See if you can guess this musical celebrity: He played the accordion as a kid, but wanted to be in a rock band (nope, not Bruce Springsteen). Had his first big hit on MTV in 1984, a time when they actually played music videos. He sold 12 million albums between 1974 and 2007. His latest release, Mandatory Fun, is the first comedy album to reach #1 on the Billboard charts in more than 50 years. Give up?
His name is Alfred Matthew Yankovic, but he much prefers the moniker he gave himself, Weird Al Yankovic, the king of parody songs. From Michael Jackson to Madonna, The Eagles to Eminem, Green Day, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, Weird Al has parodied them all. And the weird thing is, the artists he parodies feel honored.
What is it that makes this 54 year-old still relevant after three decades of taking other people’s creations and making them his own? Someone who is still hitting his stride when many of those he parodied have faded into oblivion? There are several keys to his success, keys which all of us would do well to take note of.
- He’s polite. Yankovic would never consider giving a song his treatment without first asking the artist permission. And all, with the exception of Prince, have been happy if not thrilled to have him do a number on their songs. For the original artists, a Yankovich parody in essence says they’ve made it.
- He’s not original. Let’s face it, he takes something that is usually already a hit and puts his own spin on it. So much of what we see in the world today is just that, someone taking a product or service and adding a twist to it, to make it that much better. While that may seem like cheating, almost every product in our lives is not the same after 10, 20 or 50 years as it was when it was created. Would you want to be driving a Model A Ford today?
- He knows how to adapt. His first hit, “Eat It” was huge in 1984 because MTV played it over and over again. But in 1984 PC’s were brand new, there was no Internet, cell phones were the size of a suitcase, social media hadn’t been created and word-of-mouth meant a friend told a friend, usually in person. With his latest album, Mandatory Fun, Yankovic released one song and video a day for eight days across a range of what he calls “Internet portals.” His record label told him they couldn’t afford to make videos for this release, so he went to these portals and convinced them to fund the videos if they got exclusive rights to release them.
- He loves what he does. He says he would have laughed if someone told him 30 years ago he’d still be making parody albums today. While money most certainly plays a role in his career, he is still having fun at other artist’s expense because he loves it. It’s his passion and the perfect job for him and he says he has no plans to retire…ever.
- He’s humble. One of the most thrilling moments of his life was years ago when he was invited to a party in Hollywood for Paul McCartney. He was told there was no way he would meet his musical hero, but once there he wound his way through the throng and tapped McCartney on the shoulder. The legend turned around and said, “Oh, Weird Al. Look honey (to his wife Linda), it’s Weird Al.” Yankovich was stunned that McCartney would even have a clue who he was.
Life changes rapidly these days and if we are to stay relevant and engaged, we have to keep up and continue to learn, change and adapt. Given the first 30 years of his career, I suspect we’ll see Weird Al doing parody songs on artists yet to be born. Perhaps they’ll be holograms or some future technology yet to be invented, but chances are he’ll find a way to keep us laughing.