An upfront admission: I stopped identifying as a nerd years ago. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t spend my days knee-deep doing nerdy crap, of course; nobody who freaked out over (FINALLY) catching a Jigglypuff as hard as I did at the Bowl last Friday night could ever honestly claim otherwise. But anybody reading this article could probably rattle off an entirely unique personal list of reasons illustrating the ways in which the ice floe of nerd culture has melted into the river of mainstream culture in our lifetimes; from grandmothers with Wikipedia access to the Big Bang Theory’s indomitable Nielsen performance, nerd culture isn’t just for nerds anymore. These days, “nerd culture” is fundamentally performative. It is a flag in which you drape yourself when you want to make sure the world understands that you “get” a thing. That wasn’t always how nerd culture worked. It certainly wasn’t the case when Weird Al first arrived on the scene.
While nobody reading a review of a Weird Al Yankovic concert in the year 2016 probably has any need to rehash his origin story, I do think it’s worth pointing out the role radio played in Al’s rise. Radio was a format which hinged on time (will they play that song I like during the window of time I have to listen to the radio?) and chance (will I be listening to the radio when they play that song I like?). Today we can control the former variable through streaming services and the latter through hyper-targeted satellite stations. Neither option was even remotely available when Weird Al was getting started.
Weird Al built an audience by developing a unique product that his audience had to actively seek out – namely, compellingly accurate parodies of pop monocultures which, in their time, were unavoidable in daily life in ways that don’t make sense anymore. I mean, Drake has been everywhere in 2016, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to just listen to anything else (if you’re so inclined) than it was to avoid, say, Madonna in the 80s, or “Gangsta’s Paradise” in the mid-90s.
And when you do what Weird Al does for a living, that increase in agency changes the function of the art he makes. His music used to work as a fun new way to listen to obviously perfect pop songs like “Bad” for people who didn’t want a reason to see a connection between themselves and the larger audience of folks who liked how the song sounded, or were exhausted from hearing it the ordinary way they’d heard 2353242345 times that day between the radio and MTV. Al’s music still works that way today, I guess, but given that we live in a world where folks only listen to “Bad” by choice, it’s something much better experienced as a victory rally for the conquerers of the culture wars, led by an extraordinarily generous emcee who’ll happily cavort around the Hollywood Bowl’s stage dressed up like a squid or reworking “Eat It” to sound like a dead ringer for “Layla.”
The glue that holds the show together is Al’s impeccable taste. A Weird Al concert is a whirlwind tour of the last three and a half decades of popular culture carefully curated from an impossibly vast catalogue; an experience so omnivorous that it requires someone singularly tasteful behind the wheel steer it in the right direction. It’s not a purely musical experience, either; the show is punctuated by video highlights that Al cherry-picked from his career, and at least 95% of the clips shown totally, unequivocally land. But the music is obviously the more important component at the end of the day, and a public display of the degree of sheer musical talent required to jump from note-perfect recreations of “Royals” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to “Lola” (to say nothing of the skill required to rearrange everything to work with a full string orchestra) is the kind of show that anybody with a pulse ought to enjoy. The cumulative effect of all of those songs and all those video clips, after all, was to prove authoritatively that Weird Al doesn’t just belong to the nerds. He belongs to the ages.
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