The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Of Dorks & Geeks: A Weird Al Yankovic Interview
Emily Bick , December 6th, 2010 06:01

As he makes his first visit to Europe, Emily Bick talks to Weird Al Yankovic about YouTube, his parodies, keeping it clean, the crucial difference between geeks and dorks and why you "gotta do it for the Shat"

Any American who came of age in the last three decades can probably tell you something about Weird Al Yankovic. Maybe they’ll describe him - he’s lanky with a mop of curly long hair and giant glasses, and some kind of geekish, wacky shirt, maybe some comedy socks or something, but it’s a look. (In person, he’s got a few grey hairs and laser surgery means when he does wear the glasses it’s all for show, like hipsters from three years ago. Otherwise, he doesn’t look that different to how he did back in the day, probably thanks to a combination of good genes and famously clean living). Or they might talk about his cult film, UHF, or his fake spliced-up celebrity interviews, or, most of all, his massive back catalogue of parodies. Dollars to donuts, if school’s in session in the US, somewhere there is some kid sat on a yellow school bus, belting out one of Weird Al’s parodies right now.

His parodies - remakes of chart hits with silly lyrics about unrelated topics, many involving food - were first heard on the Doctor Demento radio show, after Yankovic sent in a bathroom recording of a parody of the Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ called ‘My Bologna’, on which he sang and played accordion. His highest points of the 80s were parodies of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ and ‘Bad’, recast as ‘Eat It’ and ‘Fat’, full of groan-worthy puns and videos with Jackson’s street gang dancers recast in fat suits. These videos were such hits that - this is in the worst possible taste - when Michael Jackson died, one of my first thoughts was, ‘I wonder what Weird Al’s reaction to this is.’ It can’t be just me, either. Weird Al’s parodies are full of gentle, goofy fun, but they also date-stamp and preserve their originals for posterity in a sealed time capsule of playful ribbing. Sometimes they can reach true heights of sublime ridiculousness: Go look up the video for ‘Trapped in the Drive-Thru’, parodying all eleven minutes of R Kelly’s magnum opus, ‘Trapped in the Closet’. But Weird Al’s take is animated. And about fast food.

Anyway, Weird Al is now over here, for his first European tour ever, so you can see for yourselves.

It’s really surprising to me that you haven’t been over here in your long career.

Al Yankovic: Well, I really wanted to build up the anticipation, I wanted to wait till 25-30 years had gone by, and I wanted people to say, ‘When’s Al coming here?’ Actually, I don’t know why it’s taken so long, going to Europe is something I’ve always wanted to do. And just logistically we haven’t been able to make it work out until this year. I think partly it’s as a result of my fan base gradually getting larger, due to internet portals like YouTube, they’re discovering me online, people that maybe wouldn’t have had access to getting my albums in record stores. And I don’t really have a good good reason why it’s taken so long, all I can say is thanks to Godspeed You! Black Emperor who invited me to ATP, we were able to tour together and hopefully this won’t be my last European tour.

I’ve got some questions about YouTube. One of the things that you’ve been doing, right from the beginning, is how you would periodically take over MTV and VH1, so it’s kind of appropriate how you’ve got your YouTube following. What do you think is the main difference between people who grew up watching MTV and VH1, and people who sit arou nd surfing YouTube now, which do you prefer?

AY: Well, the internet and YouTube in particular have become the new MTV. Obviously MTV isn’t really playing videos anymore, and nowadays if you want to see any good music video, you go to the internet, and you’d most likely do a search on YouTube. So it’s nice that now instead of waiting an hour for your favourite video to show up in rotation, you just search for it and have immediate gratification. So that’s cool, I like that fans now can access videos whenever they want to. YouTube and the internet have also brought up their own sets of particular problems and challenges to me, but that’s probably a whole different question.

Like what?

AY: Probably my biggest pet peeve is that a lot of parody songs that I had nothing to do with get attributed to me. I don’t know whether it’s pure ignorance, or if people are thinking, ‘Well, if I just attach Al’s name to it then it’ll get a million hits’, but a lot of songs, some of which are either really poorly done or just vulgar, you know, have my name attached to them, which doesn’t do my reputation any favours. And also, YouTube is great at this, it gives everybody a chance to get their material out there, but it also makes it more challenging because I will never again be the first person to do a parody of any particular song, because any time there’s a hit song, there will be ten thousand parodies of that particular song. It’ll be difficult for me to even come up with a unique idea for it, because there’s only so many variations on a theme.

Going back to what you said earlier about how you didn’t want your name to be attached to anything vulgar or profane, that’s one thing that you’ve done throughout your career. You’ve always kept your music clean, you don’t swear, you’re just funny without having to do any of that. A lot of comedy musicians, like the frogs or ween or people like that are funny, because they’re so foul-- have you ever been tempted to go there, or is there some kind of code of ethics that stops you from going there?

