Is 'Weird Al' The First Artist to 'Pull A Beyonce' Successfully?
With "Mandatory Fun's" No. 1 debut, the veteran parody artist became essential to the Internet conversation.
"Pulling a Beyonce" has become the most overused trope in music writing ever since Queen Bey dropped her self-titled fifth album out of nowhere last December, shattering the expectations of every music consumer on the planet with her unprecedented release strategy. "Pulling a Beyonce" is now most commonly used to refer to dropping a surprise album out of mid-air, but it really means something much more.
"Weird Al" Yankovic is the first artist to (sort of) replicate what Beyonce did in an unequivocally successful way, propelling his 14th studio album "Mandatory Fun" to the top of the Billboard 200 chart this week. This is a bold claim, so let's pick apart what exactly "Weird Al" did during his album campaign, compare it to what Beyonce accomplished, and characterize how it was a success.
First, let's make one thing clear: "Weird Al" did not replicate Beyonce's feat in its exact form by any means. Beyonce's album was not announced ahead of its release, while "Mandatory Fun" had a widely announced release date. Beyonce only sold her album through iTunes, while "Weird Al" went to iTunes, Amazon, and even streaming services like Spotify. Initially, consumers could only hear "Beyonce" by purchasing the album as there were no singles available, while "Weird Al" made his individual singles available for purchase. Beyonce did not allow any of the videos that she released along with the album to be uploaded to YouTube until weeks after, while "Weird Al's" viral clips were on the platform almost immediately. And finally, "Weird Al's" album release wasn't as tactical (or effective) as Beyonce's in his effort to create a perfect window through which to funnel consumers and jack up iTunes sales, as "Beyonce" sold 617,000 copies in its first week compared to "Mandatory Fun's" 104,000 (according to Nielsen Soundscan).
So, that's a whole lot of "Beyonce" that "Weird Al" didn't pull. What "Weird Al" did do that was similar to Beyonce was to orchestrate an Internet spectacle that played out within a contained timeframe that online consumers had no choice but to be a part of. This behavior was best characterized in a piece by Grantland's Steven Hyden:
"When people rushed to purchase Beyoncé from iTunes this weekend, they weren't just (or even primarily) getting a record (or an experience). They were buying into a conversation. Beyoncé (willingly or not) was exploiting a glitch in the psychology of social media in order to strong-arm consumers into actually spending money on music. People may not be eager to buy a record, but they are eager to feel part of whatever cultural happening is dominating tweets and Facebook posts at this very second."
In a video interview with Billboard, Weird Al puts this exact notion into his own words:
"If somebody gets sent a link the day after a video premiers people are like 'Oh, that's so yesterday!' So, I know that because of the immediacy of the Internet was to just bombard them with something every single day."
Similar to Beyonce, "Weird Al" released zero music in advance of the album's release, a distinct difference from his previous album campaigns. He released lots of videos, just like Beyonce, who released 17 along with "Beyonce" (18 if you include the credits). He chose to release his music on a very quiet release week. But to really "pull a Beyonce," he had to dominate the online media world by becoming the most important topic of conversation.
Because "Weird Al" doesn't have quite the same superstar power as Beyonce to draw a massive audience, he partnered with eight different media partners (each with their own respective online fan bases) to release each video in order to maximize the impact of his #8videos8days series. The spectacle kicked off on Monday, July 14, with "Tacky," a cover of the most ubiquitous song of 2014, Pharrell's "Happy." The video for the track was not only filmed as one long single-take shot, a big trend among popular videos in 2014, but features guest appearances by notable celebrities Margaret Cho, Kristen Schaal and Jack Black. By debuting the "Tacky" song and video exclusively on Nerdist, an online video platform that Yankovic has worked with in the past, he leveraged not only the respective online audiences of the celebrities used in the video, but Nerdist's entire audience to maximize traction.
