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The Winter of Weird Al

Thirty-five years into a historic career, do we still need the parody king?

The first track on “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 14th studio album, Mandatory Fun, is “Handy,” a do-it-yourself-themed parody of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” because of course it is. Songs like “Fancy” have been Weird Al’s bread and butter for decades. “Fancy” is inarguably popular, reigning as our nation’s top tune for nearly two months. It is also inarguably distinctive, which is a diplomatic way of saying “famously annoying.” The public is primed to laugh at this goddamn song already, just as it was ready to laugh at “Beat It,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Gangsta’s Paradise,” among Weird Al’s multitude of past targets.

Of course, Weird Al is no longer the only guy who notices that songs like “Fancy” are fertile ground for comedy. As Yankovic and I spoke on the phone about Mandatory Fun last week, Jimmy Fallon’s Neil Young–ified rendition with the actual Crosby, Stills & Nash from the previous night’s Tonight Show was being inserted into my Twitter feed by virtually every pop-culture website.1 Then there are the 113,000 or so videos you get when you punch “Iggy Azalea Fancy parody” into YouTube. “Handy” is better crafted than its amateur competitors — as always, Weird Al worked with top-notch musicians to create a near-perfect replica of the original track. But it already feels late, and “late” is usually worse than “lesser quality” these days.

“I was very lucky in that for most of the ’80s and ’90s I essentially had the field to myself,” Yankovic, 54, admitted. “Ultimately, I had to wait until there was some record executive somewhere that said, ‘OK, we are gonna put out your record,’ and nowadays kids don’t have to do that necessarily. They can put their stuff online and they can get millions and millions of hits; they can get a lot of attention, based strictly on their material.”

Weird Al is the General Motors of song parodies — the best-known brand bolstered by an outdated infrastructure that its CEO must retool for modern times. It doesn’t help that Yankovic’s generosity gums up the rate of production. Since the early days of his career (starting with “I Love Rocky Road,” a redux of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ 1982 hit “I Love Rock N’ Roll”), Yankovic has made it a point to get permission from the artists he’s goofing on. This is not a legal obligation — fair-use copyright laws allow facsimiles in the interest of satire — but rather a matter of courtesy, a fanciful concept that has not yet been successfully translated into HTML code.

Famously nonconfrontational, Yankovic goes to great lengths to avoid offending the originators of his subject matter.2 In the case of “Fancy,” that meant flying out to a concert in Colorado to ask for Azalea’s blessing in person. Normally, this is handled behind the scenes by the artists’ managers; Yankovic himself rarely gets involved. But Azalea’s team was slow in responding to his request, and Yankovic was under the gun to finish Mandatory Fun, so he made a personal appeal. Somebody captured the moment on video, and the video ended up on TMZ.

“I took a little offense to [TMZ] saying I was ‘begging’ for permission,” Yankovic said. “I like to call it asking politely and with respect. I don’t go to a level considered begging.”

The time-consuming process of securing clearances is nothing compared with the snail’s crawl that is writing, recording, promoting, and then releasing a proper album via one of the world’s largest media companies, Sony. The bulk of Mandatory Fun is composed of songs that were huge last summer, like Lorde’s “Royals” (redubbed “Foil,” and fashioned into a joke about preserving the freshness of leftovers), Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” (now “Word Crimes,” with a gag more or less explained by the title), and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” (“Inactive,” which frankly seems somewhat lazy). Then there’s the de rigueur polka medley that includes a snippet of Daft Punk’s once-inescapable “Get Lucky,” an “extremely repetitive song” that proved nonconducive to a full-fledged, stand-alone parody, Yankovic explained. Mandatory Fun also has a smattering of artist pastiches, like the Pixies tribute “First World Problems” (featuring Amanda Palmer in the Kim Deal role) and the epic album-closer “Jackson Park Express,” a ’70s singer-songwriter nod that Yankovic proudly calls “one of my favorite songs I have ever produced.”

As Weird Al albums go, Mandatory Fun is entertaining enough. The question is whether these songs should’ve been packaged into an album or simply released as he made them. For now, Weird Al would rather not answer that one.

Weird Al Yankovic

“Is the album dead?” is an old canard that comes up regularly in very thinky think pieces each time another mediocre quarterly sales report is released. But as it pertains specifically to musical parody albums, the format truly does seem to be operating on dial-up speed in a breathless, web-oriented universe. At least the Lonely Island and Tenacious D are known for original material, which makes buying their albums seem sort of worth it. But Weird Al subsists solely on the rapidly staling bread of pop-culture ephemera. He might have benefited from the record-label system for much of his career, but his music was proto-viral back when the Internet was just an idea hypothesized by Weird Al–loving Poindexters.

In the past, Weird Al’s timing was perhaps his greatest asset. Right when the culture seemed to be tiring of a particular song or artist, the Weird Al parody would appear. It was the sign of an artist reaching “we love you, but we also can’t stand you” stardom. But that timing now seems rather, well, sluggish, and this has caused Weird Al to drift back into a crowded field. Now that the release of Mandatory Fun completes Yankovic’s record contract, it seems wise to explore more expedient alternatives.

When I asked Yankovic if it still made sense for him to make albums in the future, he was eager to steer the conversation back to the record he had already made and was trying to promote. But in spite of the hemming and hawing, he was pretty clear about what’s next.

“I don’t want to draw any hard lines in the sand, because I’d like to leave all my options open, but I’m feeling like this is probably my last conventional album,” he said.

