I generally enjoy “Weird Al” Yankovic. I don’t think he’s a comedic genius, but I enjoy some of his songs, and I like that there’s someone making a sincere effort at real parody.
Parody is imitating a piece of creative work in order to trivialize or or comment on it. We live in age of parody where any successful song has dozens of parody videos on YouTube.
“Weird Al” admits this is a problem for someone who makes a living from parody. “Weird Al” said “When I do my parodies, because of YouTube, I’m never the first person to do a parody of a certain song,” in an NPR interview. “And all the obvious ideas seem to be taken already, so nowadays when I do a parody I try to think of an angle that might be a little bit different or left-of-center that somebody else hasn’t thought of already.”
His new album “drops” this week and he’s releasing a new song each day to promote and celebrate the release. He released the first song yesterday with “Tacky” a parody of Pharrel’s “Happy”. Today he released “Word Crimes”, a parody of last summer’s mega-hit “Blurred Lines”, and it was shared widely across my timelines.
Initially I thought the song might be a boon to anyone who teaches language. Anything that helps to present grammar and punctuation in a fun and interesting way is useful.
But the more I listened to it, the more I heard the underlying social commentary loud and clear. We have rules in writing and anyone who doesn’t follow them is an idiot.
“Weird Al” calls those who commit “Word Crimes” a moron, a mouth breather, a spastic, a lost cause, a pre-schooler, a dumb mouth breather and says they should get out of the gene pool and he’ll hit them in the head with a crow bar. Take a breath Al, it’s just an apostrophe.
So what’s a “Word Crime”? Not being able to write “in the proper way”. Some examples:
- Properly conjugating verbs
- Understanding the difference between “less” or “fewer”
- “I could care less”
- Improper use of contractions (it’s vs its)
- Using text speech short forms.
Creating a parody song is very hard. You have to rhyme words and fit them to the rhythm of the song. And of course, “Weird Al’ is exaggerating for comic effect. But even so, he seems overly angry with anyone who doesn’t know what a participle is.
Weird Al is giving voice and tapping into widely held fears. He hopes that the public will identify with the sentiment and buy his music.
We’re in the throws of some titanic social changes. Jesse Wente says the “generation gap” has never been wider than right now, due to the effects of digital technology. Most don’t see the impacts and pace of this change, except for an occasional quick glimpse, and it shocks and scares them. When a teen is checking their phone instead of listening, when someone can’t make change at the check-out or someone “breaks” the rules of language and no one corrects them.
We used to teach students that conformity, following the rules, mattered most. Increasingly, in our society, an inability to think outside the accepted parameters is a hinderance. People who find new solutions are lauded and valued, and those who can only follow the rules have limited value.
The rule followers are going away, but they won’t go quietly. They will continue to assert that their world view is correct. That being well educated is knowing facts, and that it’s more valuable to follow the rules.
The struggle between these two poles in education, between Back to Basics and the Progressive education has been raging for centuries. What we believe about them is the most fundamental question about education. Are we trying to help students fit the world or create a new world that fits them?
From time to time this struggle spills into popular culture. That “Weird Al”, an artist who tries not to be “political”, is taking so many obvious shots at youth culture is surprising. I guess everyone gets old.
What do you think? Are students who don’t follow the rules “criminals” or free thinking innovators?