Day Thirty: "Yoda" from Dare To Be Stupid
It’s hard to overstate the importance of timing when it comes to “Weird Al” Yankovic. For close to four decades, Al has had an uncanny gift for capturing the cultural zeitgeist. Al has an almost Dick Clark or Berry Gordy-like genius for discerning what artists and songs will endure and which will be forgotten.
Al did not need that nose for hits when it came to the song he’d parody on “Lola” however. By the time Al had the money-making notion of cross-breeding the kinky creations of Ray Davies and George Lucas, the gender-bending story song had been a popular favorite for a decade.
Where Al likes to parody new songs he made an exception with “Lola”, just as he dipped into the big, cornball American songbook to repurpose Don MacLean’s “American Pie” as the musical backing for “The Saga Begins.” There’s a certain pleasing synchronicity in two of the most popular and ubiquitous story songs in American musical history being used to recount two of the most popular and ubiquitous stories in movie history, or, alternately, one giant story with countless iterations.
Al actually wrote “Yoda” around the time Empire Strikes Back was released and a stripped-down version with Al and his accordion was a consistent champion of the Funny Five on the Dr. Demento Show. Yet for whatever reason, this sure-fire crowd-pleaser wasn’t officially released until Empire Strikes Back was ancient history and its follow-up, Return Of The Jedi, was similarly in and out of theaters.
Here’s the thing: if “Yoda” were about Flash Gordon or another film that was popular at the time of its release but has subsequently been forgotten it would never have had much of a life, let alone of the most auspicious afterlives in Al’s career. But by 1985 it was apparent to Al and to popular culture that even though the original trilogy had run its course, these movies weren’t going anywhere.
Like many of the subjects of Al’s parodies, the Star Wars movies didn’t recede with time. If anything, they grew bigger and more important and more central to pop culture than ever before. That’s no small feat considering that when the original trilogy was released they were so huge that they threatened to block out the sun.
In “Yoda” Al sings from the perspective of Luke Skywalker as he encounters a fantastical being who upends his sense of reality even more than the title character in “Lola” does its overwhelmed and confused protagonist. But where Lola bewilders because she intriguingly and seductively transgresses the lines separating masculine from feminine and male from female, Yoda blows Luke’s mind by doing things like lifting him in the air “without raising a hand.” Yoda is not just magic: he’s muppet magic, and that is the most powerful and impressive form of magic.
I had the curious distinction of interviewing Mark Hamill the day that it was announced that Disney had purchased Star Wars and that the enormous creative and financial machine that is George Lucas’ brainchild would soon be roaring back into action. It was, as you might imagine, a strange time for Hamill, who hadn’t appeared onscreen as Luke Skywalker in a new Star Wars movie since 1983’s Return Of The Jedi.
When I asked Hamill how he felt about the big news he did not know how to feel. He was overwhelmed. He had no idea whether he’d play a central role in the new movies, or be written out entirely, or just be a framed photograph in the background of a single scene. Of course, Hamill ended up re-upping. In “Yoda”, Al-as-Luke/Mark Hamill sings, “I’ll be playing this part til’ I’m old and grey." Appropriately enough, the defining characteristic of the Luke found in the new Star Wars movie is that he is old and grey. Really old and grey.
In “Yoda”, the singer frets that the “long-term contract that I had to sign/Says I'll be making these movies till the end of time” In actuality, Star Wars’ contractual and professional hold on its performers actually transcends death. Hell, Carrie Fisher is no longer with us, but thanks to some manner of voodoo, witchcraft, CGI and pre-existing footage, she can still appear in all manner of Star Wars productions, even that Star Wars Holiday Special reboot I keep reading about. People are skeptical, but I think Lord and Miller will pull it off.
Everyone dead can now continue to perform! Death is no longer an obstacle. Now Fred Astaire, Nat King Cole and 2Pac can all break-dance, perform a rousing version of “American the Beautiful” and join the alt-right in the same posthumous Pepsi commercial thanks to CGI. Such is the magic of capitalism, technology and the free enterprise system.
As a child, the lines in “Yoda” about Luke Skywalker not being able to kill Darth Vader for purely commercial reasons and the protagonist being locked into this ridiculous fictional world for all of eternity were nothing short of revelatory. It felt like Al was one of those distant mentors you pick up along the way who tell you the way the world really works, but managed to be funny and entertaining and relatable while doing so.
Of course Star Wars is dirty commerce as much as it is storytelling and mythology and entertainment and art. That doesn’t necessarily diminish it, however. In a capitalist society, just about everything is about money and commerce on a fundamental level, but it did change the way I saw the world as a nine-year old. It made a little savvier, a little more cynical, a little more wised-up to the ways of the world. And I was nine years old. I was raised on “Weird Al" Yankovic. That may have been the happiest and healthiest part of my childhood. Granted, it didn’t have much competition.
Like “Theme From Rocky VIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)”, “Yoda” finds impish humor in the mercenary nature of film series that continue on for decades, motivated by some powerful combination of nostalgia and calculating commerce. And both songs seem almost eerily prescient. Some four decades after Rocky shocked and charmed the world, we are on the seventh installment and Star Wars is as strong and as popular as ever.
Both In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid feature songs whose humor is heavily rooted in excessive sequel-creation but that is, in no way a fault. It merely means that, like many geniuses, Al has an incredibly distinctive and consistent style. On a similar note, you may notice me making similar kinds of jokes throughout this project. This similarly does not make me lazy or a hack Far from it! It just means that, like Al, I too have an incredibly distinctive and consistent style that you love. You might not know that you love it, but you do. Just admit it, and everything will be easier.
People who grew up on Al went on to work on Star Wars. If you look online, you can find footage of Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson singing “Yoda” as well as viral footage of Lin Manuel-Miranda, who helped write the cantina music for The Force Awakens in addition to writing Hamilton, duetting with Al on “Yoda.”
It took “Yoda” a long time to make it from Dr. Demento favorite to professionally recorded and released single but it was worth the wait. The song’s birth is as drawn out and complicated as anything in Al’s oeuvre, but it seems pretty clear at this point that “Yoda” is immortal. It took a long time to get born but "Yoda" will never die.
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