"Weird Al" Yankovic, the comedy music icon, has become a legendary figure in the music industry. Not only has he outlasted many of his fellow comedy music artists, he's outlasted many of the talents he's parodied. Although he rarely records new music due to massive changes in the industry over the course of the past few decades, for many, Yankovic is still the premier of parodists.
In this article, I'll be offering my thoughts on 20 of "Weird" Al Yankovic's songs from the 80s. A mixture of direct parodies and style parodies from all of his 80s albums, you'll hear and see a wide variety of songs that showcase the depths of Yankovic and his band's skill and artistry. I'll also offer personal thoughts on the songs and how I've related to them over the years.
To start us off, we'll go to "Weird Al" Yankovic's self-titled debut album, and the memorable Queen parody "Another One Rides The Bus", which, of course, spoofs "Another One Bites The Dust".
"Another One Bites The Dust" was a funk-rock classic about a stone-cold killer committing his crimes. The slinky backbeat and bass line reflected what a bada*s the killer was. Leave it to "Weird Al" to take that song about an avatar of sleek violence and turn it into a song about how crowded public transportation can get.
I think what makes this song work is that you could imagine the subject of "Another One Bites The Dust" having the misfortune to take public transportation to the site of his next mission, leading to aggravation at his situation. The violence takes on a more comedic manner this way, albeit for some very dark laughs at time. One needs only hear the lyric "I haven't been in a crowd like this since I went to see The Who" to understand how nervy Yankovic's humor could be at times.
From comedic anger to comedic whimsy, we now come to "The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota" from the long-titled album UHF - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack And Other Stuff.
What I like about this song is that it reminds me of family trips back when I still had both parents. It wasn't a long time I had them both as I would lose my dad in 1995 when I was 12, an event which made the 90s, which was already a bad decade for me so far, that much worse. We did a lot of driving throughout the 80s and into the 90s, and while we didn't visit any really outrageous or unusual attractions, it was the time spent with family that made those trips special.
The mention of picking up a stranger named Bernie also reminds me of the kindness my parents showed in my younger years to an older citizen of my town who always had a ukelele with him, and would sing merry songs to the kids. Unlike Bernie in this song, this man wasn't a criminal or a person who meant ill, thankfully. He was just a friendly person we knew. We never saw him again after my dad died, and this man was old to begin with, so I think he's passed away, too, but listening to "The Biggest Ball Of Twine" in Minnesota makes me think of people I knew in my younger years. Strange how a novelty song can generate such nostalgia.
We now come to one of my favorite 80s Christmas songs, "Christmas At Ground Zero", which came from Yankovic's ill-fated 1986 album Polka Party!.
As I discussed in my first article for the 80xchange, there was a lot of fear of nuclear war in the 1980s. The discussion pervaded much of popular culture in the last major decade of the Cold War. Of course, when you're facing a dire predicament, sometimes the only thing you can do is have a sense of humor about it. "Christmas At Ground Zero" is a great example of using humor to cope with chaos.
Of course, 35 years after this song came out, the world hasn't ended in nuclear war, but we're all still going through a tough time, this time as we deal with the chaos of coronavirus. With fears of super-spreading and new strains of coronavirus, there's not much we can do except make our way through life as best we can. Humor helps us do that, and wouldn't you know it, most of us are wearing masks while there are outliers here and there, just like the end of the video for "Christmas At Ground Zero". The circumstances change, but some things are just timeless.
Next on the list is the title track to one of "Weird Al" Yankovic's best 80s album, the Devo-styled "Dare To Be Stupid".
This song is fantastic because let's face it, we've all dared to be stupid at one point or another. Maybe you tried a new activity that didn't work out for you. Maybe you spoke before you thought of what to say. Maybe you went right when you should've went left, or gone up when you should've gone down. I believe that humanity in general has a sense of nobility to it, but no matter who we are, we also have a streak of silliness to us, a sense that we're doing something we shouldn't be doing.