"As creators of premium digital entertainment, we always want to be included in cultural events that further audience engagement on non-linear platforms…and Al is a cultural phenomenon," says Adam Rymer, the president of Nerdist Industries, in a statement to Billboard. In its first day, the "Tacky" video got more than 5.2 million views on Nerdist.com, and reached 12.8 million views in one week. By comparison, the music video for "Perform This Way," the Lady Gaga-satirizing first single from Yankovic's 2011 album "Alpocalypse," has earned 16.8 million YouTube views in over three years.
It's also important to note that the first four of the eight videos released were parodies of songs that have reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "Happy" (the inspiration for Yankovic's "Tacky") was No. 1 for 10 weeks, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" ("Word Crimes") for 12 weeks, Lorde's "Royals" ("Foil") for 9 weeks, and Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" ("Handy") for 7 weeks. This is no coincidence: by tapping into the appeal of ubiquitous hits, as he's always done, "Weird Al" ensures that his parodies will reach the ears of the broad audience each of those songs has garnered. According to data provided by Twitter, these same four songs were the most-tweeted about tracks from "Weird Al's" new album.
The first video released from "Mandatory Fun" that was not a song parody was "Sports Song," an original composition poking fun at the irrational fervor of sports fans. The video debuted with Funny or Die, another online property with its own respective fan base that "Weird Al" has worked with in the past. According to Jason Carden, Executive Producer at Funny or Die, "Weird Al" reached out as he did with every platform involved in #8videos8days with the entire rollout plan already figured out: in exchange for getting the exclusive on one of the video, each platform fronted the production cost of the video.
"When he came to us with the idea to do it, we were of course on board," Carden tells Billboard. "He had it all planned out in his head, so he let us know what the concept was and we moved ahead from there. He's a comedy institution, and we're a comedy institution, so it's a win-win. It's a good thing for him, good thing for us, and definitely something we were excited about doing."
"Weird Al" also reached out to fans by hosting an AMA (Ask Me Anything, or in his case, an Ask Me Anything, Again) on Reddit on July 15. The website, which garners more than 713 million unique visitors a year and is the 18th most-visited site in the U.S. according to Alexa, has become a mainstay in dictating mainstream internet pop culture. Not only did this AMA reach the front page, but another post reached the front page, purely organically, encouraging the site's users to go out and buy the album to help support "Weird Al" getting the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts.
As of Tuesday (July 22), one week after the album was released and the day after the last video was released, there have been more than 477,000 mentions of #8videos8days on Twitter, and more than 309,000 mentions of "Weird Al" himself according to data provided by Twitter. According to Google, his videos have totaled more than 27 million views in their first week, which is 31 percent of the total views so far of "Weird Al's" most popular video on YouTube ever, "White & Nerdy," which debuted four years ago and has over 86 million views.
The sheer amount of online traction generated chart success for "Weird Al" outside of his No. 1 album debut. Six of the eight tracks released during #8videos8days hit No. 1 on the Billboard Twitter Trending 140 chart. "Weird Al" Yankovic also makes his first appearance at No. 44 on the Billboard Social 50, a weekly chart that ranks the top artists online incorporating data from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Wikipedia that's compiled by music analytics provider Next Big Sound. For the week, "Weird Al" receives a 1,270 percent increase of the amount of fans added across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and a 544 percent increase in reactions across those same platforms. And on Streaming Songs, "Word Crimes" is this week's top debut (thanks to the fact that it was originally released on Vevo rather than an exclusive platform) at No. 6 with more than 5.2 million U.S. streams, according to Nielsen BDS.
So then what exactly is "pulling a Beyonce?" "Weird Al" might not have shattered any sales records, but by effectively concentrating his exposure and releasing plentiful, engaging and fun videos, it became mandatory that we all paid attention. He created a moment, an event. Isn't that "pulling a Beyonce," in some regard? In the temporal online media world that's now over-saturated with parody acts parroting his craft, "Weird Al" Yankovic has re-emerged with what might be the greatest moment in his 30-year career thanks in part to this crazy rollout strategy. Queen Bey would be proud.