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'Weird Al' Yankovic On Parody In The Age Of YouTube

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'Weird Al' Yankovic On Parody In The Age Of YouTube

Music Interviews

'Weird Al' Yankovic On Parody In The Age Of YouTube

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Weird Al Yankovic has outlasted, and in some cases outsold, the artists whose songs he's parodied.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE AND NERDY")

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: (Singing) They see me mowing my front lawn. I know they're thinking I'm so white and nerdy.

KEITH: The video for that song, "White and Nerdy," has twice as many YouTube views the original song, "Ridin'." And although Weird Al doesn't always get as much attention for it, the master of comedic songwriting also writes his own original songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T LOVE ME ANYMORE")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) I knew that we were having problems when you put those piranhas in my bathtub again. You're still the light of my life. Oh darling, I'm begging won't you put down that knife.

KEITH: Weird Al has been the king of parody for 30 years. He's won three Grammys and he's about to release his 14th album. It's called "Mandatory Fun." Weird Al Yankovic joins me from our bureau in LA. Thank you.

YANKOVIC: My pleasure, thank you.

KEITH: So "Mandatory Fun" is the name of your album. Is that how you describe your approach to life?

YANKOVIC: (Laughing). I think it's very important to have fun. In fact, I would say it's mandatory, yeah. That was just an oxymoron that I've always been amused by. It's used a lot in corporate retreats and I'm told in the military. And also this the last album of a 32-year-long record contract. So some fans have theorized that that might have something to do with it as well, although I can't really comment on that.

KEITH: Like, there might be an obligation and to do this album?

YANKOVIC: (Laughing). Perhaps.

KEITH: You've kept a pretty tight lock on this album but you're giving us a little preview with this song called "Word Crimes." It is a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORD CRIMES")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) If you can't write in the proper way, if don't know how to conjugate, baby you flunk that class. Then maybe now you find that people mock you online. When I came up with the idea for "Word Crimes" I thought, well, that's great because I'm always correcting people's grammar. It's kind of a big deal with me. In fact, I've done some funny videos for YouTube where I'm correcting road signs and making the grammar better on the highway and in the supermarket.

KEITH: That must make you popular at parties.

YANKOVIC: (Laughing) Well, it makes me a hero among a small subset of the population.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORD CRIMES")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) Work on that grammar. You should know when before or it's fewer like people who were never raised in a sewer. I hate these word crimes.

KEITH: You know, there was a time when Weird Al did parody and that was it. And now Cookie Monster has done a version of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe".

YANKOVIC: Cookie Monster is my number one competition right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME MAYBE")

COOKIE MONSTER: (Singing) Hey, me just met you. And this is crazy. But you got cookie, so share it maybe.

YANKOVIC: No. Actually, I don't view it as a competition at all. I think it's wonderful that there's a level playing field now. It's more of a challenge now because now I have to compete with the thousands and thousands of people on YouTube that are also putting out comedic songs and parodies.

KEITH: And MTV is sort of a different thing than it was. You know, when you first got started - and I'm thinking about "Eat It" which was, like, an anthem of my childhood more than "Beat It" was. I mean, it was in such heavy rotation on MTV.

YANKOVIC: Well, MTV's a completely different animal now, obviously. Back when I was first starting out in the '80s it was a 24-hour music video channel. People watched it for hours on end. They would memorize every tiny detail of every music video. And then when I came along and I just tweaked those little video moments people understood and got the humor immediately. Nowadays, MTV is more of a reality show channel and I'm not really focused on that and they're certainly not focused on me. So the Internet is the new MTV, at least as far as I'm concerned.

KEITH: Is it true that you don't need permission to do a parody of a song?

YANKOVIC: Legally, I say it's a gray area. I could get away with not getting permission. But I've never wanted to get away with that. I wanted to do it with the artist's blessing. I think it's more taking the high road to make sure that the artist feels like they're in on the joke. I want them to know that it is in fact an homage - it's a tribute. It's more of a poke in the ribs than kick in the butt. I mean, it's all meant in good fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMISH PARADISE")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) As I walk through the valley where harvest my grain, I take a look at my wife and realize she's very plain. But that's just perfect for an Amish like me, you know I shun fancy things like electricity.

KEITH: I want to play one of your originals now from the new album. It is called "Mission Statement."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSION STATEMENT")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) We must all efficiently operationalize our strategies. Invest in world-class technology and leverage our core-competencies.

KEITH: I can say from experience that this sounds like a song full of office jargon.

YANKOVIC: That is correct.

KEITH: Because I have worked in cube-farms. But you've never worked in a cube-farm. What was your inspiration?

YANKOVIC: I did have a day job 30 years ago in the traffic department of Westwood One, a radio syndication company. So I wasn't exposed to those kind of buzzwords so much back but I hear plenty of those buzzwords in marketing meetings still with the record label and, you know, I was familiar with it. So I thought it was about time for me to do my homage to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSION STATEMENT")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) Transitioning a company by a win is a functionality. Promoting viability, providing our supply chain with diversity.

KEITH: Your original songs - I have read that you feel like they don't get as much attention as you'd like them to.

YANKOVIC: Well, that's true. I mean, certainly among the general population I'm known as the parody guy and to this day, after 30 years, a lot of people still say do you ever write your own songs? And, you know, I can't blame them for saying that because virtually all of my hits have been the parodies. But the fans, the people that listen to the whole album, know that half of my material is in fact original. Although most of those are style parodies or pastiches like the one you just played which was obviously meant to sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash and/or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

KEITH: Can we ever expect an album of all originals from you?

YANKOVIC: I don't think that's really necessary. I love doing the parodies as well as the originals, so it's not like I'd ever give up one in favor of the other. And in fact, I don't know that I'm going doing anymore traditional albums after this point. I think that digital distribution is more the way for me to go. Like, putting out a single at a time - possibly two or three tracks or an E.P. But I don't know that putting out 12 songs at once in this day and age for me is the best way for me to get my music out there because if I'm waiting that long chances are a lot of the material is going to be somewhat dated by the time it comes out.

KEITH: Wow. So this is the last Weird Al album?

YANKOVIC: Well, I have to be careful about that because a lot of people listen to that and say, oh Al's retiring. I am not retiring. I intend to keep making music like I have in the past. All I'm saying is, there's a pretty good chance this is the last conventional album, meaning the last time I'm going to release 12 songs at once.

KEITH: Do you think you're just going to do this forever?

YANKOVIC: This interview, I don't think so? What.

KEITH: No.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Are you going to be Weird Al forever and just keep putting out songs, presumably not whole albums necessarily in the future?

YANKOVIC: I don't know. You know, if you'd asked me 30 years ago if I'd still be doing it today I would think that's pretty unlikely but, you know what, I love doing this - I can't imagine a job I would rather have. I'm sure people let me know when it's time to hang up the accordion and call it quits but as long as people don't mind, I'll keep doing it.

KEITH: Weird Al Yankovic joined us from our LA bureau. His new album is "Mandatory Fun." It comes out next week. Thank you so much.

YANKOVIC: My pleasure, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRECKING BALL")

YANKOVIC: (Singing) We clawed, we chained our hearts in vain. We jumped never asking why. We kissed, I fell under your spell - a love no one could deny. Don't you ever say I just walked away. I will always want you.

KEITH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon returns next week.

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