bill bodkin interviews the iconic song parodist …
“Weird Al” Yankovic is more than just a wildly funny guy with a with penchant for polka.
He’s one of the few people who is legitimately a pop-culture icon and a pop-culture barometer. His classic songs like “Fat,” “Eat It,” “Amish Paradise” and “White & Nerdy” are staples on iPods across the world and his music videos are regarded as some of the most memorable of all time.
His songs have become some well-regarded that musicians who he parodies consider it a right of passage, a sign that “you’ve made it.” It’s rumored that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain told Yankovic that he knew Nirvana made it when Al wrote the song “Smells Like Nirvana.”
Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin, with editorial assistance from Logan J. Fowler, interviewed “Weird Al” Yankovic about his new album, Lady Gaga, music videos and of course, UHF.
Pop-Break: What’s the story behind the title of the new album, Alpocalypse?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: Well, you know it’s not really a concept album. My album covers and titles usually have very little to do with the content inside. Alpocalypse was an idea I had in my notebook for several years. And since we’re closer to the end of the world than we’ve ever been before I thought it was the right time [to use the name].
PB: On the album, the big buzz and controversy was that Lady Gaga’s camp initially would not allow you to commercially release the song “Perform This Way” [a parody of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"]. Then, everything got resolved when Lady Gaga herself gave you the approval. Talk about the feelings you went through when you got turned at first and then finally getting approved.
Weird Al: Well, I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have the permission. When I got the initial no, I was devastated. When that decision got turned around by Gaga herself, I was elated. It’s a weird position that I’m in because my future in a large part is dictated by people I don’t know — pop stars and managers. Their approval or disapproval has a pretty dramatic impact on my life at times, and this case is one of those cases.
Gaga’s manager turning me down meant that I couldn’t release the song and I couldn’t release the album. I was hoping that would be the first single off the album, and when I got turned down, that meant the album would not be coming out this summer and I had no idea when it would come out. So the rest of my year was pretty much in limbo. When Lady Gaga heard the song, liked it and approved it, that immediately meant we could lock in a release date, and all of a sudden, I had a very busy year ahead of me.
PB: I read online that you are donating the proceeds from “Perform This Way” to the Human Rights Campaign. Why?
Weird Al: When I do a song parody, I like to say that nobody is beyond being parodied or nothing is so sacred you can’t poke fun at it. But there are some exceptions to the rule. I was a little on the fence of doing a parody of “Born This Way,” as I assumed it was very personal to Lady Gaga and it is a gay rights anthem and it had some important meaning to a lot of people. So part of me thought it wouldn’t be appropriate to do a parody of it. But I really thought I could do something that wouldn’t be offensive. So I thought if I were to donate all the proceeds from the single and the video to the HRC that would sort of take the onus off me a little bit. [Laughs] It was my way to justify making fun of a song that had a very positive message.
PB: Do you find it harder to write song parodies from today’s generation of music than in the ’80s and ’90s?
Weird Al: It’s pretty much the same process. Pop culture is changing, the music industry is always changing, but you know, there’s always ridiculous songs to make fun of. So it’s not like I run out of material. The actual songwriting is pretty much the same. I still shamelessly follow the trends happen to occur in the music world and take it from there.
PB: You said earlier that have to reach out to people you don’t know, artists and managers, to get the rights to parody their songs. So your life and livelihood is in their hands. Have there been any artists in particular that you’ve been particularly nervous to send your music to?
Weird Al: Well, I’m always a little nervous, if I submit a song for approval it’s something that I really want to do and you never know if an artist is going to have a sense of humor [laughing] about their work. These days, I’m lucky, it’s very rare for an artist to say no because they see it, as Lady Gaga did, as a right of passage.
The few instances I was really nervous was with Nirvana and Lady Gaga, which are cases where the song [Al's parody] is actually more about them [the artist] than about some random subject matter. It’s a meta-song about the original song or the original artist so those are cases where I’m more nervous because they might take offense. In both cases, they were totally fine with it.
PB: One of the big parts of the whole Weird Al experience is the music video. However, in today’s culture music videos are not on MTV or at the forefront of culture. So here’s a two part question: Why create a music video for every song on your new album, and what’s your opinion on the overall state of music videos?
Weird Al: I can sort of answer both those questions at once. I think that music videos in the last few years have come back in a big way, but certainly not on MTV or any kind of broadcast TV — it’s the Internet. The internet is the new MTV. People want to see a music video, they go online, they search for it and there’s instant access instead of watching a TV channel and hoping their favorite song will come up in the rotation. There was a period of time, about a decade ago, YouTube hadn’t really come into prominence yet and MTV hadn’t been playing videos for a years, and during that period of time, it really was questionable if it was worth the investment to do these music videos because there were very few places that would play them. So it really was a calculated risk, do you really want to invest all this time, energy and money doing something that maybe nobody’s going to see?
But nowadays with the internet, you’re assured your fans will see the video because it’ll be on YouTube, it’ll be on your homepage, it’ll be wherever you want to put it. That’s why music videos are now more important than ever. So that’s why I thought it was important to do a song for every single song on the album.
PB: After doings kids book, When I Grow Up, have you ever thought of going a They Might Be Giants route and doing an entire kids album?
Weird Al: I hadn’t really thought of that. They Might Be Giants really does well in that niche … and a lot of kids enjoy my albums anyway. I certainly don’t consider my music to be kids’ music, but it’s not geared towards any demographic. I know a lot of families enjoy listening to my albums together on road trips. Most of my stuff is pretty fine and appropriate for kids. A few songs might be a little too edgy depending on the age of the kid. I really enjoyed writing the kids book, but I don’t know if I’d do an entire kids album, but I don’t want to rule anything out.
PB: A lot of people from the generation of the staff here, people in their 20s and 30s, are UHF fans. A lot of us and our friends have a special place in our heart for this movie. Did you ever expect it to reach the cult status that it has?
Weird Al: Well, I’m very, very grateful for it becoming a cult hit. But to be honest, when I first made it, it had tested really well with test audiences and I was kind of hoping, like Orion Pictures was hoping, that it would be an actual, mainstream hit — [laughs] instead of a cult hit. I was a disappointed at first that it didn’t do as well at the box office as everyone had hoped but I’m of course very grateful and pleased that it has found its audience and it has so many passionate fans.
PB: Well, every time to I see a fir ehose, I think of Michael Richards, so thank you for that.
Weird Al: [Laughs]
Pop-Break: Finally, what can we expect from Weird Al in 2011?
Weird Al: Well, there’s going to be more touring, the album and the all the videos will be out. I will be taping a TV special in July which I think will be out in September. You mentioned the kids book, When I Grow Up. Well, there will be an app at iTunes for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It’s really pretty cool, if you like the books, you’ll really like the apps. It’s mostly touring and promoting the album. We’re doing one quick week of touring in July to prepare the taping then seven to eight weeks in the fall.