If you took a notion to listen to Weird Al Yankovic’s music chronologically you’d have a pretty good history of pop culture. From 1980’s “Another One Rides the Bus” (a parody of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”) to 2011’s “Perform This Way” (a parody of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”) Yankovic has poked fun at popular music and current events.
Yankovic laughs at the idea that maybe he’s an unintentional historian.
“I don’t think I’d ever describe myself as such,” says Yankovic in a phone call, “but sometimes fans who are not so much into pop culture use me as Cliffs Notes for pop culture. You can see what was happening in any era by seeing what I was making fun of at the time.”
He says it’s a little like when he was a young teen reading Mad magazine.
“I would read about movies that I was too young to see, world history and politics that I wasn’t really following at the time, but I was learning about it through the lens of Mad magazine. For certain people I supply that role.”
Raised in Lynwood, Calif., Yankovic began gaining attention for his parody songs (accompanied on his own accordion) while he was a high school student and landed a song on the “Dr. Demento” radio show. The nationally syndicated show featured new and vintage novelty songs. When Yankovic moved on to study architecture in college, he continued to send tapes to the program.
“Dr. Demento was decades before YouTube existed and thank God he was there,” says Yankovic. “That was the only way I could get my stuff out there. He gave me airplay back when it mattered.”
“My Bologna,” Yankovic’s parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” earned the approval of The Knack, who encouraged Capitol Records to release it as a single in 1979. Two years later, Yankovic released his first album. It didn’t hurt that MTV was in its infancy and Yankovic’s parodies were perfect video vehicles. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” might have been one of the videos that put the channel on the map, but Yankovic’s scene-for-scene parody “Eat It” might have done just as much. Many music artists consider it an honor to be parodied by Yankovic.
“Alpocalypse,” Yankovic’s latest album, parodies Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, T.I., Miley Cyrus and other artists and addresses the recent CIA scandal, celebrity gossip TV, tattoos, Craigslist and other cultural touchstones.
Creating parodies, he says, has become a little more difficult.
“I love YouTube and I think it’s wonderful that people are able to express themselves freely and get their stuff out there, but it makes it harder for me to compete. I going to only be one of 1,000 people doing a parody of any given song.”
Of course, he also occasionally mines an older song. He’s now in the position of audiences hearing his parodies before they actually hear the songs he’s making fun of.
“In 1999, I did a parody of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ called ‘The Saga Begins’ (the story of “Star Wars” in song) and a lot of kids were not familiar with the original. After I did my parody Madonna did a version of ‘American Pie’ and these kids are going, ‘Why’s Madonna doing this unfunny version of a Weird Al song?’”
Yankovic says his original songs written to sound like other artists are more difficult to create.
“Not only do I have to come up with a melody and words, but I have to study an artist’s body of work, really dissect their oeuvre ... and sort of put on their skin and try to write a song like they would — except more sick and twisted.”
Sick and twisted as he might be, Yankovic says the Napster-era sometimes gave people the wrong idea about his music.
“I got the credit or the blame for 90 percent of the parody songs in existence. People started saying ‘Oh, Al did this song! Boy, he sure used a lot of foul language on it!’ No, that wasn’t me. My shows are family friendly. You don’t have to worry that I’m gonna use the F-word.”
Music isn’t the only thing in Yankovic’s resume. He’s done extensive TV, made a feature film, directed videos and, more recently, written children’s books. His first, “When I Grow Up,” was a New York Times bestseller in 2011 and his follow-up “My New Teacher and Me,” will be released in June.
Still, most people know Yankovic when they hear him skewer a popular song and, at this point, he’s the most successful parodist of the modern age.
“I’m amazed every day that I get to do this for a living, because I remember the resistance that I got from record labels in the early ’80s when I was trying to get a record deal. They were like, ‘Oh, ha ha. Novelty music. You’ll be around for two weeks!’ Well, I guess I’m a novelty dinosaur at this point!”
Weird Al Yankovic
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 11
Where: Tennessee Theatre
Tickets: $49.50, $39.50, available at Knoxville Tickets locations, 865-656-4444 and www.knoxville.com.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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