Everything You Know Is Wrong: An Interview with "Weird Al" Yankovic
He survived an inexplicable Lady Gaga controversy, and is warning us of the fiery (and hilarious) Alpocalypse at hand. The Grammy-winning comedy icon discusses everything from Rebecca Black to what would've made his Internet Leaks EP more effective, as well as the time he missed out on filling in for James Taylor on The Tonight Show.
"Weird Al" Yankovic can't help but note the irony.
Shortly after the young accordion maestro Alfred Yankovic got his early song parodies played on Dr. Demento's famed radio show in the late '70s -- bringing a significant amount of attention to his comedy chops -- "Weird Al" began seeking a record contract, and despite a one-off recording deal with Capitol Records that resulted in the single "My Bologna" (a parody of the Knack's "My Sharona") getting released, there were very few people interested in signing a comedy/novelty artist, as labels thought that he would just be a flash in the pan.
Now, some 32 years later, Yankovic has just released Alpocalypse, his 13th full-length album, which goes to show that after being written off as a "novelty" act, Yankovic has easily outlasting several of the chart-topping artists that he's parodied. If a quick listen to Alpocalypse proves anything, it's that the reason why Yankovic has persevered for so long is because he's only gotten funnier with each passing year.
One thing to note about Alpocalypse, though, is that it comes in with some higher expectations than albums past. After all, his last full-length, 2006's excellent Straight Outta Lynwood, not only entered the upper echelon of the Billboard Album Charts, but it also scored him the first-ever Top 10 hit of his career with the brilliant Chamillionaire parody "White & Nerdy". In 2009, he tried mixing things up a bit by rolling out new songs on an individual basis, compiling them together to form the digital-only Internet Leaks EP, which, despite featuring only one parody (a riff on T.I.'s "Whatever You Like"), still managed to score a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album, his 11th career-to-date.
On top of all of that was the "Gaga saga", in which Yankovic tried to gain permission to do a parody of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" only to have to jump through several hoops before being told no. After releasing the song online, it eventually found its way to Gaga herself, who didn't know anything about Yankovic's request (her manager, it turned out, was acting as gatekeeper), and gave her full approval to not only the parody but also for Yankovic to cover "Poker Face" -- polka-style -- in the aptly-titled medley "Polka Face".
Prior to the album's release, Yankovic sat down with PopMatters to discuss everything from the world's decreasing pop culture attention span to what he thinks would've improved the Internet Leaks EP, and even how he once had the chance to inexplicably cover James Taylor's "Fire & Rain" on The Tonight Show ...
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Before we discuss anything, I think it's important to note that you've been in this industry for an amazing 32 years -- how does that feel?
Ya know, it's odd. It's great that I still get to do this for a living, but as I've talked about many times, I still can't get over the irony, because nobody wanted to sign me in the first place, 'cos they thought "Oh, comedy music, novelty artists -- yeah, you'll be gone in six months!" And in the meantime, I keep coming back like a bad rash. [laughs]
Yet even this far out in the game, you're still doing things to mix it up. One of the more important things you've done as of late is try experimenting with release formats, particularly with [2009's] Internet Leaks EP, wherein you gradually released songs on an individual basis, which you said you wanted to try so that there wouldn't be that large breadth of time between when a song is popular and when it shows up on an album. Two things about that: for one thing, I think it was interesting that so many of the songs turned out to be your original compositions; and secondly, every single one of those songs wound up making their way onto the Alpocalypse track listing. Guide us through the process for that for a little bit.
Well it shouldn't have been a surprise: it was always my intention -- and I was very upfront about this -- that everything on Internet Leaks was going to wind up on my next album, which is why it was called Internet Leaks -- we're leaking tracks from the new album. That was the whole idea. I mean, sure the same people are like "I've already heard half your new album!" Well, yes, that was always the idea, you know? [laughs] It would probably have been more effective if there had been more parodies at the time, but I wasn't coming up with a lot of ideas. I came up with the T.I. parody, which I was able to get out in a very timely manner. The other stuff I was writing was just a lot of originals. Internet Leaks probably would've been more effective had [the songs] been parodies, but that just wasn't the way it worked out.
