“Weird Al” Yankovic
Straight Outta the Box
By Ronald Sklar
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 9, 2006.
Some artists – Nirvana, for instance – didn’t feel that they had truly made it until Weird Al Yankovic had parodied them.
Right on – the man who got his start with his silly but rockin’ accordion, mailing homemade audio tapes to The Dr. Demento Show on radio is now His Absolute Royal Dementia. He’s the non-negotiable go-to guy for pop music song parody, and it’s not always good being king.
He makes it seem simple, but it’s so not. Although morning-zoo deejays and internet clowns give it a shot on a regular basis, and the ignorant masses often mistake this mediocrity for an official Weird Al offering, nobody holds a candle – or anything else.
Now, with pop music being stretched, fragmented and pulled in all directions, Al faces new challenges, most nagging of which is being able to parody a song that we all recognize collectively as a people.
Let’s face it – most of us are not listening to the same FM station anymore. We’ve turned away from the radio and withdrew inward – and then plugged into shuffle mode. Quite the conundrum for the man who makes his living spoofing what we are all supposed to recognize. Gone are the days when we immediately made the cultural connection to “Like A Surgeon,” “Another One Rides the Bus” and “I Love Rocky Road.”
His latest effort, however, has defied these odds and hit the mass-market bull’s eye straight on. Straight Outta Lynwood (Volcano Records) features parodies of – as the K-Tel announcer would have once said, “today’s most beloved music stars,” including Chamillionaire, Green Day, Usher, R. Kelly and – most deserving of parody – Taylor Hicks.
The album had debuted in the Billboard Top Ten (a first for Al!) and has hit the internet like a mother-effer. His music video offering, “White and Nerdy” (based on the Chamillionaire song “Ridin’ Dirty) has burned a hole through YouTube.
Straight Outa Lynwood is his first release since 2003 – a long time to wait, but during that time Yankovic dealt with a tragedy that would test the mettle of even the most lackluster sense of humor: his parents died accidentally in their home, in their sleep, due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Al does not talk about this event (except for one heartfelt message to his fans on the internet), and we respect his privacy and feel his pain.
In the meantime, this is Al’s millennium. With the DVD release of his 80s TV series The Weird Al Show (Shout! Factory) and a clever parody of his bad self on The Simpsons , Al has entered that stage of his career where he gathers the props.
Here, he talks to us about how the latest technology has taken him a long way from his bedroom tape recorder, and how he wraps his arms around the pop music scene these days, among other things.
Congratulations on Straight Outta Lynwood, especially “White and Nerdy.” It’s brilliantly funny. The world has been starving for a new Weird Al collection. Welcome back! How does it feel to be back?
Well, to me it doesn’t really feel like I’ve gone anywhere – but I have been taking more time between albums, so every time I put something out now, a lot of people call it a “comeback.” Anyway, it’s great – the reaction to the new album has been amazing. I’m just happy that I’m still able to do this for a living.
How has the Internet changed the way you get your work out to the public?
Radio stations and music video channels are still extremely important, of course, but it’s nice to know that artists aren’t completely beholden to them now to get exposure. With portals like MySpace, YouTube and Google Video, it’s easier than ever for new artists to get noticed and build a fan base. In many ways, the Internet is the new MTV. I was amazed when I uploaded my “White & Nerdy” video to YouTube, and within a couple weeks it had several million hits.
You’re offering an entire song as a free download?
Well, actually two songs… I’m offering my James Blunt parody (“You’re Pitiful”) as a free download because his record label (Atlantic Records) wouldn’t let me put it on the new album. And I’m offering “Don’t Download This Song” as a free download because… well, I just couldn’t resist the irony of it all.
What inspired you for “White and Nerdy?”
Come on. I spent my entire life doing research for that song. I know whereof I speak.
How in the world did you snag Donny Osmond – AND Seth Green – for that amazingly funny video?
I was working with Seth Green on another one of my videos. Seth, of course, is one of the coolest guys in the world, as well as one of the creators and executive producers for the show Robot Chicken on the Cartoon Network. The folks at Robot Chicken did a hilarious stop motion-animated piece for my song “Weasel Stomping Day” (which is one of six new music videos on the DVD side of my album). I just told Seth I was doing a video for “White & Nerdy” and I had a quick shot that involved action figures – and he signed on immediately. And as far as Donny Osmond goes… I mean, if you want a white & nerdy icon in your video, who else do you call? I needed Donny Osmond to be my Krayzie Bone. And I gotta tell you, he was phenomenal. Everything he did was just hysterical – I wish the video was longer so I could have used more footage of Donny Osmond.
