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Weird Al Yankovic's still finding humor in pop stars, popular culture

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Monday, July 11, 2011

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After more than three decades of poking — or, if you prefer, polka-ing — fun at pop stars and popular culture, Weird Al Yankovic has learned the secret to success in the parody rock field.

“My albums are more successful if they are released concurrently with a single that’s very topical and maybe celebrates a pop culture event of serious magnitude,” says the accordion-playing parodist.

In his crosshairs on the new “Alpocalypse” — Lady Gaga and her hit “Born This Way,” which Yankovic recast as “Perform This Way.”

“I thought that Lady Gaga and specifically her new album and single was a sufficiently large event,” says Yankovic, 51, a California native who came to fame as a teenager during the mid-’70s, when Dr. Demento began airing Yankovic’s songs on his syndicated radio show. “I thought Gaga had sufficiently rocked the zeitgeist enough for me to make that choice.”

It’s proven to be a good idea. “Perform This Way” drove “Alpocalypse” to a No. 9 debut on the Billboard 200 chart, Yankovic’s best showing ever. “I’m very grateful that 30 years into my career, I’m still peaking,” he quipped to Billboard.com after the first-week numbers were announced.

For a while, however, it was no laughing matter.

Yankovic had to go through a ringer to get “Perform This Way” onto the album. Though he isn’t required to get clearance from the artists to parody their songs, he’s always made that his practice — and usually found little resistance, even from the notoriously controlling likes of Michael Jackson and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas.

“You kind of feel like you’ve really made it if (Yankovic) wants to parody one of your songs,” former Barenaked Ladies member Stephen Page notes. But the Gaga camp proved tougher to deal with than most.

Gaga’s manager, in fact, initially refused permission for Yankovic to release “Perform This Way,” but Yankovic says things changed once Gaga herself heard the song.

“Even though her manager was presenting it as such, she had never once approached Gaga, so it was news to her when people were ... asking, ‘How come you’re not letting Weird Al do his parody?’ ” Yankovic says. “She was not aware of it at all, and when she actually did hear the song she loved it and gave me permission.

“This is unfortunately not an isolated incident over the course of my career. ... I find it’s better, whenever possible, to go directly to an artist and deal with them personally, but as it turns out, I didn’t happen to have Lady Gaga’s home phone number or email address.”

Yankovic did hasten the process by posting the song on YouTube during the negotiations — but only, he says, because it was the first time a manager had insisted on hearing an actual recording rather than simply reviewing a lyric sheet. “I’d never done that before,” he explains. “I figured if you already have the lyrics, if you don’t find those offensive then you’re not going to find it offensive when you hear the fully produced version of it — which is why I was kind of knocked for a loop when the answer we got back was ‘no.’ ”

Now, however, the battle is history. Yankovic is a Gaga fan — “I think she’s a huge talent — a great songwriter and a wonderful performer” — and her camp also gave him permission to use her “Poker Face” in a medley called “Polka Face” that appears on “Alpocalypse.” So all’s well that ends well.

Aping Swift, White Stripes, the Doors

Yankovic says he did have the album’s 11 other songs “in the can for close to a year” and released some of them via the 2009 “Internet Leaks” online EP before writing “Perform This Way.” The set includes parodies of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (“TMZ”), Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” (“Party in the CIA”), B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ On You” (“Another Tattoo”) and T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” with the same title. Yankovic also recorded stylistic homages to the White Stripes (“CNR”), Queen (“Ringtone”) and the Doors (“Craigslist,” with the group’s Ray Manzarek guesting on keyboards).

“Party in the CIA,” of course, has a potential “second life” in the wake of the U.S. capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden in May. “I just thought I was making fun of a bubblegum pop song,” Yankovic notes. “World events have conspired to make it a little more twisted than I had intended, originally.” “Craigslist,” meanwhile, was “amazing. I’d always wanted to do some kind of riff on the Doors, and (Manzarek) was amazing. Obviously he’s iconic and a legend, and I was happy to find that he has a great sense of humor, too. That was a huge thrill for me.”

Aping Detroit’s White Stripes on “CNR” — a tongue-in-cheek ode to Charles Nelson Reilly — let Yankovic pay tribute to another of his favorites. “They have such a unique sound, I thought it would be fun to riff on that,” he says. “I’m always looking for bands who are so unique that people immediately go, ‘Oh, he must be doing an homage to them.”

Yankovic has made clips for 10 “Alpocalypse” songs, most of which are popping up on his popular YouTube channel.

“I tend to do a lot of them, because I do want to get my stuff out there — the way I want to see it,” he explains. “A lot of people like to take my songs and do their own videos to them, which is very flattering, but I got to a point where I thought, ‘Wait, they’re my songs. I want them to be my videos, too, so I started working on them concurrently with the music.

“I want them to be good and quality but also try to keep the cost down. And occasionally I will do a big-budget video like ‘White & Nerdy’ (in 2006, featuring Donny Osmond) or the new one for ‘Perform This Way.’ It’s kind of like one continuous process, which actually feels right, you know?”

“Alpocalypse” has added some fresh material to Yankovic’s live shows, where he’s noticing a new segment of his audience — families drawn by his first children’s book, “When I Grow Up,” which was published in February. “Even though it’s only 851 words, I can say I’m a New York Times best-selling author,” says Yankovic, whose title made it to No. 4 on the Children’s Picture Books list.

More books are in the offing, Yankovic hopes, as well as “a lot of things that are in the works that are going to happen.”

“But they haven’t been officially announced yet, so I’d probably get in trouble if I mentioned them — and after ‘Perform This Way,’ I think I’ve had enough trouble for the time being.”

Weird Al Yankovic performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, at Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester Hills. Tickets are $25 and $20 pavilion, $15 lawn with a $44 lawn four-pack. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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