It’s hard to imagine what parody albums were like before “Weird”Al Yankovic released his first record back in 1983 because they were pretty much non-existent. Since that magical year, the 54-year-old singer has spoofed everyone who’s anyone, taking on Michael Jackson, Madonna, Chamillionaire, Nelly, R. Kelly, the Backstreet Boys, and almost everyone in between. Though many of the acts he’s parodied have fallen into obscurity (Falco, Coolio, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, we’re lookin’ at you guys), Weird Al has managed to become even more beloved as the years have worn on.
After having fulfilled his final album on his contract for RCA, aptly titled Mandatory Fun, Weird Al has his eye on the future. In the age of the Internet, the concept of an entire album devoted to parodies of popular songs may very well be dead. In response to this, Al plans to release singles and EPs digitally and more frequently, and he’s become involved with the YouTube series Epic Rap Battles. Noisey caught up with comedy legend to hear about Mandatory Fun, what he thinks of the future of comedy music, and what it was like to interact with Kurt Cobain and Chamillionaire after spoofing their biggest hits.
Noisey: Why was the time right to make another record?
Weird Al: It’s sort of what I do. I finally felt like I came up with 12 songs that I’m happy with and it was time to put it out. It’s the last album on my contract and I felt at some point I should put out a record and the planets all aligned correctly and the guys were telling me that it was time for people to have mandatory fun.
What’s the meaning behind Mandatory Fun? That album cover could land you in hot water with people like Kim Jung Un.
The album art is meant to be sort of a take off on propaganda posters and totalitarian regime art. It’s basically having fun with the term “mandatory fun,” which is obviously an oxymoron that’s been used in the military and to describe corporate retreats and things like that. I thought it was a fun thing to play around with.
How did you pick songs like “Happy,” “Royals," and “Fancy” to spoof?
Whenever I make an album, I write my original songs first so they’re not too dated. I wait until the very end to pick my parodies so it’s a bit more fresh and there’s nothing on the album that’s more than a year old, so it’s pretty darn timely. That’s part of the challenge of releasing an album because you have a lot of tracks and not a lot of them are going to be as fresh as the morning’s headlines. I think I do a pretty good job of releasing an album that has those people’s versions in mind.
What does your daughter think of your music?
She’s loved it since she was a toddler and she’s a good sounding board. Also, I use her for market research. I remember asking her, “Hey, are people at school talking about Iggy Azalea?”; she’s in sixth grade. At first she said, “No, not really,”and two weeks later she said, “That’s all anyone’s talking about.”And I was like, alright, we’ve reached the tipping point and now I can use that song.
Are you surprised that you’ve been making records as long as you have and it still resonates?
I feel very fortunate and gratified that the people consider me to somewhat relevant. When I do my live shows and I play something from the new album, it’s not the bathroom break. People actually know what I’m currently doing. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to have a career for as long as I have and I still can’t believe they let me do this for a living.
What did the people who you parodied this time around think of your version of their songs?
The only one I spoke to was Iggy Azalea and she was a great sport about it. I emailed Pharrell and he was wonderful about it. I know that every artist that was parodied on this record gave their blessing. I don’t know if any of them had heard their parodies yet, and I don’t always hear back from them, but I certainly hope they enjoyed and appreciate them as the homage and tribute that they’re meant to be.
Don’t they see it that way?
A lot of them do and see it as a trifecta. You got your platinum album, your Grammy Award and your Weird Al spoof. You need that to solidify your success.
Didn’t Kurt Cobain say that as long as “Smells Like Nirvana” wasn’t about food, he was cool with you doing the song?
He thought the song was going to be about food because at that time, my songs were about eating. He was just trying to figure out what I was going to do with his music. I told him that it was going to be a song about how nobody can understand your lyrics. And he was like, “yeah, that’s funny.”
In light of his death 20 years ago, what was it like chatting with Cobain back then?
I was a huge Nirvana fan and it was surreal to call Kurt Cobain and chat with him on the phone. But like everyone else, he was just a human being and very nice and we had a pleasant little conversation. It was a moment I’ll always treasure and a pivotal moment in my life.
How did you get involved in the Epic Rap Battles?
I ran into Nice Peter at a YouTube function and we expressed mutual admiration. We mutually agreed that if we could work it out, that I should be on one of the Epic Rap Battles. Earlier this year, they pitched me on the idea of being Sir Isaac Newton and I thought that was fantastic. So I went and did it and had a great time. I love those guys and think they do amazing work.
What song do you think resonated the most with people?
That’s a hard one to say, but probably “White & Nerdy” because that was my biggest hit. It was my first top-10 and platinum single. I think it resonated because it’s my autobiographical song and I didn’t have to do research to write a song about being white and nerdy. I spent my whole life doing the research for that.
What did Chamillionaire have to say about that?
Chamillionaire was great. In fact, he came up to me at the Grammys right after he won his Grammy for Rap Song of the Year and he thanked me and said that my parody was a big reason why he won his Grammy because it made it undeniable that it was the rap song of the year.
Who do you think are some of the best new comic singers out there who you could potentially pass the torch to when you decide to retire?
There’s already a bunch of people making great music. I love the Lonely Island, Tenacious D,
Flight of the Concords, Reggie Watts, Bo Barnum, and Garfunkel & Oates. There’s a lot of people doing wonderful work so there’s nobody that needs to take the torch from me. I’m not in competition with anybody, we’re all trying to keep comedy music alive and do our best. Hopefully it will continue to flourish.
Daniel Kohn once got in trouble for listening to “Smells Like Nirvana” too loudly on his Walkman when he was elementary school. He doesn’t regret it one bit - @danielkohn