BY MATT MEUSE
As you may be aware, master musical parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic has a new album out, and has been releasing a video a day since Monday, with three more to go. His targets thus far have included Pharrell, Robin Thicke, and Iggy Azalea, and the videos have featured Jack Black, Aisha Tyler, and more. And so far, they’ve been doing pretty well.
But is Weird Al even relevant anymore? Is the granddaddy of musical comedy starting to show his age? Managing editor Garrett Hinchey and I got into a bit of a debate about it earlier in the week. Here are a series of emails we exchanged on the subject.
As I write this (Tuesday), we’re into day two of “Weird Al”-mania. His new album, Mandatory Fun, was released today, and he’s now a quarter of the way through an eight-day music video release binge. The offering today was “Word Crimes,” which sparked an interesting Facebook discussion regarding Mr. Yankovic’s place in today’s online landscape.
Weird Al has always been an enigma in the music industry, a parody singer who transcends the music he’s satirizing. His unbelievable longevity adds to that. Can you believe it’s been over thirty years since his first record was released?
Today, though, he seems almost prophetic. Parody videos are all over the Internet, and we’ve seen the birth of fresh YouTube celebrities like Smosh who follow the Weird Al model. But here’s the question I’m putting to you: was Weird Al simply a pioneer of musical satire? Or was he truly ahead of his time—someone who could, quite possibly, flourish in the digital age in a way he’s never been able to previously?
Weird Al is a dinosaur.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the ol’ Allosaurus. As a child of the ’90s, he was the be-Al and end-Al of musical comedy. I remember a time of online music before iTunes when every vaguely parodic song was mislabeled as being performed by Weird Al, regardless of how little it sounded like him. He’s a comedic genius, and an absolutely virtuosic accordion player to boot. As you point out, he’s outlasted most of the acts he’s parodied, and even his original, non-parody songs are usually serious jams. He’s nothing short of a legend.
But he hasn’t adapted to the Internet nearly as well as one would expect. Take the video he released today, his take on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s been well received, but imagine how huge it could’ve been if it had come out last summer, when “Blurred Lines” was at the peak of its popularity. Instead, YouTubers the world over have had a year to fill the void, and while few (if any) are of Weird Al calibre, the fact is that the Internet has shortened the half-life of pop culture parody immensely. As long as Al sticks with the full-length studio album model, he’s always going to be a step behind the Internet hive mind, even if his material is objectively better.
He even admits as much himself. In a Tuesday Reddit AMA, he told a story about an idea for a parody of a song from the Disney film Frozencalled “Make It So” that would be about Star Trek: The Next Generation—but he looked it up and found that he’d been beaten to the punch. The upshot is that he avoided the cease-and-desist from Disney the YouTubers received, but it’s clear that even though Al essentially created the genre, it’s grown beyond him. To his credit, he also says in the AMA that he’s contemplating eschewing the album format altogether in favour of just singles or EPs, which would allow him to be more agile, but really, at this point, it’s kind of like watching your mom learn how to use Facebook.
Adaptation is certainly not the word that comes to mind when I think of Weird Al. Does he need to adapt at all? I’d argue that, in a lot of ways, Al’s current style is privileged by the fast-paced nature of the Internet, not hindered by it.
Few things really stick in our minds today when it comes to pop culture. The news cycle operates way too quickly for that. Popular music, though, is one of them. By choosing to mimic catchy, well-known songs like “Happy” or “Blurred Lines,” Al is actually empowered by taking his time. He can ensure that the public has responded positively to them, and that they actually have some staying power. For someone who releases studio albums instead of YouTube singles, staying power is a big deal (remember how long “White and Nerdy” was a thing a few years ago?).
In addition, there’s a lot of noise on the ‘net. Al has a) cachet as a bona fide celebrity, and b) a quality standard that very few YouTube artists can approach (seriously, how many fifty-somethings can make fun of Instagram without you rolling your eyes?). It’s genius, in the modern sense: he has a remarkable ability to stay fresh and keep up with the times, in sound and not just in subject matter.
