"Normal Al" just doesn't have the same ring to it
Al Yankovic — best known as Weird Al, the man who realized the “Amish” has the same number of syllables as “gangsta” — recently tweeted that he would be releasing eight new music videos in the eight days beginning July 14. The videos will feature songs from his forthcoming album Mandatory Fun (out July 15), the titles from which have not yet been announced. This move drew comparisons at Vulture to Beyoncé’s all-at-once strategy, and seems designed to capture some of the headline-grabbing buzz that she earned from deciding not to obey the usual music-release timeline.
But, as his new album approaches its release, Weird Al is in a weird place.
The reason? He just doesn’t seem so weird anymore.
Yankovic’s cultural penetration peaked in the late ’90s with platinum-selling albums like Bad Hair Day and Running With Scissors, which contained songs like “Amish Paradise” and “Pretty Fly For A Rabbi.” Around the release of his most recent album, 2011’s Alpocalypse, he told the AP that he had been “getting kind of cocky” at that point. Even though Alpocalypse broke the top 10 on the album chart, he acknowledged that sales were down and it was getting harder to get performers to approve the use of their music in his parodies. An artist experiencing declining album sales, compared to his ’90s high, is certainly not unique to Yankovich — and the parodist has been keeping fairly busy in the years between Alpocalypse and Mandatory Fun. He went on tour, he denied retirement rumors, he appeared on TV shows like Adventure Time and 30 Rock, he co-wrote three books (two for kids and one about himself) and he appeared frequently in Funny or Die videos.
That last credit is the interesting one. His most popular work was perfectly timed for the last days of pre-YouTube comedy. In the late ’90s, his music videos were some of the easiest-to-access sources of short comedy. Now, the kind of humor that used to make him seem “weird” is pretty much the most mainstream comedy out there. Countless Frozen fans have filled YouTube with “Let It Go” parodies and, since 2005, Saturday Night Live‘s Digital Shorts have been the professional equivalent. Yankovic is clearly aware of this change: in addition to Funny or Die, he’s participated in an “Epic Rap Battles of History” video — which has accumulated 11 million views in one month, versus 22 million for the official “Amish Paradise” video, which has been on YouTube for five years. In this season of Comedy Central’s YouTube-to-TV Drunk History, he plays Adolf Hitler.
All of which is to say that though Yankovic certainly wasn’t the first musical parodist or the most influential one ever — an honor that should likely go to Allan Sherman or Tom Lehrer — it looks like he may just be the last of his kind. In a world where any “weirdo” can rack up hits on a YouTube clip, the designation begins to lose its oomph. And, while it’s normally a good thing for an artist to have anticipated the zeitgeist, the exception is an artist who relies on being outside the mainstream — and “Normal Al” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
If Yankovic’s video-release strategy can make him stand out from the rest of the parody-song bunch, interest in funny clips could be great news for Mandatory Fun and for his weirdness level. It just might work: eight music videos in a week isn’t normal yet. For that matter, neither is his hairdo.