I will admit that my fandom of "Weird Al" Yankovic faded a bit as a teenager in the 90s before revving back up again in the 00s. For one thing, I didn't like most of the 90s music he was parodying to begin with, so I couldn't even find humor in the spoofs. However, I said in a message board post in my younger years that I thought Yankovic was daring to be stupid by shaving the mustache and getting rid of the glasses. In the 90s, my 80s fandom was blooming in negative ways at times, and this was one of those times.
I wasn't concerned for the health of a musician I liked. I wanted him to look the same because I thought that cosmetic changes would lead to an overall change in his work. How wrong I was, but at the time, I was as vehemently anti-90s style as people both my age and older were anti-80s style. It took me a long time to wind that down, and if "Weird Al" Yankovic ever returns to the Chiller Theatre convention when I'm also attending, I'll apologize in person. For now, though, Al, if you're reading this, I was going through some bad s*it in the 90s and 00s, and I wasn't in a good frame of mind. Thanks to therapy and medication, I'm better now, though, and I know now that you were doing what was best for you.
Moving along, we come to another style parody and another song from Polka Party!, the Talking Heads-styled "Dog Eat Dog".
What I hear in this song is a tune from the perspective of someone who really loves their job and finds pleasure in small details about it. Granted, it's all played for laughs, but it does help your work if you love doing it. Not everybody gets to do the job they want to do when they start out, and some people never get to do that job at all, but even if you don't achieve your goal, you can find something of value in what you do. You just need to have fun with it.
Polka Party! was a brief downturn for "Weird Al" Yankovic, but he came roaring back in 1988 with Even Worse, which gave the world his second Michael Jackson spoof, and my personal favorite of the Jackson parodies, "Fat", which took "Bad" and turned it into another song about an unusual person taking pride in what makes them unusual.
I actually saw the music video for "Fat" before I saw either the long or short versions of the video for Michael Jackson's "Bad". As such, while the videos for "Bad" were certainly enjoyable, I did have some difficulty taking the drama of Jackson's videos for "Bad" seriously after viewing the video for "Fat". I know that Jackson gave Yankovic permission for the spoof and even loaned him the set from his own-self parody "Badder", featured in Moonwalker, but on this one, I think Yankovic did a better job with the parody than Jackson did with the original.
Granted, many of the fat jokes in Yankovic's spoof were around for years and even decades before the song came out, but the way Al put them all together was a musical dish as tasty as any the protagonist of "Fat" might have eaten. The video also has some great visual jokes as well. I particularly love how Yankovic is doing the Woos at the end and, flustered, just holds up a sign that says "Woo!". That always gets a laugh out of me.
Another song from Even Worse that I love is "Good Old Days".
The song is about a man who looks back fondly on his younger days, with the twist being that the man is a violent, murderous lunatic. Yankovic himself described the song as sounding like a collaboration "between James Taylor and Charles Manson", and while that's an accurate summary, I also think of this as a song about the dangers of nostalgia.
While we all love looking back on our younger years, it's best to remember that those times weren't always good. Many people who came of age in the 80s look back on the decade with a mix of nostalgia and shame. Many people who came of age in the 90s, on the other hand, have an unconditional love for the decade, all nostalgia, no shame. That latter description fits this song's narrator very well. He's a mentally disturbed individual who looks back on the old days with a sense of fondness. That type of nostalgia can be scary.
I love the pop culture of the 80s, but I've done enough research to know that the decade was very rough on multiple levels, political, social and medical among them. I understand that the 80s was a very rough decade for ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community, among others, and I understand their anger and rage at the decade. Not every decade will appeal to the people who live in it.
The 90s was a very bad decade for me on a personal level, so I don't have the nostalgia for it that so many in my age bracket do, but I know that, for many people, the 90s was the apex of good times for them. Another part of the process of maturing is that you need to let others have their own experiences, and you can't assume that your experiences will be the same as theirs'. It took me a long time to learn that lesson, but I did.