On that note, I think one of the originals that you did for Internet Leaks/Alpocalypse was one of the most striking that you've ever done, which is "Skipper Dan". The reason I find it so fascinating is that it's one of those rare dramatic turns that you took. It wasn't, you know, ultra-tragic or stark or anything, but here's a man who compromised his way through life without ever achieving his dreams -- it's a relatively sad character study that I think sticks out all the more on an album that's still filled with comedy songs straight-up. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind that?
It is a little different, I guess. I mean, it's such a quirky story that I didn't think it was out of place on my album, but it is a little more bittersweet and poignant, perhaps, than what you'd expect from me. [laughs] Yeah, some people really like it, some people are put out by it. I actually found Disney employees and jungle cruise skippers actually love the song, but I get a lot of negative reaction from struggling actors -- [they] don't appreciate it too much. Every now and then I like to do something that's maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but is just maybe a little twisted, and I thought that was one of those examples. The inspiration actually did come at the Jungle Cruise Ride at Disneyland. I was there with my family a couple years ago and we got on the ride, and I don't remember a lot about it other than the skipper making some off-handed reference to his failed acting career. And immediately a lightbulb went over my head and I just thought "That's a song!" I came up with a whole back-story and made it just kind of a bitter song about an actor that was showing all this promise and he winds up doing this repetitive and boring job. [laughs]
Another thing I wanted to talk about as well was the [Taylor Swift] parody "TMZ". Now you've said previously that when people hear this song they wouldn't really be able to tell your stance on it, whether you're supporting the media or the celebrities. I feel like this is one of your more pointed parodies: it's not really about tabloid photographers as it is the whole nationwide obsession with it all. What drew you to that subject matter? Have you had any really bad experiences with paparazzi or are you just drawing from observations here?
No -- my relationship with TMZ is actually fairly friendly. The people who've approached me at The Grove and various places around here have actually been pretty respectful and nice to me, so I don't have any bone to grind with them, really. In fact, I liken "TMZ" a little bit to "Don't Download This Song", in that you can't really glean what my viewpoint is. It's not "Oh, is he on TMZ's side? Or is he on the celebrities side?" It's a little hard to picture because I kind of find the humor in both sides of the situation. It's making fun mostly about everyone's obsession with celebrity culture and how ridiculous it is and why do we even care about any of this.
I was doing my due diligence and tried looking you up on TMZ and there's … you leaving a plane with Lisa Kudrow!
Right. Ooh, scandalous! [laughs]
Yet when talking about recurring motifs in your career, another one that comes up is your sweet peons to love gone wrong or love gone right, which tend to be either very sweet or ultra-violent depending. Now that you're married though, does your wife have any say or influence on songs like "If That Isn't Love"?
Well, I do draw a few things from my own marriage, and I think one of those gags [in the song] was about me holding the ladder while she cleans the leaves out of the gutter. Obviously my relationship is a little more healthy than the songs that I put on the album [laughs]; but a lot of it's drawn from real life. A lot of "Trapped at the Drive-Thru" -- several of those conversations could've been taken verbatim from my household. I've now had enough experience as a married man to write in that voice.
Now one of the things that you've talked about before is how you feel that each of your albums are "time capsules" for the music of the era they were made in. Now, living in an era where Eurodisco dominates the charts, singles outsell albums by the millions, and new Lady Gaga full-lengths run for $0.99, what do you feel Alpocalypse summarizes?
Ooh! Put a name to the era? I don't know. It's obviously not a definitive look at a musical era -- it's not like "This is everything that's happened in music since 2006!" But between the parodies and polka medley, I try to hit as many of the major artists as I could, so I think it's a decent, quick Reader's Digest overview of our musical pop culture since then.
It seems that in our modern era, pop singles have taken on new levels of disposability and novelty. As a comedian, what works best for you: songs that have these more spontaneous moments of relevance or larger songs that shape the cultural/musical landscape of a given era?
The disposability factor is actually a bit of a problem because I think people's attentions spans -- especially with pop culture -- are shortening every year. I don't know if that's because of digital distribution or because of our culture or just because of life as we know it, but it seems like things are becoming more and more and more disposable, the turnaround factor is getting quicker -- and that makes it hard to stay timely and topical and relevant because you want what you're poking fun at to be something that's current, and the window of time for something that's current is shortening day by day.
