Day One hundred and fifty-four: "Handy" from Mandatory Fun
Well, friends, we have made it to another milestone in The Weird Accordion to Al and Al’s career in the form of his final studio album to date and first number one album, 2014’s Mandatory Fun. The end is in sight, just a little later that originally planned. I’m excited about beginning the process of transforming the messy clay of this typoo-griddled online column into a book so polished and professional it’ll positively gleam and angrily demand to be on the wish list of every nerd in the world, making me a wealthy, wealthy man in the process. And what am I going to do with all of that money? That’s right: Mishima-like private army. I can already imagine the uniforms now: so many medals! So many unnecessary pockets! I think I will give myself the title of “Emperor General For Life.” But that’s neither here nor there.
The purpose of this project is to pay tribute to the immensity and singularity of Al’s oeuvre through the decades, to honor his astonishing resilience, persistence and eclecticism. So it makes a whole lot more sense as a book that you can hold in your hands and flip through and everything than it does as an intermittently updated 178 part series on a modestly read cult website.
When I got the gig to write Weird Al: The Book around the time of Alpocalypse’s completion I felt like my job as a coffee table book author was to present the strongest possible case for Al as an artist, a musician, an important American satirist whose enormous contributions to comedy and American pop culture should not be overlooked or underestimated because he is the king of styles of music—parody and comedy music—that have traditionally been undervalued and disrespected, that have not been taken seriously or treated as art.
By the time Mandatory Fun hit number one I felt like it was no longer necessary to make that case, and certainly not because I did such a great job with Weird Al: The Book. Part of that was attributable to Al’s longevity. An accordion-playing nerd doing food-themed parodies of popular hits was never supposed to last, let alone endure for the 35 year stretch separating the release of the “My Bologna” single on Capitol and Mandatory Fun. Yet here Al was, as relevant, funny and popular as ever.
Part of it was generational. People who grew up on Al as a quintessential geek hero and role model rose to places of prominence in society, in musical theater and film and podcasting. They were doing things like writing Hamilton and directing The Last Jedi and turning an absurdist podcast rich in in-jokes and weird conceptual humor called Comedy Bang Bang into an unlikely empire with childhood hero Al playing a central role.
These powerful figures helped give Mandatory Fun a launch befitting Al’s status as a conquering hero, a living legend, a national treasure who had proved himself through the decades and forged a career as unique as it is impressive and unlikely.
But the hero’s welcome the album received was also attributable to its strength, to the fact that Al was still able to maintain such quality control three and a half decades into his career.
Deep into middle-age, Al was still on top of the perpetually youth obsessed and dominated world of pop music. The fizzy, dizzy, ridiculous world of pop music functions as a fountain of youth for Al. As long as he’s trying on the guises of the teens and twenty-somethings that rule the pop charts he never seems to age, let alone grow old.
Iggy Azalea’s monster hit “Fancy” was the work of a woman in her early twenties but it felt even younger. When I first listened to “Handy”, Al’s parody, I’d read extensively about Azalea without ever actually hearing the ubiquitous smash that made her simultaneously famous and infamous, envied and reviled.
What I read about Azalea was not good. Azalea was treated by the music press as something of a Vanilla Ice figure, a cultural parasite who stole shamelessly from black culture and black music and black speech without showing respect for Hip Hop as an art form or acknowledging their status as cultural outsiders.
It did not help that Azalea isn’t just caucasian but blindingly white. She has the coloring of milk, of a human Highlighter. She’s damn near translucent. Nor did it do much for Azalea’s credibility that she grew up not in Atlanta, as you might imagine from her vocal inflections, but rather in Sydney, Australia.
Rather than stay true to her culture and heritage by traveling everywhere in a kangaroo’s pouch and talking like Paul Hogan, Azalea co-opted the sound and swagger and vibe of black women from the American South in ways that attracted fierce derision on both a critical and personal scale.
People hated Azalea, whose snotty breakthrough hit dared audiences to dislike her but she had the kind of hit that launches careers, the kind of hit that lingers in the public imagination, the kind of hit that people still remember decades later. As Sir Mix-A-Lot can attest, you can send your great grand-kids to college on a big enough hit.
As with many of Al’s hip hop parodies, the humor in “Handy” comes less from lyrics relatively lean on hard jokes but rather from the incongruity of using a snotty rap anthem rich overflowing with sneering, deliberately obnoxious braggadocio to boast about something as dorky and dad-friendly as your skills as a handyman, plumber and jack of all trades.
“Fancy” accomplishes the tricky feat of making obnoxiousness irresistible. Iggy’s snotty. She’s snide. She’s a brat. She’s swag personified offering both style over substance and style as substance. Al borrows that swagger, that attitude and applies it to subject matter at once incongruous and strangely inappropriate.
As on “Another Tattoo”, Al captures to an almost headache-inducing degree the annoyingly busy nature of contemporary hip hop and R&B production, particularly the way rapper’s vocals are double-tracked so that they serve as their own hype men (or women, in Iggy’s instance) mindlessly cheering even the most banal sentiments.
“Handy” is particularly sly with pop culture references, whether Al is bragging that he’s got “99 problems but a switch ain’t one” or boasting, “Still rocking my screwdriver/Got the whole world thinking I’m MacGyver.” Al’s technique on the microphone is nothing short of amazing.
From the “Plumbing Song” to “Hardware Store” to “Handy”, no one has gotten more comedically out of the Home Depot lifestyle than Al with the possible exception of patriot and comedy legend Tim Allen as Tim “The Toolman” Taylor on Home Improvement.
“First things first I’m a craftsman!” sneers Al defiantly at the beginning of the first song on his fourteenth album. He’s referring to the kind of craftsman who’ll fix your clogged toilet but he could of course also be talking about himself as a veteran musician and low-key legend as well. By the time Mandatory Fun rocketed to the top of the charts only the biggest hater would deny Al’s status as a preeminent comic and musical craftsman with a time-tested genius for wringing every last drop out of comic juice out of premises sometimes a little lacking in inspiration. Blame the hackneyed, familiar subject matter on the drain and the song’s stellar, infectious execution to Al’s big, flexible brain.
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