Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al Beats Everyone to the Joke (Again)

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 07.23.14 in Features

Mandatory Fun

Weird Al Yankovic

The announcement came in the middle of June: Accordion-wielding parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic would be releasing an album, his first since 2011′s Alpocalypse, in about a month. Details were scant — the reveal itself was cryptic, just a picture of Yankovic in military garb with “JULY 15″ in a vaguely dictatorial font. In the weeks leading up to the album, details about what songs and artists would fall in Al’s friendly crosshairs were scant. The only bread crumbs offered were a title, Mandatory Fun, and a few dictator-themed teaser clips.

Keeping mum on the details of an album until the very last minute has proven to be effective for artists with a certain level of popularity. Concentrating what in the past would have been a three-month album rollout into a week or so of constant bombardment fends off “is this record out yet?” fatigue, and gets people into buying mode — no small feat in these retail-averse times. Yankovic, who’s been putting out albums for more than 30 years, belongs to this select cohort: He’s a bona fide star with cross-generational appeal (kids raised on MTV during its music-heavy years, younger listeners who saw a bit of themselves in “White & Nerdy,” polka aficionados) and he’s been a savvy cultivator of his fandom. Holding back details would also works on an aesthetic level — there’s no short supply of comedy on the internet, and there are fewer things more worrisome to a person whose livelihood depends on making people laugh than someone else beating them to a joke.

Being a fan of Yankovic’s might seem to require a hefty amount of pop cultural knowledge, but the truth is that he’s a big-tent artist, and Mandatory Fun — his 14th studio album and first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — bears that out. The album whips through styles that dominated radio over the two and a half years between albums; “Handy” takes on Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s unkillable “Fancy,” while “Word Crimes” parodied Robin Thicke’s much-debated “Blurred Lines” so effectively it created controversies of its own. It detours into slightly more under-the-radar territories; whoever had “Southern Culture on the Skids” in their office Al-parody pool is probably smiling pretty big right now, thanks to the cowbell-heavy satire of name-droppers “Lame Claim to Fame.” Other lyrical targets include Illuminati paranoiacs, people with bad manners and corporate mission statements. And its polka medley of current pop songs, a staple of Yankovic’s albums since his early-’80s debut, manages to incorporate a Jerry Lewis homage alongside its shout-outs to Foster the People and Ke$ha.

Mandatory Fun was doled out piecemeal online — Yankovic made eight videos for the album’s 12 songs, which included a fairly straightforward one-take parody of Pharrell’s dancing-around-like-crazy “Happy” video (for “Tacky”) as well as a kinetic-typography video for “Word Crimes” that, in addition to outlining various grammar outrages, recasts the original’s tableau of half-clothed women and leering men as bouncing punctuation marks. He premiered one clip a day from the album’s release onward, scattering them across sites both comedic (Funny or Die, College Humor) and more buttoned-up (The Wall Street Journal). During a pretty fallow week for music news, this strategy hit big, prompting thinkpieces and business analyses and listicles and all manner of stories that served as both ways for comedy-adulating writers to indulge their Al obsession and strategies for capitalizing on trending topics.

Attention in the current music ecosystem doesn’t always result from putting out quality product, so Yankovic’s solid musicianship and meticulous devotion to creating true soundalikes make the blitz that occurred over the past few days even more sublime. Some of his parodies improve vastly on the original; the home-improvement boast “Handy” lops about 20 seconds off “Fancy,” and Al’s flow and rhymes outpace those of Iggy Azalea by far, while “Inactive” turns the hoariness of Imagine Dragons’ insufferable “Radioactive” into a strength. And his original songs, which simply mimic the aesthetics of popular bands, hit precisely — “My Own Eyes” is Dr. Seuss’s To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street filtered through the Foo Fighters, right down to the way it re-imagines Taylor Hawkins’s drum fills, while the yelpy “First World Problems” might be the best Pixies song in at least a decade.

Along with “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!,” which adds a little oompah to Daft Punk’s robotic aesthetic and Britney’s heavy breathing, “Foil” is one of Mandatory Fun‘s pinnacles. A parody of Lorde’s skeletal “Royals,” the track starts off in traditional Al territory — “I never seem to finish all my food,” he dourly intones as the bass drums and snaps of “Royals” arrive under him. The first verse details the microbiological problems that can arise from not keeping one’s food stored properly, but the second verse is where it gets good — the other use of foil is, of course, for shielding one’s head, should the inevitable Illuminati/alien alliance come to pass. The video progresses from a lighthearted take on community television to a place more sinister — think Yankovic’s 1989 vehicle UHF, which turns 25 this week, filtered through the prism of They Live.

But the best joke on the album might be “Mission Statement,” a skewering of corporate culture — and how deeply Al is in on the joke is up for debate, which only seems to make it funnier. Breezy guitars and rich harmonies a la Crosby, Stills and Nash sing out the sort of corporate jargon that makes all-hands meanings such a slog. The track’s clip, meanwhile, operates in a whiteboard idiom that could be taken right from a poorly air-conditioned conference room; it premiered on The Wall Street Journal‘s website to close out the eight-day video rollout. Graham Nash apparently loved the track; “I just thought it would be ironic to juxtapose [corporate nonsense] with the song stylings of CSN, whose music pretty much symbolizes the antithesis of corporate America,” Yankovic told America’s chief source for business news. Whether or not a wink is implied is up to you (and probably dependent on how you feel about boomers’ infiltration of the corporate world) but the fact that “Weird Al” Yankovic still has people figuring out his lighter-than-air jokes three decades into his career puts him miles ahead of most other comedians.