Children of 'Ahab the A-rab.'

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC hasn’t released a record in a couple of years, but his legacy lives on. If you’ve listened to rock radio lately, you know what I mean: The novelty song is back.

“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it,” wrote Chicago Tribune metro columnist Mary Schmich in her parody of a graduation speech. Some joker posted her piece on the Internet and credited it to Kurt Vonnegut. Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann had an Aussie actor read it aloud, then he set it to music, and the resulting song, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” became one of the most requested tracks on radio. It made it onto the Billboard charts without even being commercially available as a single.

Maybe it’s not so much that novelty is enjoying a resurgence as that pop music’s just getting sillier (how else to explain the success of Offspring’s “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” and Fat Boy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank”?). We now belong to a society that supports not just one but four compilations of wrestling music, not to mention two volumes of porn-flick “themes.” Then there’s the guy from a few years ago who released an album of lounge numbers about astrology and golf.

Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between songs written with comedic intent and songs that simply shouldn’t be taken seriously. Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)”—quick, which is it? How about Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic”? If you consider novelty songs as songs with bizarre elements or unexpected instrumentation, satirical lyrics, or surprising twists, the modern novelty song reaches far outside Dr. Demento’s realm. Think about the Kinks’ parade of British eccentrics, the music-hall fascinations of Ian Dury and Ian Whitcomb, Fleetwood Mac’s marching-band thriller “Tusk,” the whimsical indie pop of Elephant 6 bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Cake’s smirky hit “The Distance.”

Here’s how you can really tell if a tune fits into the novelty category: Does the kick it gives you upon first listen diminish with each succeeding spin? A great example is a single from last year, Touch & Go’s “Would You . . . ?” Over an insistent beat, a woman says haltingly, “I’ve noticed you around. . . . Ummm . . . I find you very attractive.” This sequence repeats a couple of times. There’s a long section with more drumbeats, and then: “Would you, um . . . Would you go to bed with me?” A celebratory trumpet kicks in. Initially, this little drama offers plenty of suspense, but after you’ve heard the punch line, it becomes old hat.

Sometimes the novelty is all in the singer’s delivery: Brian Molko’s overnasal intonation on Placebo’s “Pure Morning” (“A friend in need’s a friend indeed/A friend with weed is better”) or Eminem’s bratty refrain on “My Name Is.” When pop vocalists are this close to being cartoons, their music is instantly funny.

The line between comic-book characters and real-life pop stars is, in fact, as thin as Homer Simpson’s hair. It’s a feather in your cap to be mentioned on South Park or have yourself caricatured by Matt Groening for an episode of The Simpsons. The Simpsons themselves are no strangers to the hit parade, having caused a dance floor sensation with “The Bartman.” Where does this leave Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, and Insane Clown Posse (on one extreme) or the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears (on the other)?

Even indie rock has its own novelty act—the Lonesome Organist, a one-man band who yodels and tap dances, plays everything from the steel drum to the harmonica, and writes songs about hobo squaws and new-age vamps.

IN THE PAST FEW years, there have been plenty of people willing to fill the shoes of Rick Dees (“Disco Duck”), Buckner and Garcia (“Pac-man Fever”), Sigue Sigue Sputnik, King Missile, Vanilla Ice, Ray Stevens (“Streak”), and yes, the Beastie Boys (remember “Cookie Puss”?). (By the way, they’re the next cartoon stars, appearing in the May 18 episode of Futurama.) Contemplate, for a moment, actor Crispin Glover, who released a record several years ago that went beyond novelty and into the deeply disturbing (it was probably the ode to masturbation that sent it over the edge). Or the too-clever-for-his-own-good Ben Folds, who released a goofy solo record last year with a lengthy spoken-word passage from William Shatner.

Country music, however, has been disappointing in the novelty department lately, counting instead on glossy schmaltz from Shania Twain and the like. Even though covers of classics are big, it took Biz Markie—definitely not a Nashville dude—to resurrect Johnny Paycheck’s novelty-ish “Take This Job and Shove It” for the film Office Space.

Why is current pop music so conducive to novelty? Part of the explanation lies in our obsession with sound bites over song construction. Then there are the morning radio DJs who take hit songs and add their own ridiculous lyrics (just like Puffy Combs!). They create the perfect atmosphere for singles like Blessid Union’s “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me),” a novelty song for the jam-band crowd (“She likes me for me/Not because I look like Tyson Beckford/With the charm of Robert Redford/Oozing out my ears”). The week “Hey Leonardo” debuted, it was the second most added song on radio—behind the Offspring’s second novelty single of the year, “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”

When it comes down to it, what pop song isn’t a novelty? When Will Smith’s hip-hop version of “Wild Wild West” hits the airwaves this summer, you’ll see what I mean.