"Ha ha, I'm just playing, dawg! You know I love ya!"
By 2003, the world was in a new millennium with a renewed focus on technology, particularly how one can download a movie for free! The United States had suffered a major attack and was on the offensive to fight terrorists around the world, especially in countries that didn't have them! And pop culture was evolving as celebrity-focused reality shows and humiliating contest programs muscled scripted television off the airwaves. Despite all these changes around us, it had been four years since the majority of the public had heard from Weird Al. What exactly would be his take on the early twenty-first century?
That's not to say of course that the last four years had been uneventful for Al. He got married and had a daughter. He played a week of concerts for the Orange County Fair in suburban Los Angeles, which also hosted a month-long museum-quality exhibit chronicling Al's life and career via props and memorabilia. He helped produce a fully loaded DVD of his 1989 cult classic UHF, which proved to be a huge hit on the format. And he solidified his place in pop culture with a long-awaited guest appearance on The Simpsons. So, if he was in fact this busy, then where was a new album?
Actually, the bulk of the four years also consisted of Al negotiating for a new long-term contract with Volcano Entertainment. Although it has yet to be revealed what exactly slowed the talks down to a crawl, in the end everything worked out for the best. In early 2003 Al was signed to a new contract that required him to deliver four new studio albums and one new compilation. In a time when a large percentage of the population was worried about economic security, Al was guaranteed a creative home for the equivalent of the next ten years!
And Al was certainly ready to begin working on this new deal, as in May of that year he released Poodle Hat, his eleventh studio album. Led by a parody of the Oscar-winning movie theme "Lose Yourself" by the rap world's current heavy hitter Eminem, the album covered a number of popular artists from the last few years, including Avril Lavigne, Nelly, the Backstreet Boys, the Vines, the White Stripes, and many more; surprisingly featured Al's first ever authorized Billy Joel parody, pairing the classic "Piano Man" with 2002's blockbuster film Spider-Man; and even offered Al's original takes on the unmistakable styles of two pop music legends, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa.
The choice of an Eminem song for a parody might have been somewhat of a surprise to those who kept track of Al interviews, as throughout 2002 he would consistently dismiss the rapper as a future parody target simply because his hits were already very tongue-in-cheek to begin with. Al would remain very tight-lipped about Eminem as a parody candidate right up through the late-March 2003 announcement that he was in fact finishing up a new album.
What, were you expecting to see a still from a video that doesn't exist? You can thank Eminem for that.
The reasons behind Eminem's decision still remain unknown, but it did mean that for the first time ever in his career, one of Al's albums would be without a music video, often the main source for an album's promotion (especially on such a network as MTV, which would have seemed like the perfect home for a video poking fun at Eminem). In interviews regarding the Eminem situation, Al continued to remain understanding yet confused, never really expressing outright anger over it. Meanwhile, in a situation similar to that of the Coolio debacle in 1996, the press jumped on the news, usually siding with Al. Al himself wouldn't really get to have any fun with the controversy until that summer's new Al-TV special on VH1, which would be the first time in two decades that the perennial special would move to a new network.
Whether it was the media attention caused by the Eminem situation, or whether people simply missed Weird Al a lot, Poodle Hat did very well upon its release. The album debuted in Billboard at #17, not only Al's highest debut in the magazine but also his first ever debut in the top twenty! Sadly though, the album quickly slipped down the charts in the weeks to follow, proving the power the music video medium has to such an underappreciated artist.
The album took Al and the band on the customary nationwide tour that summer, with Stephen Jay playing solo shows at local clubs along the way. Although the tour would do well in the United States, it was eclipsed by the news that for the first time ever, Al would tour Australia in the fall, marking the first time Al and the band have ever performed outside North America. While making his mark on the new territory, Al treated the country to an early release of an all-new DVD, "Weird Al" Yankovic: The Ultimate Video Collection, compiling Al's entire twenty-year output of music videos.
But the biggest news was yet to come. As the 2003 leg of The Poodle Hat Tour came to a close, it was announced that Poodle Hat would be nominated for a Grammy for Best Comedy Album! This was Al's first nomination in a decade, as the awards organization had reclassified the comedy category during that time to only consider spoken word albums. Al was finally back in the game!
In case the nomination alone wasn't surprising enough, in February 2004 that news was topped by Al actually taking home the Grammy, the third such award of his career! After the whole mess that resulted in a lack of a video, thus a lack of promotion, which itself resulted in only lukewarm sales, it finally all boiled down to one question: was the album funny? Al was finally vindicated after an uphill battle that lasted the better part of the last year.
With a third Grammy under his arm, Al spent most of 2004 touring the country again. And although it wasn't always pleasant, Al celebrated his twenty-fifth year in the music business at his rightful spot as rock and roll's supreme parodist and as one of pop culture's most successful commentators. Weird Al was here to stay.
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