Jumping back to Yankovic's self-titled debut album, we now arrive at the song "Happy Birthday".
I love the lyrics to this song. They're very rebellious, even if the instrumentation isn't. The idea that everything is going to Hell so you might as well have fun was a frequent topic in 80s music. Prince, who famously never let Yankovic parody any of his songs, addressed similar matters in his classic song 1999. "Happy Birthday" has that same attitude as well. Perhaps you might call it remaining calm in the face of danger. Perhaps you might refer to it as bread and circuses. However you approach it, "Happy Birthday" is a blast of a song.
I should also mention that, in my first few years on Facebook, I would post "Happy Birthday" to my friend's walls whenever they had birthdays. I eventually stopped doing that, but not because I don't like the song. I just have so many Facebook friends that I want my wishes to be uniquely tailored to my friends. I may try posting it again a few times this year, though, as we're still in a state of chaos.
We now come to the first polka medley on the list, "Hooked On Polkas" from Dare To Be Stupid.
Much has been written about Yankovic's polka medleys, and speaking for myself, these medleys were my first exposure to the 80s music I would come to use as a form of escape in the late 90s from all the pain and sadness I was going through. Yankovic's medleys would take songs, some happier, some sadder, and put them into a blender, creating a very unique creation.
The songs in "Hooked On Polkas" had material I shouldn't have been listening to as a younger kid. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" was about one-night stands. "99 Red Balloons" (performed here in its' original German version was about nuclear war). "Relax" was about a certain act that I can't go into more detail about on this, a family-friendly site. Somehow, though, I heard all these songs in "Hooked On Polkas" as a child, and I would come to enjoy them even more in their original versions when I grew older.
Returning to "Weird Al", though, we now come to "I Lost On Jeopardy", a song from "Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D that parodied the Greg Kihn Band's "Jeopardy".
While the version of Jeopardy! I came of age with was the Alex Trebek version, I, too, could relate to the song's lyrics about being in a high-pressure situation involving your intelligence, and ruining the whole thing. I was so afraid of making mistakes in my younger years that I thought even the most trivial of mistakes could put my future at risk. It didn't help that, well into my 20s, I had a mother who would call me intelligent in one breath, and then insult or question my intelligence in the next one.
When it does come to Jeopardy!, there was no way I could've competed on the main version, but when I watched Rock N' Roll Jeopardy on VH1 in the late 90s, that was easier to play along at home. I got a lot more of those answers correct, and I only wish that Rock N' Roll Jeopardy were still around. Oddly enough, Yankovic in real life lost on Rock N' Roll Jeopardy when he competed on there. I didn't see that episode, though, so I wonder if he quoted this song?
Staying with "Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D, the next song on this list is "King Of Suede", a parody of The Police's "King Of Pain".
While the lyrics of "King Of Suede" are very funny, in some ways they're as sad as the lyrics in The Police's "King Of Pain". Hearing a clothes shop owner talking about all his many wares and deals before talking about how nothing has changed is both funny, as he describes the many types of clothing available, and depressing, as he talks about liquidation sales and staying in the same location.
While I've never owned a business, I live in a small town where I've seen a lot of businesses come and go from antique stores to bookstores to fast food chains, few of which have lasted, and I see a lot of this song's despair in the frequent cycling of businesses and events. Again, as with so much of Yankovic's work, the idea presented is putting on a smile when things are rough. Good advice, but I wish we all didn't have to take it so often...
Returning to Polka Party!, we now come to "Living With A Hernia", a parody of James Brown's "Living In America" from the Rocky IV soundtrack.
As with so many songs on this list, I heard the parody before I heard the original, and hearing the parody enhanced my love for the original when I first came across it. As I grew older and came to know more about James Brown's music, it amazed me that Brown was still able to do the splits and the shuffles he was known for all the way up to the end. I wonder if "Living With A Hernia" ever crossed James' mind when he performed "Living In America". It wouldn't surprise me. Don McLean has admitted to singing Yankovic's lyrics to the 90s parody "The Saga Begins" whenever he performs "American Pie" in his concerts.
