The accordion is one of those instruments that has a reputation for being annoying, but seems to have grown in acceptance as of late. One major point in its favor is its versatility. I seem to recall hearing on NPR or a similar station that accordions are used in the folk music of every society. If so, this must be a pretty recent thing, as it appears to have been invented in Germany in the nineteenth century. Maybe what the NPR host meant was that it WORKS in the folk music of pretty much every society. Paul Simon’s Graceland album, for instance, is heavy on African influence, and also includes a lot of accordion. Accordions aren’t native to Africa, but they don’t sound out of place in that style of music. In recent years, however, I think the accordion might well have gained the majority of its popularity with nerdy musicians and audiences.
I would say that one of the major pioneers in bringing the accordion into nerd culture is Mr. White and Nerdy himself, “Weird Al” Yankovic.
He’s been playing the instrument since he was a kid, the story he’s told many times being that his parents enrolled him in accordion lessons because they wanted another accordion-playing Yankovic. Polka musician Frankie Yankovic was not, contrary to popular rumor, related to Al; but he was influential in this decision on his parents’ part. I understand that Al eventually began playing along with popular records on his accordion, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road being a favorite of his. I have to wonder how an accordion-based rendition of, say, “Funeral for a Friend” would sound. Anyway, when Al entered the world of comedic music, the accordion likely worked as a gimmick due to the fact that no one expected to hear much if any of it in pop music.
There’s accordion on every song on Al’s self-titled debut album, but he tended to use it less as he started making his parodies more polished and closer in arrangement to the originals. He’ll still use it for the occasional solo, however, and every album since his first has including a polka medley of popular songs. Well, every album except Even Worse, for some reason.
So is it “even worse” BECAUSE there’s no polka medley?
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention my personal favorite band, They Might Be Giants, which also makes significant use of the instrument.
Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty significant overlap between Al and TMBG fans, although at least in the early days TMBG themselves weren’t too fond of the comparison. In a way, I can understand their desire to disassociate themselves, since even though TMBG uses humor in a lot of their songs, they’re not comedy musicians the way Al is. I also get the impression, however, that the fact Al himself is a fan of TMBG has only helped both in the long run. TMBG have become nerd icons, even though the members themselves don’t seem to appreciate this categorization. I seem to recall John Flansburgh saying that “nerd” was always a pejorative in his youth, which is part of why he doesn’t like it, but I’m not sure that’s all. I can’t help but remember the scene in the TMBG documentary Gigantic where Ira Glass talks about how he tried to tell the Johns that Belgian expressionist painter James Ensor was an unusual subject for a song, and they just replied, “But he’s a good painter!” So maybe they’re a bit in denial about their own geekiness. As for the accordion itself, I remember John Linnell saying that he took it up because it was portable and he had some good associations, like zydeco music. Its lack of popularity at the time might well not have had anything to do with it, but this is a guy who made prominent use of a carousel band organ on his solo album, so who knows? I’m not musically inclined myself, but people who know these things have said that Linnell rarely if ever uses the bass and chord buttons on his accordion, instead playing it as basically a keyboard with bellows.
When mentioning accordions and nerds, there’s also Steve Urkel from Family Matters.
I’m not entirely sure why they chose to have him play the accordion, but it’s probably just because he was written as an annoying character and it was considered an annoying instrument. The fact that he was also a nerd must have influenced the connection, however, and I have to wonder if Weird Al was on the minds of the writers.