'Weird Al' Yankovic is as much the eye as he is the storm. Though the accordion-playing, wacky-haired nerd has made a career out of poking people with his satirical pencil, he's also a genuinely unaffected and nice guy. So nice, in fact, that he always gets permission directly from artists before he parodies them (Coolio snafu aside), even though he is legally protected under the fair use clause of U.S. copyright law.
"I want the artist in on the joke," he tells me over the phone, while on vacation with his family in Hawaii. "I don't want to have a beef with anybody." And so, because he wanted to parody Lady Gaga's hit "Born This Way," he agreed to write and record "Perform This Way" beforehand in hopes of getting the diva's ultimate approval.
This was a first. Artists had always either given him permission or not. Overwhelmingly, most had. (The artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince had not.) But Yankovic, a self-described "sensitive guy" who plays the Uptown Theatre in Napa on Aug. 9, agreed to jump through Gaga's hoops, cranking out the lyrics while on tour and then cutting a vacation short in order to hit the recording studio.
When Gaga said no, Yankovic and his Twittering fans were crushed—for a day. Turns out, she hadn't even heard the song, thanks to a rogue manager. In the end, she gave Yankovic her blessing, and with his "pop culture juggernaut" in place, Alpocalypse, his 13th studio album, was complete.
With his ears tuned to pop music's ever-changing rhythms, Yankovic not only captures but also augments the Zeitgeist. The Grammy-nominated Alpocalypse, his first major album since 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood, parodies songs by Taylor Swift, T.I., B.o.B and Miley Cyrus. The requisite polka medley, called (what else?) "Polka Face," includes songs by Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Flo Rida, Pink, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
A hilarious homage to the Doors, "Craigslist" actually features Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, while "CNR" pokes fun at the lionizing of Chuck Norris by channeling the White Stripes.
Alfred Matthew Yankovic grew up in the L.A. suburb of Lynwood, not far from Compton ("By proximity, I should be allowed to say I'm from the 'hood"), which might help explain his affinity for rap. Much was made of his "feud" with Coolio over the parody "Amish Paradise," but it was "White and Nerdy," his parody of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'," that landed Yankovic his first Top 10 single. But just because his anthem to geekdom is the perfect antidote to the bling-worshipping, anti-intellectual, hyper-masculinity of much gangster rap, Yankovic maintains that he isn't "trying to shoehorn any point of view" into his music. "I'm just going for laughs," he says.
The evolution of the mass media has coincided nicely with Yankovic's 36-year career. As a teenager in 1976, he landed his first airplay on Dr. Demento's cult radio show. Just a year after MTV aired in 1981, he released his video "Eat It," a brilliant shot-by-shot parody of "Beat It," to an audience already worshipping the King of Pop. (Yankovic credits Michael Jackson with jumpstarting his career). And just when it seemed like he might be going the way of UHF, his video of "White and Nerdy" caught the trail of YouTube's rising star, instantly going viral.
Last year Yankovic became a New York Times bestselling author with his Shel Silverstein–esque children's book When I Grow Up. But despite his steady success, he's characteristically humble about his creative process. "It's more OCD than art, really," he laughs. "Even though some people might see them as silly, novelty songs," he tells me, "they're not dashed off."
With a career that started long before Lady Gaga was even born, how does Weird Al continue to stay inspired? "There's always something ridiculous about pop music," he laughs, "always something to make fun of."
'Weird Al' Yankovic plays Thursday, Aug. 9, at the Uptown Theatre. 1350 Third St., Napa. 8pm. $55. 707.259.0123.