Weird Al Yankovic:
No Amish expert

An interview by Daina Savage,
May 1996

The Amish -- the hard-working, technology-shunning Plain folk of the fertile Pennsylvania Dutch Country -- don't seem a likely target for the likes of Weird Al Yankovic. Just don't tell that to Yankovic.

"I think Amish are going to be big this year," he predicted when his Bad Hair Day tour took him through Lancaster County. But towns like Paradise, Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand didn't look much like the Amish community portrayed in Yankovic's video.

The CD Bad Hair Day features a parade of parodies, including "Gump," a take-off of the Presidents of the United States of America's "Lump;" "Phony Calls," a prank parody of TLC's "Waterfalls;" and "Cavity Search," a skewed tribute to dentists, turning U2's song "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me" to "Numb me, drill me, floss me, bill me." The accordion meister also throws in a polka medley of alternative songs, accordionizing the works of Beck, Stone Temple Pilots, Sheryl Crow, Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M, Alanis Morissette, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and Green Day.

But the song that caused the most fuss in Lancaster, Pa., was his spoof "Amish Paradise." The single helped launch his album into Billboard's Top 20, where it remained for several weeks.

The song offers Yankovic's warped vision of what life must be like in Lancaster, poking fun at plainness. The impetus for the song was the hit "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio, a song sampled from a Stevie Wonder tune.

When he sat down to write a parody of the rap song, the Plain people seemed to be the perfect antithesis of Coolio's drug-filled, crime-ridden world, Yankovic said.

"When I had to think of the opposite of gangsters, I thought of the Amish," he said. "They are diametrically opposed, I can't imagine anything further apart."

The resulting song blends the two elements, with Amish rapping a celebration of moral living.

In writing the song, Yankovic was content to simply use Amish stereotypes and admitted his research was limited to watching the movie Witness. He also read a few books.

"Obviously it's not accurate, that's where the humor comes from," he said. "Ninety percent of my perception was shaped by Witness." When he filmed the video for "Amish Paradise," he noted, the cast and crew kept that Harrison Ford thriller playing continually on the set for reference.

Yankovic makes no pretense at achieving authenticity; he even lumps Amish and Mennonites together at one point in the song. And in the video, sharp California mountain ranges loom behind his "Lancaster Amish" farmland.

Yankovic said he just wanted to play with the pop culture perception of the Amish, hoping it might bring a good-natured chuckle from even the most Old Order. He achieves that with clever lines such as, "I'm a man of the land, / I'm into discipline, / got a bible in my hand, / and a beard on my chin," and "I never wear buttons, but I got a cool hat / and my homies agree I really look good in black."

He also spoofs the tourist culture with lines like "I ain't never punched a tourist even if he deserved it," and "we ain't really quaint, so please don't point and stare, / we're just technologically impaired."

In his video, he also plays with sight gags. There are welcome signs to the county proclaiming "Be Good," "No Fun Allowed," "Mind Your Manners" and "Sin Free Zone." Men dressed as Amish look at their sundial watches to check the time and tee-off on their farmland. Quilt stands proclaim "Our prices art insane" and the fictional "Lancaster Times" newspaper's lead story bears the headline "Much Butter was Churned." An "Amish Babes" pinup magazine reveals a bit of knee and the suggestive headline urges readers to "Plow My Fields." And an "Amish with a 'tude" raises his middle finger.

Yankovic admits the chances of those he parodies seeing the video are rare.

"Well, I was thinking that most wouldn't know about it," he said. "I don't think there are a lot of avid MTV viewers among the Amish." For those who do see it, Yankovic said "I hope they realize it's a joke, that it's all in good fun. My intent was not to offend or make people uncomfortable. My job is to poke fun at rock music and get people to lighten up."

[ by Daina Savage ]

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