TORONTO – With the release of his new record “Mandatory Fun,” Weird Al Yankovic satisfied the obligations of an album contract that he says acted as a “bit of a constraint” creatively. At last, the maestro of grinning goofball pop parody is free to reconsider and reshape a career that has changed blissfully little in its 35-plus years.
And yet, just when Yankovic was ready to dip his toes in a sea of possibilities, he has achieved with the — supposedly obsolete — old-fashioned album model a veritable hit.
Not in the commercial sense, not yet. But with each day leading up to his album’s release, Yankovic injected a new, contagious virus into the social media sphere.
On Tuesday, he tweaked Pharrell’s “Happy” with the star-studded sartorial satire “Tacky” (2.1 million views and counting) and issued the grammar-obsessed “Blurred Lines” parody “Word Crimes” hit the web (6.3 million views). On Wednesday, his Lorde-derived “Foil” hit (5.5 million views). Thursday brought his daffy Iggy Azalea twist “Handy.” He ultimately will have released eight videos in eight days.
It should have been too much — a buffet of Yankovic’s silly symphonies — but a feeding-frenzy ensued, and each single seemed to strike a niche nerve and spawn its own social-media following.
But to hear Yankovic tell it, keeping up with the ephemeral world of pop is hard work — and co-ordinating an album’s worth of material such that none of it feels stale verges almost on the impossible.
“It’s difficult, which is one of the reasons … I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any more conventional albums,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s hard to release 12 songs at once and have them all feel fresh and topical and relevant. It’s sort of a juggling act.
“And I’ve been able to do it with varying results over the last few decades but, yeah, there were a few times I wanted to do a parody of a song, and by the time my album was coming out, I felt like, well, that’s going to feel a bit dated at this point so I have to let it go.”
Somehow, however, Yankovic himself has never really fallen prey to that same fickleness.
His return has been greeted with a flood of media goodwill. His videos are catnip in the clickview age, and they’ve been treated as news by Time magazine, ABC News and Wired, while profiles and interviews have popped up in the New Yorker, on CNN and “Conan.”
Yankovic’s return to prominence is being hailed in some corners as a comeback, which would be more impressive if he hadn’t already authored more comebacks than a sitcom writer. He has hit the Top 40 in his native U.S. three times in three different decades: in 1984 with King of Pop jest “Eat It” (No. 12), in 1992 with the grunge gibe “Smells Like Nirvana” (No. 35) and, finally, in 2006 with “White & Nerdy,” which ascended to the ninth spot on the chart and gave Yankovic his first and only platinum single.
In other words, three separate generations are nostalgic for Yankovic, whether they remember him in a fat suit, a straggly Cobain wig or a gold grill.
“It’s very gratifying,” said Yankovic, 54. “I challenge you to find a rock show that’s more demographically diverse than one of my shows. It really is everybody from young kids to great grandparents out there in the audience, and they all honestly seem to be enjoying the show — all on somewhat different levels.”
Though his “humour does get a little dark sometimes” and some of the lyrics are “sick and twisted,” Yankovic has been careful to make sure his songs have always been family friendly (“I don’t even use profanity in my everyday life,” he says).
On the new record, inertia-themed “Inactive” spoofs Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” “First World Problems” is a style parody of the Pixies — a band Yankovic loves — while strummy Americana original “Mission Statement” presents one of Yankovic’s typical contrasts between style and subject matter by layering absurd chunks of corporate jargon over music inspired by Crosby, Stills and Nash (he chuckles that the dichotomy feels “pretty wrong.”)
Yankovic’s love of language has always been evident, but it directly informs the record’s biggest hit thus far, “Word Crimes,” which features such plain-spoken grammar advice as: “You should know when it’s ‘less’ or it’s ‘fewer’/ Like people who were never raised in a sewer.”
“I’ve been a stickler for grammar for many years,” he said. “On my YouTube page I’ve got several videos where I’m going around the city correcting public signs. So I go into a supermarket (and) go up to a sign that says ’12 items or less’ and I put a sticker on that makes it say ’12 items or fewer.’ And I’m driving down the road with my wife and I stop the car and I go up to a sign that says ‘drive slow’ and I add an ‘ly’ to the end of ‘slow.’
“I make a joke of it, but it does really, really irritate me when I see bad grammar. This was a good opportunity for me to vent.”
As far as the relevance of such send-ups, he relies on an unassailable authority: his 11-year-old daughter.
“I saw ‘Fancy’ going up the charts and I thought this has song has got a really identifiable hook to it, this could be a big hit. But I didn’t want to jump on it too early. So I use my daughter as my ears to the ground,” he said of his soon-to-be sixth grader.
“I kept asking, ‘Are people talking about Iggy Azalea at your school?’ At first she was like, ‘Well, not so much.’ Then about a week later I asked her and she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s all they’re talking about now!’ So I knew it had reached the tipping point.”
As one might expect, Yankovic consumes media voraciously (“I surf the Internet more than a healthy person probably should,” he said). And perhaps it’s Yankovic’s genuine adoration of pop culture that has led even those he skewers to appreciate him.
The first few courses of his video-barrage featured cameos from Jack Black, Aisha Tyler, Margaret Cho, Eric Stonestreet and Patton Oswalt. He easily elicited legal clearance to parody all of the artists featured on his new album, although Azalea’s slow-to-reply management inspired Yankovic to fly out and directly present the lyrics for her approval (when asked if the “very pleasant” 24-year-old Azalea knew who he was, Yankovic replied: “I honestly don’t know … I don’t preface my conversations by saying, ‘Do you know who I AM?!'”)
Yankovic’s parodies are notoriously gentle on their subjects, sure, but he said gaining approval for his satirical singles has been more or less a snap since he got the royal blessing early in his run. Before that, it was a struggle.
“It was really Michael Jackson who turned the key,” he said. “When (he) gave me permission for ‘Eat It’ back in 1984, all of a sudden people took notice. We could go back to some people who were waffling and say: ‘MICHAEL JACKSON didn’t seem to have a problem with it, so really? YOU’RE going to give us a problem?’ ‘Oh no no, it’s fine. I’m sure it’s great.'”
For the first time perhaps since that fledging phase, Yankovic has an opportunity now to do things differently.
He’s savouring it. But aside from a shorter moustache here, a longer shag there and a ditched pair of glasses, Yankovic has always been clever enough not to change too much.
“I’d probably like to be more involved in just digital distribution, whether that’s singles or EPs or something,” he says of his future plans. “I want to (be) able to be a bit competitive with everybody on YouTube who are putting things out as soon as they think of it.
“That’s sort of the way I was when I first started out at the beginning of my career. At my heart, I’ve always been more of a singles artist. But then I had an album deal and I had to put out albums, so it was a bit of a restraint.
“But I navigated those waters as best as I could.”
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