Day One hundred and thirty: "White & Nerdy" from Straight Outta Lynwood
Welcome, friends to the one hundred and thirtieth entry in The Weird Accordion to Al and the first column in more than time than I am comfortable admitting. Why? That is a good question that I’m not entirely sure I know the answer to.
When I first conceived the Weird Accordion to Al, I saw it as a column I could write quickly and easily in a matter of hours, building an enormous backlog that would allow me to focus on other aspects of the website. That’s not how it turned out at all. My backlog evaporated quickly, particularly when I was running the column at a daily clip, and, while incredibly rewarding and a wonderful challenge, it has proven far more time and labor-intensive than I could have ever predicted.
I planned on cranking these out en masse but you know the old saying: if you want to make God laugh, make a plan. Then put on The Buttoned Up Mind of Bob Newhart and say “This is for you, God. Enjoy!” I bet the divine spirit would enjoy that. Everybody loves Bob Newhart. He is a national treasure.
The other reason I stepped away from my column obsessively chronicling the recorded output of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic is because, ironically or not, I was immersing myself in the live world of Al when I followed his current tour.
I saw the tour as an extension of the Weird Accordion to Al. Seeing Al and his band perform the deep cuts and obscurities I’ve been writing about here gave me a deeper connection to his music beyond, you know, merely growing up on it, loving it as an adult, researching it extensively for Weird Al: The Book and then writing literally hundreds of thousands of words about it for The Weird Accordion to Al.
The tour gave me a connection to Al’s music and the man himself that was live, electric, immediate, the stuff of memory and dreams, fantasies and nostalgic reveries. It also gave me a new, expanded context for songs I know and love.
In the seven shows I saw for the tour, for example, “White & Nerdy”, the first song and single off his 12th studio album, 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood, occupied a place of pride as the final smash included in a medley of parody hits. The hit medley functions like Al’s polka medleys: the lyrics remain the same but the sound is not only different than the original, but antithetical in a way that completely changes, and even reverses the overall tenor of the song.
In its original version, for example, the production on “White & Nerdy” is ominous, dramatic and intense. In medley form, however, the song’s sonic quality is less dark and sinister than caucasian and geeky, full of gee wiz, pep club enthusiasm.
“White & Nerdy” is an important song in Al’s career for a couple of different reasons. As has been the case with Al’s career on more than one occasion, a development that initially seemed like a stroke of bad luck ended up working in Al’s favor.
In this case, that bad luck involved sensitive white man James Blunt’s label Atlantic turning down a request to release a parody Blunt’s smash “You’re Beautiful” entitled “You’re Pitiful” even after Al recorded the song and slated it as the first single on Straight Outta Lynwood.
Al was in a dilly of pickle. Thankfully desperation led to inspiration and Al recorded a parody of Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone's “Ridin'” with a skeleton crew of just guitarist Jim West (handling synths) and drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz and recorded a nerd anthem that would go on to become the biggest chart hit of Al’s career and his only single to hit the top ten.
The last minute switcheroo paid off creatively as well as commercially. Where “You’re Pitiful” is amusing if mean-spirited and slight, “White & Nerdy” is a brash anthem that documents the joys of Nerd Life with equal parts clear-eyed candor and affection.
Like “Gangsta’s Paradise”, “Ridin' wasn’t just a massive crossover hit. It was also a song about something, a song that was important, that had substance as well as style. In “Ridin'”, the subject is racial profiling and police harassment. Like a less less light-hearted version of the classic Sir Mix-A-Lot song “One Time’s Got No Case”, the song is about a black man targeted by the cops as a probable criminal due to his race and luxurious lifestyle.
It’s a song of brash defiance towards corrupt authority, a middle finger to the racist cops that have long been hip hop’s public enemy number one. Al’s song retains that air of brash defiance but applies it to hilariously incongruous subject matter. Let’s just say that never have the words “Got my name on my underwear” or "I'm nerdy in the extreme and whiter than sour cream" been uttered with such misplaced swagger.
“White & Nerdy” presents a sort of de-politicized whiteness, a whiteness divorced from all of the heavy political and ideological baggage it has picked up through the years. It presents whiteness as nerdiness as nerdiness as whiteness although god knows that the beautiful nerd rainbow contains Poindexters and dorks of all races as well.
The song offers a much more benign exploration of race relations than the one found in “Ridin’’: the high-status, low-self-awareness geek rapping the song wants to kick it with the gangstas (represented in the video by a pre-superstardom Key & Peele), but he’s held back by his hopeless, inexorable whiteness.
“White & Nerdy” benefits from both density and specificity. This proud Poindexter doesn’t just eschew a 40 ounce of malt liquor, the cartoon gangsta’s beverage of choice, for the entirely more prim and proper tea; no, he specifically favors an Earl Grey tea, the sleepy caucasian’s choice. Al doesn’t just reference MySpace, the Facebook of yesteryear, which lived a tacky life and then died a tacky, predictable death so that less terrible social media companies could live and flourish and make our lives terrible; he references its specific features as well, rendering the song a fascinating snapshot of a very specific time and place in pop culture and geek culture as well.
Chamillionaire favors a rapid-fire sing-song, half-sung, half-rapper delivery that Al mimics but makes several thousand times whiter.
What follows are lyrics of great quality and quantity, full of college words and gloriously geeky turns of phrase like rhyming “All of my action figures are cherry” with “Stephen Hawking’s in my library.”
What makes “White & Nerdy” so enduring is the love Al brings to this subject matter. The white and nerdy are Al’s people. They comprise much of his fanbase. I know from personal experience. When the lights came on when a fire alarm was pulled during a show in Augusta, Georgia, I was nearly blinded by the sheer whiteness of the crowd, which was a whole lot more diverse than the audience in, say, Wabash, Indiana.
As far as I know, “White & Nerdy” is the only pop song to hit the top ten to reference “Vector calculus.” What is Vector calculus, you ask? Well, according to Wikipedia, which the song’s protagonist brags about editing, “Vector calculus, or vector analysis, is a branch of mathematics concerned with differentiation and integration of vector fields, primarily in 3-dimensional Euclidean space.”
Verily, I am a man of forty-two years and I have no idea what that means. Real talk, reader, sometimes I think I am just not smart enough to properly appreciate the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic. I pride myself on knowing all sorts of weird stuff, including stuff about “Weird Al” Yankovic but vector calculus is one of several phrases I had to Google because even in context I only had a vague sense of what “Pascal”, “Minesweeper” and “writable media” meant.
In that respect Al is more than a little like his hero Tom Lehrer. He’s not just entertaining, he’s educational as well, even when one of your primary fields of knowledge and expertise is the life and music of “Weird Al” Yankovic, as is the case with me, oddly enough.
I have a Patreon that provides most of my income. If you’d consider donating as little as a dollar that’d be swell over at http://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace
Oh, and my “Weird Al” Yankovic GoFundMe is still up and there are still dual-signed albums left (8 if I’m not mistaken, including Straight Outta Lynwood, which (spoiler) is one of my all-time favorites) at https://www.gofundme.com/mediumweirdtrip