It's like with the Rebecca Black thing: it was out for only two days and all of a sudden there were parodies and death metal covers and all sorts of one-offs being made for it.
Right. I mean, that's the thing -- and that's why digital distribution is something that I've been playing around with and experimenting with, because I think that if I want to stay timely and relevant, that's going to be really the solution. You mention Rebecca Black, and people are like "Whoa, you gotta do a Rebecca Black parody! It's gonna be great! You gotta do a parody of Friday!" It's like, "What time is it? Three o'clock? It's too late, sorry."
Although that immediacy is something that worked in your favor, particularly with the Lady Gaga controversy as you were able to simply put the song out there and then rack up millions of views in a very short amount of time [and ultimately have the song reach her personally].
Right, and that's right with the digital distribution thing: it's nice that we live in that age now where that can happen. I still feel a love for the old system of physical product. I'm from the LP era of course, but even CDs -- there's something about being able to hold something in your hand. I've embraced MP3s and I've embraced digital media, but there's something about physical product that still attracts me, and it's hard for me to give that up. But the thing is, if I'm embracing both, then we run into the problem we talked about: I want to get stuff out there as soon as I can, but at the same time, if I have to wait until there's like 12 new songs -- and if you prefer a physical product -- [then] those two things are kind of fighting against each other. You have what I have now, with an album where half [of it] has already been heard, or you make people wait and wait and wait for a new album without hearing any new stuff. I'm still trying to figure out what the right formula is.
Well I don't think anyone's really got it down yet. I think a lot of it has to go with collective goodwill these days, as Kanye did his big run of free MP3s prior to the release of his album was rewarded with a very generous sales week.
I've gotten a lot of tweets from people saying "I'm never actually pay for music anymore, but I'll pay for yours!" Thank you. [laughs]
One other thing that Alpocalypse seems to be doing differently: on your last few albums, you've had some notable epic centerpieces, whether it be "Trapped at the Drive-Thru" or "Albuquerque" or "Genius in France", all things that showed you continuing to grow and challenge yourself as an artist. Yet for Alpocalypse, it's a very lean, slender track listing: 12 songs with no major, obvious centerpieces. So for you, which song are you most excited about people hearing?
Well obviously the Gaga parody is the single and that's the one we're calling attention to, but -- [and] I don't know if you'd call it the "epic" piece, [as it's] certainly not as long as "Albuquerque" or "Genius in France" -- but "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me" is sort of like the big production number on it. It's the album closer. It had the big choir, it was supposed to have that Meat Loaf kind of vibe to it, so it was fun to try one of those old-style productions and really crank up everything, so that was a lot of fun.
Now last but not least: given that you have been in the industry for some 32 years, looking back on everything you've done, what has been your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?
Somebody recently asked me about the regret thing. I don't have a whole lot of regrets in my life. [There's] one thing where I'm not sure if I regret it but I still think about it to this day: in the late 80s, I was asked on the spur of the moment by the talent coordinator of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson if I would come in right then and replace James Taylor. James Taylor cancelled at the last minute and they said "We want you to come in to The Tonight Show right now and sing 'Fire and Rain'." It was just like that! It was like "Um ... that's so odd that you'd ask me to do that!" Part of it I thought was just hilarious [as] it was very Andy Kaufman-esque, like "Why would I be doing 'Fire and Rain' on The Tonight Show?" And it came down to me thinking that not enough people would kind of find that funny and it would just be like a lot of people thinking it was stupid, but now that I look back on it, I'm like "Why didn't I do that? That would've just been so out there, so wrong on so many levels."
Heh, that's great. And your proudest accomplishment?
Um ... that's a tough one too. Every time I put out an album it's a proud accomplishment. The Grammys are always good milestones, and it's always nice to get that validation from my peers. That's a tough one. I've had a lot of moments in my life and my career that I'm very proud of and that I'm very grateful for, so it would be hard to pick just one. I can say The Simpsons -- that's another go-to answer for that, because that's sort of my stab at immortality. I've been featured on the show twice, and I think that show's probably going to be in syndication for the next 1,000 years, so probably [it will last] moreso than my actual music. I'll probably be in some format on a Simpsons disc or something down the line.