Amid a week of unrelentingly grim news, a buoyant countercurrent has emerged. Over the course of eight days, July 14 to 21, the song parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic released eight videos promoting his new album, "Mandatory Fun."
In classic Yankovic style, the songs take pop hits and give them new lyrics, some in the name of social critique and some addressing considerably more banal topics. Pharrell Williams' "Happy" is reimagined as "Tacky," a rant against behaviors on the order of twerking while waiting in line at the DMV. Lorde's "Royals" becomes "Foil," an ode to Yankovic's favorite food-storage method. Last summer's megahit, the ultra-catchy, mildly pervy "Blurred Lines," is now "Word Crimes," a jeremiad against poor grammar. "Educate ya" rhymes with "nomenclature" and so on.
Normally, a new Weird Al album wouldn't be a huge deal. The guy has been around for 35 years, making his reputation in the 1980s with songs like "Eat It," a spoof on Michael Jackson's "Beat It." He's long been a household name, at least in houses occupied by current or former 12-year-old males, and there's not much reason to think that excitement about his 14th album would extend much beyond his fan base.
But Yankovic is having a major moment. Several of the videos have gone viral, including "Word Crimes," which endeared itself to the kinds of critics and culture snobs you'd expect to dismiss him. Slate called him a genius. The Times' Randall Roberts pronounced "Mandatory Fun" a "stone cold masterpiece."
And yesterday, Billboard announced that "Mandatory Fun" had debuted on the album chart at No. 1, selling more than 100,000 units in one week.
That would have been extraordinary enough when Yankovic was in constant rotation on MTV, and the lyrics to "Eat It" etched deeper into many people's brains than the song that inspired it. Today, when he's a cult hero at best, it's mind-boggling.
By all rights, Yankovic's career should have been hurt, if not completely quashed, by the Internet. Not least because his metier, changing the lyrics to popular songs and illustrating the songs with humorous videos, is now standard Internet fare. Anyone with a camera and editing software can do it. And, unlike Yankovic, who's always made a point of getting permission from the musicians he spoofs, the do-it-yourselfers regard the original material as tantamount to free office supplies. While he's busy clearing rights and putting out a professional product (not to mention contending with the now-cumbersome distribution models of traditional record labels), mashups made by amateurs are going viral.
Yankovic, now 54 (though from some angles he might still pass for a high school freshman), is a veteran goofball, a slightly spasmodic nerd/clown of a bygone era. And maybe it's because of this veteran status, rather than despite it, that he's having such resurgence. In interviews, Yankovic has talked about being very strategic about how he makes and releases the videos. When his record label refused to pay for them, he partnered with digital-content studios whose services came free in exchange for the promotion they'd receive in return. That's not an approach a lot of 54-year-olds would take. In fact, there are probably some 44-year-old fans of "Eat It," back in the day, who are having a hard time grasping exactly how it all worked.
In this era of nerd-as-Internet-mogul, a certain level of dorkiness is fashionable. That means there are a lot of impostors out there; people who look like nerds but who aren't necessarily all that smart. But Yankovic, an old-school nerd, is the real thing. He's legitimately smart and completely uncool. He was valedictorian of his high school class at age 16. He grew up reading Mad magazine and playing the accordion. And although he's now old enough to be the father of a millennial (as it is, he's the father of an 11-year-old), he's beating them at their own game by "winning the Internet" this week.
On the other hand, it could be that we're just suffering from crisis fatigue. In "First World Problems," Yankovic raps about the indignities of non-gluten-free pastries in airport lounges and baristas who forget to make designs in your cappuccino froth. With bombs, bloodshed and border chaos crowding the headlines, maybe Yankovic is just the cease-fire we need right now. In the meantime, everyone who thought he was obsolete can just eat it.