'Weird Al' Yankovic Explains How He Conquered the Internet
Jul 22 2014
Photos by Nate Miller
When I said I was going to interview "Weird Al" Yankovic this past weekend, people asked me how he was going to find the time. The guy is everywhere right now. I was a little confused myself about how he could possibly squeeze in a casual conversation in the lounge at the Standard Hollywood, a hotel on the Sunset Strip.
It wasn't until I actually saw him stroll into the lobby that I really believed the All-Time King of Song Parody and reigning Emperor of the Internet could take a moment away from darting all over the digital landscape to talk to the likes of me. He had an entourage of one in tow: Jay Levey, his manager, creative soulmate and director of UHF (a movie that was released 25 years ago yesterday). Levey is a small, taciturn, businesslike man who puts Al's elastic, always-on persona in stark relief.
But when Yankovic sat down wearing low-key, normal-people colors, it was clear that he wasn't out of breath, and he was capable of devoting his full attention to an interview. I couldn't help asking how this was possible.
"I have to say, the synchronicity with the release of [Mandatory Fun] is pretty mind-boggling even before we get into all that," he said. "I had been doing all sorts of promotional stuff, like, months and months before I even knew I had an album coming out, and everything started to happen right around the time of the release." He was referring to his recent appearances in other people's work: Epic Rap Battles of History, in which he rapped with animal agression while dressed as Isaac Newton, and Drunk History with Derek Waters, in which he played Hitler.
But he emphasized that some of his recent everywhere-ness was happenstance, his performance as Hitler being a prime example. "It tied into the whole totalitarian theme on the album art. And there are things that are coming out over the next few weeks, like Hotwives of Orlando. I did a little bit on that show, and that came out the same day as the album. All this stuff is sort of happening, y’know, at the same time."
For the past several months, not only has he been appearing in other people's comedy videos, but he's been hard at work directing music videos and locking them in a digital vault. Four of the eight videos from this album were his own creations.
It's not the first time he's aimed for an explosive release; it's just the most successful. And his previous attempt actually worked pretty well—it was, at the time, his highest-charting album.
"Three years ago, I released a video for every single track from Alpocalypse. I’m not gonna say I’m the first person to do that. I’m sure someone did it before me. But what irked me was, when I came out with this eight-videos-in-eight-days thing, people were like 'Oh, you’re pulling a Beyoncé.' and I have to be like, 'No, actually Beyoncé was pulling a 'Weird Al.'"
Some newscasters who have taken notice of his incredible marketing acumen have misapprehended where the money flowed in. Stuart Varney of Fox News subjected Yankovic to a particularly bizarre grilling under the assumption that he was receiving paychecks from all of the sites that are releasing his videos. This is far from the simple truth, which is, in Yankovic's words, "They get content, and I get a free video."
"I don’t know what [Varney] wanted from me," he told me when I asked about that interrogation, "but I was having fun. It was a really loopy interview," he said, seeming bemused by the whole thing. "I was trying to explain exactly how these internet portals are working. I’m making the videos so that hopefully people will see them and want my album and I’ll make money off that, but I’m not making any money off the videos. And he couldn’t understand."
"Weird Al" is just like the rest of us: balancing doing what he loves with trying to make the best living he possibly can. He just understands how to play the media better than most of us. "I was trying to take advantage of the whole news cycle, and the viral nature of the internet. That’s why I wanted to do a video a day, because things blow up, and people get excited about them, and then the next day they’re like, well, what’s new? Whatcha got for me now?"
Being at the center of things means being up to date, which, he told me, was why he needed to parody "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea. "This was the only time when my album has come out and the lead track is a parody of the number-one song in the country. That was a pretty good hat trick to pull off."
In order to time it just right, his dealings with Azalea had to happen right before the album release, which in turn meant recording at breakneck speed to make it all work. He said there was only a month between asking Iggy Azalea for permission and the CD's release.
