TIME Music

Weird Al: Pop’s Last King

Weird Al Visits Visits Music Choice's "You & A"
"Weird Al" Yankovic visits Music Choice's "You & A" on July 14, 2014 in New York City. D Dipasupil—Getty Images

Pop music has shattered. Parody is now the language that transcends cultural and generational boundaries.

When Michael Jackson died, people mourned the death of a giant, but they also mourned the death of the cultural consensus he represented. They mourned the passing of a figure so huge and so central to pop culture that seemingly everyone knew him, no matter where they fell in the cultural divide. In that respect, I suspect that part of the tidal wave of excitement greeting the release of Mandatory Fun, the ecstatically received new album from pre-eminent Michael Jackson parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, comes from the re-emergence of a figure whose popularity transcends cultural and generational boundaries, who can truly be said to be a household name. The album charted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in its first week, a first for the artist.

The mainstream that Jackson personified doesn’t seem to exist anymore. The pop-culture world has fractured too violently into too many different warring factions for the center to hold. If a mainstream exists at all anymore, it can be pieced together, makeshift, from the base components of an album like Mandatory Fun. The album cements Yankovic’s status as an invaluable uniter in a wildly divisive music world.

Yankovic’s music unites his older fans with their past, with the MTV or radio-obsessed kids they used to be and the central role he played in their musical education. But it goes beyond that. Yankovic’s polka medleys are a brilliant microcosm for his take on pop music. Mandatory Funs obligatory polka medley, “NOW That’s What I Call Polka,” is essentially Girl Talk for the middle-aged and out of date, a high-energy mash-up of seemingly every inescapable single of the past three years.

One of the overlooked benefits of growing older is the freedom from having to follow pop music closely, from feeling obligated to have an opinion on every important new act or flash in the pan. Part of the brilliance of Yankovic’s albums is that he follows pop music and the rampaging idiocies of the pop chart so that his often middle-aged fans don’t have to, content that dear old Uncle Al will translate the ephemeral ditties and one-hit wonders of the day into language they understand, the musical vocabulary of the genially wacky spoof.

Mandatory Fun might just be the ideal way to experience contemporary pop music. It offers the catchiness of “Blurred Lines” without the rapey gender politics, leering sexism and Robin Thicke’s pervy personality; Miley Cyrus without the twerking and lascivious tongue waggling; and LMFAO without, well, everything that makes them obnoxious, which is everything.

Yankovic famously released eight videos from the album in eight consecutive days, including the zeitgeist-capturing smashes “Tacky” and “Word Crimes.” It’s a strategy that allowed the savvy and prescient Yankovic to leverage his connections with Internet dynamos like Nerdist, Funny or Die and College Humor (needless to say, at least some of those kids who grew up worshiping Al ended up in positions of power inside corporate suites), who helped produce the videos and publicize the album, while highlighting the broad-based appeal of a release that includes not only relatively timely takes on smashes from the likes of Lorde, Imagine Dragons, Iggy Azalea and Pharell but also brazenly untimely homages to Southern Culture on the Skids, the Pixies, Cat Stevens and both a polka and Yankovic’s first-ever march (“Sports Song”).

The every-song-a-single approach is particularly savvy, given the central role singles play in the pop landscape. People aren’t buying albums the way they did before; Robin Thicke’s new album Paula, for example, is flopping, while the infectious beat for his signature song is doing great things for a man who is impishly using it to play grammar bully to a delighted populace.

YouTube was to supposed to maim, if not destroy, Yankovic’s career by flooding the site with a slew of younger, hungrier and lewder parodists who didn’t need a major label to put out parodies, just a video camera and some goofy new lyrics to a familiar song. Yet in 2014, the parody market is still “Weird Al” Yankovic, followed distantly by everyone else. Considering the ways the industry has changed over the past 10 years, it’s remarkable how little progress everyone else has made. Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a role; the release of a new “Weird Al” album can’t help but inspire wistful memories of long-ago days watching Al goof his way through videos spoofing Madonna, Kurt Cobain and countless other giants who are either gone or irrevocably changed, whereas Al never seems to age.

For all the changes in the industry and outside it, a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody of a hit song still feels official and important in a way no other spoof does. For all the pretenders on the Internet, when it comes to parodies, it sure seems like folks still want the 54-year-old they grew up with and who still represents the gold standard for funny music.

Pop-music parodies occupy one of the smallest, least respected ghettos in pop music. Yankovic has never been one to think small, however, and from the very beginning, his domain has been all of popular music, not just the tiny little subsection devoted to his particular specialty. That mind-set is paying enormous dividends right now. It is a halcyon moment for an inveterate uniter with a view of pop expansive enough to fit the totality of recorded music snugly inside one of his fat suits.

