Let’s face it: The news of coronavirus infections and deaths, the economic turmoil and resulting jobless claims, and a governmental response that leaves a lot to be desired is, quite frankly, exhausting.
It’s not wrong to admit fatigue at this news, but at the same time, I’m resolutely convinced of the vital importance of staying updated, following developments, and supporting the journalists that are risking their lives to bring us these stories. In order to maintain our sanity during such trying times, it’s important that we be able to find outlets for release and catharsis wherever we can.
One of the purest forms of that is unashamedly loving the things we love. Whether that be hobbies or entertainment, whatever brings you joy in this world is to be celebrated at a time like this. I love when journalists can turn their passions and obsessions into reportage and stories that provide others a glimpse of why something matters. It sounds like an easy assignment, and in many ways, perhaps it is, at least in the reporting stage, as the journalist gets to do a deep-dive on whatever topic holds such power of him or her. But when it comes to the writing part, I would submit that it becomes a bigger challenge. It becomes the process of clearly articulating why something matters to you, and therefore, ostensibly, why it should matter to others. But you know that a large percentage of people might not be inclined to agree with you; you have to convince them. It turns simple passion or fandom into something more akin to advocacy, but journalists aren’t likely to do that openly. The goal is not to write a “You SHOULD go do/try/like this thing,” bur rather you hope to inspire, by the beauty and lyricism of your words, the logic of the connections you can draw, the empathy you can evoke by universalizing your points, that by the end of your article, the reader WANTS to think like you, even if only for a second.
That’s exactly what Sam Anderson’s new piece in The New York Times Magazine on the enduring appeal of Weird Al Yankovic does. There is an existing audience for whom this piece tells them nothing new; they are the countless souls who come to Weird Al concerts, dressed in Hawaiian shirts and wearing faux mustaches and big eyeglasses – for lack of a better term, let’s call them Al-oholics – and they read Anderson’s piece with huge exhalation of exasperation, throw up their hands and say, “THIS! This is what I’ve been saying for decades now!” But for others out there, those who find the Weird in Al’s stage name not only to be an frighteningly apt descriptor of the man but also a warning to stay away from him and his music, well, they need the guiding hand of Anderson’s passion, earned through personal history, tempered by his ability to write in such breezy, conversational yet descriptive prose. It’s a tough needle to thread, or at least it would be for a lesser writer (or perhaps even a talented writer attempting to pull off this piece without the requisite passion and background); failure to stick the landing could result in the journalist-reader version of this scene from How I Met Your Mother:
But rest assured, dear reader, Anderson’s piece is so worth your time. From the endlessly appealing and endearing portrait he paints of Al the man, sans weirdness, to the wide world of Al-oholics who find comfort and community in their fandom to the heartbreaking vulnerability Anderson exhibits when explaining why he was the perfect journalist to write this story, you can’t help but be moved. If I had to guess, I suspect it will taught one day as an exemplar of the celebrity profile.
I’ll practice what I preach and advocate for this piece by reveling in my own nerdy fandoms. I came to Weird Al by way of another nerdy fandom: Star Wars. When 1999’s The Phantom Menace returned fans to the Star Wars universe, Weird Al was there to get in on the action, glomming onto not a song of the day but of the film and its cultural heft. His song, “The Saga Begins,” parodied Don McLean’s hit “American Pie,” and it is, as more than a few YouTube commenters point out, one of the most coherent synopses of the prequel film in existence.
I was obsessed with the film, especially in the lead-up to its release, and I think, in my youthful naïveté, I was too much a fanboy to acknowledge it wasn’t very good even after I saw it. But Weird Al’s song, propelled by the endlessly ear-wormy quality of McLean’s chorus chord progression and melody, was instantly a work of genius to me. If for no other reason, he summed up the entire movie in roughly five minutes, damn near perfectly. A feat that’s even more impressive if the comments of one YouTuber – Daniel Tarczynski – are correct:
It led me to dabble in other Weird Al classics, and while I could never be considered a fan on the level of an Al-oholic, I respected the man’s ability to make a catchy song. His dedication to his craft stood out to me in Anderson’s piece, and it should you, too, lest you think he rattles off these goofy songs while sudsed-up in the shower:
After 10 minutes of staring at this verbal barbed wire, my brain felt as if it were starting to cramp. I told him I didn’t know how much longer I could take it. “We’re not even halfway through,” Yankovic said. We had yet to reach, for instance, his encyclopedic lists of possible rhymes, all categorized by syllable count, running on for page after page like Homer’s list of ships in the “Iliad”: “Polar bear/Voltaire,” “my back is peeling/Darjeeling.” At one point, he lined up 35 potential rhymes for the word “geek.”
Yankovic has done a version of this process for just about every song he has ever written, parody and original, from “Eat It” to today. In the years before computers, he would do everything by hand, sifting and sorting in a binder with color-coded tabs. He used to spend weeks roaming through the West Hollywood Library, compiling facts and keywords about cloning for “I Think I’m a Clone Now” or hospitals for “Like a Surgeon.” Songs that may seem dashed off are in fact the product of months of self-imposed hard labor — lonely, silent, obsessive world-building.
I suspect that Anderson’s writing, much like that of Yankovic’s, was the result of months of hard labor, as the result is something we desperately need in this world right now, and that’s an uplifting, heartwarming distraction.
Many people agree:
See for yourself here:
If you liked what you read, please sign up, follow me on Twitter (@CaryLiljohn06) and then forward to friends to help spread the word.