The Dissolve’s Nathan Rabin on his song parody hero: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
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Superstar song parodist Weird Al Yankovic has been dropping new tunes all week from his new album “Mandatory Fun” and generally making a viral sensation of himself. To glean more insight into the man and his work, I contacted Chicago’s own Weird Al expert Nathan Rabin. Now a staff writer for Pitchfork Media’s film site The Dissolve, Rabin formerly helmed the Onion’s A.V. Club and has been a lifelong Weird Al maven.
Question: You wrote a book with and about Al that was published in 2012. He sought you out because he liked your Onion writing and your memoir The Big Rewind. Having been a fan of his for years, that must have been a heady moment.
Nathan Rabin: Oh, my god, it was really, really awesome. It seemed kind of like kismet, because a month before I heard from Weird Al, I remember thinking, “Man, I used to love those Al TV segments he used to do on MTV. I wonder if those hold up?” So I went back and watched a bunch of them on YouTube and was like, “This is so amazing. I’m falling back in love with Weird Al all over again.” And then about three weeks after that I remember getting a Twitter direct message [from Al], and he said, “Of all the writers in all the world, I decided I want you to tell my story.” And I remember literally jumping up and down with joy, doing a crazy dance. I remember saying to my wife, “Oh, my God, oh, my God! We’re going to be rich!” What I should have known is that it’s very, very difficult to make money writing books. Four years later, I am not a wealthy, wealthy man, but I do have the incredible honor of having written a book with my childhood hero.
Q: His parodies helped get you through a dark childhood in some ways.
NR: It was kind of the lighter part of my childhood. I worshipped him. And I think it’s that way with a lot of people, where he really appeals to people who are kind of outsiders and a little bit unusual — people who see the world in a different way and see Al as one of their own.
Q: What was the first song of his you heard and really loved?
NR: I’m guessing it was Eat It. He inspired me to start my own short-lived parody group called Nathan and the Rockers. I remember our hit song was called Like a Sturgeon. It was a parody of [Madonna’s] Like a Virgin.
Q: Did you go to his concerts as a kid?
A: The first concert I ever went to was Weird Al opening for the Monkees. These were literally my two favorite performers in the world, because I was 12 years old. So that was mind-boggling, and I remember it left a really indelible impression on me, because Weird Al was so much better than the Monkees. The Monkees at that point were resurgent and had a real act and a real sensibility, but Weird Al blew them off the stage.
Q: Judging by the high interest in videos he’s been dropping this week, he’s still got the goods. What to you attribute this continuing popularity to?
NR: I think he holds himself to very, very high standards. He doesn’t rush out and release parodies at a non-stop clip. He hasn’t released an album in two or three years at this point. I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact] that he’s really, really smart and he’s really plugged in and he follows the culture and he evolves and changes with the culture. He was one of the early adopters for computers and technology and the Internet. If you want to chart the evolution of popular culture over the last 35 years, all you really need to do is listen to Weird Al’s albums and it’s this fascinating funhouse mirror of everything that’s been going on in the culture. One of the crazy paradoxes at this point is that a lot of the people he’s spoofing at this point, he’s old enough to be their grandfather. Pop music is this fountain of youth and Al is sure to drink lustily from it every three or four years or so and get replenished.
Q: How would you characterize his approach to parody?
NR: It’s very rigorous. It’s very precise. There are a lot of recurring themes you see in Al’s songs. There’s always lots of dark comedy, particularly where holidays are concerned. He’s done Christmas songs. One is Christmas at Ground Zero, about Christmas after nuclear apocalypse. He’s also so good at what he does. He’s a brilliant director. I think it’s a goddamn shame he hasn’t had an opportunity to direct a feature film. He would be really, really good at it.
Q: Do you have a favorite Weird Al song?
NR: The song Frank’s 2000-inch TV is definitely one of my favorite songs. It’s kind of his R.E.M. song, and I like it because it’s really funny and trenchant and insightful about capitalism and materialism. But it’s also really pretty. It’s just a lovely, lovely song. Even if the lyrics weren’t funny, the melody would totally carry it.
Q: Have you thought about resurrecting your childhood song parody group?
NR: [laughs] No, no I have not.