Nathan Rabin is a staff writer for The Dissolve and the author of Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

TIME Taste of America

The Secret Lives of Juggalos

Insane Clown Posse
Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images

With album sales crumbling, these sly rappers have turned legal action into a colorful marketing opportunity

To outsiders, the scene that played out last week in Detroit presented an image so preposterous it seemed to belong in the hyperbolic realm of satire rather than real life. Two middle-age men in clown make-up, individually known as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope and collectively known as Insane Clown Posse, sat politely while Michael J. Steinberg, the suit-clad legal director of the Michigan A.C.L.U, announced to reporters that it would be suing the F.B.I for classifying Insane Clown Posse’s fan base, known as Juggalos, as a “loosely organized hybrid gang” and violating their constitutional rights to expression and association in the process.

Entertainers who promenade publicly as sinister clowns do not generally take legal action against powerful law enforcement agencies. Yet within the context of Insane Clown Posse’s career, it was a savvy and characteristic move, morally, professionally and commercially.

Insane Clown Posse is a unique group. No major American musical act has a fanbase more devoted or publicly reviled, or such an unusual set of rituals, from the popular greeting of “Whoop Whoop!” to the group’s habit of spraying fans with off-brand soda Faygo during its wildly theatrical concerts.

Yet Insane Clown Posse is subject to the same trends as the rest of the music industry. Insane Clown Posse regularly went gold and platinum in the 1990s, but its most recent album, according to The New York Times, 2012’s The Mighty Death Pop sold less than one hundred thousand albums. Like seemingly everyone else in pop music, the group isn’t making money from albums or radio play so it is forced to look for alternate revenue streams, including a Fuse television show called Insane Clown Posse Theater and its extraordinarily successful clothing line, Hatchet Gear.

(MORE: Insane Clown Posse Sue FBI For Calling “Juggalos” A Gang)

Insane Clown Posse will likely never go gold again but they have two huge overlapping assets commercially: an intensely devoted and public fan base and merchandise sales. At a 2010 Halloween Insane Clown Posse concert in Detroit I attended while researching my book on musical subcultures You Dont Know Me But You Dont Like Me, I was surprised to find the line for the bar next to the venue exceedingly short and the lines for the merchandise table exceedingly long.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, since t-shirts and hoodies and jackets emblazoned with the group’s “Hatchetman” logo are the instruments Juggalos use to broadcast their status as Juggalos to an often hostile world. Loving the music of Insane Clown Posse makes someone a Juggalo but they’ll need a shirt, jacket or tattoo with Insane Clown Posse imagery to let the world know that, in the parlance, they’re “down with the clown.”

The older Juggalos that I spoke with while researching my book even had a derisive nickname for younger fans they felt were into Insane Clown Posse for the merchandise, partying and notoriety rather than the music or the group’s message: Merchalos.

The gang designation directly attacks Insane Clown Posse’s two biggest commercial assets. It essentially criminalizes a form of fandom and makes the very merchandise that is the lifeblood of Insane Clown Posse’s business grounds for cops to pull cars over or frisk people. The gang designation makes people who sport Insane Clown Posse merchandise targets for law enforcement, and that has done awful things for both the lives of Juggalos and the group’s bottom line. In the press conference announcing the ACLU’s move, Violent J conceded that merchandise sales “are just about cut in half” following the FBI’s intense interest in their fans over the past few years.

(MORE: Insane Clown Posse Explains Insane Clown Posse)

The FBI labeling Juggalos as a gang has been bad for Insane Clown Posse’s commerce but that is far from the only setback it has suffered as of late.

Attendance at the group’s notorious annual “Gathering Of The Juggalos” is way down from previous years. The event has been forced to change locations following a flurry of lawsuits from unpaid vendors following last year’s event and Insane Clown Posse’s label Psychopathic was recently sued for sexual harassment by its former publicist. As if all that wasn’t enough, Insane Clown Posse’s proteges Twiztid, the second most popular act on Psychopathic, recently left the label.

The lawsuit is a brilliant public relations move to shift the narrative from the group’s professional troubles to its legal advocacy on behalf of its fans, spinning the group and its followers into a David versus Goliath struggle against a corrupt authority.

Insane Clown Posse has always been about standing up for the underdog and erasing the boundaries between fans and stars. While hip hop has often extolled materialism, Insane Clown Posse glorified being poor and reviled and outside the mainstream. Where other rappers bragged about a lifestyle far beyond the means of all but the chosen few, Insane Clown Posse rapped about the kinds of simple pleasures seemingly anyone could afford.

By legally taking on the F.B.I with the help of the A.C.L.U, Insane Clown Posse is putting legal muscle and money behind its longstanding solidarity and affiliation with the largely poor and ostracized underclass that constitutes its imperiled fan base.

The genius of Insane Clown Posse’s move is that it does not need to succeed legally to have positive consequences. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the legal wrangling, the case has already generated priceless positive publicity for a group skilled in the art of public relations and it has helped cement the impregnable bond between the group and its fans. Just by taking a righteous stand, these sly clowns have already scored a substantial symbolic victory.

Nathan Rabin is a staff writer for The Dissolve and the author of You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: My Misadventures With Two Of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, a book about musical subcultures that focusses on the fans of Insane Clown Posse and Phish.

MORE: Creepy Clown Freaks People Out in Britain

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