"I had eleven songs done, in the can, ready to go. And I wanted to wait for whatever the hit of the summer was gonna be. And I thought, Well, I think that’s gonna be Iggy Azalea. I had a release date set up for the album. We kinda reversed it like, 'OK, I’m gonna write the songs here, record it here, and the album’s gonna come out on July 15.' So we had that set, and then it was like, 'If we don’t mess it up, that’ll be the release date.' Well, we weren’t hearing back from Iggy’s management. We kept waiting to hear back, didn’t hear back. And finally it was like, 'Well, we’re a couple days away from when we’re supposed to be recording the song. I just have to go track her down.'"
Tracking her down meant figuring out where she was at the moment, and literally showing up there. "I flew out to Denver on a Friday, and talked to her literally as she was walking off stage. I stopped her and said, 'Hi, Iggy. Sorry to bother you. I’m 'Weird Al' Yankovic. I’d love to do a parody of your song 'Fancy' for my next album. We’re hoping to record it tomorrow. I just want to know if you’re cool with it.' And she said, 'Um, I need a little more information.' So I said, 'I happen to have the lyrics right here!' I pulled it out of my pocket. She looked at it, and like a few seconds later she said, 'This seems fine.' And I said, 'Thank you very much!' and I went back to LA and did the song."
Celebrity gossip didn't hurt the buzz, either, he explained. "The next day TMZ was like, 'Al begs Iggy Azalea for permission.' All this clickbait kind of jive, y’know. So of course that translates to 'begging.' But she was very sweet. She gave me permission on the spot. And I was able to fly back to LA that night and record the song the next morning."
Fortunately for Yankovic, "Fancy" isn't a very challenging song to reproduce.
"First of all, the instrumentation on the song is really sparse. It’s not a big production. My band, I don’t worry about them. They’re super professional. They nail it every time. And I don’t normally write all the lyrics before presenting it to the artists, because, on the off chance that they don’t like parodies, I will have wasted a lot of time and effort. I made an exception in this case because I was so desperate to get the song out, ASAP, that I thought, OK, if she gives her blessing, we need to go immediately."
Advanced preparation was completed on some pretty low-tech equipment. "It’s a laptop, a keyboard, and a microphone. But it’s enough for me to make very primitive demos that I can share with the band, and we can rehearse to fine tune the arrangement a little bit, and make another demo with the band, and by the time we get to the studio we have a pretty good idea of the direction the song is going in."
But I insisted to him that it still must be tough to work under those kinds of time constraints. "There’s a lot of working on good faith, because I just had to have a positive attitude and say, 'Everything’s gonna turn out fine.' I just put on the blinders and didn’t listen to people saying, 'Are you sure you can do this? Because she hasn’t signed off on it yet, and the label’s really concerned.' And I was like [plugs ears], 'Nah, nah, nah. I can’t hear you! Everything’s fine!'"
The strongest track on the album is probably the most out-of-date. "Word Crimes," a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," mixes a 100 percent dead-on reproduction of the original song's catchiness with an airing of grievances about shitty grammar that Yankovic's nerdy fans can really relate to. I asked him about the temptation to make the song about Robin Thicke's reputation for misogyny. Perhaps "Sex Crimes."
"There are a number of reasons why I didn’t do that, one of which was that 'Blurred Lines' is almost a year old already and there’s already been 10,000 parodies on YouTube, and a lot of those were basically comments on how the original song was a little misogynistic and possibly rapey. I’ve learned that now more than ever it’s important not to take the most obvious route. You don’t want to go for what everybody else is going for, so I figured that nobody was... I don’t think anybody took that song and made it about the proper usage of grammar."
The song works because it's so unexpected. Like the best of his work, I'll be reminded of it when I encounter the subject—in this case bad grammar—for decades to come.
"Parody is, almost by nature, disposable," Yankovic says. "And yet, people like it so much. Especially if you hear it at a certain point in your life, and then hear it like a decade later, there’s nostalgia attached to it. I’m sure people like a lot of my early parodies, but I think their enthusiasm at hearing it at a concert has as much to do with their personal attachment to the song as it does to the song itself."