YA: It’s a really personal thing. I mean, I don’t even swear in my everyday life. It’s just the way I was brought up, and it’s just the way I conduct myself, so that extends to my songwriting. So it wasn’t anything calculated, like ‘Oh, I’m going for the family market’, but as a result of my decision to put that kind of music out there, I’ve been able to attract a pretty diverse and broad audience, which is nice because now if I look into my audience at live shows, it’s multi generations, everyone from young kids to college age to parents and grandparents. Which is really cool to see families coming together like that.

Your fanbase has always been a nerdy sort of cult thing, as well as appealing to so many people. You’ve got this sort of nerd persona that you’ve had going for so long. What makes a nerd, and who gets to be one? You’re kind of a friendly guy, and I read on the internet - whatever you can trust the internet for - that you were pretty popular in high school...

AY: That I was popular in high school? Aaaaw, that would not be accurate.

No?

AY: Well, I don’t think I was unpopular, but I would not consider myself a popular kid. I was the high school valedictorian, I graduated when I was sixteen years old, I was one of these straight-A kind of nerds...

But you weren’t thrown in the trash can, had your head flushed down the toilet...

AY: Not really. I kind of joke about that, but in reality, I didn’t get beat up too much (laughs). I was involved in extracurricular activities, so, again, I wasn’t homecoming king but I wouldn’t say I was a social outcast. But I did study a lot and I guess I kept to myself a lot as well...you know, when I write a song like ‘White and Nerdy’ that comes from a lot of personal experience, that’s one of my more autobiographical numbers. Granted, the character in that is a bit of an exaggeration of me, but I didn’t have to do a whole lot of research on that culture to write that song.

That song is great, but did anyone give you any flak about it because it’s ‘White and Nerdy’? I know you were involved with the documentary Nerdcore Rising, and that’s awesome, because nerdcore (comedy mcs with names like ‘MC++’ and ‘MC Router’, who rap about computer science and their 1337 hacking skills) is just so funny. The film unfortunately didn’t get a lot of attention over here in the UK. But some people have been saying nerdcore’s racist, it’s mostly white, it’s mostly male...

AY: What??

I know! I know! In that film there are women and people of colour, you’ve got everybody. So is nerdity an open church? Is it open to anyone who says, ‘Hi, I am one’?

AY: Absolutely! ‘White and Nerdy’ certainly isn’t implying that you need to be white to be nerdy, that was just a song that was written from my own personal experience, myself being white and nerdy. but no, nerdy is open to all races, all demographics, all belief systems...it’s a culture unto itself.

So what makes a nerd?

AY: It can be defined in a lot of different ways. I think a certain amount of intelligence, I think probably a certain amount of obsessive-compulsiveness, I would say maybe a bit of social awkwardness, but that goes off into a bit more of a dork. I think if you are drawing a Venn diagram of nerds, dorks and geeks... maybe a geek is a nerd that specialises in certain particular subjects and the dork is like a nerd without any social skills. i still hold by that.

Maybe obsessive fandom defines a particular kind of nerd. A lot of things you do have to do with that kind of fan, like the Star Wars stuff. With Comic Con and that kind of obsession with popular culture really blowing up over the last few years, are people embracing that kind of nerd-fandom more?

AY: I don’t know if nerds are coming out of the closet or if pop culture is creating more nerds, but certainly nerds have kind of - t’s become obvious to people that nerds are running the world, and in a lot of ways, you know, through things like Comic Con, they’re really directing pop culture. So they’ve become very popular in virtually every form of media out there.

I guess one thing that’s interesting about fandom is that it’s really creative, and really engaged with, you know, a television show or a film, or pop-cultural events. But a fan response or a parody is not necessarily the same thing as criticism, or as satire. Your work is not particularly political. So is there any kind of a cut-off, a filter that you use, like you won’t write a song about any topic that’s too sensitive? How do you manage to keep that out of your work, and why do you choose to do that?

AY: It’s a conscious decision. I mean, the political thing I try to stay away from for several reasons. It can get very dated, certainly political climates change, the players change, and you know, people probably wouldn’t be as interested in hearing a song about George Bush as they would four years ago. And also, when you do a political song, you could be alienating half of your potential fanbase, because generally when you’re doing comedy, for comedic potential you have to take some sort of point of view, even if you’re being ironic, or insincere, but whatever that viewpoint is, probably half the people are not going to agree with it. Even if you’re joking about it-- I’ve made jokes on twitter, and anything of a slightly political nature, people get all up in arms about it.

Twitter, you’ve really opened up a lot on. How many followers are you up to?

AY: Like 1.8 million or something.

Wow, that’s crazy! You’re always popping up in the square on the main page that shows top people to follow, it says you should follow these people...you know, like when you come to the main screen, and there’s this little grid.

