Even “Weird” Al Yankovic has to be serious sometimes.
The multi-platinum-selling song parodist, who returns to Berglund Performing Arts Theatre on Tuesday, and his team “agonized” recently over three classics from his repertoire, Yankovic said in an email interview. “Eat It” and “Fat,” send-ups of Michael Jackson hits “Beat It” and “Bad,” have been “Weird” Al standards for decades. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” a more recent number, parodized R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.”
Those songs aren’t going to be in his sets for the time being, after documentaries about Kelly and the late Jackson revealed accusations of sex with children. Kelly, previously acquitted on sex abuse charges, faces new charges this year.
“I do feel like my parodies definitely have a life beyond their source material, and I think they can be appreciated on their own merit,” Yankovic wrote in an email Q&A. “On the other hand, in light of recent allegations, we also didn’t want to take the chance of making anyone feel uncomfortable at a live show. So this isn’t necessarily a permanent change, but we felt that it would be best not to use parodies of those artists in our set this summer. We know they’re fan favorites, but we also have plenty of other fan favorites that we’re trying to cram into the show.”
Hear such numbers as “Amish Paradise,” “Smells Like Nirvana” and plenty of “Star Wars” music, with a 41-piece orchestra of players hired from the Roanoke region for Yankovic’s “Strings Attached” tour.
He's correct, there are plenty of fan favorites in a career that launched in the late 1970s via the Dr. Demento radio show, then exploded in the 1980s with hit parodies that themselves became hits. "Eat It" was his first top 20 single, and he hit the Billboard pop chart again with "White & Nerdy," a takeoff on Chamillionaire's "Ridin.'" That one peaked at No. 9, according to Billboard.com.
In between, "Like a Surgeon" and "Smells Like Nirvana" found their way onto top sales, airplay, and of course, MTV video play lists. Another hit single was "Word Crimes," a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." It was part of his 2014 album release, "Mandatory Fun," Yankovic's 14th album but his first No. 1.
Without further ado, our email Q&A, very lightly edited:
The Roanoke Times: Thanks for your time, Al. Congratulations on your Grammy, earlier this year. I understand it’s your fifth, and you won for a box set, beating out Guns N’ Roses and the Grateful Dead. When you started, did you have even an inkling that such long-term success could result from this?
Yankovic: I never thought I could have a lengthy career doing this, and apparently neither did all the record companies who flatly turned me down for a record deal in the early ‘80s. What I do is generally considered novelty music, and the conventional wisdom was that “funny” music doesn’t have a long shelf life, and people that do it wind up at best being footnotes in music history. So I never anticipated that I would have a 40-year-long career — it’s going against precedent, to put it mildly.
TRT: Two of those Grammys came for “Eat It” and “Fat,” send-ups of Michael Jackson songs. Clearly, two “Weird Al” staples. With all the information that has come out about Jackson in the past year or so, have you hesitated at all to continue doing those songs? I suppose the R. Kelly-style “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” might fall into that category, as well. On the other hand, these songs have a life of their own, outside the original artist’s work. How do you balance that? Or is it a concern?
Yankovic: This is something we really agonized over. I do feel like my parodies definitely have a life beyond their source material, and I think they can be appreciated on their own merit. On the other hand, in light of recent allegations, we also didn’t want to take the chance of making anyone feel uncomfortable at a live show. So this isn’t necessarily a permanent change, but we felt that it would be best not to use parodies of those artists in our set this summer. We know they’re fan favorites, but we also have plenty of other fan favorites that we’re trying to cram into the show.
TRT: Your most recent record, “Mandatory Fun,” came out in 2014, the year before you last visited Roanoke. Any new music in the pipeline for you these days? When we talked before, you seemed to be pivoting away from full albums and toward single and video releases. Are you still on that plan?
Yankovic: Yes — I still think that "Mandatory Fun" will be my last conventional album, and that I’ll only be releasing singles whenever the urge strikes. I admit I haven’t been terribly prolific in the last few years — I’ve released “The Hamilton Polka” and done a couple remixes for Portugal. The Man — but I definitely haven’t retired, and I do plan to continue making music … maybe just at a slower pace.
TRT: Talk a bit about your method, if you would. Are you constantly listening to pop radio for parody inspiration? Or how do you gather material to lampoon?
Yankovic: I listen to a lot of music, but mostly just for pleasure. I suppose I’m more “on the clock” when I’m listening to the Top 40 radio stations, but in general I can certainly enjoy music without some part of my brain going, “Hmm, now what can I do with THIS one?"
TRT: Your 2015 show here was my first time seeing you live, and I marveled at the production. Clearly a lot of thought and care goes into that. Do you overhaul things from tour to tour? Are there holdovers for which you use the same set pieces or costumes, or are you constantly looking to make it different?
Yankovic: We try to make things as different as possible from tour to tour, while at the same time retaining as many of the things that fans love as we can. That’s one of the reasons these last two tours have been so drastically different. We’d been doing the same kind of tour (with the costumes, props and big video screens) for many years, so last year I decided to shake it up by doing the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, where we did a completely stripped-down, intimate show… and now this year we’re going the whole other direction where on top of our normal huge production, we’re adding 3 background singers and a 41-piece symphony orchestra. I’m always trying to come up with new ideas. Maybe next tour we’ll live-stream the show from outer space … who knows?