Weird Al Yankovic has gotten a lot of attention this week. The satirical musical veteran just hit #1 on the Billboard charts – a personal feat, but also the first time a comedian has done so since 1963.
Yankovic's marketing of his album, Mandatory Fun, was both crafty and creative. Faced with a studio no longer interested in footing the bill for expensive music videos (RCA), Yankovic turned to partners elsewhere in the comedy world —, , — to help him make the videos.
Releasing one video each day as he dropped the album (affectionately known as "pulling a Beyonce") was a gamble, but it's one that paid off (and confused some).
"It very well could have backfired," admits Yankovic. "I was half expecting that by day three people would be saying by day three, 'OK, enough Al already, we get it!'"
Newsflash for some of you newbies to the Weird Al game — he's been innovating for a long, long time.
Yankovic began his career in the very early days of music video, experimenting with the genre as it was gaining traction on MTV.
"I started out my career the same time as MTV started out," Yankovic notes. "If I had come around later, I'm not sure if MTV would've played me. They were desperate for material in the 1980s — they didn't have a whole lot of music videos to fill their pipeline."
Satire, Before It Was Cool
How did he originally come up with the idea to parody popular songs?
"I think every 8 year old in the world twists the words around to the songs they hear on the radio to amuse their friends, and that was certainly me. It was a phase I was going through — and never grew out of."
In today's world, we're used to satire and parody — we get our news from The Daily Show, our fake news from The Onion, and generally speaking, mock everything.
"Nowadays, it's infiltrated our culture so much that's it's a very everyday occurrence. It's something that we're very accustomed to at this point," he says.
But it wasn't always that way.
"When you look back at it, 'Eat It' was cute. It wasn't all that clever, really. It's probably the most obvious idea you could do. But the fact that it was Michael Jackson, who at the time was the single most popular thing in the universe, combined with the fact that it was this parody genre which was at that moment fairly fresh, I think people reacted to it extremely strongly."
Changing Music Industry
In many ways, Yankovic's latest music-video-making challenge is reflective of the changing industry he works in — making it all the more impressive that he was able to top the charts with a full album.
"The industry has been in free fall pretty much for the last decade and a half. The music industry, though, is always going to be here. The trick is finding out the proper way to evolve," says Yankovic. For him, that probably means releasing more singles in the future.
But as music execs continue to tear their hair out over how to monetize music in the age of iTunes, Yankovic isn't as worried.
"There are things about the Internet that make it difficult for musicians and there are things that are helpful," he says. "A lot of things you can't change – piracy is going to always be there. I just look at the positive aspects which is, the internet allows me to promote myself more efficiently and better than I ever have before."
Champion of the Nerds
Weird Al has managed to attract such a loyal fan base is by embracing his own nerdiness, and being a bit of a poster-child for geeks everywhere. Those fans have been feeling triumphant at the news that he hit #1.
"I'm seeing that a lot of my fans are taking a lot of personal enjoyment in this victory – saying, 'Yes, we won! We won!'"
Many of Yankovic's songs are fairly autobiographical, but he's quick to admit he exaggerates a little bit when taking on his mega-nerdy characters in songs.
"I don't actually know pi to 1,000 places. I wish I did."
On the Future
While he might be done with his recording contract, it's likely we'll be hearing more from Weird Al in the coming years .
"It's still fun for me. It's still a fun job. I like to think that I've gotten better at it over the years. You know, the whole Malcolm Gladwell 'Outliers' thing, where if you work 10,000 hours you get to be an expert at something."
- Weird Al Yankovic, singer/songwriter