Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Corbis
Yesterday, with his career now in its fifth decade, Weird Al topped the Billboard charts for the first time. If you had said such a thing two weeks ago, people would’ve looked at you kind of, well, weird. While Vulture’s Jody Rosen nodded at the modern godfather of pop parodies in his review of the latest Lonely Island record last year (“Isn’t it also Weird Al’s world? There’s the president of the United States, slow-jamming the news. There’s Bruce Springsteen, wearing his mid-eighties bandanna-headband, singing LMFAO. There’s Katie Couric, her voice awash in Auto-Tune, ‘duetting’ with T-Pain. There, God help us, is Jay Leno, sending up Taylor Swift’s ‘22.’”), there was still something surprising about the news. But there are several concrete factors that led to the success of Weird Al’s Mandatory Fun. Seven, actually.
1. The Strong State of Pop Music
The most basic reason for Weird Al’s success is that the songs were very good. However, a good song has less to do with Weird Al than it does with the artists who are making music around the time he gets to work. Al got two killer Pharrell songs to work with in “Happy” and “Blurred Lines.” I had “Tacky” stuck in my head all day, and that is Pharrell’s fault, not Al’s. He simply had a larger audience that was in on the joke, especially compared to 2011’s less successful Alpocalypse, which was not nearly as commercially successful (44,000 copies sold in the first week, compared to Mandatory Fun’s 104,700 copies) or culturally significant. Lady Gaga was the biggest artist parodied on that album, and her popularity was already waning. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Nirvana: The bigger the hit, the bigger the hit parody.
2. The Meme-ification of Music and Music Videos
YouTube has been around since 2005, and music has been huge on it for a while, but things have changed over the last few years. Case in point: Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” which became a chart-topping single on the back of a YouTube meme. Music is another bit of #content now. Just like Weird Al needed MTV to become a star in the ‘80s, the popularity of web videos was essential. He had people ready to share each video and, equally as important, sites ready to post them. This was much more the case than for his last album, where the story about Lady Gaga not allowing him to parody her was more viral than the parody itself. The songs were all available online Tuesday morning, yet it wasn’t until each video was posted that it went viral. It’s 2014; we all have faster internet connections and Facebook friends looking for videos to share.
Speaking of the internet in 2014! Weird Al is able to tap into nostalgia — hard. He is nostalgia incarnate. Weird Al’s been around so long that he has fans from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and, hell, the ‘00s, from when he discussed nostalgia as a talking head on I Love the ‘80s and I Love the ‘90s. It could also be argued that nostalgia moves so quickly nowadays that much of the popularity of the “Blurred Lines” parody can be attributed to nostalgia from last summer.
4. The Strong State of Comedy
We are in the middle, if not at the apex, of a comedy boom. Of course comedy existed in 2011, as did Twitter, but now, if Chris Hardwick tweets about Weird Al, over 2.3 million people read it. Weird Al has over 3.3 million followers of his own! Similarly, Weird Al was able to goose the potential virality by partnering up with sites like Nerdist, College Humor, and Funny or Die.
Weird Al has said in several interviews that this will likely be his last proper album now that his contract is up. Everything happens faster now, and he would like to be able to respond to a hit song when it is a new hit song. I, however, would argue that the distance worked to his advantage. Beyond not having to compete with other parodies, his versions are coming at a time when we were best ready to enjoy them. “Word Crimes” is a fun and silly parody, but would’ve seemed frivolous and insubstantial if it had come out when everyone was debating the sexism of “Blurred Lines.” Same goes with “Foil,” and the debate around “Royals” and racism. Counterintuitively, Al’s parody of the potential song of the summer “Fancy” appeared to perform the worst of the four parody videos.
6. Almost Beyoncé -ing
Everyone has been saying that the strategy of releasing one video a day over eight days was inspired by what Beyoncé did last winter, but, fun fact: Weird Al actually released all his videos on the same day last time, years before Bey. But it didn’t work. This time he employed his strategy because, as he told NPR, “I wanted a video to go viral for an entire day and have people talking about that video, and then the next day they’re talking about a new video.” And that is exactly what happened. But it ended up being a bit more savvy a move than he might’ve imagined. By releasing one video, “Tacky,” and having it go viral, it convinced essentially every site on the internet that it must post all eight. Otherwise most sites, including this one, never would’ve posted a video like “Sports Song.” He created true momentum, with people looking for a new video around noon each day.
7. Slow Pop-Culture News Week
There really weren’t any other major culture stories to compete with Weird Al last week. Jason Mraz had the only other notable music release and, no offense to him, but that’s not really competition. In addition, there isn’t much new TV right now, and there wasn’t a big movie opening, either. The second-biggest pop-culture story came courtesy of American Ninja Warrior! The internet is not unlike a giant carnivorous plant constantly singing to be fed all night long, and though he might be a bit stringy, Weird Al did the trick. (Some might argue that Weird Al’s popularity was actually a subconscious reaction to how terrible news-news (Gaza, plane crash, etc.) was last week, but that’s a harder argument to make, since news-news tends to always be varying degrees of awful.)