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Sean P. Means: How ‘Weird Al’ got his groove back

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jul 23 2014 12:48 pm • Last Updated Jul 24 2014 04:51 pm

The hottest star in pop music is a 54-year-old guy with stringy hair who plays the accordion — and has been recording longer than Rihanna, Miley Cyrus or any of the One Direction lads have been alive.

And, improbably enough, he’s stayed fresh and current 35 years after his first single, while other musicians who started in the ’70s and ’80s are replaying their hits on legacy tours.

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Yes, it’s "Weird Al" Yankovic’s world, and the rest of us are just living in it.

A week ago, Yankovic released his 14th album, "Mandatory Fun," which featured the comic musician’s trademark mix of song parodies and humorous ditties.

If Yankovic had just released the album in the traditional way, putting out a single at a time, that would have been that. Instead, he made a bold promotional move: launching eight videos online, one a day during the album’s rollout.

The result was a pop-culture tsunami that got Yankovic talked about all over the place — and had him doing more media interviews in a week than he’s probably done in years. As of this week, "Mandatory Fun" was the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart, the first time a Yankovic album has topped the sales charts.

All this serves as a cool reminder that Yankovic is more than merely a goofy guy riffing on pop music. Yes, the guy whose first single was "My Bologna" — a 1979 ode to lunch meat parodying The Knack’s "My Sharona" — is actually one of our sharpest comedians and shrewdest social commentators.

Yes, the songs that made the first splash from "Mandatory Fun" are straight-up parodies of recent hits. Pharrell Williams’ "Happy" became "Tacky," a funny rant on tasteless behavior. Robin Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" morphed into "Word Crimes," a witty dissection of common grammatical errors. And Iggy Azalea’s "Fancy" was turned into "Handy," a rhyming commercial for a home-repair expert.

This mining of new pop hits is one reason Yankovic stays current: He steals only the freshest songs. His stuff doesn’t sound 35 years old because he moves smoothly from rock to pop to hip-hop to match the times — and the humor keeps him from sounding like an old guy pathetically trying to sound hip.

Other Yankovic songs borrow bands’ styles, if not actual melodies. One highlight of the new album is "Mission Statement," a clever string of middle-management buzzwords sung in the harmonic style of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

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Yankovic’s original songs may emulate well-known sounds (for example, the yuppie whine "First World Problems" mirrors The Pixies), but they work better if you think about them as comedy routines set to music. The topics range from losers interacting with celebrities in "Lame Claim to Fame" to the American obsession with sports in "Sports Song," which has Yankovic and a marching band deconstructing fandom to a simple chorus: "We’re great and you suck!"

My favorite, though, takes the best of both the straight-up parodies and Yankovic’s gift for smart writing. That song is "Foil," which borrows its vibe from Lorde’s hit song "Royals." At first, it sounds like a silly early-Yankovic parody, as he extols the food-preserving qualities of aluminum foil. Then he turns the joke on its head, literally, by mocking conspiracy-theory wackos who protect their brains from alien mind-control rays with hats made of (sing it with me) aluminum foil.

Yankovic’s Internet campaign, months in the making, smartly spread out the "Weird Al" love to a variety of websites (including Funny or Die, Nerdist and YouTube) for maximum exposure. And, in a clear show of respect, several younger comics joined the fun: The "Foil" video features Patton Oswalt, while "Tacky" includes lip-synching by Aisha Tyler, Margaret Cho, Eric Stonestreet, Kristen Schaal and Jack Black.

Yankovic’s music provides more than just a nostalgic good feeling that someone over 50 is still making music. His success also gives old-timers a road map for surviving a youth-obsessed pop-culture landscape by beating the kids at their own game.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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