Word Crimes: Weird Al gets it. Why don’t the grammar police?

Weird Al Yankovic has been releasing videos for his new album this week, and the one for “Word Crimes” (based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”) has gotten a lot of attention in the news and chat circles I follow — which as you might suspect are overpopulated by writers, editors, English teachers, and similar types.

I hadn’t planned to blog about the video, except to stress that “Weird Al has a new album out!” But then I watched as not one, not two, but three different language blogs posted pieces on (ahem) ‘what Al got “right” and what he got “wrong.”‘ This stream of hypercorrection has continued, which prompted me to write a few words to try, in my own small way, to set them back on the path of sanity.

First, let me praise Weird Al. I’ve only viewed three of the new videos so far (they’re all good, with “Foil,” his parody of Lorde’s “Royal,” standing out as a work of slow-burn genius), but I’m reasonably familiar with his past work. His ability to comfortably work in just about any musical style is uncanny and I’ve long respected it.

Word Crimes is Al’s take on people who use language and punctuation carelessly. He takes swipes at a slew of common errors and unending usage debates, from the difference between it’s and its to the use of the Oxford comma to the difference between lightning and lightening. There’s a lot compressed into less than four minutes of music here, using Thicke’s catchy tune and brilliantly conveyed in fast and dense animation by Jarrett Heather.

A lot of self-appointed grammarians and other language folks have taken issue with the video. They praise what Al gets “right,” gripe about what he got “wrong,” and typically shake the finger of shame at the insults and threats of violence the lyrics offer for those who don’t live up to his grammatical expectations. But they’ve gotten it wrong. Weird Al might be making fun of people with bad writing skills, but that’s only the superficial target. He’s really pointing the finger at the grammarians themselves. And the grammar police just don’t get it.

Weird Al isn’t a grammarian (nor is he trying to be one, despite other interpretations). He’s a performing artist. Al is primarily a parodist (a word I don’t get to use very often), probably the greatest of the past few decades. He’s also a musician, singer, visual artist — his catalog of videos proves it — and an actor. Let me repeat that: he’s also an actor.

When Weird Al performs a parody, he is inhabiting a role. It is a performance. If you wish to go so far as to say that it’s performance art, I won’t refute it.

This is a very, very important point, because it nullifies the entire argument from certain quarters that Weird Al’s language rules are wrong, or that he’s insulting average people, or that he’s spreading grammatical misinformation, or that he’s perpetuating stereotypes about grammar sticklers. It’s all an act. Except maybe that last one: Weird Al is using the stereotype of the angry persnickety grammar cops, the pilkunnussija if you will, in Word Crimes. Because he takes on the role of one. Word Crimes, as I see it, is Al studying the role of the overzealous grammar stickler, absorbing it, and then breathing it back at them. This song isn’t meant to portray what Weird Al believes; instead this song is meant to portray Weird Al, in the persona of a pilkunnussija, ranting away about his or her pet peeves, attitude included (as well as blurting out what many of these folks often think about others, but will never say in public).

Dispute me on this interpretation if you must. You can even cite the recent NPR interview, in which Al says:

When I came up with the idea for “Word Crimes” I thought, “That’s great, because I’m pretty obsessed with grammar anyway.” I’m always correcting peoples’ grammar. In fact I’ve done some videos for YouTube where I’m correcting road signs and making the grammar better, on the highway and in the supermarket. “Twelve items or fewer,” that kind of thing.

But you’d be wrong. Sure, Al says the above words. He might even mean them. But to put great weight on these lines is a mistake. In the same interview, he also says “Cookie Monster is my main competition right now” and “My parents decided that I should take accordion lessons, because they obviously wanted me to be really popular in school.” He meant both, didn’t he? Are we to take those statements with equal seriousness?

