and Weird Al most certainly doesn’t matter either. That he earnestly and effortlessly self-parodies — a strange circuitous feedback loop in which he at once acknowledges, projects, and thus negates the very idea of “Weird Al” — is evidence of the fact that nobody is more aware of that fact than Al himself.
Critic’s bias: Oh, please. As if I hadn’t already made that abundantly clear.
Notes on the opener: Walking through the bright, blinky blackhole hellscape that was Mystic Lake Casino proper was, as always, terrifying.
Random notebook dump: “Weird Al is the black hole, and modern music is clinging precariously to each other at the event horizon.”
The crowd: I just wanted to walk up to every person in the audience who was singing along to every song and say, “I know exactly what you were like in high school. Because I was that person too.”
Overheard in the crowd: “Is that a backstage pass? Did you go backstage? Did you get to meet him? Is he really nice? I bet he’s really nice.”