Weird Al Yankovic should be a distant memory.
He should be the answer to a trivia question, a subject of those “Where Are They Now?” TV specials devoured by insomniacs. But instead of following the career trajectory of most novelty songwriters — a short-lived spike followed by a long flat line that dot-dot-dots into obscurity — Yankovic refuses to go away.
Every few years, he returns like an unforeseen comet, streaking across popular culture, illuminating the gnarled branches and weedy thatch where music and comedy meet. Every few years, his song parodies hijack the prevailing medium, first radio, then cable television and now the Internet, with its memes and sharing and virality and fleeting obsessions, all of which seem intelligently designed for a 54-year-old teenage boy who wields bad puns and rhyming couplets with the manic ferocity of a medieval swordsman.
Yankovic’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, was released on Tuesday. It is his 14th record, meaning he’s now racked up more studio albums than Coldplay, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga combined. The size of his discography is impressive. But not as impressive as the way he continues to defy the Gods of Irrelevance.
Musicians and comedians share a pathological fear of inertia. This is why they’re always yammering on about growth and evolution, always vowing to “break new creative ground,” as if reinvention were a hardboiled egg.
Yankovic, by contrast, never changes.
He has spent the past 35 years doing exactly the same thing. The spectacles and mustache are gone. But everything else — from the best-in-show mane of curls to the gangly body seemingly made from Silly Putty — is immune to time. If he were a vending machine, he’d be stocked with soda in glass bottles, each one still costing a dime.
Inertia is both his virtue and his modus operandi.
Starting in 1979, when the accordion-playing architecture student recorded a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” called “My Bologna,” the Weird Al template was set: 1. Find a popular song. 2. Change the title so it sounds similar but has a different meaning. 3. Reproduce every note of the original music. 4. Write new lyrics with an emphasis on the absurd. 5. Repeat.
To promote Mandatory Fun, Yankovic is releasing eight videos in eight days, a surreal blitz that started on Monday with “Tacky,” a spoof of Pharrell’s “Happy,” and one that fuses traditional no-nos with modern irritants (“It might seem crazy, wearing stripes and plaid / I Instagram every meal I’ve had”).
This was followed by "Word Crimes,” in which Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” serves as the sonic inspiration for the kind of grammatical beatdown one might get if Kanye West was moved by The Elements of Style (“You really need a full-time proofreader / You dumb mouth-breather / Well, you should hire / Some cunning linguist / To help you distinguish / What is proper English”).
In this new batch of improbably hilarious videos, including send-ups of Lorde’s “Royals” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Yankovic once again casts himself in the role of cultural barnacle. He clings to the biggest ships in recording as they emerge from the Billboard Hot 100 port.
Then he detaches before they sink in the chop.
If the business of musical satire seemed like an unwise pursuit in 1983, when his debut album was released, it seems downright foolish today. But in defiance of the Gods of Common Sense, Yankovic has managed to thrive. He’s making money at a time when nobody wants to pay for content. He’s creating buzz in an age of one billion distractions. He’s emerged as the spiritual godfather to a global army of amateur parodists who, armed with nothing more than consumer-grade cameras and 50 bucks’ worth of editing software, seek high-click glory in the digital wilderness of YouTube.
Sometime in the last three decades, between his first exposure on The Dr. Demento radio show and 2011’s Alpocalypse, Yankovic broached the castle moat and picked the lock on the backdoor.
He is now on the inside, working with the music industry’s most exalted subjects, artists who have the good sense (or good management) to realize the Weird Al treatment is less a scarlet letter than a badge of honour.
The court jester can be a kingmaker.
Yankovic has said this is his last full-length album. He’s now without a record contract for the first time in 32 years. But if early reaction to Mandatory Fun is a reliable gauge of his enduring appeal, he’ll find a new way to gently rib pop stars for many years to come.