Let's Twist Again

Four decades later, "Weird Al" is still skewering the hits

There was a time when just about everybody in the United States was on the same page, culturally speaking. Let's call that time "The '80s." The pop stars at the top of the charts — Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson — were universally recognizable. You could hum their biggest hits. And so could your mom, even if she didn't like the lyrics.

You can't say that about 2010's pop-music environment. It's all about niche markets these days: Metalheads listen to metal, country fans listen to country, and hip-hop fans listen to hip-hop. There's very little crossover and even less consensus. This pop-cultural atomization makes life hard for performers whose job it is to find common ground through comedy, like "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose career blossomed in the '80s.

"When I was starting out, the mainstream hits were pretty well delineated," recalls the pop satirist, who plays Taste of Cleveland this weekend. "You knew who the superstars were, you knew what the big hits of the day were. Now, with all the genres and subgenres and compartmentalization of our culture, there are still major stars, there are still hit songs, but I don't think they're as easy to recognize as they were 15 or 20 years ago."

Still, Yankovic has managed to stay on top of things. Two of his biggest recent hits ("White and Nerdy," a takeoff of Chamillionaire's "Ridin' Dirty," and a parody of T.I.'s "Whatever You Like") have spun off hip-hop, rather than pop music. Technology has been on Yankovic's side too. His 2008 EP Internet Leaks, a collection of songs originally released one by one on YouTube and iTunes, includes "Whatever You Like," which debuted while the original was still at the top of the charts.

"The whole iTunes distribution system allowed me to be a lot more topical than I would have been conventionally," says Yankovic. "With 'Whatever You Like,' I was able to go from concept in my head to having it for sale on iTunes within two weeks."

It's a tribute to the power of comedy, and Yankovic's talent for skewering pop music, that something created in less than 15 days can linger for years, even decades. "There's a half-dozen or so songs that I'm going to be required to play for the rest of my life," says Yankovic. But sometimes a song outlives its cultural relevance, he admits. "It's All About the Pentiums," for example, has been a live staple since the new millennium. "I finally decided to give it a rest, because, among other reasons, it had references to Y2K and computer systems, which ten years ago would have been pretty happening, but now they're pretty pedestrian."

Yankovic's style — genial, family-friendly parodies of pop songs and gentle pokes at American cultural foibles — has earned him a sizable and devoted audience over the past 30 years. It might surprise casual fans to learn that despite the generally cheerful and upbeat tone of his hits, many of Yankovic's albums contain darker songs buried between the spoofs. "One More Minute," "Happy Birthday," "Christmas at Ground Zero," and especially "Good Old Days" are morbid, occasionally grotesque wallows in despair, horror, and savage violence.

Writer Michael O'Donoghue, who started at National Lampoon magazine and ended up at Saturday Night Live during its formative years, once claimed, "Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy." Yankovic laughs at the quote. "Michael was very antagonistic, and he liked to get a rise out of people, and his satire was probably some of the darkest satire that existed at the time. I loved it. But I don't know if I can agree with that statement totally. I understand the point he was trying to make, but I don't think there's anything wrong with making people laugh."

While he clearly has a taste for the dark side, Yankovic still prefers the escapist route. "There are artists that work clean, and sometimes they're viewed as being softer or less biting or even, by some people, less funny," he says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to work clean. I think escapism is a valid goal. I know that my music has helped people out of some rough patches in their lives. There's no shame in making people laugh."

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