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Funny Business: Weird Al Yankovic

By Philip Michaels

Weird Al Yankovic continues to innovate—staying on top of the music business by taking humor very seriously, and by finding new ways to distribute his unique works of art.

Peruse the pop charts from 30 years ago, and you won’t spot too many artists who’ve enjoyed real staying power. Three decades—that’s how long it’s taken for U2 to go from up-and-coming rock rebels to arena megagods to those guys who put that album you didn’t ask for on your iPhone. It just goes to show how difficult keeping a firm grip on the public’s imagination is for a musical act.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Weird Al Yankovic, who finds his songs capturing the pop culture zeitgeist with remarkable frequency.

The 54-year-old musician is just two years shy of the 40th anniversary of the first time one of his comic songs was played to a wider audience—a song (called “Belvedere Cruisin’”) that touted the merits of a family station wagon and aired on the Dr. Demento radio show. Since then, he has lampooned the music of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Coolio, Don McLean, Lady Gaga, and scores of others across a multitude of musical genres. And though he may have risen to prominence in the early 1980s with songs like “Another One Rides the Bus” (a parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”) and “Eat It” (his dietary take on Jackson’s “Beat It”), it’s not as if Weird Al’s major hits are receding blips in the rear-view mirror. “White & Nerdy,” his 2006 spin on “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire, landed him his first top-ten single on Billboard’s Hot 100 list, while this summer’s Mandatory Fun—his 14th studio album—was his first number-one album on Billboard’s charts.

It’s funny—novelty songs, by their very nature, feel disposable. Weird Al, in contrast, has proven to be anything but.

A still image from the music video for Weird Al Yankovic's song Happy

Music videos are a major factor in Weird Al’s formula for success. You can check out a couple of his latest—such as the videos for recent singles “Word Crimes” and “Tacky”—on Weird Al’s Vevo page. And you can listen to more Weird Al on his SoundCloud page.

MAKING PARODY SING 

If you spend even a few minutes talking to Weird Al, it’s easy to see how he’s managed to turn songs about grammatical errors (“Word Crimes,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”) and e-commerce (“eBay,” which draws its inspiration from “I Want It That Way,” by the Backstreet Boys) into a multi-decade career. Weird Al doesn’t take too many things seriously, including himself. But he’s very serious about the process of creating a song.

“A lot of people regard comedy as a second-class citizen,” he said. “But a lot of work, a lot of craft goes into it.”

We were talking about his ability to move easily from genre to genre—he frets that his band doesn’t get enough credit for its ability to play everything from polka to gangster rap. But really, we could have been talking about Weird Al’s entire body of work, given parody’s less-than-elevated standing in terms of critical acclaim. And that’s a shame. Because if there’s one thing that following Weird Al’s career has taught me, it’s that you dismiss him at your own peril.

His music and the way he goes about making it show how to succeed at creating something that’s wholly your own, even if it draws its inspiration from elsewhere. While he’s always adopting new styles, Weird Al’s work is instantly recognizable.

And he has plenty to draw on, with a vast array of pop culture offering some alluring targets. It helps that Weird Al, who describes his brain as a “pop-culture Cuisinart,” loves this stuff as much now as when he first started writing songs.

“I remain a fan of pop music and pop culture. I would still be listening to music and going to movies even if it wasn’t part of my job description,” he said, though he concedes that he probably wouldn’t be listening to as much Top 40 music if his livelihood didn’t hinge on satirizing it. Still, he follows the pop charts closely, trying to keep a working knowledge of artists and styles. It all gets jammed into that Cuisinart brain of his, “and it comes out sick and twisted.”

Album cover of Off the Deep End by Weird Al Yankovic

From polka to gangster rap to grunge, Weird Al has poked fun at just about every pop music trend. 

Album cover of Mandatory Fun by Weird Al Yankovic

Mandatory Fun is Weird Al’s 14th studio album and his first number-one album on Billboard’s charts. 

Album cover of Weird Al Yankovic's debut album

On his eponymously titled debut album, Weird Al skewered Queen, with “Another One Rides the Bus”—as well as Joan Jett, the Knack, and others.

PAYING HOMAGE TO POP MUSIC 

Weird Al seems to pay attention to every detail—whether it’s a musical style or a music video convention—that can help up the comedy ante. Take his original songs, which Weird Al describes as pastiches of specific artists or musical styles. (A personal favorite of mine, “One More Minute,” from 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid album, is a note-perfect example of a 1950s doo-wop song about heartache, right down to the ever-present backing trio, only with Weird Al–style lyrics about burning down the malt shop where he first met his sweetheart.) When composing one of these songs, Weird Al says he’ll listen to a singer or band’s entire musical catalog because he’s trying to write a song that approximates their style, though “maybe a little more warped than they’d do it.”

Not that you’ll hear too many complaints from the people who provide Weird Al with his inspiration. Most are happy to give their permission when he asks if he can parody their songs, since there’s nothing mean-spirited about the final version. “They’re more a poke in the ribs than a kick in the butt,” Yankovic says of his parodies.

“I’m a fan of a lot of the things I mock,” he added.

The attention Weird Al pays to musical details and trends is rivaled only by how he stays on top of new ways to reach his audience. In the 1980s, that meant music videos—many of you can still probably envision a fat-suit-clad Weird Al dancing around to “Fat,” his parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Videos remain very much a part of the Weird Al playbook—he released eight music videos in successive days to help promote the release of Mandatory Fun, for example. But the venue for releasing those videos has changed.

“MTV is no longer music television. The Internet is the new MTV,” Weird Al said. When it came time to roll out all those Mandatory Fun videos, he “didn’t give a second thought to whether MTV would play the videos. It’s all on the Internet now.” 

THE FUTURE OF WEIRD AL

The Internet will also be how he releases most of his new music, now that his 14-album contract has come to an end with Mandatory Fun’s release. Previously, Weird Al might come up with a timely song parody, but it would sit on the shelf until he could produce 10 or so other songs that could make up an entire album—“not the most efficient method out there,” he said. With digital distribution, he can come up with an idea for a song, produce it, and release it to the iTunes Stores of the world while the target of the parody is still fresh in people’s minds.

“I’ve taken advantage of digital distribution once or twice before, and it’s really what I’m going to do going forward,” he said.

And it makes sense when you consider the whole of Weird Al’s career. It’s a world where no song is so sacred that it can’t be turned into a laugh or three. Why should the way those songs are distributed be any more sacred?