This is not the first time Yankovic has talked about Mandatory Fun possibly being his final LP. In 2013, he did an interview with the Allentown, Pennsylvania, daily The Morning Call, in which he basically said the same thing: “I have one more album on my contract, and I’m looking forward to doing more digital distribution. ’Cause I think, particularly with what I have to do, I need to be as immediate as possible, and that means getting my material out quickly.”

Then the Internet did what the Internet does, waving a magical aggregation wand over a measured statement about changing up distribution strategies and transforming it into “WEIRD AL IS RETIRING!!!!” The din eventually grew so loud that Yankovic was compelled to write a blog post to announce that he was not leaving the music business.

Lest there be any doubt: Weird Al still has a loyal and passionate fan base. Yes, his followers are stereotyped as white and nerdy, but there were enough of them to make “White & Nerdy” (his takeoff on Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’”) Yankovic’s first top-10 hit in 2006, 23 years after the release of his first album. That song was released right when YouTube was taking off, and in the same way that Weird Al’s most iconic music videos from the ’80s and ’90s (“Eat It,” “Fat,” “Smells Like Nirvana,” insert your personal favorite here) came to be fixtures on MTV, his latest material was ideally suited for the new web channel. In fact, Yankovic suspected he was doing better online than his balance sheet suggested. Sure enough, an audit discovered that Yankovic was owed royalties from YouTube clicks and iTunes downloads. Two years after approaching Sony with the discrepancies in 2010, Yankovic sued his record company for $5 million. (The two parties settled in December.) If Yankovic was looking for extra motivation to rethink his future association with record labels, this surely didn’t hurt.

With Mandatory Fun, Yankovic has reached a crossroads in terms of not only his business interests, but also his cultural relevance. Weird Al has been mocking pop stars longer (sometimes many years longer) than most contemporary pop stars have been alive. This year marks the 35th anniversary of Weird Al’s first hit, the accordion-fueled “My Sharona” parody “My Bologna,” which was recorded in the bathroom across from Yankovic’s college dorm room and popularized on Dr. Demento’s radio show.

There’s only way one to link “My Sharona” with “Fancy” in pop culture, and that way is Weird Al. The breadth of his career is so remarkable — there aren’t many musicians and/or comedians who have stuck around for as long in the mainstream — that it inspires skepticism. In the TMZ video, Harvey Levin and his roving gang of dirt-spewing bone machines laugh it up over whether Azalea even recognized Yankovic, a man 30 years her senior. It’s a facile but not unreasonable remark (even though Azalea apparently did know who Yankovic was). Azalea was still a few months shy of her second birthday when Weird Al made fun of Kurt Cobain’s poor enunciation skills in “Smells Like Nirvana” to the delight of grunge fans. Another puckish pop diva parodied on Mandatory Fun, Lorde, was born eight months after Weird Al alienated Coolio by releasing “Amish Paradise.”

“They may be more familiar with my more recent stuff or they might not be familiar at all” was Yankovic’s curt reply when I brought this up. “It’s hard for me to say, but I’d like to think that I’m still relevant.”

Yankovic, a self-described “alternative and indie” music fan, admits that pop isn’t especially relevant to him anymore as a middle-aged father, though he insists that his song parodies always come from “a place of respect and admiration.” The thornier issue for Weird Al is that pop music isn’t turning out legacy artists with the same frequency. Weird Al credits Michael Jackson for his initial success, because MJ approved of what Weird Al did to his songs and videos (even allowing him to use the same set for “Fat” that Jackson used for “Bad”), and also because the ubiquity of that music lent Weird Al’s jokes extra resonance. Nobody had to explain why a bespectacled, curly-haired, mustachioed white man wearing Jackson’s iconic red leather jacket was funny. Jackson’s iconography was already implanted in the mass consciousness; all Weird Al had to do was juxtapose it with his own warped sensibility. But as the record industry has dissipated and popular taste splintered, Weird Al’s comedic canvas has also shrunk.

“Music and culture in general has gotten more disposable,” he said. “People consume, chew up, and spit out things a lot quicker than they used to a few decades ago. Again, it is all just a part of technology, and dealing with and making that part of my consistent way of doing things becomes more of a challenge, but you have to acknowledge that that is reality now.”

One way that Weird Al is adjusting is by releasing a new video from Mandatory Fun every day for eight days, starting yesterday. Yankovic got “zero money” from his label to make the videos, so he partnered with many of the web outlets he has in some way influenced, including Funny or Die, College Humor, and Nerdist.

“The budgets have kind of dried up,” he said. “Back in the day, record companies were rolling in money and MTV were the kingmakers. I mean, people spent half a million dollars to do a music video. That is not happening anymore.”

If Weird Al is worried about any of this, he wouldn’t let on about it. He insists he’s excited about the future. As possibly the most famous song parodist who’s ever lived — with six platinum albums, four gold albums, and three Grammy Awards to his credit — Yankovic is either on the cusp of another reinvention or terminal marginalization. For now, he is sticking to his usual plan, which is going wherever pop culture points him.

“I don’t feel wistful quite yet. Maybe I will at some point,” he said of possibly being finished with making proper albums. “Being in the recording industry, you have to get used to change. It’s always changing — the way music is consumed and distributed is always changing. You have to roll with it. I’m trying to see where the zeitgeist takes me.”

Filed Under: Music, Weird Al Yankovic, parodies, Iggy Azalea, Lady Gaga, music industry

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden