[24 July 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“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.”
—“Weird Al” Yankovic to Vice
It should probably go without saying, but there are a lot of terrible parodies out on the internet. Go ahead and look for some now. There’s a good chance you can find one if not two by the time this sentence is over.
Of course, this isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to stop “Weird Al” Yankovic—not by a long shot. After all, he’s been releasing comedy music since before most music journalists have been alive, and part of the reason that he has been able to maintain his popularity decade over decade is because, quite frankly, no one does it better than him. For one, he doesn’t make music aimed at children children (thank goodness) but never gets too vulgar either—he makes parody songs that are aimed at people with at least a general knowledge of things currently popular, and often centers his tracks around lyrical subjects that most anyone can relate to.
Secondly, he is aware of the short shelf-life that parody songs are prone to, which is why he’s said in interviews before that every time he comes out with a new album (which is roughly every three to five years like clockwork), he feels like he has to reintroduce himself to a new generation of fans. After scoring his first-ever Top 10 hit with his Chamillionaire parody “White & Nerdy” and two back-to-back Top 10 albums, Yankovic seems to be more in touch with his audience as ever, even if he admitted to me in a 2011 interview with PopMatters that he was still trying to figure out the formula when it came to digital distribution.
Well, he found it.
Prior to the release of Mandatory Fun, only hardcore fans of Yankovic were aware of the album’s existence. However, his absolutely massive campaign of having a music video a day come out for eight days paid off in droves, scoring him his first-ever chart-topping album—a great feat for any artist, but an astonishing accomplishment for a comedy song stylist. Of course, this was also a well-earned victory as well. In recent interviews, Yankovic has said that the advent of YouTube has “leveled the playing field” when it comes to comedic takes on popular songs, and the reason why he didn’t include a Star Trek-themed parody of “Let It Go” from Frozen is because somebody already beat him to the punch.
When one looks at the eight music videos released, you can see that one premiered over at Nerdist, another at Yahoo!, another at Funny or Die, etc. As The Atlantic pointed out, Yankovic expanded his reach wider than ever by being exposed to content sites that had pre-existing audience already built in, and that, coupled with the collective goodwill he’s earned over decades, is what lead him to have his strongest-ever sales week, and what some are already calling his greatest album.
However, while nothing will be as dismal as his uninspired 2003 effort Poodle Hat, it’s hard to match his 1996 masterpiece Bad Hair Day, which came out right as alternative rock and gangster rap were making huge in-roads. As is always the case with Yankovic, his parodies work best when he’s taking shots at artists or genres that take themselves way too seriously. This is why his pastiche songs (a.k.a. his original non-parody songs that make up half of every album he does) were particularly strong on that disc, his grunge mockery “Callin’ in Sick” taking chords that rang of self-loathing and turning them into tales about collecting belly button lint. With his 2006 R. Kelly parody “Trapped in the Drive-Thru”, he went the exact opposite route by taking a song that was already on the verge of self-parody and turning it into a mundane domestic spat about going out to get fast food.
With pop music circa 2014, music is a bit more self-conscious than, say, the peak of the grunge era, but it’s this climate that leads his original song parodies to be absolutely on point—and his original efforts to be one of the weakest batches we’ve heard in years.
Mandatory Fun opens with “Handy”, his absolutely ace riffing on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, where he nails Azalea’s every vocal nuance and colloquialism (“Now let me glue dat glue dat / And screw dat screw dat / Any random chore you got / I can do dat do dat”) even as he retreads on still-brilliant material he covered with his 1992 Milli Vanilli lambasting “The Plumbing Song” from Off the Deep End. “Word Crimes”, his grammatically-correct Robin Thicke parody, has garnered a lot of buzz for how it takes what is already a very controversial song and makes it about something as mundane as dangling participles and oxford commas. Heck, while some have called his Imagine Dragons’ parody obvious (“Radioactive” becomes “really inactive”), it’s still a hell of a lot of fun, using the deep breath intake during the first verse as great time to have an inhaler sound effect. As always, Yankovic is never overly mean with his subjects, but he knows how to adapt a song’s existing iconography to fit his own comedic needs.
However, the original songs, as mentioned before, just don’t have the same oomph as his previous outings. The bland college sports theme “Sports Song” was already played out with a better idea and more brevity with “Harvey the Wonder Hamster” from 1993’s Alapalooza, and his Crosby, Stills & Nash-indebted spin on office jargon “Mission Statement” works better in theory than it does in execution. His Pixies parody “First World Problems” is a decent enough effort, hitting middle-class entitlement pretty well, even if Liam Lynch already mastered this angle back in 2003. Finally, “Jackson Park Express”, the nine-minute Cat Stevens/shimmering folk amalgam that lands the album’s coveted closing slot (where Yankovic has recently been slotting his more ambitious genre exercises) does play well into a vein of relationship-based absurdism that Yankovic has been mining for some time, and even if the production dazzles more than the jokes do, it serves as an acceptable if not entirely satisfying closer.
Yankovic isn’t shy about talking about his creative process with the press, and has noted numerous times that he feels that his albums are time capsules in a way, capturing the essence and spirit of music in any given period of time. The reason why his works tend to be more potent towards telling the tale of an era, then, say, a Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation (although quick side-note: his “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” medley is a must-hear, if not just for the way he gloriously mangles One Direction’s “Best Song Ever”) is due to the fact that someone can put on a mix-tape of songs of the year and simply skip by the ones they don’t like. The reason why Yankovic has been cited as a favorite by the musically minded is because while one may not normally be inclined to hear a rap parody, people do because it’s Yankovic’s own twist on it. This exposure to numerous genres and styles is what has made Yankovic an endearing force throughout the years, and even when New York Magazine‘s Vulture blog tried to suggest current song parodies Yankovic should try, they were up-and-down uniformly terrible, proving that there is a method to Yankovic’s madness, and a reason why he just scored his first-ever chart-topper.
No, Mandatory Fun is not his best album (even if it, by far, has his most well-conceived meticulous promotional launch), but it is still very fun, virtually every parody being completely on point and capable of holding up to at least a few replays. Even with the spotty originals, there is nothing Mandatory about the fun to be had here, as even three decades into the game, it’s obvious to all of us that “Weird Al” Yankovic is not going away anytime soon.