- Robert Trachtenberg
- ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
He's "White & Nerdy." He dresses like Michael Jackson to "Eat it." He lives in an "Amish Paradise," he "Lost on Jeopardy" and is "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi." No one makes a music parody quite like "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Though he's become a household name by recording 14 studio albums since the early '80s — winning four Grammys in the process — and appearing in a number of films and TV shows, it wasn't until last year's Mandatory Fun that Yankovic garnered his first No. 1 album.
With the era of MTV long behind us, it's not what you'd expect from someone who got famous for his videos as much as the music itself. Then again, the internet era is exactly what Yankovic, who performs at Ovens Auditorium on June 19, has needed to thrive once again.
"I wasn't surprised by the power of the internet. I was counting on that," Yankovic says. "After MTV stopped playing music videos and before YouTube came into its own, there was a window where it didn't really make sense to do music videos. They're very expensive, they're time consuming and if there's no way to actually watch them, what's the point? YouTube and portals like that quickly filled the space that MTV left open and now it's video on demand. With several keystrokes, you can access whatever you want to watch so music videos have become more popular and more important to an artist's career than ever."
A good part of Mandatory Fun's success was a campaign launched around the time of the album's release. For eight days straight, Yankovic released one video a day. The videos were shared and talked about all over social media creating a relatively organic viral video surge. Included were sound-alike parodies of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," Lorde's "Royals," Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and Pharrell's "Happy" set apart by Yankovic's humorous lyrics.
"I was hoping for the best," Yankovic says of the marketing campaign. "How do you market an album in 2014? TV is not a factor. Radio has never been a big factor for me. I knew that the internet was where I needed to focus all of my attention. Eight videos in eight days was my best shot at that. I didn't know how it would turn out. I never in a million years would have guessed that I'd have a No. 1 album out of this."
Have some more yogurt, have some more spam.
It doesn't matter if it's fresh or canned.
Just eat it, eat it, eat it, eat it.
— "Eat It"
The No. 1 album was not only Yankovic's first, it was also the first comedy album to hit No. 1 since Allan Sherman's My Son, The Nut did it in 1963. It's hard to believe it all started when Yankovic was a teenager sending in homemade cassettes to the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento comedy radio show in the hope of being played.
It was back in 1976 when Demento spoke at Yankovic's high school and the fledgling musician handed him a cassette tape. Over the years, Yankovic continued sending in songs and working on his music. Adopting the monicker "Weird Al" as a disc jockey while a student at California Polytechnic State University, Yankovic eventually recorded a parody of The Knack's "My Sharona," called "My Bologna," and sent it to the Demento show. The song led to a six-month recording contract with Capitol Records.
"When I first started sending stuff to the Dr. Demento show, I didn't think he'd even play it on the radio," Yankovic says. "I was just recording songs in my bedroom with my accordion and a little cassette tape recorder just for grins. I remember being in college and getting a postcard from [Dr. Demento] saying that 'My Bologna' was No. 1 for two weeks in a row. I literally had the thought of, 'My life is not gonna get any better than this. This is the most famous I'm going to be in my life.'"
That's just one turning point in a career Yankovic says has been filled with a number of lucky breaks and good opportunities. Though it's hard to pin them down to one particular life-changing moment, Yankovic remembers the day he finally quit his day job.
"I had already signed my record deal and released my first album, but I didn't have any money because it wasn't a good record deal," he says with a laugh. "I was still working in the mail room for minimum wage while I had a record out. I went to the post office one morning and there was a Billboard magazine sticking out. I opened it up to the Hot 100 chart and I was on the chart. I thought, 'Maybe I should get serious about this 'Weird Al' thing and give two-week's notice to my work.'"
I'm so handy, you already know.
I'll fix your plumbing when your toilets overflow.
I'm so handy, I'll bring you up to code.
When your dishwasher's about to explode.
- Robert Trachtenberg
- ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
From there, it's been a string of hits over the years — from "Another One Rides the Bus" (a parody of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust") and "I Love Rocky Road" (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' "I Love Rock N Roll") to "Eat It" (Michael Jackson's "Beat It") and "Like a Surgeon" (Madonna's "Like a Virgin") to "Perform This Way" (Lady Gaga's "Born This Way") and "Foil" (Lorde's "Royals").
It's not easy work, though. Yankovic says it's a focused effort that turns him into a bit of a zombie.
"I'm probably not a whole lot of fun to be around in that time because I'm so focused," he says. "When I first started writing parodies in the early '80s, I dashed them off pretty quickly because I thought they were just going to play them on the Demento show and it would be fun. Over the course of a few decades, I've found out that people really care about these songs and I might have to be playing them on stage for the rest of my life. So, I need to take some time and make them as good as they can be."
While Yankovic knows they're silly on the surface, he says people would be surprised if they looked in his notebooks. For every line in a song, there might be 10 alternate lines with different words or syntax usage all for the same joke.
In addition to the parodies, he also writes original songs — usually based on a particular artist/band's style — and polka medleys.
He says the polka medleys are usually filled with songs he thinks are good for a parody but he can't come up with a solid idea. The original songs are a way to flex a different part of his musician/creative side. His favorite song these days is a nine-minute original from Mandatory Fun called "Jackson Park Express."
Other originals that are more of a pastiche, or imitation, include "Lame Claim to Fame" based on North Carolina's own Southern Culture on the Skids and "Mission Statement," based on Crosby, Stills and Nash. For all of the parodies, Yankovic gets permission from the artist. For all of the style parodies, that's more of a gray area, he says.
"Maybe I should be more concerned in the post-'Blurred Lines' world," Yankovic laughs. "That was a straight-up parody, but I assume the royalty checks now go to Marvin Gaye's estate instead of Robin Thicke."
While there are no artists that Yankovic considers to be off-limits, there are songs that he prefers to stay away from. The most obvious example — "Tears in Heaven" written by Eric Clapton after the death of his 4-year-old son.
He says if you look at the top of the charts, you might find plenty of candidates for his next album. For now, he's going to tour for the next four months and then figure out what direction to take. He has a few irons in the fire he's not at liberty to discuss, but spending time with family is his first priority.
As for his music, Mandatory Fun completed his record deal with RCA Records. A No. 1 record was the perfect way to close it out.
"I would have been overjoyed whenever in my career [a No. 1 album] happened, of course, but at the end of my record deal — I can't imagine a sweeter way to wrap up a recording contract," he says. "It was quite the mic drop."