‘Weird Al’ on the Death of the Album and Keeping Polka Alive
Four decades in, “Weird Al” Yankovic reflects on outlasting the people he parodies.
“Weird Al” Yankovic’s debut single was released in 1979—The Knack’s “My Sharona” became “My Bologna.” His first single to chart in the U.S. came in 1983 when “Ricky” reached #63. (It was an I Love Lucy-inspired parody of Toni Basil’s #1 single “Mickey.”) And in 1984, he nearly reached the Top 10 with “Eat It,” his take-off of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
“I’m not good at making predictions of where our society and world is heading,” Yankovic declares. “I try to figure out what works for me.”
Then a funny thing happened: “Weird Al” stuck around. Often the artists he parodied faded away—by 1985, the hit-making was long over both for The Knack and Basil. Others gave in to time itself—Jackson died at 50 in 2009. (Just as Nirvana—parodied in 1992 with “Smells Like Nirvana”—forever disbanded after Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide.)
Yet Yankovic remained. Indeed, he remained current with a Top 40 hit in each of the last four decades. (A feat matched only by Jackson, Madonna and U2…. and U2 needed to be featured on a Kendrick Lamar track to keep the streak alive.) In 2009, three decades after his debut and 25 years after “Eat It,” “White and Nerdy” (a parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty”) became Yankovic’s first song to reach the Top 10.
He had an album reach the Top 20 in 1984, 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2011 and 2014. (The last three reached the Top 10.)
Oh, and he won Grammy Awards in 1985, 1989, 2004 and 2015.
Not bad for a guy who “barely missed the eight-track thing.” (“My first album came out in ’83. The major labels had just discontinued eight-tracks.”)
Clearly, this is a man who understands how to survive in the music industry. As he looks where his career is headed, Yankovic has bad news for listeners of a certain age: The album is over.
Moving on From a Beloved Format
All right, “Weird Al” says the album is over for him specifically: “I’m not going to do any more traditional albums.” Which is particularly jarring because it seemed to be working fine for him: 2014’s Mandatory Fun became his first to hit #1. But he decided it’s time for him to leave it behind and he suspects that may be true of the culture as a whole: “The album as an art form is slowly diminishing because of the way people consume music now.”
He says he will miss the album very much: “I love the artwork. I love everything that goes along with the album release. There’s even fun stuff that goes along with the promotion.” He particularly adores the way it lets you “put out a bunch of songs all at once and it can be scattershot and do a whole bunch of genres—hopefully, one or two things will connect with people.” (Whereas with a single, you run the risk it “might not be their particular niche or genre.”)
“Weird Al” still concludes he’ll give it up in the interests of being “more flexible”: “Because of the kind of music I do and the way that I like to roll it out, I’d rather not wait until I have 12 songs.”
Which makes sense. This is an era when success is most likely to be attained by artists who can put out singles out fast, particularly if they’re paired with a video: “Ever since MTV came out in the early ’80s, visuals have been a huge part of marketing your material… I don’t see that going away.”
(Yankovic demonstrated just how effective this approach could be in 2014 when he publicized his album by releasing a new song with a video each day for eight straight days.)
The result is “Weird Al” now can reach fans extraordinarily swiftly, particularly for anyone who remembers the music industry pre-Internet: “I recorded the ‘Hamilton Polka’ two weeks ago. This hasn’t been sitting in a drawer for a year.”
This brings us to polkas, a genre that largely shaped his view of music and which he now helps define (even if he’d rather he didn’t).
The Power of Polka
Polka music has been in the United States since the 1800s when it arrived with Czech and other Central European immigrants. “I grew up playing the accordion,” Yankovic says. “That’s what I was introduced to music through. When you take accordion lessons, they don’t teach you rock songs. They teach you classical pieces and they teach you polka music.” (He feels this continues to impact him to this day: “I cut my teeth on polka, so that’s definitely had an impact on my musical leanings.”)
He released his first “polka” of modern hit singles in 1984, with “Polkas on 45.” They’ve continued on a regular basis ever since, including the “Hot Rocks Polka” of Rolling Stones classics. Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” helped inspire the—you guessed it—“Polka Face” medley. Now, with “Hamilton Polka,” Yankovic takes the polka to Broadway.
Or a version of it, anyway.
“What I do is a bit of a bastardization of a polka,” “Weird Al” explains. “It’s certainly inspired by polka, but I make it a little more ridiculous by combining elements of Spike Jones. Polka usually doesn’t have as many sound effects.”
Despite Yankovic’s best efforts, America’s seen polka decline in recent decades. When he put out his first single, The Lawrence Welk Show was still on the air. (It ran from 1955 to 1982, at its peak reaching the Top 10 in the ratings.) Hosted by the accordion-playing big-band leader Welk—who had a noticeable accent his entire life due to growing up in a North Dakota community that spoke German, not English—it proved a national showcase for polka. Welk released albums including Music for Polka Lovers (1956) and Polkas on Parade (1967). When his show was canceled by network TV and forced to move to syndication, it inspired Roy Clark’s 1972 country hit “The Lawrence Welk-Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka.” (Clark hosted the country-focused Hee Haw, which had also been dumped by the networks.)
In 1986, polka got a bit of good news when it received its own category at the Grammy Awards. Critics insisted this was unnecessary because the genre was shrinking. Arguments for keeping the Grammy Award for Best Album would not be helped by the fact that the category existed 24 years and 18 of them saw Jimmy Sturr take home the trophy—17 outright wins and a tie in 1987. The category was killed off in 2009.
The result is that now many of us probably only know of polkas through “Weird Al,” which fills him not with pride but concern: “That’s too bad.” He feels music listeners are “hardwired anytime anybody plays the accordion to go, ‘Oh, that’s polka,’” even when it’s not. He urges checking out “the greats” including Sturr, Walter Ostanek, Dick Contino and Myron Florem from The Lawrence Welk Show. (“He was the first person I ever got an autograph from.”)
Of course, there’s the man dubbed America’s Polka King, the late Frankie Yankovic. (They aren’t related, but did perform together on songs including “Who Stole the Kishka?”)
Looking Back and Finding New Targets
“Weird Al” is currently in the midst of The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour: “This is a once in a lifetime event where I’m doing this scaled-back thing.” With a minimal production, the focus is on the music: “We’re honestly having the best time that we’ve ever had. It’s just so freeing to be able to go out and relax with the audience. It really feels like we’re in a big living room and we’re all just hanging around and jamming.”
Beyond this, with no album to promote, he can dig deeper into the past: “What I’ve been listening to for the last month is my back catalog.” He has rediscovered some of his “least popular songs” and found they connect, including “Airline Amy,” “She Never Told Me She Was a Mime” and “Young, Dumb and Ugly.” (It should be noted that this tour focuses on his originals—tunes that may capture the style of an artist, but don’t spoof a specific song.)
Of course, new material will again be produced soon enough. “Weird Al” acknowledges there are gaps in his body of work: “There are a number of artists—major artists—that for one reason or another have slipped through the cracks. Either they haven’t done a song that I felt like I had a clever enough angle on or the timing didn’t work out.”
Among them? “Oh, gosh. I’ve never done a bona fide Springsteen parody. I’ve never done a Bowie parody and I’ve always been a big Bowie fan. I’ve never done an Elton John parody. My whole teenage existence was based around Elton John.”
Don’t worry, Captain Fantastic—your time shall come: “I haven’t given up. Someday, everybody will have their turn. They just have to take a number.”
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