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The opening lines of Weird Al Yankovic’s newest release Mandatory Fun leave little doubt about how he sees his place in American music: he’s a craftsman, one of the common folk. While Yankovic draws his form from pop music that speaks to the masses, he infuses that form with content that speaks for the masses.
Despite the overarching critique of American society, Yankovic makes the cross-examination humorous, welcoming, and, for a believer, a reminder that we share a common Creator despite our differences. As an opener, “Handy” is classic Yankovic and a promising opening to an album that reached the top of the Billboard 200. A wry parody of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” “Handy” offers tribute to the plumbers, electricians, and blue-collar workers of our society. The specificity of the homage is rather appropriate since, at his best, Yankovic has always managed to remain relevant because his parodies reach beyond popular music and invite us to examine the people who consume it. And it’s extremely funny: when “Handy” breaks into “[n]ow let me glue dat, glue dat – and screw dat, screw dat / Any random chore you’ve got, well, I can do dat, do dat,” it’s hard to imagine Azalea dropping a better tribute.
Remember White & Nerdy? Mandatory Fun subverts that same vein of American life, and it’s just as appropriate now as it was in 2006. Yet more importantly, the song wryly minimizes the seemingly appealing lifestyle of someone like Azalea and provides a mission statement for Mandatory Fun: who and what matters in American culture?
That subversion is what makes the album special, going beyond a sly critique of Top 40 music. That’s not to say we’re prohibited from playing “guess-this-parody.” In fact, this collection might be Yankovic’s most timely group of caricatures. After the Azalea opening, we’re treated to spoofs of artists from the Foo Fighters and Pharrell to a polka medley of hit songs from the past few years. Apart from “Inactive,” a lackadaisical interpretation of Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” every song manages to be as infectious as the original. And if you’re like me, you might suspect that these parodies make more lyrical sense than the originals.
Lorde’s “Royals” is now renamed “Foil,” a tribute to aluminum wrap that dramatically veers from an ode about the stuff that lets you “keep what’s still un-chewed . . . take it home, save it for later” to being about its other, perhaps more advantageous use:
Wear[ing] a hat that’s foil-lined
In case an alien’s inclined
To probe your butt or read your mind.
It is as disturbing as it is darkly comedic, intentionally so.
Through these songs, Yankovic points us towards the weirdest parts of our culture. The success of Mandatory Fun comes from Yankovic’s ability to morph Top 40 music into songs about people and scenes you might recognize daily. When we see the album in that light, we find a little joy in recognizing that we are all cut from the same cloth, a shared humanity that should recognize and properly place the eccentric, weird, and crazy of American society.
When “Lame Claim to Fame” mocks the type of people who say “I swear Jack Nicholson / Looked right at me at a Laker’s game” and “I posted ‘first!’ in the comments on a YouTube video,” our recognition of the absurd elevates Yankovic’s album beyond simple parody. Much like Flannery O’Connor before him, Yankovic has fashioned a legacy exposing these elements of American culture. While the focus might not be the tension of religion or depictions of a Christ-haunted south, Mandatory Fun invites us into the most visible spheres of our culture before shining its light on those celebrated elements of society that deserve critique but often remain untouched. Of course, that light is tinted with levity, but the album works in a manner that calls to mind O’Connor’s admonition to shout for those going deaf to the truth.
Two songs near the middle of the album demonstrate this best. The first—appropriately entitled “Sports Song”—is as subtle as the title suggests. It sounds like every sports cheer you’ve ever heard and offers “better coaching” and “statistical advantages” to explain why the other “team is vastly inferior.” In anticipating the rival’s response, the song’s chorus shuts them down: “We’re great, and you suck.” Even when forced to admit that “okay, full disclosure, we’re not that great,” the lyrics find joy in asserting the foe’s inferiority: “Nevertheless, you suck.” The song works so well because it subtly references the “figurative” nature of these discussions, despite its overly-physical language that directly confronts the sometimes aggressive and volatile nature of sports fandom.
“Mission Statement” initially appears less confrontational than “Sports Song,” but its scathing critique of corporate America set to a melody reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Carry On” is no less effective. From the opening line, “with strong commitment to quality / effectively enhancing corporate synergy,” the song crams more boardroom jargon into its small space than most progressively modern companies could manufacture. Of course, the irony is that the style of “Mission Statement” directly reprimands the flower children of the 1970s for introducing those terms into American culture at all. In a word, it’s brilliant. When the song concludes by exclaiming “it’s a paradigm shift,” we’re reminded again of our need to contextualize and assess the institutions that often define us.
To a lesser degree, other songs on the album perfectly exemplify Yankovic’s goal, getting his listeners to consider what defines American culture. “Tacky” calls out those of us who “Instagram every meal,” yet “can never know why” that action can be so infuriating to others. “Word Crimes”—perhaps the most spot-on critique Yankovic’s ever recorded—goes a step further, becoming the quintessential musical interpretation of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. When Yankovic sings, “I hate these word crimes / You really need a / Full time proofreader / You dumb mouth-breather,” it’s seemingly a victory for grammarians. But considering Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is the tune’s inspiration, we might first remember the people we judge before we police their language.
That’s perhaps the greatest triumph of Mandatory Fun. Despite the overarching critique of American society, Yankovic makes the cross-examination humorous, welcoming, and, for a believer, a reminder that we share a common Creator despite our differences. It’s a lesson we would do well to remember. When the album ends after a lengthy twelve songs, its only real downfall is that it might be Yankovic’s last full-feature release. If so, the final song—“Jackson Park Express”—hints at how Weird Al might want us to remember his legacy of astute and inappropriate parodies:
And deep inside, I knew she was right;
It was time for us both to move on
But, as long as I live, I’ll never forget
Those precious moments we shared together.
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