BY DOMINICK MAYER
This week, “Weird Al” Yankovic has once again managed to turn back the hands of time and take over the pop cultural conversation. To support his new record Mandatory Fun, he’s in the midst of releasing eight days of music videos, a majority of the album in viral-ready YouTube form, and already they’ve been studded with spot-on parodies as only Al can offer, to say nothing of the plethora of celebrity cameos. For instance, here’s his one-take video for the Pharrell knockoff “Tacky,” with a bunch of faces you might recognize:
Or the “Blurred Lines” knockoff “Word Crimes,” which dramatically improves on its source material while toning down on the cameos and turning up the clever pun-rooted wordplay and direct references to Reddit downvoting:
How about a take on Lorde’s “Royals” titled “Foil,” continuing Yankovic’s career-long affinity for kitchen-based wordplay, and featuring a handful of notable alt-comedians:
Already, Yankovic’s found a way to get audiences interested in a “Weird Al” record in 2014, and that’s kind of an achievement in and of itself. While releasing his videos through venues like Nerdist and College Humor can’t hurt, there’s more than just marketing savvy at work here. Rather than becoming the sort of cultural curio that burns out over time, Yankovic’s steady continued understanding of why songs become hits (rather than just acknowledging that they are in fact popular ala, say, Family Guy) has allowed him to continually capture the pulse of each generation he’s lived through since his debut in the late ‘70s.
One major boon to Yankovic, especially in the past decade, has been his willing embrace of the Internet as a vessel for his work. Understanding that this would become the new frontier for short form comedy, he released the video for his Chamillionaire parody “White & Nerdy” on YouTube in 2006 and ended up with one of the earliest notable viral video hits. (Indeed, Chamillionaire even expressed gratitude upon his Grammy win, understanding that a “Weird Al” parody was as important as ever in proving one’s relevance.) It makes sense, given that Yankovic was creating “viral videos” on MTV before they were cultural touchstones. From the oddly specific quasi-celebrity cameos to the clever puns to the geeky take on “cool” pop culture, Yankovic has been in the game for years, even as more and more new voices raised on his music enter the scene.
Yankovic isn’t unaware of this, either. In his recent Reddit AMA, he noted how “The challenge for me is in finding new ways to be funny (i.e. not repeating myself too much), as well as finding ways to differentiate myself from the millions of other people now doing parody videos on YouTube.” But at the same time, those parodists owe so much of their aesthetic styles to “Weird Al” that it’s hard to imagine them existing at all without him. Just one example is his cameo on an episode of Epic Rap Battles of History, a show practically born from Yankovic’s hip. Now, his work is twofold: continue turning out quality work, while reminding all those who’ve come in his wake exactly who perfected the parody game.
As Slate’s Carl Wilson astutely notes in his writing on Mandatory Fun, “He had the especial fortune to coincide with the MTV era—videos were essentially ridiculous already and ripe for the clowning. Without the visuals, Yankovic’s songs would never have had the same traction. He was working in memes and virality before those terms existed. What’s more surprising is that he had so little competition.” While Wilson is describing Yankovic’s early rise to prominence here, the same could be said of virtually any of his records that predate “White & Nerdy.” A big part of Yankovic’s star persona is that of the unabashed geek who’s become too clever to repress that part of himself any longer. He’s infectiously incorrigible in this way, and has been smart about evolving with geek culture over time.
Consider the video for “Word Crimes,” which works in references to Doge memes and the famous “get a brain, morans” picture, to say nothing of a shoutout to Lost, a show that seemingly only its most diehard fans will defend just a few years after its conclusion. (This isn’t a jab; this writer is included in that group.) Or how “White & Nerdy,” very much a chronicle of its time, jumped on Facebook in its early rise to total audience saturation. Yankovic has long been skilled at capturing the zeitgeist not just in terms of what music it liked, but everything it’s about, the generational touchstones that age well or not. Part of the fun of listening to new “Weird Al” material is wondering which jokes will stand the test of time, whether Instagram gags will be played out a decade from now.
And it’s appropriate that with the last album on his current label deal, Yankovic is still finding new ways to reach his audience. Rather than becoming a nostalgia item that the new set of teenagers’ parents once enjoyed, Yankovic appeals to the coolest people in the room every few years, and asks them to lay down their studied cynicisms and bop their heads to songs about garish behavior or improper English. After all, from his cult classic UHF to his faux-adaptive biography Weird: The Al Yankovic Story on Funny or Die, Yankovic has defined a different kind of timely, relevant cool for decades now. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the whole “geek chic” notion of recent years existing without Al, who’s been there in some capacity since before geekdom was even socially relevant enough to circle back around to having cultural cachet.
A new Yankovic album makes for an effective marker of time, more than anything. He’s become a perennial part of American pop conversation in large part because his work is simultaneously specific to its exact point in history and timeless. A good measure of this are the obligatory polka medleys on each album, when some of the essential but less popular hits of the time are mashed together as a compendium of What People Liked Then. (The one on 2003’s Poodle Hat is especially hilarious, a throwback to a simpler time when a million glossy-sounding garage knockoffs whose names started with “The” swept the nation.) Al started on radio, moved to MTV, sold a ton of CDs and eventually took to the internet, but he’s become a sort of Greek chorus of the changing times, a way to mark evolutions in trends. If Al sends it up, that means it mattered.
Mandatory Fun enters into a world where there are a lot of people who aspire to capture just a glimmer of what Yankovic pioneered, and yet, he takes it in stride. When asked by NPRabout how long he plans to continue, Yankovic noted, “If you had asked me 30 years ago if I’d still be doing it today, I’d say that’s pretty unlikely. But I love doing this. I can’t imagine a job I’d rather have. I love comedy, I love music. I’m sure people will let me know when it’s time to hang up the accordion and call it quits, but it’s a lot of fun for me still, and as long as people don’t mind, I’ll keep doing it.” This may be his last album after 32 years under contract, or it may not, but he’ll be fine. By taking to a new frontier that he had a definite hand in shaping, “Weird Al” Yankovic has one again gotten the world talking.
Dominick Suzanne-Mayer is the co-editor of The Kelly Affair, and a staff writer at Consequence of Sound. He also hosts an open-mic at Uncharted Books in Chicago called Permanent Records, dedicated to the live sharing of embarrassing detritus from audience members’ younger selves.