By Ashley Zimmerman
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Sometimes it seems like you could do what Weird Al Yankovic does. He takes a hit pop song, replaces the lyrics with loose rhymes about inane topics in everyday life, dubs himself a "parody artist," and tours the world as a rich, famous musician. You already insert ridiculous words into songs when you sing in the shower or when you're drunk with friends or as you serenade your dog. Once in a while, when you don't know all the lyrics, you write a parody song by accident.
What Yankovic creates, though, is a perfectly calculated blend of ironic juxtaposition, safe absurdity, witty self-deprecation, and astute social criticism — all set to the unassuming sounds of a tune most people already know. He has the insight to recognize particular mass predilections and, like a perverse sommelier of musical comedy, pairs each with a specific brand of American pop song.
Though most of the musicians and trends he's imitated over his nearly 30-year career long ago slipped into the storm drain of public consciousness, Yankovic has kept his shtick fresh, attaching via parody to increasingly newer and younger acts and maintaining his ability to derive humor from the mundane or the excessively geeky.
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His style and approach have evolved a bit — he even shaved what had become an iconic mustache — but he's carved out a niche as the nation's most famous satirical musician. And his collective work now looks like an American culture retrospective from an alternate, bizarre, colorful, food-obsessed universe. His is a narrative decorated with references to and appearances by recent pop culture's biggest, most important characters: In the '80s, he was parodying Michael Jackson and Madonna. In the '90s, it was Nirvana and Puff Daddy. Now it's Kanye West and Britney Spears. Coming soon: Lady Gaga.
Yankovic's music is also ostensibly about those moments in American culture, about the consumerism, about the advances in technology, about the sequel-craving movie audiences. The songs are always simple in theme or concept, measured with inoffensive sarcasm and often joking about safe, easy targets like white yuppie nerds and the Amish.
For Yankovic, though, the valedictorian of his senior class at age 16, the formula for success could double for one of those equations Matt Damon was always solving in Good Will Hunting. "It requires a lot of effort on my part," Yankovic says.
New Times caught up with Yankovic in the middle of his nationwide tour to ask him about the science of parody, his troubles with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and how he feels after a decade without his famous facial hair.
New Times: How do you go about picking a song to parody?
Weird Al Yankovic: There's no real system. Ideally an idea will come to me spontaneously, but that doesn't happen that often. So I'll sit down and go through the Billboard charts and see which songs are good candidates for parody. Then I figure out some good derivations of the title or what a derivation of the theme could be. Then I try to figure out which of those ideas have the most comic potential. Then, once I'm locked in on a concept, I come up with phrases and words and gags related to that. Then I try to find rhyming couplets and try to fit into a pop-song format. It doesn't flow freely.
People must suggest parody songs to you all the time.
That's the bane of my existence. I can't go outside of my house without someone saying to me, "Oh Al, I've been thinking of this idea since the third grade. Why don't you do... " dot dot dot.
Have any of those ever panned out?
No. Not one. That's never worked out.
Is that because nobody's suggested you do a parody of "MMMBop," but about umlauts? (We have some punctuation nerds at the office here.)
If "MMMBop" was a big hit this summer, I'd certainly have to consider that. Or if for some reason umlauts get very topical. I don't think that's gonna happen, but good idea.
Florida always has so many ridiculous things going on. Is there anything you plan on researching when you're down here?
I'm hoping when I'm there I'll be inspired and write a whole Florida concept album. Maybe I could be the first person to make a Tiger Woods joke. And I never got around to doing my Vanilla Ice parody. That is the one lacking point in my life.
Your career has outlasted the vast majority of the people you've parodied. Is that awkward for you?
Well, I'm sorry for them, happy for me. I don't wish ill on anybody.
Your name is always at the top of the list of people who should be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why do you think you're still not in?
I really appreciate the fans who are working tirelessly to get me in there, but I just wouldn't hold my breath. I don't think they have too much of a sense of humor.
Isn't Phil Spector in there?
Ha! Maybe I'd have to kill somebody. I will say, though, if any other accordion-playing parody artist gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before me, I'm gonna be pretty upset.