Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Perseverance of Weird Al Yankovic

Meeting Weird Al at BotCon 2009
The odds are you've probably already heard that Weird Al Yankovic's most recent album, Mandatory Fun, has officially been named the top album on the Billboard chart this week. Although Weird Al has been doing albums for more than three decades, this has never happened before, so it's kind of a big deal. Suffice it to say, being an album of parodies and funny novelty songs, this is not the kind of thing that normally tops the charts (in fact, according to Buzzfeed, the last comedy album to debut at #1 was in 1960, by the still-living legend Bob Newhart - UPDATE 7/26/14 - I've since verified that the last comedy album to reach #1 at all was in 1963, so it's still been more than 50 years however you slice it!).

There's been a fair bit written online about how Yankovic's public relations stunt of having a new video from the album posted each day for the past week (for a total of eight videos, a high number for any album) contributed to the album's success. While I'm confident about the truth of that statement, I've found myself thinking about other reasons for Weird Al's continued popularity over so many years. Specifically, I've been thinking about how things that appear to be set-backs at first glance sometimes actually prove to have been good for us after all.

For example, it's pretty well-known that some of Weird Al's first successful parodies built off of popular Michael Jackson songs ("Eat It" and "Fat," from "Beat It" and "Bad," respectively), and Weird Al himself credits Jackson's willingness to allow such parodies of his songs with having "jump-started (his) career." What's less known is that Jackson later asked Yankovic not to do a parody of his song "Black or White," apparently feeling that the message of that particular song was too important to potentially be diluted by a potential parody. This happened right around the time that Weird Al's career was at a low-point following the commercial failure of his movie, UHF (which is now considered a cult-favorite, by the way). Because Weird Al couldn't release the "Black or White" parody,* he was forced to do something else. The "something else" eventually was "Smells Like Nirvana," which became Weird Al's biggest hit since "Eat It."

That was 20 years ago, and Weird Al has naturally suffered other apparent set-backs over that time period. It's inevitable when doing something for long enough that things don't always go your way. It even happened on the road to Mandatory Fun, when Yankovic's label, RCA, told him that they wouldn't pay to have any videos made to promote the album. I don't know what RCA's reasons were. Perhaps it's because they didn't have faith in the material, or maybe they just thought that Yankovic should do it all himself, or possibly they were reluctant to lend such support to an artist working on what was to be the last album of a 32-year contract, and thus couldn't depend on the album's success to yield future dividends. Whatever the reason, this prompted Weird Al to look for partners, and this is at least part of why each video this past week premiered on a different online channel, ensuring that a wide swath of the internet audience would see what was going on. Fans who may not care for Nerdist might well be on Funny or Die, or YouTube. One way or another, the odds were that if you were on the internet this past week, you were going to have the opportunity to see a Weird Al video.

I'm always cautious about suggesting that such set-backs might be good things to anyone still currently suffering from them. These kinds of things are most safely discussed with the advantage of hindsight, when we can clearly see just how well things actually worked out in the end. Even so, I do think these stories provide a testimony to the importance of perseverance. I'm extremely happy to see Mandatory Fun at the top of the charts. As unpredictable and unexpected as such a victory is, it is one that I feel Weird Al surely deserves.

*The parody to "Black and White," entitled "Snack All Night," was written, and Weird Al occasionally performs it. It just wasn't released commercially.

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