What I admire about Yankovic is that he never does anything by half-measures in his videos. He goes all out, and that was certainly the case here. Whether duplicating Brown's dance moves or filming where Brown sang in Rocky IV, it's more proof that Yankovic's parodies are done with love and affection for the original material. There's darkness in many of the parodies, yes, but there's no cynicism, and a lack of cynicism always appeals to me.
Speaking of affectionate parodies, we have another song from UHF - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack And Other Stuff. It's "Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies", an ungainly title for a song that takes the lyrics to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and sets them to the instrumentation of Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing".
The interesting thing about this song is that Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler only let Al do the parody on the condition that he play guitar on it. That, to me, was a brilliant idea, and it worked out well in this song. Knopfler is one of the best guitar players of the last few decades, so his assistance with this parody gave it a little extra kick.
As much as I love "Money For Nothing", some of the lyrics, even though they were intended as satire, haven't aged well. Yankovic has a gift for taking songs with unpleasant lyrical elements and giving them a humorous spin that makes them more palatable to the ear. I sometimes do karaoke videos on my Facebook page, and if I ever try taking a crack at "Money For Nothing", I plan on swapping out a few of the original lyrics for Al's...Then again, perhaps I'll just sing Yankovic's parody instead. No muss, no fuss, no fear of slipping up...
Returning to Dare To Be Stupid, the next song on the list is "One More Minute", a breakup song inspired by the end of a relationship Al was in.
We've all had to deal with the pain of a relationship ending, whether it's a romance or a friendship. We've all had people who we thought would be in our lives forever, yet things went wrong and they were out. Maybe you broke up with them. Maybe you blocked them on Facebook. No matter what, the end of relationships can hurt, but a song like "One More Minute" can help you get over those emotions.
Speaking for myself, I wish I had understood this song's message about moving on sooner than I did. For a large part of the 00s, I thought I needed to be in a relationship in order to be normal. I eventually realized, with the help of therapy and medication, that there's no such thing as normal. I had made a decision that I would learn to love myself before I could be in a relationship, but I eventually came to identify as aromantic. I love myself, and I love plenty of people in my life, but it's a familial love, not a romantic one. I happily came to realize that I don't need to be in a romantic relationship to be happy. I have plenty of friends and family that care for me, and whom I care for. It's good to have that.
Moving along, we return to the title medley from Yankovic's Polka Party!
If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first of Yankovic's polka medleys that I heard. Some babysitters I had in my younger years were "Weird Al" fans, and they made mix tapes of Yankovic's music that somehow made it into our family's music collection. I loved the energy of this medley. I would find myself dancing around to it in my own unique fashion. Yankovic's go-for-broke comedy stylings were a big influence on my pop-cultural tastes, and this medley was a wonderful example of his work.
I have no idea why Polka Party!, the album, didn't do so well. Some of his best songs are on the album, both originals and parodies. Perhaps Yankovic's work was being viewed as having a short shelf life. However, we're here 35 years after Polka Party!'s release and Yankovic, while rarely recording new music nowadays, is revered as an elder statesman of music. Long-lasting success doesn't come to every musician, so for Yankovic to have achieved his success and retain it more than four decades after he started out is amazing.
Jumping ahead again to Even Worse, we have "Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White", a song about very unusual dreams.
We can all relate to this song because we all have unusual dreams. Random events, odd objects, people and places we've either never met or are very familiar with...All of it is mashed up while we sleep every night, and the twists and turns these dreams take are unusual. I have to wonder if any of the dreams described in this song came from Yankovic's own dreams.
Speaking for myself, if I were to write a song about my dreams, it would be a song with serious and disturbing lyrics. I wish I had wacky and unusual dreams like the kind Yankovic describes in this song. I mean, I'd love to have a dream about Vanna White as I would be very interested in interviewing her someday. Of course, knowing my dreams, if Vanna White were to show up, she'd probably morph into my mom and tell me what a horrible person I am.
