Weird Al Yankovic’s 1996 album Bad Hair Day just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its release on 12 March. I was 10 when it came out, and received a cassette of it that Christmas. That album, more than any other of the era, shaped my musical interests as a kid who was just starting to discover music on my own, as opposed to just listening to what my dad put on a mix-tape for me. For what it was, what it is, Bad Hair Day deserves to be in the conversation as one of the most important albums of the 90s, and that is a hill I’m willing to die on.
“But it’s comedy! He’s a parodist! It doesn’t count!” Yeah, it does. You’re just mad that I’m not in here eternally debating between Oasis or Radiohead as the most important 90s thing to ever be important and also from the 90s. I’ve long been a comedy fan, watching classic sitcoms on Nick-at-Night with my parents, diving into my dad’s George Carlin records when I was far too young to understand and appreciate the jokes, watching SNL, MST3K, and, as you’ll see as a recurring theme, my dad making a copy of his Dr. Demento CDs for me. Weird Al of course got his start on Dr. Demento’s show back in the day. So I was familiar with his work by way of Dr. Demento. Then I got a few of his compilation albums, I saw UHF, I was still under 10 at the time. In addition to all the Dr. Demento tapes, my dad made a bunch of tapes for me with classic rock acts on them. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Queen, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Creedence, The Eagles, Bob Segar, Beach Boys, Allman Brothers, the list goes on. So in addition to the comedy, I’m listening to the songs and artists my dad introduces me to.
But right around the time I turn 10, I started listening to the radio to hear to contemporary music, and start developing my own tastes in music. And that’s where Bad Hair Day comes in. I knew Weird Al parodied what was cool and popular at the time. So when I got Bad Hair Day on cassette for Christmas, I immediately turned to the liner notes to start figuring out what music I needed to be listening to. Now keep in mind, this was Christmas 1996 that I got the tape, so it was 1997 before I could really start listening to the music and getting into it. I was listening to the radio and watching MTV to dip my toe into my own music. But getting music wasn’t as easy as just firing up Spotify or going to YouTube. You had to work for it. I ended up with an impressive collection of CD singles because when your mom sends you to the mall with only a few bucks, or a $20 bill on a special occasion, you have to budget that shit wisely. I can either get a full Foo Fighters album, OR I can get like 4 singles of The Flaming Lips, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters and Garbage.
That’s everything that brings up to me acquiring Bad Hair Day. Let’s break down that album. It features five straight parodies: “Amish Paradise” of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”; “Cavity Search” of U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”; “Gump” of The President’s United States of America’s “Lump”; “Syndicated, Inc.” of Soul Asylum’s “Misery”; and “Phony Calls” of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” We’re also treated to style parodies of They Might Be Giants, Elvis Costello, grunge music, and his Alternative Polka medley featured 11 alt-rock acts of the era. I’m gonna leave aside the style parodies, because as much as I’d like to pretend 11-year-old me would pick up on that… 11-year-old me definitely did not pick up on that. Eleven-year-old me wasn’t listening to Elvis Costello. That’s something for 14-year-old-me to stumble into. The liner notes didn’t include any clues as to what was going on there. But the liner notes did tell me the original artists of all the parodies, as well as artists in the polka medley. Fun side note being that Weezer is still listed in the special thanks, despite being cut from the medley due to a last minute mind change from Rivers Cuomo.
Knowing that Weird Al parodies what’s hot, and armed with a list of artists and songs I need to be listening to, I get to work. I do what I can to get my hands on Foo Fighters, on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, on Smashing Pumpkins, on Sheryl Crow, Stone Temple Pilots, REM, Alanis, U2, the whole gang. I was already jamming to TLC and Coolio, not because I was hip and with it, but because they were all over Nickelodeon at the time. The record store I went to, which was a Hastings, had those awesome listening stations so I could jam out if I wanted to, and then there were “If you like ___, Check out ____” end-cap displays. That really helped me expand upon the list I was given by Weird Al.
The Smashing Pumpkins never QUITE landed with me. I honestly couldn’t tell you why, they just didn’t move me the way REM, STP, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Weezer all did. I got really into Beck and Alanis. I was also jamming to The Flaming Lips a lot, too, because of Batman Forever, but that’s a song for another time. I still dig Smashing Pumpkins, but they don’t have the same sway over my nostalgia they do for others of my generation.
Being a kid who was raised on a steady diet of oldies and classic rock, I had no choice in life but to have a fascination with popular music, which guided my original career into radio. Having that healthy background and knowledge of popular music, having that access to my dad’s massive record/tape/CD collection, and now injecting this whole new world of contemporary music my dad wasn’t listening to was a game changer for my 11-year-old brain. I mentioned in my farewell to Daft Punk they opened up this new world of weird music that wasn’t just newer versions of what my dad listened to. This is what I’m referring to. I was listening to rock and pop of the 60s, 70s and 80s because of my dad. I started listening to the rock and pop of the 90s because of my own initiative to get into new music. But it was still rock and pop, and that’s why I fell in with Daft Punk. But that’s beside the point.
I wouldn’t have gotten to Daft Punk, had I not first gotten into Beck, into REM, into Red Hot Chili Peppers. Everything I listen to now, everything I have listened to, specifically the new or contemporary music, can be traced to mostly to Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day. The collection of artists and songs he put together to parody and satirize for that album is impressive for it’s day, and iconic looking back a quarter century on.
My all time favourite Weird Al original comes off this album, in “I Remember Larry.” It’s such a cheery song reminiscing about good times with a local prankster, and then the song takes such a dark, morbid hard left turn in the 3rd verse, but never letting up with its cheery attitude. I hesitate to say it was “peak” Weird Al, as he has continued to have a great career, and it would discount his fantastic 80s output, but man… he was rarely better than he was on Bad Hair Day.
“Phony Calls,” incidentally, was my introduction to The Simpsons. My parents didn’t allow me to watch it, as they thought Bart would be a bad influence on me. But there was a quick clip of one of Bart’s prank calls to Moe, and that was how I first really became aware of what The Simpsons had to offer. I started covertly watching it a few years later, then dropped any pretense of trying to hide it. “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” has become a Christmas staple in my various holiday playlists, “Since You’ve Been Gone” was a fun “love” song with a delightful ironic twist, and the Costello style parody “So Sick of You” is a great anti-love song.
They aren’t all winners, by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t think of a cogent defense of “Cavity Search,” his parody for U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” It’s a fun song that explores the mundane, a running theme in his music throughout his career. It works fine. But it feels like an afterthought, a time filler. Everything else though… I will defend with every fiber of my being.
Did the album itself influence an influx in pop music satirists? No. Was it game changing in the realm of popular music? Questionable. However, there’s an entire generation of Weird Al fans who got introduced to “normal” music by way of his parodies and polka medleys. There’s a reason I gravitated towards the works of Elvis Costello and They Might Be Giants, and it’s the subliminal introduction via his style parodies on this album. There’s a reason I gravitated towards 90s alt-rock and 90s hip-hop. And that reason is without question Bad Hair Day.