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.