Weird Al Yankovic
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Weird Al Yankovic

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Always more silly than spiteful, most of Weird Al’s parodies have been regarded by the artists that inspired them as badges of honour; in Nirvana’s case, as proof they had ‘made it’. Some, such as 2006’s White And Nerdy (Yankovic’s parody of Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Dirty) became even bigger than the original song.

Getting an artist’s permission before lampooning them has been a prudent, if occasionally frustrating policy of Yankovic’s, particularly when it results in the kind of dithering that ensued when he unveiled plans to target Lady Gaga with his latest single Perform This Way. Yankovic eventually got the permission he sought, included the song on his latest album Alpocalypse, and made a clip outlandish enough to satisfy the legacy of both himself and her Gaganess.

The story goes that Lady Gaga’s manager vetoed Perform This Way on behalf of his client without actually taking it to her. And that, when she finally heard it herself, she approved it unconditionally. Do you think this is true, or that Gaga changed her mind after the outcry of disappointment on the internet, and blamed her manager for theinitial refusal?

“No, I’m inclined to believe that her recounting of the story is absolutely true. Because it certainly wouldn’t be a unique incident in my career for a manager not to act in the artists’ best interests. Which is unfortunate… If you’re going to unilaterally turn somebody down, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t blame your artist.”

After the initial refusal, you scrapped plans to release the song commercially but still made it available online. Surely this doesn’t really make a difference, in terms of the exposure the song gets?

“Well, here’s the thing. If Lady Gaga’s manager had immediately turned it down after my first request, I would have been very disappointed, but not angry, because that’s their prerogative. What was upsetting to me was that I was made to jump through so many hoops, including recording a finished version. I mean, I’d sent them a final version of the lyrics, and they know how the song goes. Can’t you put those two things together in your head to decide if that’s something you’d be okay with? I guess I did it because, in the back of my mind, I refused to believe that after all that, they would say ‘no’. Yet they did. Like I said in my blog: ‘It’s my policy not to release a song against an artist’s wishes, but it’s also my policy not to waste my time’.”

You set yourself a challenge in trying to parody Lady Gaga’s fashion. How do you parody something so inherently absurd?

“It was hard to do something more over the top… Lady Gaga set the bar pretty high! I ran into the same problem when I did a parody of the R Kelly song Trapped In The Closet, because the original song is so out there and ridiculous already, where can you go from there? In that case, I went in the other direction, and made a very dramatic song about something as banal as going through the drive-thru. With Lady Gaga, I thought it would be fun to ramp it up even more… there was room for me to come up with costumes and concepts that were just a hair’s breadth more out-there than what she has already done.”

Another song, Craigslist , is done in the style of The Doors. It sounds so authentic…

“Yeah, we try to emulate the original sound as closely as possible. In the case of our Doors pastiche, what really helpedis that we used the original Doors keyboard player, Ray Manzerek! I called and asked if he would be willing to sit in with us, and he was. He had a great sense of humour about it… So that’s the reason why it really sounds like The Doors!”

It’s been a bit longer between albums… you’ve done a children’s book ( When I Grow Up ), a 3D short film ( Al’s Brain ), and scripted a full-length feature. Could we say your interest is shifting from music to other mediums?

“I wouldn’t say ‘shifting’, because music will always be my primary passion. But I do like to keep my life as varied as possible. It was fun to write a children’s book, and a blast to write and direct a 3D movie. I even got Paul McCartney to do a cameo in it, which was an amazing highlight of my life. There’s a lot of stuff I enjoy alongside my musical career, but a side effect is that I might take longer between albums. I wish I could still put out an album every other year, but that’s really not logistically possible any more.”

You have a policy of never using other people’s ideas, but at some point someone’s probably suggested an idea to you that you already had. What do you do then?

“Well, when Lady Gaga did Poker Face, I immediately thought: ‘Hey, I’ll call my next medley Polka Face!’ And then about five million people sent me tweets, posts, saying: ‘You know what you should do? Polka Face!’ And I’m like: ‘Ach… I know! It’s my job to figure out these things!’ And I’m sure all of them are now saying: ‘Oh, I gave Al that idea.’ (Laughs) That’s just how the internet works. I have to put blinders on, do what I do, and not be too concerned that everyone else in the world is doing a variation on these themes.”

Do you think that today, with the internet overloaded with amateur satirists, it would even be possible for a newcomer to achieve your level of success from parody?

“Well, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so longevity is definitely working in my favour. But if you’re really good, in any genre, you can become a YouTube star in much the same way Justin Bieber did. As long as the talent is there, I don’t see why not.”

Have you ever written a ‘serious’ song, even just to play to close friends?

“I’ve written a few instrumentals and things like that which aren’t innately funny, but I don’t have any real soul-wrenching, serious ballads in my oeuvre or my vault. It’s just not the way my brain works.”