Fame is a funny thing. That magic formula of talent, determination, and sheer luck is elusive, and impossible to solve for most. Talent, you can be sure, is part of it, and determination shows itself early on. But what’s impossible to predict, and is perhaps the biggest factor in determining who will rise to the top and who will not, is having that extra something that resonates – with an audience, a time, and a culture. Something’s gotta grab the people. And for reasons no one will ever understand, whatever that something is, Weird Al Yankovic’s got it.
When you look at the models for mass music success, Weird Al’s fame seems to defy all logic. When has the public ever clamored for an accordion-playing musical comedia/parodist with a penchant for neon collared tees and oversize glasses? History would suggest that the accordion alone would relegate Weird Al to a harsh, lonely life of playing German festivals and community center dances for senior citizens. But not only did he dodge the spätzle, his polka star has never faded. He’s one of those rare talents that grows stronger and stronger with time. With a career that spans his college bedroom to three Grammy Awards, Weird Al found that special thing that resonates with the public and it has for over 3 decades. He’s sold over 12 million albums, including four gold records and six platinum records. Weird Al’s first album and single to hit the Billboard top ten (Straight Outta Lynwood and “ White & Nerdy,” respectively), came a full 30 years into an already illustrious comedy career.
The fated accordion fell into Yankovic’s hands when a door-to-door salesman came through Weird Al’s hometown of Lynwood, California before his 6 th birthday and offered mama and papa Yankovic a choice between accordion lessons or guitar lessons at an area music school. They chose the accordion because they reckoned the world needed not one, but two Yankovic accordion players (referring to Frankie Yankovic, no relation) and were convinced the accordion would “revolutionize rock.” Who could have predicted that, on a strange and small-scale, they were right? That their son would pioneer the revolution? And who could have ever forseen the revolution would come by the power of the polka?
Weird Al may be most well known for his song parodies, but his polka medleys have a fanatical following and help make his live shows the outrageous and unforgettable experience his fans consistently proclaim them to be. Just like his parodies and original songs, the polka medleys have followed Weird Al over the course of his career, proving again and again that he’s not just a “one-joke” guy riding on a gimmick that will eventually get old. Amazingly, it never gets old. In one concert clip in the Weird Al Polka Medley collection, Weird Al comes on the stage and exclaims to New York City, “You look like a pretty hip audience. I don’t think I have to explain that the accordion is the new official instrument of the 80s, thank you!” It’s a hilarious and endearing overstatement and the crowd goes wild as he introduces Polkas on 45. But what’s funnier is the accordion essentially is the official instrument of his career and that accordion sound continues to resonate, across genre, across audiences, and across decades.
Beginning with “Polkas on 45” in 1984, Yankovic has included almost a dozen polka medleys on his commercially-released albums, all the way through “Polka Face” in 2011. They’re kind of the opposite of parodies. Instead of changing the words to fit a prescribed tune, Weird Al talks the lyrics and polkacizes them. No genre, no song is safe. He moves from deftly from song to song, shifting from 50 Cent, Limp Bizkit, Kenny Loggins, and anything in between. The transitions are spastic, as are the songs themselves. Most clips don’t last more than 30 seconds within the medleys before he’s onto something new and hilariously unexpected (like transitioning between Metallica and The Humpty Dance). He’s like a live polka DJ, spinning a monstrous head of curls and disproportionately small split=mustache.
His band members are extraordinary musicians, and due to the absurdly wide range of genres and styles Weird Al takes on, they can play anything. Actually, I think some of the funniest moments in the Polka Medley collection are when the camera zeros-in on the band members. You can see a look of reserved seriousness, so as not to draw any attention away from the star of the show. I can’t imagine having the job of harmonizing with (and, occasionally, blowing bubbles around) Weird Al and doing the performance with such focused neutrality. But there’s only room on the stage for one Weird Al personality, and they play to his strengths as a performer and musician. And while the goofy persona, the silly lyrics, and nasally voice sometimes disguise Yankovic’s incredible talents, the truth of the matter is that Yankovic is astoundingly talented. Like his band members, he can play anything. He has remarkable control over his music and can transpose a song, redefine it, and twist it from its original context into, say, a polka! And the polka itself is really a brilliant choice, because any successful pop song, be It rap, rock or pop, will always stand outside the polka genre, making each and every polkacized ditty instantly funny.
But perhaps Yankovic’s most incredible talent is in his keen sense of the pop culture landscape. He tunes into what is popular and what will stay popular for long enough that any parody isn’t too late or mistimed. It’s an unusual skill and the polka medleys show it. Each polka medley reveals some level of insight about the music people loved at the time of its creation. They’re like NOW CDs set to an accordion, a way to mark the pop music landscape in polka form. Looking at the polka medley song selections over the course of Yankovic’s career, it’s easy to see he evolves with the musical tastes of a generation, but stays true to what his fans consistently love – his polkas. Yankovic’s career is like an accordion, it stretches and stretches, and sounds a little weird at times. But it’s got a certain something and it’ll grab ya.
More on Weird Al:
Weird Al’s official webpage
Weird Al in SPIN
Weird Al interview with the A.V. Club
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.