Three Decades In, Weird Al Reflects on a Life of Parody
Published: Thursday, August 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 18:08
Al Yankovic admits he’s “more sensitive than I should be” when it comes audience reaction and critics’ assessments of his music. Luckily for him, the reviews over three decades of parodying artists from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga with tracks like “Eat It” and “Polka Face” have been overwhelmingly positive. Weird Al talked with College Times about artists’ reactions to his parodies, his fondness for the accordion and what he thinks of state fairs and sauerkraut.
College Times: When did you first decide you could make a career out of comedy music and parody?
Weird Al Yankovic:I think probably about three weeks ago I thought I’d really try and make a go at it. I’d been kind of fooling around this whole time, but now I’m serious … I suppose the most defining moment was when I quit my day job, because, you know, I got my record deal and put out my first single, and as part of my day job I had to get the mail for a radio syndication company. When I picked up the mail I noticed there was a Billboard magazine in it, and I opened it up and noticed I was actually on the Hot 100 chart and I thought, “Well, I should probably see about this whole music career thing.”
As far as your personal musical style, how did you decide on the accordion and polka?
My accordion lessons from age 7 to 10 were my only formal musical training and that probably warped me at an early age. And when you take accordion lessons they don’t really teach you rock and roll. They don’t, you know, teach you how to play “Stairway to Heaven;” they teach you classical music and they teach you polkas, so polka was a part of my training and part of my background, and I learned a long time ago that everything I played on the accordion kind of sounded like a polka anyway. My friends thought it was funny when I tried to play rock and roll on the accordion, so I kind of fused the two together and that’s always been a staple of the live show and the albums: the requisite polka medley.
Do you hear a song and think, “that would be good to parody” and the come up with subject matter, or do you think of something you’d like to write about and listen for a song that would fit it well?
It’s usually the former, but it works both ways. Mostly I try to figure out what the good targets would be in terms of songs and then think of variations on a theme or different directions I could go. But there have been a number of occasions where I wanted to write about a particular subject and then I’d kind of have to retrofit it with a song. A good case in point would be “The Saga Begins,” when I wanted to write about “The Phantom Menace” and I tried to think, “What would be a good song for that?” I went all the way back to Don McLean’s “American Pie” from the early ‘70s.
Do you come up with the idea for a parody, write it and then ask permission, or do you ask permission first and then write the song?
I always have an idea in mind when I ask permission; I at least have a concept. Basically I’ll write out a paragraph saying this is what the song will be called [and] this is what it will be about, then my manager will talk to their manager or however we can get to them and see if they’re open to the idea. I don’t normally write any actual lyrics [beforehand], because it’s a lot of work and a lot of time and effort and I don’t want to put in all that effort if it turns out the artist doesn’t have a sense of humor in the first place.
What sort of reactions do you get from the artists you parody?
It’s almost universally positive, particularly now that I’ve got a three-decade-long track record; it’s become sort of a badge of honor. In fact I heard an interview that Lady Gaga did with Rolling Stone saying that she thought it was a rite of passage to get the Weird Al parody. Famously, the guys from Nirvana said they didn’t realize they had made it until they heard the Weird Al parody. In terms of negatives, there’s very, very little. The most negative thing I can say is there are occasionally artists who will say no and sometimes they have a good reason and sometimes they just say no.
Is there any particular song or artist you’ve really wanted to do a parody of but they keep turning you down?
Uh, just Prince. Prince is the only guy that’s consistently said no, and he never gives a reason. Truthfully, I haven’t approached him for quite some time, but we approached him a number of times in the ‘80s and back in the early ‘90s and he just really wasn’t into it.
Are there ever songs that you get turned down for, so they don’t get released, but you end up writing anyway just for your own amusement?
Generally, if they turn me down I don’t bother writing it. There was a case back on my first album where I did a parody of “Jack and Diane” by John “Cougar” Mellencamp and he was wary about me doing a parody because I think he was trying to sell the movie rights to the song. I had the lyrics already written out; this was before I had my theory that you shouldn’t ever write the lyrics before you have permission. So, basically, I had to retool that and make it an original song, so it became a standard blues original called “Buckingham Blues.”
Did you ever envision you could have such a successful career doing comedy music?
I certainly didn’t anticipate any of this. I mean I always hope for the best and thought I’d give it a shot, but I don’t think anybody, including me, thought this was going to be a 30-year plus career. It was difficult for me to get signed to a record deal back in the early ‘80s because everybody who we approached, every record company whose door I knocked on, would always say the same thing, “Oh you do funny music, it’s this novelty, this is the domain of one-hit wonders. You’ll be lucky to have a hit and then nobody will ever hear from you six months from now.’ And in the meantime I’ve managed to outlast virtually everybody that I’ve parodied over the years, so it’s certainly a surprise to me and I’m just very thankful that I get to do what I do for a living.