Dispatches | July 18, 2014

By Allison Coffelt

If you’d asked me a week ago about Weird Al Yankovic, I would have said it was time to give up the ghost.  Weird Al is one of those seminal (artists? singers? comedians?) people whose work has spanned generations.  He’s iconic.  Most of us under the age of 40 have a Weird Al song they remember from when they were growing up.  Maybe it was “Eat It” or “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.”

Weird Al hadn’t been funny to me for a while, but that just changed.  Here are three things that drew me back to Weird Al – a sentence I never thought I’d write – and they all have to do with his new video “Word Crimes.”

1.  Weird Al: Normalizing my behavior since 2014.

Last Sunday, while sipping coffee, listening to Weekend Edition, and gazing out at the crappy lot of the body shop behind my apartment, Tamara Keith’s interview with Weird Al began.  I was reaching to switch the radio (could Weird Al possibly have anything new to say?) when he started talking about correcting grammar.  He said he would be driving around, see a road sign, and fix the wording in his head.  I, too, do this.  When I’ve asked other friends who love words if they slip into this habit, they look at me like I’m sick.  I’m not sick.  And thanks to Weird Al for being the one to prove it.

Let’s not look too closely at that logic.

2.  Your Dad sends you the video.

Another reason you may, like me, need to give Weird Al some credit for his spot-on-ness with this video is when friends and loved ones send you the link: “Literacy’s your mission!” the song says, “There are dancing question marks in the video!” your friend says, “I thought of you immediately!” your dad says.

There’s also a section in the song where Weird Al discusses the Oxford comma, which I dearly love, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says.  This viewpoint, I understand, is contentious.  If someone thought to send you the video, you probably have your own opinion on the matter and you probably begrudgingly admit that either/either is acceptable.

An added bonus: Weird Al’s word rules make an exception for Prince.  As they should.

An added added bonus: You can finally explain what you’re going to do with that English degree. I quote: “You should hire/ some cunning linguist/ to help you distinguish/ what is proper English.”

3.  The music video is in kinetic text.

Man, I love the design of this video.  Kinetic text, or a fancy way of saying those videos where the text becomes the movie (like ShopVac ), is not only cleverly done in this video, but also fitting.  Animated words: how better to show the emphasis on the right syllable?

Well Weird Al, you got me.

Like the terribly catchy beat of that song, the thing I can’t get out of my head now are questions of what is permissible, what is stickler, and how our language —the thing that unites and binds and evolves with us— is changing.

I’ve been thinking about this because the other day at The Missouri Review, we were discussing the role of blogs and social media in the literary world.  One person likened blogs and to pop music— they’re fun, fast, digestible, and have a short shelf life.  It can be great and it’s its own thing.  Literature, we said as we swirled our brandy in embossed snifters, is like classical music.  It takes time.  But in the weird space that is the internet, these things are colliding, and we’re still figuring out how they feed and harm each other.

I’m fascinated when pop culture concerns itself with words, language, or literature because it’s a collision of the instantaneous and the ancient.

The challenge to offer curated, thoughtful, unrushed content is steep.  It takes a lot of resources and time.  That doesn’t mean, though, that readers don’t also want something salient, quick, and fun.

I think there’s room for both.  Just as we’ve seen a boom in articles-as-lists and computer-generated material (think Buzzfeed and financial market data), we’ve seen an uptick in long-form reporting and the slow reveal of stories (think The Atlantic and Breaking Bad).  It’s a trend that’s crossing media sectors, as John Borthwick points out in his recent article on Medium.

So, the question becomes one of sourcing.  Who will provide each?  Can some outlets provide both?  What will be the effect on and for readers?  We’re still trying to figure out the answer.  I think the experiment where pop and classic cohabitate is worth watching.  In some instances, it’s a question of what happens when proper grammar gets a remix.

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