Returning to town this Saturday for a show at the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet, I spoke over the phone earlier this week with parody artist "Weird Al" Yankovic about his continued success in the internet era as well as topics like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the state of terrestrial radio...
In an era where the proverbial decks would seem to be stacked against a professional parody recording musician - a music world in which the typical cycle of three years between album releases has the potential to spell disaster for an artist that not only thrives on but depends upon timeliness - "Weird Al" Yankovic has nevertheless experienced some of the greatest successes of his once unthinkable thirty year recording career.
- In 2006, Yankovic's single "White and Nerdy" (a parody of "Ridin" by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone) peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (the first of his career to crack the top 10). The video has amassed over eighty million hits on YouTube.
- In 2011, Yankovic's most recent studio album ALpocalypse, his thirteenth, debuted at #9 on the Billboard 200 album chart - again, his highest ever position on that chart (This despite the fact that five of the album's twelve tracks actually saw release in 2009 as part of the Internet Leaks EP).
- To date, "Weird Al" Yankovic has sold over twelve million albums
Virtually any other recording artist with the unparalleled longevity, sales numbers and continuing influence that someone like Al Yankovic has had in a genre of music that he's practically made his own would be a lock for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, "Weird Al" waits.
In his typically modest manner, Yankovic laughed off that suggestion in a conversation that also hit on the art of the song parody in the internet age and the state of terrestrial radio - one which reads in full below.
Q. The music industry isn't really somewhere I'd necessarily consider to be an overly "positive" place circa 2013. How do you maintain your sense of humor?
"Weird Al" Yankovic: (laughs) I guess it’s just an inherent part of my personality. I’m a pretty happy guy in general. My music tends to be a bonding experience for families. It’s not like I’ve got any sort of message in my music but I like to think it’s a positive force.
Q. Do you still have fun?
Al: I do! I can’t imagine anything else in the world that I’d rather be doing. I’ve got my ideal job. Just the simple fact that I get to do this for a living, in my mind at least, means I’m successful because I’m doing what I love.
Q. Certainly, people are familiar with your history as a parodist and songwriter but in the last few years you’ve continued to branch out – directing not just your own videos but ones for artists like the Black Crowes and Ben Folds too. Earlier this summer, you released another best selling book, plus there’s AL TV and the stuff you do over at Nerdist. Is it important to you to continue to find new means of self-expression?
Al: I try to do stuff that excites me and that I find fun - but always within the context of my own sensibility. I love doing what I’ve always been doing: I love the recording and the touring and the videos and all of that. But if I’m given an opportunity to do something that’s slightly different, even if it’s a little outside my comfort zone, I tend to jump at it.
Q. Is it important to you to stay relevant in terms of continuing to release new songs as opposed to just touring the hits?
Al: I like to try to stay relevant. That’s a big part of what you strive for when you’re doing parody and satire – you want to still be in the moment - and certainly, when I do my live shows, a lot of people are just as excited to hear the hits from when they were growing up. But I’m also one of those few acts that’s been around for as long as I have where people really care about the new stuff. It’s not like when I say, “Here’s something from the new album!” that [it's] the bathroom break.
Q. The current pop music landscape has really begun to skew toward stuff like dubstep and electronic dance music. How do you parody something like that…
Al: Well, it depends… A lot of the EDM stuff feels a little too repetitive – in terms of, I like to have a lot of words to work with, which is one of the reasons why I tend to write a lot of rap parodies and things like that. But certainly, nothing is off the table. I try to hit as many genres as possible so I imagine at some point I’ll probably take a stab at it.
Q. It seems like there are more and more obstacles that have popped up in the past few years that I’m assuming would make it tougher for you to do what you do and do it well. For instance, pop stars seem to have a much shorter shelf life now (especially those of viral fame like a Rebecca Black with "Friday" or something like Psy's "Gangnam Style") – not to mention the fact that the internet continues to devalue the full album. Plus, people just generally seem to have shorter attention spans. How difficult does all of that make it for you to operate within the constraints of the typical album release format?
Al: Well, it makes it more and more difficult. Plus the fact that portals like YouTube open it up to everybody in the world – which is a good thing. It’s a very positive thing but it makes my job a little bit more difficult in that I will never again be the first person to do a parody of any given song. More likely, I’ll be one of a thousand people doing a parody of any given song.
So it actually makes it more difficult now than ever for me to come up with a parody because by the time I’ve gotten it out on an album, more than likely people have already been inundated with other people doing parodies of that song.
So the album format makes it very difficult for me because, like you said, by the time I’ve gathered together a dozen songs, chances are ten of those will feel a little dated. I’ve got one album left on my contract and after that, I’m not sure what’s going to happen really. I’m kind of pondering my options and maybe I’ll be more of a singles artist. That’s sort of the domain of comedy music anyway. When I first started out, people said “Oh, you’re a singles artist but we’re selling albums.” And I was able to convince them, “No, I can sell albums. This is gonna work out.” But in my heart, I’ve always been a singles artist anyway.
Q. You’ve certainly toyed with the notion of internet release over the years - there was the Internet Leaks EP in 2009 and "Perform This Way" [Al's Lady Gaga parody] had something like a million legitimate downloads, right? Granted, there's the chance of less actual sales...
Al: That’s just part of the way that the music world operates now. The record industry has been in trouble for quite some time but I just focus on the positive aspects. It’s true that not as many people are paying for the music as they used to ten or twenty years ago. But the internet has also widely opened up my fanbase. I mean, now, I have fans in pockets of the world that I barely knew existed before. Back in the eighties and nineties, if you lived in a part of the world where they weren’t playing me on the radio or my records weren’t in your local record store, you had no access to me at all. But now, because of the internet, anybody anywhere, if they have the inclination, can listen to my music – which is wonderful.
Q. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions take place every February and we're at the time of year where we start to see the new inductions come out. There’s already a few fan driven initiatives floating around on the net on your behalf so while you've always struck me as a very modest person, I have to ask: Do you feel that you should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Is that something that even matters to you?
Al: Well, you know, certainly, I’d be highly flattered. But just the fact that the fans care so much and they put so much time and effort into trying to make that happen – that to me already is a huge reward. Of course, yes, I’d be very honored… but I’m not holding my breath. Just to know that I have those kind of fans out there means the world to me.
Q. Radio, specifically the then syndicated Dr. Demento show, was essential to starting your career – And while he still broadcasts online, Dr. Demento is no longer on terrestrial radio (another industry currently in upheaval). Where do you see the future of a medium like that heading?
Al: Hard to say… I do listen to the radio. Particularly when I’m actively working on my parodies, I will listen to the local Top 40 stations and contemporary hits stations. I don’t know… I have a real fondness in my heart for local, terrestrial radio but, along with other institutions, it seems to be slowly dying unfortunately.
I don’t know where it’s going. Satellite radio is big and I’m assuming it’s going to get bigger. But I certainly hope that there’s still room for local, terrestrial radio. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s really a little piece of humanity that I hope we don’t end up giving away.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan
(Details on Saturday's "Weird Al" Yankovic show in Joliet after the jump)
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Jim also hosts "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" Sundays at 6PM central on WIMS and WHFB - streaming at wimsradio.com and via the free TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet)
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Weird Al Yankovic
Rialto Square Theater
102 North Chicago Street
Joliet, IL 60432
Saturday, October 12, 2013
(VIP suite upgrades also available)
Click HERE to purchase tickets