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Existentialism Over Coffee With "Weird Al" Yankovic

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Right before Christmas, I had coffee with "Weird Al" Yankovic. The two of us had collaborated on my 2009 album This Gigantic Robot Kills, and had talked accordion triads and chord fingering over the phone while he was in the studio. Before the holidays, we made a point of meeting up now that I was living in Los Angeles. We talked about the music industry, careers, relationships, the writing process and how to get the most out of each minute of life as a creative soul on this planet.

Kurt Cobain once said that, "'Weird Al' Yankovic is the closest thing America has to punk rock." What Cobain meant, I believe, is that the best originators of the punk genre (the Clash, the Dead Kennedys etc.) had strong political leanings in their lyrics and their message. This sometimes got them into trouble; Jello Biafra famously included artwork from an H.R. Giger painting in the liner notes of a Dead Kennedys album and was sued for distributing harmful material to minors. The case became a landmark one for free speech, resulting in a hung jury and financially ruining the band.

There is inherent political agency to the act of making a parody as well. Duchamp's famous L.H.O.O.Q. recontextualises a print of the Mona Lisa with the simple addition of a mustache. Duchamp was one of the early 20th century Dadaists, a group of intellectuals who criticized the bourgeois capitalist society that, in the eyes of some historians, led the people of Europe into WWI. The Dadaists questioned the meaning of the consumption of art and cultural icons, and in taking something commercial (such as Mona Lisa postcard prints) Duchamp showed the absurdity of consumer culture by changing it slightly. This is not that different from Al Yankovic taking a Michael Jackson song and changing the lyrics to be about food.

One of the most amazing things about Al is that he has been successfully doing this for over three decades. He routinely outlasts the careers of the artists he satirizes and his polka medleys taught me everything I needed to know about music. I remember hearing a Rolling Stones song at the orthodontist as a fifth grader and wondering why the artist was stealing from Al's "Hot Rocks Polka". I would listen to "I Love Rocky Road" on the way to school on my dad's Sony Walkman, and thought to my eleven year old self that one day, this was what I wanted to do with my life...make fun, happy, high energy music. Al has sold millions of albums and won three Grammys, but is still a down-to-earth, genuinely nice person.

He recognised me at the coffee shop, and greeted me by my real name (Andrew). We "bro hugged" over one of the tables and sat down. He has a strong, confident intensity to him and is surprisingly tall. I told him about the book proposal I'm writing and he told me what it was like working on his recent children's book. "It's like a haiku," he said, "you have much fewer words, but you need to make sure they all count." We talked about what it's like to be on tour while having a relationship and the importance in finding a partner that understands and trusts. "You should never have to change your career path for someone," he said. He said he sometimes brings his family on tour or plans breaks in between to spend time with them.

I asked him what it's like to be a parodist in an era where culture is so decentralized and he said he talks about that in every interview. "I sometimes miss the time when there was a top 10 of every genre that everyone was listening to," he said, "but times change." I asked him how an artist hits the moving cultural nexus and he says he didn't know, but that "the trick is to do something personal and meaningful and hope that it resonates." We discussed the importance of major labels versus the independents and the pros and cons of each. I asked him what it was like working on his children's television show, he told me about the excitement and frustration that comes with collaborating with a network, and the 22-hour days he undertook to make his dream a reality. I asked him how hip-hop has influenced him culturally, and he said that growing up, his musical background was more in rock and pop, but that rap music was definitely one of the dominant genres these days. We talked about KRS-One and his book the Gospel of Hip-Hop and what it meant to me.

We ended our conversation talking about Melville, an author I blogged about previously. Being the intellectual that he is, Al told me he had read Moby-Dick. I asked him if he had read the story of Bartleby the Scrivener, one of Melville's post-Moby-Dick short stories. In this story, Bartleby is hired by a Manhattan lawyer to help work in a Wall Street office. He starts out as a helpful addition but ends up becoming obstinate and disruptive. The lawyer eventually goes out of business but Bartleby refuses to leave the building, even after everything is cleared out. "I would prefer not to," he repeatedly says after every request, dying in jail. Melville plays with the idea of humanity's agency in a potentially meaningless universe, what it means to resist and what it means to be consistent. It's a joke Bartleby plays on Wall Street America, an existentialist look at the ways we occupy our time, and our search for truth and identity.

When I retold this story, Al smiled and laughed. Much like a mustache on the Mona Lisa, he knows that there's deep meaning in life's absurdity. It was a wonderful meeting of minds that I will never forget.