Yankovic's penchant for genial parody finally fits the zeitgeist, just in time for his 13th album
Weird Al Yankovic was a prophet.
Thirty-two years after his first single, it's now Yankovic's world, with cheap recording technology and the infinite distribution channels of the Internet allowing bedroom parodists to launch their creations instantaneously into the universe. Jokey songs, mashups, remixes, lip dubs, covers fill YouTube. Pop-culture figures make fun of themselves before anyone else can, with self-aware self-lampooning showing up in places as varied as the video for Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night," in guest spots on The Soup, and in the fundamentally meta nature of NBC's Thursday night lineup. In other words, Yankovic's parodic impulse has gone viral.
But the increasing embrace of Yankovic’s approach to cultural commentary has also made his job harder. He now has to compete with comedy outfits like The Lonely Island, who actively collaborate with the artists they parody, lending their work more buzz than Yankovic's secondhand creations. Meanwhile, Yankovic's technique, at least as displayed on his new album Alpocalypse—released this week—hasn't noticeably changed. He still takes a major pop song and changes the lyrics to make them about the specific and banal. T.I.'s "Whatever You Like," for instance, keeps its title, but rather than boasting of popping bottles, it addresses Great Recession concerns like Ramen noodles. And so Alpocalypse, his first record in five years, is a kind of trial by fire for Yankovic's method. He was right about where the world was heading, sure. But could he keep up when it actually changed?
Yankovic's style was too small for the '80s, too sincere for the '90s.
When Yankovic first rolled out his song-parody technique in 1979 with "My Bologna," it existed in a sort of disreputable comedic ghetto, seemingly more at home in truck stops and late-night TV than college radio or your finer record stores. Yankovic’s stuff was popular, but it was fundamentally out of step with the culture around it. In new millennium, pop stars like Katy Perry have made entire careers out of knowing self-parody, but in the '80s, it was almost like the artists were outsourcing their senses of humor to Yankovic. Justin Timberlake will perform “Dick in a Box” live, but Michael Jackson never dropped “Fat” or “Eat It” into one of his concerts. The huge acts of the '80s (Bruce Springsteen, U2) conducted their stadium shows like secular religious rallies, all sincerity and rapture and not a joke to be heard. In the face of all that transcendence, Yankovic's songs felt small. They may have sold well, but their appeal was niche. He was the representative of those left out of pop, his parody a polite protest on behalf of everyone unimpressed by the grand majesty of the masscult experience.
Al’s shtick didn’t any better suit the ‘90s, when irony came to dominate pop culture. Irony is fundamentally different from Yankovic's mode of parody, and satirical art in the ‘90s usually replaced the settled meaning of a given object with its opposite, turning the bright light of arena-concert transcendence into the darkness of grunge, nu-metal, and hardcore rap. That’s not what parody does. As Linda Hutcheon explains in A Theory of Parody, it’s a fundamentally open form that allows pieces of art to be reconsidered and reinterpreted. Soundgarden’s video for “Black Hole Sun,” with its depiction of suburbia as a superficial wasteland whose shiny appearances turn grotesque under the harsh light of truth, was an ironic riposte to the suburban paeans of ‘80s icons John Hughes and Steven Spielberg. But criticizing his subjects was never the point of Yankovic's parodies. He always got the consent of the original artist first, even though it wasn’t legally necessary. He was making fun of the songs, sure, but he wasn't saying they were bad songs. That kind of complicated good-naturedness wasn't edgy enough for the ‘90s.