July 24, 2008

‘Weird Al’ Puts His Own Spin on Popular Tunes

By Michael Machosky, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 24--Of all the milestones that signify one has "made it" in the music business -- the first gold record, hosting "Saturday Night Live," the cover of "Rolling Stone" -- there's one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

You know you've hit the big time, you know your song has lodged itself permanently in the public consciousness, when "Weird Al" Yankovic decides to make a parody of it.

His parodies are never mean-spirited, and rarely poke fun at the original song or artist. Usually, they're about something else entirely -- Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" became "Another One Rides the Bus," and so on. They're just ... weird.

"I always get permission from the original artists when I do my parodies, so there certainly aren't any hard feelings," Yankovic says. "On the occasions when I've bumped into an artist that I've parodied, they only have nice things to say. My favorite quote is still from Kurt Cobain, who said that he didn't realize that Nirvana had made it until he heard the Weird Al parody."

He might not be the most original musician on the planet, but few work harder. On the road almost constantly, Yankovic's concerts are more wild multimedia circuses, featuring multiple costume changes, video screens, accordion medleys and unreleased, concert-only parodies. His special comic stylings hit the Palace Theatre stage in Greensburg on Saturday night.

It all began in the now-legendary, sleepy California town of Lynwood, where a goofy, poofy-haired Serbian-American kid took up the accordion -- not your usual route to rock stardom.

"I had three years of accordion lessons as a child, and in my early teens I started sending unsolicited tapes of my songs to Dr. Demento, who played some of my songs on his nationally syndicated radio show. He called me 'Alfred Yankovic' back then -- I didn't officially become 'Weird Al' until I started doing a shift on my college campus radio station. I played weird music, so the name seemed appropriate."

The process for creating a legendary parody of a hit song -- like the recent "Canadian Idiot" parody of Green Day's "American Idiot" -- isn't as easy as it seems.

"First, I make a list of songs that I think would be good candidates for parody," Yankovic says. "Then, I come up with as many ideas or variations on a theme as I possibly can for each one. Most of the ideas will be incredibly bad, but if I can come up with one good one, then I'll develop it. I'll begin compiling notes and gags based on whatever concept I've committed to. Then I'll come up with a bunch of rhyming couplets and see if I can drop my jokes, 'Tetris'-like, into the pattern of the original song. Sometimes, I'll fine-tune a song lyric for weeks before we go in to record it."

And yes, the polka element still is featured in Yankovic's repertoire, though maybe not as much as it once was.

"We do one polka in the set -- in fact, we start off the show with it," Yankovic says. "It's the medley from the latest album, which features polka-fied versions of a dozen or so contemporary hits -- everything from 50 Cent to Coldplay. It's amazing how many of those songs sound a little bit better with an accordion solo."

It seems like every few years, there's a song that's just begging for the "Weird Al" treatment. Most recently, it was rapper Chamillionaire's hit "Ridin'," which became "White & Nerdy." But others are a bit of a struggle.

"The hardest parody to write was 'The Saga Begins' (a parody of Don McLean's 'American Pie,' which tells the story of 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace') because I had to write that song without having had the benefit of actually seeing the movie," Yankovic says. "Since I needed to have the album in the can before the movie premiered, I wrote the lyrics based on leaked Internet rumors, which, thankfully, proved to be accurate.

"The easiest parody for me to write might have been 'White & Nerdy' -- just because I had so much personal experience to draw from."

Chamillionaire reportedly was impressed with Yankovic's rapping skills.

"He was a terrific sport, and had a great sense of humor about it," Yankovic says. "In fact, he told me that he thought my parody was a big reason why he wound up winning a Grammy for best rap song. He figured he'd already gotten a platinum album, but he needed that Weird Al parody to make him a bona fide superstar."


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