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.

Gaga’s people said they needed to hear the song. Al thought this sounded strange—it was their song!—but he rushed through a recording. He recorded it. He sent it to them.

They said no. 

Gaga said no.

Or, at least, that’s what Al was told. He uploaded “Perform This Way” to YouTube with a sad, somewhat confused explanation. He wanted to release the song on his upcoming album, he said, but without Gaga’s blessing he wouldn’t.

But what YouTube wrought! As print and online outlets alike rushed to cover the parody, Gaga’s people announced they were in the wrong. Her manager had declined the parodist without ever running “Perform This Way”’s existence by Gaga herself. She more than approved the song, she loved it. “Perform This Way” could appear on the album Alpocalype, released that June.

Pop was saved.

Looking back, the parable seems the epitome of 2011-ness. There’s Gaga, there’s buzz about a song posted to YouTube!, there’s a flurry of articles in the wake of both. (Some things, I suppose, have yet to change.)

There’s something redeeming about the whole episode, too. Web technology permits what wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. YouTube let Weird Al announce and distribute “Perform This Way” for free, delivering it to middle-schoolers and Gaga herself alike. Weird Al relied on YouTube, placed himself in the role of the lone amateur, and brought about a better mass-cultural outcome. Produced pop goes online, professional borrows the tool of amateur, and everyone seems to win.

* * *

But perhaps the best evidence of Al’s membership in entertainment's ancien regime is this: Just as it feels a little odd to academically, familial-ly, call Elvis “Presley”—he’s Elvis, like Ringo’s Ringo—we’re on a first-name, broadcast-intimate basis with Al. It feels disrespectful to call him “Yankovic,” like we don’t get the joke somehow. The Economist can call him Yankovic. To us, he’s Al—like Beyoncé’s properly Beyoncé.

No wonder, then, that this week Al has mimicked the tactics of the preeminent Knowles. From last Monday to this upcoming one, he released a new music video every day, eight videos in total. There are few songs on his new album that will lack a video, meaning that, in medium and marketing, he’s pulling a sort of time-extended Yoncé.

But not all eight videos are going straight to YouTube. Weird Al is spreading that goodness around.

His parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” is hosted by Nerdist, a sprawling online entertainment empire that achieved fame through its eponymous podcast but which now encompasses a news website, a network of audio and video shows, and a television program on BBC America. Al’s Lorde spoof, meanwhile, went to competing digital content factory, CollegeHumor. It did go to YouTube, but is marked “Exclusive” and a “CollegeHumor ORIGINAL.” A “Blurred Lines” send-up sits on Yancovic’s Vevo page.

Yahoo—trying to transform itself into a content company—produced and hosts “Handy,” his Iggy Azalea parody. It’s marked a Yahoo! Original. And comedy house FunnyOrDie hosts (and holds a similar exclusive) on Friday’s release, "Sports Song." 

Now, perhaps these are the only distributors Al could find for his videos. I doubt it, though. From outside, this seems a web-enabled precision video delivery operation, and evidence of some serious digital distributional forethought.

Al’s new videos aren’t being released willy-nilly: They’re going one-at-a-time to massive online video entertainment networks. CollegeHumor, FunnyOrDie, Nerdist, and Yahoo—especially Yahoo—each have their own audiences, and Al can capture the largest one possible by stringing them together. And that’s just what’s happening, in selectively activating these distro-tainment networks: Nerdist reaches an avowedly geeky if upmarket set, College Humor’s long-running fratty aesthetic captures more bros, Vevo has long-running deals with YouTube, and Yahoo is just stupid-big.

Working through networks that others have built, he can funnel content to the teenagers who help grow his audience and to the former teens who supplant it. He didn’t build these networks. One of the perks of old-media celebrity is that you just have to arrive at the party and people will fawn over you.

And that’s changed since 2011. Instead of relying on a sole YouTube video upload and the force of buzz (“Hey! Look what Weird Al did!”), the superstructure of web video has been developed. If you’re a big-enough name, you can rely on these honed networks to fire your image across the Internet, alighting on Facebook pages and tallying page views. As content companies have gotten more adept at turning the levers of the web, and as Google and Facebook have improved their relations with those content giants, the Internet has become just one more distribution network.

Which is more important than mere business prognostication would indicate. Check the medium of what Al’s doing: Eight videos in eight days. Eight music videos. Many of these, like the “Blurred Lines” and “Happy” spoofs, mirror the cinematography or conceit of their respective originals. This isn’t new for Al—an early Michael Jackson parody of his was shot on the same set as the original MJ video, and mimicked it shot for shot. But in the span of his career, popular awareness of music videos waxed and waned and waxed again. Al’s 2003 album, “Poodle Hat,” didn’t even have an accompanying music video. This one, released at the high age of web video, has eight.

And it’s not quite as easy as I’m making it sound, of course. It’s still novel to release all your content at once, to wrest social media dominance through the Yoncé Maneuver. It won’t be in the future: Old media might be figuring out in fits and starts how best to distribute itself, but the Internet’s ability to atomize is not to be underestimated.

Asked during his AMAA what life held for him after the current tour, Al hinted that all the attention and press paid to Mandatory Fun might belie its importance. Mandatory Fun, he implied, might be the ultimate Weird Al-bum—not only the form’s apogee, but also its final installment.

“I haven't made any real plans beyond the release of my current album, but since everybody's asking,” he wrote:

I'll probably just be releasing singles (possibly EPs) going forward - I really don't think the album format is the most efficient or intelligent way for me to distribute my music anymore. I highly doubt that I would sign with another label. I guess I might be open to a distribution deal, but... we'll see.