by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
Across the span of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s three-decade career, pop stars have reacted diversely in the face of the parodist picking on their work.
After Yankovic tackled “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1992 (twisting it into “Smells Like Nirvana”) Kurt Cobain called Weird Al a “musical genius.”
But it might be Lady Gaga’s reaction to Yankovic’s “Perform This Way” — a full-fledged spoof of not only the smash hit “Born This Way,” but also Gaga’s wardrobe choices and on-stage theatrics — that’s most telling of Yankovic’s standing as an established pop culture observer today. She called being singled out a Yankovic a “rite of passage.”
“Lady Gaga was so huge and made such an impact on the zeitgeist that I figured I had to make some kind of comment,” Yankovic says.
“Perform This Way” appears on Yankovic’s most recent album, Alpocalypse (2011), along with parodies of Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and B.o.B. Nearly 30 years after Yankovic’s “Eat It” single (a play on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) went gold, Weird Al’s 13th studio album debuted at number 9 at the Billboard charts and earned him a fifth Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album.
As he’s done frequently since finding mainstream success in the mid-1980s, Yankovic is touring the world with his live band, which digests and transposes the music of his parody subjects for performance and recording. On Thursday, the Alpocalypse tour brings Weird Al to Omaha’s Orpheum Theater. Tickets are on sale here.
But first Yankovic spoke to Hear Nebraska from backstage in Bellingham, Wash., about the writing of his second children’s book, his inner child and the parody shelf-life of a pop song.
Hear or read our full interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic below:
Hear Nebraska: Having toured not only Alpocalypse, but for decades it kind of strikes me that at some point it might have been tempting for you to use samples. Or you and your band to not transpose all of these songs. Tell me why 30 years later that the performability of the music is still so meaningful to you.
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Well, I’ve got a band that can emulate pretty much every style of music imaginable. And also from a purely pragmatic point of view, we’d have to pay master recording royalties if we were to use the original tracks. So it behooves us to recreate them.
HN: So the work is well worth the money then.
HN: Kind of on that note, I’m curious how this works itself out with your band. You’ve said in a CBC interview that people need to find the idea of your parody song funny even if they’ve never heard the original. What would your litmus test for that be, Al? Since you and your band do have to spend so much time with the song — to study it and transpose it and learn the songs. How do you know if it feels good enough to stand alone?
WAY: Well, usually it’s a decision made in a vacuum. And that’s difficult with comedy because I can’t really take it to focus groups or play it in front of crowds. But usually I have a pretty good sense of what’s funny or at least I like to think so. And if there’s anybody in the room with me — my wife or my daughter or anybody — sometimes I’ll run lyrics by them, or friends or whoever happens to be around. Comedy is so subjective, you can’t really tell if something is going to appeal to a lot of people or just your own sick mind. But I give it my best shot.
HN: You’ve talked how important, too, that a hook is for you lyrically when you’re coming up with parodies. With something from Alpocalypse, say like “Perform This Way,” is that a moment where a lyrical hook jumps into your head? How does that typically go for you in the very early stages of deciding what to do?
WAY: Using that example, that was more of a cultural event than a hook, per se. Lady Gaga was so huge and made such an impact on the zeitgeist that I figured I had to make some kind of comment.
And I don’t like people telling me what to do, but everybody on social media was saying, “You have to do a Lady Gaga parody, you have to do a Lady Gaga parody.”
So I was sort of champing at the bit waiting for the new Lady Gaga single and album to come out. And when “Born This Way” came out, I thought that was my moment.
HN: Has there a ever been a song that jumps out for you in the conceptual stages that you really wanted to parody, but the hook never came? The pun never came?
WAY: Well, the hook and the concept are usually intertwined. You know, you would have a concept based on the hook, whatever the hook is. Once I’ve decided that that idea is good enough, I’ve never had a problem following through and writing a song based on that. The hard part is always just coming up with an idea that I think is worthy.
HN: What’s your take then on the topicality of the song? Is there a certain shelf-life? The songs from Alpocalypse were all very topical and very recent as of the 2011 release. Is there ever a point where you felt like you had to walk away from a parody because the song was no longer in the zeitgeist?
WAY: That’s probably happened a few times. Whenever I release an album, I realize not every parody is going to be super current because I work on the album over the course of a couple years usually. And that’s one of the inherent problems with albums with my kind of material. It’s not going to be possible for every song to feel like this morning’s news. But I give it my best shot. And hopefully in the future I’ll be able to take more advantage of digital distribution and be more singles oriented, perhaps.
HN: Let me move briefly to the new children’s book. My New Teacher and Me was wonderful. It reminded me a lot of Calvin & Hobbes.
WAY: Well, that’s high praise. I love Calvin & Hobbes.
HN: Was there something about the writing of When I Grow Up a few years ago that compelled you to do a second one? What did you enjoy about it most?
WAY: Well, I really appreciated the reaction that it got. Writing children's literature was always something that I’ve had in the back of my head and something that I wanted to take a shot at. And my first attempt was successful beyond my dreams. It was a New York Times bestseller. And the reaction from the fans was great and encouraged me to do a second one.
I was going to do something completely different, but I really kind of fell in love with the character of Billy from the first book. And I just felt like I wasn’t done with him yet, so I wanted to have another adventure in his classroom.
HN: You certainly had one. I remember reading how imagination and parody were just the way your mind worked as a kid. And there’s kind of youthful energy to a lot of what you do, Al. So I’m curious both in the writing of this book and in your music, how important is it for you to be able to empathize or maintain the wonder that people would associate with a kid?
WAY: It’s very important! It’s nothing that I'm consciously aware of. But it’s something that seems to come fairly naturally to me. At the risk of being cliche, I think I’m fairly in touch with my inner child still. That’s helpful, especially when you're in my line of work.
HN: This might be a more difficult question, but on the flip side of that coin, as successful as you have been, in preparing for this interview and talking to my friends — people in their early 20s — they’re very surprised to find out about the sustained success you’ve had, that you're still selling millions of albums and selling out theaters everywhere. If you’re confronted with it, how do you reckon with the negativity of a fan saying that they’ve outgrown Weird Al material.
WAY: That’s their prerogative. If I have nothing to offer a person, they have a lot of other options. I wish everybody in the world was a fan, but I know that will never be the case for anybody. If you feel like my material isn’t for you anymore, then that’s fine for you. There are enough people in the world that allow me to continue making a living doing the thing I love to do.
HN: Last question for you. Is rediscovery ever a narrative you hear from fans? That they enjoyed your music as a kid and for whatever reason drifted away and then had a sort of Weird Al renaissance, I guess?
WAY: I actually hear that a lot. On social media, I hear stories of people who were into me as a kid and then kind of lost track. And then a decade after they’d hear a song on the radio or be loaned a copy of an album and then pick up interest again. So yeah, I have heard that a lot.
HN: What does that narrative feel like for you when you hear it?
WAY: It feels great. It’s nice that people can reconnect with me like that and I’m glad people have a certain nostalgia toward my older work. And I’m glad that I’m relevant enough that people can still appreciate me in the current day.