He’s proving that even in the “have to have it now” world of 2014′s popular culture, quality still beats quantity. It may have been inadvertent, but Al and his team have stumbled upon a more effective way to use viral marketing then so-called viral marketers, simply by hybridizing it with traditional distribution methods.
Let’s talk about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s greatest achievement to date: “The Saga Begins.”
“The Saga Begins” is a sendup of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace to the tune of Don MacLean’s “American Pie,” released about a month after the film hit theatres. It’s pretty standard Weird Al fare, but here’s why it’s the most impressive thing he’s ever done: he wrote the entire thing without having seen the film. Because of the lead time required to record, manufacture, and distribute physical albums, he had to get a head start. He spent the months leading up to the film’s release trawling the Internet for rumours and trying to get LucasFilm to give him a sneak peek. He was so successful that when he finally did score an expensive pre-release screening ticket, he only had to change a few lines for the final version of the song, and very minor ones at that. It was a masterstroke of pop culture parody and comedic timing—an absolute coup.
But that was 1999. The Internet was only in its very early stages, and music and video production relied on much slower, more expensive technology than it does today. Doing something similar for, say, the upcoming J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars sequel would not be nearly the same accomplishment. Everyone who fancies themselves a comedian and has a friend with a DSLR is going to have their own various Star Wars parodies up within days of the new Star Wars. Was what Al did in 1999 amazing? Yes. Does it make him a new media genius who can in 2014 still dominate the genre he spawned? I don’t think it does.
Let’s consider “Word Crimes” again. The original “Blurred Lines” was a hit in every sense of the word. But, like most hits, we’d collectively mostly forgotten about it in the year since its release and subsequent radio ubiquitousness. It was played out. Now, there’s nothing new about Al parodying a big flash-in-the-pan hit; indeed, one-hit wonders have been Al’s bread and butter since the days of MC Hammer. But that’s exactly my point: this is the same thing Al has done all of his career, and in 2014, it’s starting to feel sluggish.
I will concede that “Word Crimes” seems almost designed to be, as they say, “shareable,” which is apparently the gold standard of modern cultural content to which we should all now aspire. It’s begging to be shared by a very specific target demographic: those Facebook friends of yours who complain constantly about the placement of Oxford commas and the difference between “their” and “there.” This is reliable territory, and these people will eat “Word Crimes” up.
I don’t know. Al is a legend, sure. But how much of his current success is just a result of his track record? I’d argue almost all of it. And there’s a very fine line between legend and relic.
I think you’re right in that Al’s success today is almost certainly a result of his track record. Nobody without name recognition could disappear for years, return, and instantly become relevant online, no matter how good their content is. I’d go so far as to say that we’ll never see anyone successfully replicate the Weird Al model after he finally hangs up his accordion.
That said, I bet people were saying “we’ll never see another Weird Al” fifteen years ago. And that’s what’s so incredible about him. He’s one of a kind, and he’s not only managed to transcend any semblance of musical genre, he’s also managed to become a YouTube star by eschewing every standard we’ve held up to succeed in that medium—timeliness and frequency, most importantly.
Does his model work better in 2014 than it did in 1994? That’s debatable. If it is, could anyone replicate it? That’s not a debate; the answer is unequivocally no.
Perhaps a better explanation for his continued success is that he’s managed to stay just contemporary and edgy enough throughout his nearly forty-year career to become beloved by at least three generations of teenagers. Those seeing him for the first time can relate to the songs he chooses to parody and his reasonably safe brand of humour, and those who remember him from their youth follow him for the nostalgia factor, without the stigma attached to plenty of other twentieth-century music relics (like, say, MC Hammer, or Lou Bega). Everyone who uses the Internet regularly and shares videos like this has an easy connection to Weird Al. And that’s extremely impressive.
So, yeah, “Weird Al” Yankovic is a dinosaur. But the underlying lesson here may be to enjoy him while you can, because eventually, he will go extinct, and we’ll never see another one. ♦
Photo via RCA Records