It's been said that artists will truly know they've entered pop culture when Weird Al Yankovic records a parody of their hit. But what does it mean when pop culture is ahead of Weird Al? Take his parody of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," which Yankovic turns into "eBay," but his satire is not far removed from the auction website's own advertising campaign of 2003, where people rave about the junk they bought on eBay to the tune of "My Way" ("I did it eBay"). What does this mean? Well, to begin with, that Weird Al's sensibility has been so thoroughly assimilated by mass culture that it's tougher than ever for him to stay ahead of the game, but it also means that he's getting predictable. Even worse for his music, he's getting older and he doesn't have a finger on the pulse of pop culture anymore. Like Bill O'Reilly ranting about how hip-hop will lead to the destruction of America (something he actually did on The O'Reilly Factor the week Poodle Hat was released), offering generalizations about a culture he doesn't understand, Yankovic seems removed from the culture he's commenting upon, picking up on cues he's heard on Clear Channel radio and read in Entertainment Weekly without exploring the music much itself. For instance, "Angry White Boy Polka," his latest installment in his series of polka parody melodies, is undone by his lack of understanding of the subject, in particular how the White Stripes, the Strokes, and the Hives -- none of whom are angry in the slightest -- are the polar opposite of Limp Bizkit, Disturbed, and Papa Roach, and their nü-metal ilk (for that matter, Kid Rock is many things, but he ain't angry). Then, there's his parody of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," for which Marshall Mathers refused to let Alfred Matthew Yankovic make a video -- an event that gave Poodle Hat a lot of press upon its spring 2003 release. It was the first time an artist denied Al the permission to make a video and all the press portrayed it as another time that Mr. Mathers turned stone-cold humorless in the face of a silly joke (it was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog at the VMAs revisited); after hearing Yankovic's "Couch Potato," it's hard not to sympathize with Em, since unlike his other big pop hit parodies, this has nothing to do with the song. Weird Al doesn't pick up on the theme of the song, or the sound of it, or the lyrics to create a parody, he simply picks television at random, as if jokes about American Idol and Survivor will guarantee laughs and airplay. On top of the randomness of the subject, the jokes are simply bad, culminating in a "My Tivo Thinks I'm Gay" joke ripped off from Mike Binder's unspeakably awful HBO series Mind of the Married Man, where it was done better (and if Mike Binder does a joke better than you, you're slipping; besides, anybody who has had Tivo for any length of time knows that no matter what you do, it will record Law & Order).
And so Poodle Hat goes, as it stumbles over the obviousness and awfulness of its parodies, which have also veered into a new level of stomach-churning vulgarity, whether it's the stinking rubbish on "Trash Day" (Nelly's "Hott in Herre") or the Avril Lavigne parody "A Complicated Song," where the chorus becomes: "Why did you have to make me so constipated?" Only one other song parody remains, and it's "Ode to a Superhero," which is Billy Joel's "Piano Man" reconfigured for Spider-Man. Weird Al also stumbles on the originals, particularly because many of them sound and feel like parodies: "Party at the Leper Colony" rides the Willie & the Hand Jive shuffle beat, while "Wanna B Ur Lovr" is a slow-funk jam that sounds like a parody of Beck parodying Prince and "Bob" is about, well, Bob Dylan, styled like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," with Al singing in a nasal whine "funny," cryptic lines like "May a moody baby doom a yam?," all of which are revealed to be palindromes! Hardy har har. Yankovic redeems himself somewhat on the three remaining songs, with "Hardware Store" and its complicated, intricate vocal arrangement the most musically interesting piece here, rivalled by "Why Does This Always Happen to Me?," a sensitive piano pop tune with a good send-up of narcissistic lyrics and nice, layered vocal harmonies; the latter benefits considerably from the presence of Ben Folds on piano, not in the least because this sounds exactly like a Ben Folds song. Then, the album ends with "Genius in France," a multi-part epic that's equal parts Utopia-era Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa, and They Might Be Giants; it certainly has its irritating moments, including the stodgy song-ending Grey Poupon aside, but it's the most ambitious and weirdest thing here, which counts for a lot, ending with a Grey Poupon joke. It works because, at his best, Weird Al is a very good musician with some clever ideas and a skilled band, so music that showcases that is best for him -- it helps put his corny jokes across. Here, nothing works, and he sounds old and out of step because of it.