Monday, July 21, 2014
'Weird Al' IS the Internet
I never saw the video for "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It" on MTV. Or "Amish Paradise." Or "Like a Surgeon." Or "Fat" for that matter.
That's because when I was a kid, enjoying a picturesque childhood in rural Utah in the late 80s/early 90s, my family didn't have cable. And we weren't alone.
Back then subscriber television hadn't reached levels of omnipresent ubiquity. My neighbors had it, and it was always a thrill to scroll through the endless list of channels at hotels during family vacations, but once we were home I was limited to the Big 4 and PBS, assuming I could hold the antennas in the exactly right position.
I was still a passionate "Weird Al" fan, resulting from my love of all things Star Wars in 2009 that led me to obtaining my own copy of the album "Running With Scissors" — which included a Star Wars-themed parody of "American Pie" along with such hits as "Pretty Fly for a Rabbi" and an 11-minute spoken word tribute to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which I memorized and would perform at family functions.
But MTV is where Yanky made his bread and butter, and the reason why is obvious.
You don't listen to "Weird Al" for the music. Nobody puts "Living with a Hernia" on the playlist for their wedding video. You listen to "Weird Al" because he has a gift for pairing clever wordplay with satirical videos shot with surprisingly impressive production quality.
His appeal — and his biggest hits — have always stemmed from a knack for multi-media showmanship, which is exactly what makes his current internet domination so interesting.
As of the writing of this post, Al was on day 5 of an ambitious strategy of 8 daily music video releases ahead of the release of his 14th album. The "project," for lack of a better word, has done gangbusters online, flooding my twitter feed and Facebook as friends and acquaintances discover "Word Crimes," "Tacky" and "Foil." ( 6 million, 2 million, and 6 million YouTube views, respectively).
He has stated in interviews that part of his digital release strategy is due to the decline of MTV and cable, and he's right. MTV's much-discussed failure as "Music" television aside, research group TDG found that cable subscriptions in the U.S. peaked in 2011 with 100.9 million households and has declined ever since (and is projected to continue keep falling).
But where most articles have suggested that Yankovich is "adapting" to the internet age, I would posit that the internet is precisely what his career has been building to. Yankovich has been here all along, he was just waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
Social media, and the "viral" sensations it creates, has fully supplanted primetime television programming as the most effective way to reach a mass audience. But consider this, A Yankovich video like "Word Crimes" is the perfect Facebook post: a funny, inoffensive video that pleases both political ranters and baby-picture-sharers with its blend of winking high-brow and low-brow comedy. Take, for example, the blink-and-you-miss-it innuendo of "a cunning linguist" tucked into a debate over the Oxford Comma in "Word Crimes" (hey-hey-hey!).
The songs are familiar, prompting us to turn up the volume to hear the differences that derive from similarity, and the videos are packed with gags that blend both sight and sound (the backup singers who materialize to croon the word "Fooooooooooil" will never not be funny).
All week long we've been stumbling upon these videos, we've had a good laugh, we've maybe re-watched to see if we missed something on our first run, and then we clicked the share button to let our friends in on the joke. From there, we went about our lives never to really think about or listen to it again.
That type of catch-and-release audience engagement has always been central to "Weird Al's" creations, but until now we've never had the appropriate mechanism to make full use of its potential. Fourteen albums later, Yankovich has seized upon the perfect storm of technology and clickbait attention spans to produce the best work of his career. Bravo.
And in case you haven't seen it yet, here's the video for "Word Crimes."