Let's stay with Al's work, though, and return to "Weird Al" Yankovic In 3-D for the song "That Boy Could Dance".
This song tells the story of a kid named Jimmy who was something of a dud of a person as a child, with his one redeeming factor being his dance skills. While in real life my brother's name is Jimmy, I could see something of myself in the Jimmy described in this song. As a result of my autism spectrum disorder, my intelligence was of a kind that couldn't be accurately judged by test scores and homework. I've always had hygiene issues, although they've gotten a lot better over the past decade. Of all the subjects I was bad at in school, physical education was my worst subject as I've never been much for competition, and I prefer exercising at my own pace.
A lot of kids made fun of me for those issues and more, but when the school dances rolled around, they would have dance contests with prizes like gift certificates and things like that. I threw myself into the contests, working everything I had, and the kids cheered me on so much that I won practically every school dance contest in middle school. Those dance contest victories were some of the only times I felt that the other students, outside of those in my small circle of friends, liked me. However, when we were adults, one of my childhood friends told me that because the teachers knew about my mental issues, I won all those dance contests because they were afraid of what might happen if I lost. I really hope that isn't true, but if I ever cross paths again with any of my middle school teachers, I'll have to ask them if there's any truth to that.
Going back to "Weird Al" Yankovic, we have another song from Dare To Be Stupid, although it was actually first heard in the 1984 gangster film spoof Johnny Dangerously. That song is "This Is The Life".
I love the exaggerated swagger of this song. When I was coming of age in the late 90s, rap and hip-hop were being solidified as the favorite music of my generation, eventually transforming into the dominant genre in popular culture. I saw a lot of rap and hip-hop music videos in my teens and 20s, and the way the genre presented itself didn't really appeal to me.
I would revisit the video for "This Is The Life" as an adult, and I would come to see a lot of the same excess in this video, but it was all played for laughs, so I didn't mind. That's what appeals to me in music...Fun, and having fun with your work. A rapper like Sean Combs never appeared to be having fun with his lyrics. It was all so dour and serious. Yankovic brings humor to the idea of excess, and makes it easier to have fun with.
I wish that "This Is The Life" has been nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar in 1984, and I feel the same way about the next song on the list. That song is the title theme to Yankovic's ill-fated 1989 movie UHF.
I first came across the movie UHF in the early 90s when I was a kid. I had no idea that the movie was a critical flop and a box office bomb. I just loved the throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude of the movie. UHF was a movie about the power of creativity and imagination, and I think that's what has given the movie a vibrant second life after its' initial failure. We all have something of creativity within us, and if we're lucky, we can find a way to get that creativity out into the world.
As to the song, it has some amazing lyrics and turns of phrase. The lyrics, "Disconnect the phone and leave the dishes in the sink. You'd better put away your homework. Prime time ain't no time to think!", are some of the most biting lyrics ever in any song. I really don't watch TV anymore, not even streaming services apart from YouTubeTV for the Oscars every year, but even when I did watch TV more often, not a lot of what was on appealed to me. I'll put it this way. I was more likely to be watching Disney cartoons than Breaking Bad or It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and that's still the case nowadays. I do like to think, but when so many shows are centered around horrible people, I can't root for them. If I wanted to spend my time around horrible people, I would seek them out myself.
Wrapping up this article, we return to Even Worse one more time for the Oingo Boingo homage "You Make Me".
The song sounds crazy, but I think it's very romantic in its' own way. The protagonist is so in love with the person they're dating that they're willing to do all sorts of unusual and bizarre things because they're inspired by love that much. Relationships of all kinds can allow you to expand your horizons and your viewpoints, and to take on new experiences. That's what I get out of this song.
That wraps up this article. Did I miss any of your favorite "Weird AL" Yankovic songs from the 80s? What are your experiences with his music? Which 80s artists would you like to see me take on in this format next? Leave your comments below, and thank you as always for your support.