The Surprisingly Savvy Weird Al Internet Machine

Actually, really, truly, the music parody master's wild success can teach us something about media in 2014.
Screenshot from Weird Al's "Foil," a parody of Lorde's "Royals." ( CollegeHumor/YouTube )

Think of legacy media brands (as you probably often do) and some seemingly stodgy names come to mind. Newsweek. The Chicago Tribune. CBS News.

These companies and products have largely lost the Internet wars, at least so far. Their audiences have aged, and they have failed to change their product or their ways of distributing it. Revenue and prestige have both sagged. Others brands, meanwhile—like The New York Times or NPR—are still struggling, but they seem to have fared better.

To this litany of old media institutions, let me add a somewhat unorthodox one: Weird Al Yankovic.

Oh yes. And while he may not seem a regular Cronkite, Al’s old-school media credentials are legit. He came up on syndicated FM radio. His first targets were Michael Jackson and Madonna, icons of 20th-century recording artistry. And, most importantly, he’s been in the game for a long time: Thirteen-year-olds who giggled at “Eat It,” from his second album, are now 43.

So as we try to make sense of Mandatory Fun, Al’s fourteenth studio album—and as we round into the fourth decade of his career—it’s becoming clear that his old-school/new-school media business playbook is a little genius. In many corners of the English-language Internet, this week has been Al-saturated, his new music videos and songs unavoidable. How does he do it? Where will it lead? And will this be his media strategy forever?

* * *

Like Leno’s couch, some stops have become obligatory on the Internet publicity tour. The Reddit Ask Me Anything is chief among these: A big deal back in 2011, each celebrity appearance demanded a little kerfuffle of aggregational blog posts. Now, it’s de rigeur. (Perhaps President Obama’s 2012 visit was the AMA’s apotheosis.)

So Weird Al’s AMA this week was actually his second. (His first happened more than a year ago, after the release of his children’s book.) It was, as he titled it, an AMAA—ask me anything, again. When a fan inquired during this AMAA if anything had changed over his nearly three-decade career, Al replied:

The mechanics are pretty much the same, and in fact, because I've been doing it for so long I like to think that I've gotten better at it. The synapses in my brain are hard-wired that way now. The challenge for me is in finding new ways to be funny (i.e. not repeating myself too much), as well as finding ways to differentiate myself from the millions of other people now doing parody videos on YouTube.

Elsewhere in the interview, he admits that he wanted to write a Star Trek: The Next Generation-themed spoof of the hit from Disney’s Frozen: “Let It Go” becoming “Make It So.” But then he “checked online, and of course, somebody had done that already.” (That version’s here.)

The phenomenon Weird Al describes here is actually well described by a genre of scholarly literature—by business scholarship, of all things. It’s disruptive innovation, the buzzword so buzzwordy that the New Yorker devoted a thinkpiece to it (in print!). Disruptive innovation describes what happens when new products create a new market for that type of product, which winds up challenging the existing one.

When he talks about his business being threatened by YouTube parody video-makers, he’s talking about the fact that the public’s yen for parodies is being met by amateurs. Earlier this week, a young woman turned an infamous recording of a Comcast customer service call into a belty ballad. Between the release of that recording and its conversion into digital video fodder, fewer than 24 hours had elapsed.

This is an extreme case, but it would be staggering to ask Weird Al—who has a brand to worry about—to turn around a parody in under 24 hours. How is he even going to book a recording studio in that amount of time? Dude can’t compete.

This is what disruption looks like. 

* * *

But first, it makes sense to step back to an earlier episode in Al’s career, a story both darker and rosier which transpired three years ago. April 2011. Lady Gaga’s glittery poptimism ruled everything from award show climaxes to the tinny speakers of grimy convenience stores. Her second studio album was about to arrive, and its eponymous track—and number-one single—was “Born This Way,” a synthpop paean to the racially and sexually oppressed.

Touring in Australia, Al was inspired. With some metric manipulation, he realized, “Born This Way” could become “Perform This Way,” and the song could be rewritten to parody Gaga’s outlandish glam. It was a fun idea: an anthemic statement about Gaga’s genre of anthemic statements. Weird Al had an album coming out in a few months, though, and he had to write the parody fast. So (at least according to an account he gave to The New York Times), on the same night the thought occurred to him, he wrote the parody’s lyrics.

Weird Al did something else, too, that he always does when writing a new parody. That is, his people got in touch with Gaga’s people. He wanted the new lyrics to have her blessing. While fair use permits Al to create and release any spoof—parodies are expressly protected in U.S. law—he’s always sought an artist’s permission first.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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