“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun

Mandatory Fun

“Weird Al” YankovicMandatory Fun RCA 88843-09375-2 (2014)

“Weird Al” Yankovic is kind of a cheerleader for capitalism.  The cover and liner notes of Mandatory Fun utilize communist kitsch imagery, but that is only to underscore that Al puts himself on the side of the capitalists.  In a way, the title “Mandatory Fun” implies authoritarianism — long associated with communist regimes during the cold war (when Al grew up) — though (perhaps unintentionally) it now connotes both the command to “enjoy” at the heart of modern times in the capitalist world and the competitive imperative to have a faculty with pop culture to seem aware and cultured.  Al himself even noted that the title refers to “an oxymoron that I’ve always been amused by. It’s used a lot in corporate retreats and, I’m told, in the military.”  References to business, corporate and marketing jargon reach a pinnacle in “Mission Statement” (recalling the frankly superior satire on the 1998 episode “Joshua” of the defunct TV show “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” with a tune reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash folk-rock).  But you might notice the absence of any parodies of socialist realist music on the album — Al doesn’t seem familiar with that music or the cultural forces behind it.

This music tries to use rapport building to win over its audience.  Take Al’s use of the accordion.  He plays the instrument precisely because it is considered passé in dominant culture.  So he plays it anyway, ironically.  This way the audience gets to be in on the joke, so-to-speak.  They are privileged to know that it is not the accepted instrumentation in an era of guitars (still) and electronics.  They can enjoy transgressing the silent injunction regarding the “proper” instrumentation for pop music.

Yankovic’s early work is fantastic, at its best.  It still holds up decades later.  And through the years he has continually proven to be an astute and dedicated observer of popular culture, translating those observations into ironically witty musical comedy songs.  Many of his songs are parodies, but some are originals.  Sometimes the originals are the best ones, like “Sports Song” here, which skewers the vapid, substanceless “us vs. them” hoopla around the big business of sports.  His vocals are set against the sorts of marching band “fight song” music today reserved for collegiate football (and sometimes basketball) games.  Al’s take on sports seems implicitly centered around (American) football, though the way he approaches the mainstream sports culture it hardly seems different from pro wrestling “sports entertainment” with aggressively flamboyant announcers and good guys vs. heels in the ring.

In an episode of the cable TV show “The Big Interview” featuring Yankovic, host Dan Rather commented that Al’s music (and associated comedy) is very good-natured.  This is an easy position to adopt because Al is not really opposed to the status quo.  He jests about the nature of present society, but he never challenges it.  The way he goes about that appeals to the least successful participants in the rat race.  It’s a bid for knowing moral superiority for people who probably aren’t succeeding on other — especially economic and political — terms.  He caters to an underclass that doesn’t want to admit it is an underclass.  With the decline of the power of working people in an age of austerity politics it kind of makes sense that Al’s career has only grown through the years.  Mandatory Fun was the best-selling album of his long career, earning critical praise and awards as well.

Frankly, this isn’t Al’s best.  Much of its commercial success comes from timing.  Yet it’s not a bad album either.  It has always helped that his longtime backing band is pretty great.  Plus when Al parodies songs that are pretty good to start with (like the “Tacky” parody of Pharrell‘s “Happy”) you get most of the benefits of the original song.  But Al has not expanded his palette much in decades.