AY: I don’t know what the algorithm is for that, if it’s based on someone you know who’s a follower... and I don’t know how many of those 1.8 million followers are spambots or whatever, but it’s nice to be up there. But it’s still pretty heady to know that whatever ridiculous thing I tweet there’s going to be a lot of people that will ostensibly see it.

I like twitter because it’s so immediate, and sometimes because of it, maybe I allow myself to be more vulnerable, and intimate with the fans. I’ve never posted pictures of my daughter, where you can see her face, because we want to keep her off the internet, but I do share a lot of personal things. It’s a balancing act, because a lot of things I tweet are obvious jokes, and I’m obviously being ironic, but because I mix that with things that are real, there’s always going to be a certain percentage of people who aren’t going to understand I’m being ironic when I’m being ironic, so I always have to keep that in the back of my mind. No matter how ridiculous of a statement I make, somebody’s going to take it at face value. So, I can’t live in fear of that because there’s always gong to be some idiots out there, so...it’s always going to bug me that somebody’s going to think I did something really horrible because of a joke.

Tell me about Internet Leaks, and the new album.

AY: Internet Leaks, that’s a digital only album, it’s available on iTunes. Actually it’s like my new album work in progress, it’s the first five tracks that have been recorded for the new album. And I’ve been going so long between albums that this is a good stopgap, instead of waiting like five years for a new album, this is sort of like, well, these are done, enjoy these now. And for me I guess it was a way to get stuff done, I guess the only parody that was out was the T.I. song (‘Whatever You Like’), but I got that out while the original song was still number one in the charts, so it was good to be able to do that, at least for that song, to be able to take advantage of digital distribution to keep a song topical.

Sometimes you get access to the same production teams that work on the original, was that the case for the T.I parody?

AY: We didn’t...I don’t think we had the original producer for that. I think Jim West, who usually plays guitar in my band, he did the keyboard arrangements, and anyway it was done very quickly, I think it was literally like two weeks from getting the idea for the parody to having the finished thing on iTunes. So yeah, maybe if we weren’t so pressed for time we would have sussed it out and tracked down more of the original stuff, but it was more a matter of, ‘Let’s hurry up and do this’.

Your subjects really define an era’s obsessions. When you look at the 80s, you were doing these parodies of huge pop hits, things like Madonna and Michael Jackson, because that’s what pop culture was, and at the same time you were doing these kitsch Americana things like ‘The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota’. As you moved into the 90s, you moved on to bombastic alternative pop, Nirvana type stuff, and huge blockbuster films--Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump and as we move on towards the present it’s like hip hop and technology. Would you say pop culturally that’s where we are now?

AY: I think pop culture is all over the place.

What are the unifying things, because it is really diverse right now?

AY: Yeah, it is. I find myself drawn to internet culture and online culture, and I think that’s where my core audience is as well. I mean, a lot of pop culture is stuff that I have very little interest in even though I know it’s popular, like reality tv, obviously very popular but it doesn’t appeal to me, a lot of celebrities - I’m not going to mention any names, but a lot of celebrities who aren’t really known for anything but are still very popular - I don’t get it! But the internet stuff I get, and all the popular portals on the internet, memes, things like that, I certainly don’t focus exclusively on things like that, but I’ve done a lot more parodies and songs about internet-related themes than I did previously.

Do you have the same problems with internet stuff as with political stuff, because it all dates so quickly? Does that ever make you pause when you’re thinking about things to write about, like some 4chan meme that’s going to be gone in a few weeks...

AY: It’s something to consider, but pop culture’s pretty ephemeral as it is, so nothing I write about that’s pop culture based is going to feel timely all the time. I just can’t be too upset about that...’It’s All About the Pentiums’ was, you know, a lot more topical in 1999, y2k references don’t quite have the sting that they did back then. So a lot of songs you just have to view as being of their time.

This question is probably one you get all the time: who are you going to parody next?

AY: I wish I could tell you! I’ve got the whole album in except for one track, and I don’t know what the track is, but I know what all the other songs on the album are, and I think it’s a good album, and I can’t wait to put it out. It’s just frustrating because it always boils down to, ‘What’s the hit single going to be?’ and now I’m thinking of ideas, like, ‘That would be a good album track, but I need a hit single’, you know? So hopefully an idea will come around in the not too distant future, because every month the tracks that are done are just gettng older, and I’m hoping to get everything out when it’s still fairly fresh. I’ve been fairly lucky so far, and things have a tendency to work out.

One last question: do you still perform ‘Like a Surgeon’ with your legs twisted behind your head?

AY: Not anymore - I kind of felt like I’d done that enough, and it got to the point where I’d turn up to a Hollywood premiere or something and they’d yell out, ‘Put your leg behind your head!’, and you know, I’m like, ‘I’m not your monkey!’ I actually injured my leg playing tag with my daughter about a week ago so I won’t do it now, but I think the last person who got me to do it was William Shatner when I did his talk show, so I was like, all right Bill, here you go. You gotta do it for the Shat.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.