Although Weird Al is a talented musician and song writer, his acting performances are part of what has made his career. Look at virtually any of his parody videos, going all the way back to “I Love Rocky Road” or “Ricky.” If some folks want us to believe that Al is truly an obnoxious grammar nazi because of what he’s written in Word Crimes, do they also want us to believe that he’s addicted to rocky road ice cream? Or that he’s memorized pi to 1,000 digits?

Weird Al is a musical and stylistic chameleon, able to step into the persona needed to best execute his performance. The song “Dare to be Stupid” (still perhaps my Weird Al favorite) is the perfect example. It’s not based on a particular Devo song; it’s written as if Weird Al were Devo. I remember an interview in which Mark Mothersbaugh (co-founder of Devo) noted how Weird Al had out-Devo’ed Devo: “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else and, umm… I hate him for it.” Which, to stick to a point, are not words that we should take literally: does Mothersbaugh hate Yankovic? Not at all. In fact, they’re close enough friends that Al went to Mothersbaugh’s house to play the song after writing it, and Mothersbaugh has also referred to “Dare to be Stupid” as “the perfect Devo song.”

Only Weird Al (and possibly They Might Be Giants) can skillfully cover so much ground in terms of style and content that, in the same week, he released parodies of one song that glorifies celebrity misbehavior and uses obvious product placement (Blurred Lines) and another that shows disdain for luxury culture (Royals).

To insist that Weird Al is some kind of raving grammar nut who wants to remove people from the gene pool if they don’t know the difference between it’s and its is as ludicrous a position to take as believing that he’s really the closeted angry Amish farmer he portrayed in “Amish Paradise.”

I hope Weird Al is having a really good laugh at the reaction of the grammar police this week, because as far as I can tell, they were the true target of this parody.

The funniest part of the joke is that most of them haven’t realized it yet.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
This entry was posted in Culture, Film or Book Review, Grammar, Language, Punctuation, Things you should know, Words, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Word Crimes: Weird Al gets it. Why don’t the grammar police?

  1. brianklowe says:

    Whatever his intent, Weird Al has done more to advance the cause of proper grammar in one video than my grammar police comrades and I ever have. Go, Al!

  2. Pingback: Word Crimes and Ass Hats | The Antipodean Neo-Victorian

  3. This post has been getting more hits than I normally expect, and the rumpus over the video continues online (including one poster who strongly disagrees with me and linked to this post).

    I’m not ready to change my position on this one. Although I’ll add and clarify something:

    Even if Weird Al actually believes everything that he wrote and sang in “Word Crimes,” the grammar police are still upset for another reason: it hits too close to home.

    They’re aghast that he would so publicly (and successfully) put people down for their weak writing skills, in exactly the same way that so many of them do. They just aren’t used to having attention drawn to themselves. And they hate seeing someone out-do them.

    “Word Crimes” is a mirror held up to the way in which too many so-called grammarians treat those who aren’t as knowledgeable as themselves.

    We(ird) has seen the enemy. And it is us(age police).

  4. Months later, I’ve only just come back here to see your response! Was that me you reference when you say that I strongly disagree with you? In any case, the answer is both yes and no.

    Yes, I disagree with you in the sense that Weird Al is entirely performing a role, in exactly the same way that he performed the role of Amish in Amish Paradise. The evidence suggests that, while Weird Al IS a parody artist, he is also a Grammar Nazi to a greater or lesser extent himself. Not only does his own, repeated, varying and unprompted comments on the matter evidence this (again, see my blog, linked above ;)), but to a greater or lesser extent, most people are Grammar Nazis, so it’s not really worth defending. (Unless you’re really, really keen)

    But no, I don’t disagree with you in your argument that it is problematic for Grammar Nazis to stand behind Weird Al and hail the song as an anthem for their cause. Rather, I entirely agree, and have from the start. The idea of saying that Weird Al is correct to correct grammar, but wrong in the way in which he does it, entirely misses the point of the song.

    In any case, this comment comes months too late to be any contribution whatsoever to the debate, but at least you know that I’ve read it. 😀

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