Tell us about some of the other standout songs on the album.
A lot of people are reacting very strongly to “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” which is my epic 11-minute long R. Kelly parody. There are also parodies of Green Day, Usher and Taylor Hicks on the album, as well as several original songs, some of which are in the style of other artists. A couple of my favorites are a Rage Against the Machine style song about frivolous lawsuits (“I’ll Sue Ya”) and an homage to both Brian Wilson and internal organs (“Pancreas”).
How do you feel about the current state of pop music?
Unless I’m actively trying to come up with parody material, I generally don’t have the Top 40 radio station on in the car – I’m more of an alternative rock guy. That’s not to say that I’m not a fan of popular music – some of it is really good – but in general, well… as I’m teaching my three-year-old to say, “It’s not my favorite.”
Are young people today more or less apt to appreciate music satire?
I think people always appreciate irreverence toward pop culture. We’ve seen a lot more of it in the last couple decades, so there may be a bit of a burn-out factor, but I still think people enjoy musical satire now as much as ever.
With every aspect of entertainment so segmented these days, is it still easy to strike a common, universal chord when it comes to the songs you choose for satire? Are all pop songs still familiar to all kids? Is everybody still on the same page when it comes to recognizing the songs you parody?
That’s a very real concern – the music scene has gotten very compartmentalized, so it’s not easy nowadays to even discern what constitutes a hit record. I tend to find myself going with my gut feelings more than the charts. Plus, I figure if I hit enough different genres on the same album, I’ll have my bases covered.
Is the pop music scene always ripe for parody?
Always. Pop music is always changing, it’s always different than it was the year before, but it’s always ridiculous on some level, and deserving of a spanking.
What is your creative process like? How do you go about setting out to find the songs you feel can deliver on humor? How do you create your own original songs?
When I’m doing parodies, the only two real criteria are (1) is it a popular song, and (2) can I think up a clever enough idea for it? If the answer to both questions is yes, I’ll try to get permission from the original artist to do the parody – and if that’s successful, I’ll spend several days writing and obsessing over the lyrics. For the original songs, it’s a much longer process because, obviously, I have to come up with the music as well. Oftentimes I’ll write an original composition in the style of another artist, and that’s the hardest of all, because it involves studying someone’s entire body of work, notating musical quirks and idiosyncracies, and then coming up with something that feels like it was written by that artist (while not being overtly plagiaristic). Plus, of course, it’s supposed to be funny.
Do you have any peers in the music industry? It doesn’t seem that anybody is doing the same thing as you, at least with the same consistency and success.
There are tons of people doing parodies – it seems like every other wacky morning radio show has somebody who does topical take-offs – but I think it certainly could be argued that over the last few decades, I’ve been the most visible and well-known parody artist out there. My name has been so firmly entrenched in people’s minds when it comes to this kind of material that for better or worse, I tend to get the credit (or blame) for any new parody that people hear on the radio or find on the Internet.
Briefly explain how your career began. And tell us how Dr. Demento was a huge influence on you.
I started sending in tapes to the Dr. Demento Radio Show while I was in my early teens – just awful stuff that I recorded in my bedroom on a tiny little cassette deck. It was just me singing and playing the accordion – that was it. And Dr. Demento, bless him, played those tapes on the air when no other right-thinking disc jockey in the world would have dreamed of it. As it turned out, the tapes got better and better over the years, and by the time I had graduated from college I had a cult following and a couple of nationally released singles.
Other than Demento, who have been your influences?
I’ve been influenced by a lot of the artists I was exposed to through the Dr. Demento show – people like Stan Freberg, Allan Sherman, Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa and Shel Silverstein.
What – in general — do you find funny?
Alpacas wearing lipstick.
The world is in dire need of polkas. Any plans for an updated version of “Polkas on 45”?
There is, in fact, a polka medley on the new album called “Polkarama!” which contains accordion-fueled versions of a dozen or so hit tunes – everything from Coldplay to 50 Cent.
If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing instead?
I have no idea. Maybe working at Kinkos. I’m pretty good at collating.
Tell us about your hot new look for the oughties. Did you hire a stylist, or did you change your appearance completely on instinct?
I didn’t realize I had a new look. I lost the glasses when I had the LASIK surgery in 1998, and my facial hair kind of comes and goes… Or are you talking about the whole gangsta thing? If so, well, I just wanted to represent and show that I had a little street cred. When you’re white and nerdy, you need all the street cred you can get.
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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 9, 2006.