Reuters/Mike BlakeWeird 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.
But then all that computer stuff happened. Cheap digital recording technology, MP3s, and YouTube made it possible for people to do what Yankovic did and have instantaneous worldwide distribution for their efforts. In the ‘70s, Yankovic had to learn the accordion, catch the ear of industry people, find a band, get the money to rent a studio, and convince someone to sign him to a contract. But now, parody is a two-button business (record, upload) so if you want to send up a song, the ability is limited only by your desire. The result hasn't so much been a golden age of parody as much as it has been a revelation that, all along, we were just waiting for the opportunity to engage with culture as participants. We don't just want the unified meanings of the masscult ‘80s or the ironic ‘90s—we want to take more ambiguous stances, or at least have such stances available to us. Once Rebecca Black's "Friday" went viral, for example, it generated an astonishing diversity of parodies, with the song being rewritten as a way of proselytizing for God ("Sunday"), spreading college in-jokes, and, most commonly, talking about one's own Friday routine. When there are only two choices—say, between sincere embrace and sneery rejection—we tend to go with the more acceptable extreme. But when there are infinite gradations between, we're going to find our place somewhere in the middle. And there's room in the middle for everyone.
Al doesn't break new ground on Alpocalypse. His latest polka medley, called “Polka Face,” serves as a
reminder that Yankovic’s many previous medleys prefigured the modern mash-up. “Style parodies” of the White Stripes and Meat Loaf
songwriter Jim Steinman, and straight parodies of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” and Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the
USA,” show it’s the same Al as ever. And why shouldn’t it be? Yankovic's primary purpose is to make people happy, and if things are
working, why try anything different?
In fact, his consistency has given him a kind of power in the current era. Lady Gaga, or at least her management, initially opposed Yankovic’s parody of "Born This Way," but relented after a skillful public campaign by Yankovic. He released the song for free and put up a lengthy blog post detailing his efforts to be properly respectful towards a track that had come to be seen as an anthem and towards an artist who paints herself as a kind of cult leader. It's a battle Yankovic lost when going up against Prince and Paul McCartney in decades past, but this times, the terms of public debate had shifted in his favor. No longer are decisions about who parodies who made in record-label offices. Instead, social influencers can come into play. Just as technological changes have allowed Yankovic's form of expression to become much more common, so too has the Internet shifted the criteria we use to legitimize these expressions. Reuse of existing material has come to be seen as something the original artist shouldn't necessarily control, and so the hoops Yankovic jumped through with “Born This Way” actually come off as charmingly quaint. The good-natured public face he's developed, which seemed so lacking in edge before, is now precisely what we want from our public figures. It's given him a kind of power he used to beat the queen at her own game. Being a prophet has its advantages.
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