Day one hundred and fifty-eight: "Word Crimes" from Mandatory Fun
Al generally writes and sings from the perspective of crazed outsiders of varying degrees of insanity. Every once in a while, however, we get an extended glimpse at Al Yankovic, the man behind the weirdness. “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me”, for example, is full of excessively, uncharacteristically reasonable sentiments and thoughts that it’s easy to imagine Al himself holding.
“Word Crimes” is similarly rife with atypically sane arguments and opinions it’s not hard to conceive Al holding, being as good and precise at grammar as he is at everything else. I should know. Al is not just my childhood hero and a musician whose music I’m rather fond of: when I was co-writing Weird Al: The Book he was my editor and copy-editor as well and he is as good at understanding and obeying the rules of grammar as I am terrible.
As a prolific longtime word criminal who has left an ugly, non-grammatical trail of spelling errors, typos and incorrect tenses stretching back decades in his wake, and had worked with Al fairly recently when Mandatory Fun was released I couldn’t help but feel implicated by “Word Crimes.” The hit parody finds Al trading in the club/bedroom of Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I’s original—or rather should I say “original” in that the United States court system legally and officially deemed the song a trademark-violating knock-off of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”—for the classroom.
A word nerd subversion of Robin Thicke’s controversial smash hit, “Word Crimes” has an unmistakably party groove. Unfortunately for Robin Thicke, his accountant and his bank account, it’s very specifically the party groove of a shindig where the Marvin Gaye song “Got to Give It Up” is blasting on the stereo.
Perhaps because it’s spoofing such a controversial song, “Word Crimes” contains several of the most controversial lyrics in Al’s catalog.
When Al advised listeners, “You should never write words using numbers/Unless you're seven, or your name is Prince” fans speculated on whether Al was sending shots in the direction of a certain purple-loving Minnesota eccentric with a long, public record of turning down his parody requests.
Was Al comparing the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince to a bratty seven year old?
Al would never be petty enough to lash out in song at Prince for something like rejecting his parody requests. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s classier than that. No, Al chose to express his displeasure with Prince killing potential parodies the only way he knows how: by stealing all of Prince’s lovers/proteges. Apollonia. Vanity. Shelia E. A young Carmen Electra. All came to know Al’s amorous charms intimately. But what began as pure revenge grew into an erotic obsession that would change all of their lives forever. But that’s not a story for me to tell.
The tone might be a little sharp and sarcastic but Al is actually paying tribute to Prince here by positing, correctly, that he is, or rather was, the only person in the world who could get away with indulging that particular linguistic quirk without it seeming unbelievably obnoxious.
Prince can get away with naming songs “Nothing Compares 2 U” because he was cool enough, and weird enough, and unique enough to get away with just about anything. Prince can get away with violating all rules of grammar in a way that will forever be associated with him, in death as well as life. Corey Feldman? Not so much, though that certainly did not keeping the Feld-Man from ripping off Prince in that way, and in every other conceivable way as well.
Only one human being in the world gets a pass on the whole numbers for letters gimmick, and he tragically is no longer with us.
“Word Crimes” echoes the sordidness of its source material with one of Al’s biggest double entendres when he advises listeners to procure the services of a “cunning linguist to “help you distinguish what’s proper English” You’d have to go back to Al’s heartbroken doo-wopper from “One More Minute” being stranded all alone in the gas station of love, and being forced to use the “self-service pump” to find a line as uncharacteristically ribald.
Finally, “Word Crimes” finds Al rhyming “fantastic” with a word that has been used as a slur against the mentally challenged. It seems sadly apt that Al would make one of his biggest linguistic stumbles in a song called “Word Crimes” but Al’s unwitting use of a word with an ugly history behind it represents less a word crime than an honest mistake Al has apologized for and learned from.
“Word Crimes” isn’t just built on an obnoxiously infectious pop anthem: it’s based on two insanely catchy pop hits so it’s only fitting that Al’s cerebral subversion of Robin Thicke’s creepy predator anthem marked his fourth biggest all-time chart hit, peaking at 39 in 2016. Al has subsequently scored top 40 singles in four consecutive decades: “Eat It” in the 1980s, “Smells Like Nirvana” in the 1990s, “White & Nerdy” in the aughts and finally “Word Crimes” for the teens.
So clearly I am not the only one for whom “Word Crimes” struck a powerful chord. Much of “Word Crimes” hits close to home. When Al taunts the grammar-impaired, “You really need a full-time proofreader/You dumb mouth-breather” he’s pretty much just offering me straightforward feedback and constructive criticism on my website and this column, which I appreciate. Even more impressively, he’s offering it years before the site and column even launched.
“Word Crimes” is such an undeniable monster of a parody that I’m a little surprised it wasn’t Mandatory Fun’s kick-off track. In its spot about halfway through the album, “Word Crimes” gives Mandatory Fun a wonderful blast of energy that’s pointedly smart and silly as opposed to rapey and deeply problematic like Thicke’s quasi-original.
Join a nice community, get access to patron-only content (most recently a Control Nathan Rabin 3.0 piece on Asia Argento’s J.T Leroy adaptation The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace