“Weird Al” Yankovic reports that his new single, the Star Trek-quoting, D&D-referencing, comic-obsessed tour de force called “White and Nerdy,” represents nothing less than “a culmination of a lifetime of work. This is a song I was born to write. I’ve been doing research my entire life.”
To date, that entire life comprises 27 years of work, three Grammys, six platinum records and 12 original albums, the latest of which is “Straight Outta Lynwood,” released this week on Volcano Records. Like its predecessors, it’s split between originals and parodies of songs by Green Day (“Canadian Idiot”), Usher (“Confessions Part III”), Taylor Hicks, R. Kelly and newly converted fan Chamillionaire, whose “Ridin'” provided the basis for “White and Nerdy.”
“I’m not used to rapping that fast,” Yankovic said. “It’s gonna be tough to do live.” He adds — with what sounds like genuine pride — that Chamillionaire streamed “Nerdy” on his own MySpace page (before Yankovic did so on his, weirdly), and has claimed in interviews that Yankovic has the ability to both “flow” and “spit.”
With each new Al record comes — well, there’s no way around this — more cementing of his status as king of musical parody, from all and odd corners of the rock universe. Indie blogs were abuzz with “White and Nerdy” leaks; amateur videos for the track began popping up on YouTube before the original did. Magazines have paid homage too, Yankovic said. “Rolling Stone has been dismissive towards me as some kind of parody hack writer, and all of a sudden I’m hearing words like ‘genius’ and ‘hilarious’ and ‘auteur,’ so that feels great.”
The video for “White and Nerdy” is his first big-budget clip in six years, his having been turned down by Eminem to shoot a video for his “Lose Yourself” parody “Couch Potato,” from 2003’s “Poodle Hat.” So it stands to reason that “Nerdy” is stuffed with a level of jokes only accessible by keeping one’s finger hovering over pause on the TiVo or printing out its Wikipedia entry. It features cameos from Donny Osmond, longtime Al compatriot Judy Tenuta, Seth Green and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from “Mad TV,” as well as a Stephen Hawking book, Schrodinger’s wave equation for the hydrogen atom, a Segway and a bootleg copy of the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”
“Lynwood” was released as a DualDisc, with a video side that includes a making-of documentary, a 5.1 surround mix and a series of six animations based on the record’s originals.
The animated segments, Yankovic said, were conceived as a lark; he admits he didn’t have all the cash in the world to throw at the dream-team list of animators he’d drawn up. “But one of my mantras is: It never hurts to ask,” he said. “So first, and to my delight and amazement, Bill Plympton (who provided the video for “Don’t Download This Song”) agreed. And again to my delight and amazement, John Kricfalusi (“Close But No Cigar”) signed on as well. So I had two of my favorite animators, two of the best in the world, on my project. That’s how it started.” Other animators who contributed were David Lovelace (“Virus Alert”), Jim Blashfield (“Pancreas”) and Thomas Lee (“I’ll Sue Ya”); a stop-motion video for “Weasel Stomping Day” was created for the Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken.”
The parodies get all the ink on Al records, but Yankovic labors equally, if not more, over his originals. They’re not parodies per se, but they’re close. “I’ll Sue Ya” involves the riff from Rage Against the Machine’s “Bombtrack,” “Close But No Cigar” is done as Cake and “Virus Alert” comes from the mid-’70s period of the semi-obscure pop outfit Sparks. Then there’s “Pancreas,” a four-minute homage to Brian Wilson that’s all about tempo changes, bizarro harmonies and nutsy sound effects. Style parodies, Yankovic said, are harder to pull off. “I have to make notes, I have to assimilate their characteristics, I have to notate their idiosyncracies, and at the end of the day, do something that’s not plagiaristic but speaks to their style. Plus, make it hopefully funny.”
One track you won’t find on the record is “You’re Pitiful,” a James Blunt parody Yankovic recorded and released for free on his Web site this summer. The story behind “Pitiful” seems one of record company finagling, but also one you’re surprised doesn’t come up more often.
“We’d gotten James Blunt’s permission,” Yankovic said. “And we were all set to release that as the lead single for the album. After we announced the release date, we got a call from Atlantic, and they told us they were not comfortable with my releasing that as a parody single; they didn’t want to focus any more attention on ‘You’re Beautiful,’ because, in their words, that song was getting bigger than the artist and they didn’t want James to turn into a one-hit wonder. So: would I mind waiting?”
Al wasn’t happy about it — “parodies of course are very topical,” he said, and the record already had a June 27 release date. But as is his custom, he complied. It’s worth noting here that parody is mostly a legal gray area; Yankovic doesn’t have to get permission, but he does so to be nice. Eventually, though, he got the official word that “the right time was never.”
“It was very frustrating, because I’d put a lot of time and effort and money into the song, and they’d in effect pushed back the release of my album,” he said. “So at that point I decided that since the artist himself was OK with it, and it was basically a bunch of suits, I had no problem releasing the song on the Internet” — where, he adds, within a few days it was a viral worldwide hit. “It probably got more attention that way,” he admits. Revenge is his, though: In the “Nerdy” video, Al edits Atlantic’s Wikipedia page with the words: “YOU SUCK.”
“Pitiful” ended up being the first of two tracks Yankovic would release on the Internet; the other is “Don’t Download This Song,” a spot-on style parody of 1980s-era benefit singles that argues illegal downloading will make you “end up in jail like Tommy Chong,” but also points out that the practice robs artists of their ability to purchase “diamond-studded swimming pools.”
“Reaction to that song has been interesting,” Yankovic said. “A lot of people think it’s an RIAA-bashing song that’s pro-illegal downloading, and other people take it un-ironically and think that it’s encouraging people not to download music off the Internet. The truth is my feelings toward the whole topic are somewhat gray, and I think that’s reflected in the lyrics.”
Some things in the world of Al aren’t so gray. For instance, devotees will be disappointed to learn there’s no Yankovic vault to speak of. “I’m not one of these writers who writes 100 songs for an album, records 40 and picks the best 12,” he said. “I hate wasted effort. If I can help it, I write 12 songs, record 12 songs and put them all out.”
And while he allowed that he thinks about other projects (“There’s a lot of frustration sometimes in having to depend on the kindness of strangers”), he said the 50/50 parody/original blueprint that’s worked for 12 albums will persist. “It’s worked for me creatively as well as commercially, and that’s what I’ll be doing in the future.”
Yankovic and his band — the same band he’s had since for 27 years — plan to tour next summer.