More often than not, the "Weird Al" version of a song is just a footnote in that song's history. "I Love Rocky Road" obviously didn't have the impact of "I Love Rock and Roll," but some of Yankovic's originals stick in the minds of fans. It seems likely that this might happen with "Lame Claim to Fame," from Mandatory Fun.
It's a style parody of a legendary bar band called Southern Culture on the Skids. It seems like an odd choice. The homage to an obscure band won't help the song's virality, although the cool stop-motion video might. I joked that he's trying to prosthelytize his musical taste to his prepubescent fans, and has been for decades.
"My main goal is to get people to laugh and to lighten up a little bit and have fun. But what I do as well is share a lot of my own personal musical taste, especially in terms of the originals and the style parodies. And it’s not necessarily to get people to share my taste with me. I’m not overtly trying to expose people to new music. I’m just doing what I enjoy doing. If that means people being exposed to new things that turn them on, that’s great."
The original songs on Yankovic's albums are a long-term labor of love that's never seemed to get caught up in the zeitgeist. He calls them "pastiches" of a band's style. Fans love them, but they don't move units like the song parodies. I asked him if they're more of a time sink than the parodies.
"It takes a lot more time than writing a traditional original song, because not only do you go through all the machinations of that, you have to write it and chart it, make a demo, and rehearse it with the band, you know... It’s a process. Not only that, but because it is a pastiche, I have to study another artist's body of work, because I wanna basically put on their skin, musically speaking, and dissect their body of work, and try to figure out what makes them tick musically. The little musical and lyrical idiosyncrasies. That's a little bit of a research project, which is why I pick artists that I really like, because I wouldn’t do that for somebody that I didn’t care about."
He will, of course, be touring in support of his monster hit album. Many of his shows are, as always, likely to be at venues like county fairs, which often carry connotations of career stagnation, but not in Yankovic's case. "They pay very well, and those are some of the biggest audiences I play to. There’s no shame in that. Some people make jokes about playing the county fair. But hey! You know, it’s a really good gig."
He won't only be playing fairs, though.
"Well I love playing some rock clubs, because I love standing audiences. I know that people like to sit down and be comfortable, but we do a rock show, and I love to get the energy coming back to me at the stage. Like when I played Bonnaroo last year—that was maybe my favorite show that I’ve ever done, because it was a rock show. People were standing the whole time, jumping up and down, and just putting all the energy I was throwing out right back at me."
But when I asked if more rock venues meant we might see stage diving, he demurred. "You know, I’ve never done that, and I feel like I’ve missed my window. I don’t think it’s gonna work now. That’s sort of like a missed opportunity. There was a small window of time when I think I might have been able to pull that off. But I’m just not sure that people would remember the whole stage-diving thing, and I might hit [the ground]."
But lest you think he's losing his elasticity, he rebuffed my suggestion that age was a factor. "I’m still pretty limber. I can still do the high kicks at the live show. But as years go by, me jumping around with my leg behind my head is something that I tend not to do on the red carpet anymore."
But as if to prove it to himself, he followed up this remark by putting his foot behind his head right there in the bar, to much applause. Most of the applause was mine.
"I had my skeleton removed. It’s very helpful," he said.
Riding a wave of adrenaline from watching one of my childhood heroes make himself into a spectacle before my eyes, I shared my thoughts on the future of his career with him. "Don’t take this the wrong way," I told him, "but it’s always seemed like you should be middle-aged. As a young guy performing, you never seemed like you were in your 20s. If I go back and look at videos of you playing your early songs on the accordion, you look like you’re the entertainment at the Elks Lodge."
"I know what you mean," he said, laughing at my half-joke.
"I’ve never given a whole lot of thought to the future, frankly. If you’d asked me 30 years ago if I’d still be doing it today, I’d be like 'No. I’d love to keep doing it, but I can’t imagine I’d have a career that would last remotely that long.' So I’d hate to even hypothesize what the future holds. I can tell you that I’ll never get tired of doing this. I’m doing exactly what I love to do. And at some point maybe people will finally get tired of me. But judging from the reaction to this album it’s probably not going to be for a little while longer."
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