'Weird Al' Yankovic scores his first No. 1 album. How he did it.
'Weird Al' Yankovic, master of pop music song parodies, celebrated his first Billboard number one album this week with 'Mandatory Fun.' The success of what could be Weird Al's last studio album comes on the strength of a savvy social media campaign and the comedian's shrewd adaptation to a changing music industry.
‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, the curly haired accordionist who’s made song parodies of hits from everyone from Madonna (“Like a Surgeon”) to Coolio (“Amish Paradise”) has had a career full of milestones, from Grammy wins to platinum records. But now, three decades and 14 albums into his career, he’s reached another.
The world’s foremost pop parodist celebrated his first-ever No. 1 album this week with “Mandatory Fun,” which debuted Tuesday in the top spot on the Billboard 200. In addition to being Weird Al’s first chart-topper, "Mandatory Fun” is the first comedy album to hit number one since Allan Sherman’s “My Son the Nut,” did it in 1963.
“If you’d told me 30 years ago this would happen, I never would’ve believed it,” Weird Al tweeted Wednesday. “If you’d told me 2 WEEKS ago, I never would’ve believed it.”
Like past albums, “Mandatory Fun” features send-ups of some of the most popular radio songs of the past year or so, including “Tacky,” a take of of Pharell Williams’ megahit “Happy”; “Word Crimes,” – a scolding about grammar to the tune of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines;” and “Foil,” to the tune of Lorde’s "Royals."
To some, the news that this is Weird Al’s first No. 1 album may come as a surprise. He has sold over 12 million records in the US, and has definitely been more of a culturally relevant name at other stages in his career. His most fertile ground was arguably in the 80s and 90s, when a few megastars dominated the pop culture landscape and songs on the radio were well-known by a wider group of Americans. Yankovic rose to fame parodying the likes of monoliths like Michael Jackson, an early supporter who let Weird Al use the set of his “Bad” video for the parody “Fat,” and Nirvana (Kurt Cobain is said to have called him a “musical genius”).
But the music industry has changed, in ways that have made it both harder and easier for someone like Weird Al to produce a hit album. Record sales are a fraction of what they once were – indie music groups like The Decemberists can hit number one on Billboard by selling 40,000 or so copies of a new album. Pop culture is more fractured, with true household names like Madonna and Michael Jackson in shorter supply, and thus fewer targets ripe for a parody that a wide swath of the public will immediately recognize and find funny (I have no idea whether or not my mother has heard “Royals,” and she certainly wouldn’t know Lorde if she ran across her in a supermarket).
What’s more, the rise of YouTube, Vine, and all other manner of social media – as well as the breakneck pace with which we consume our entertainment – have made it possible for thousands of aspiring Weird Als to create and release their own “Happy” parodies with the click of a button. In comparison, the process of creating and releasing a full music album is downright glacial.
But Weird Al has managed to adapt, and reaped the benefits. To promote “Mandatory Fun,” he launched a full-scale assault online, debuting a new music video for a song from the album every day leading up to its release on popular comedy sites like “Nerdist” and “Funny or Die.” It worked: the videos racked up a combined 20 million views during the week, and “Mandatory Fun” sold 104,000 copies during its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan nearly twice the debut sales of his 2011 effort, “Alpocalypse.”
And it may be a good note to end on. “Mandatory Fun,” marks the last album of a record contract that Weird Al has been under since 1982. “I just kind of feel like especially with the kind of music that I do, the album format isn't the best way to deliver that music,” he told the Associated Press Tuesday. “I'm going to try to jump on new hits and new trends as soon as I can (with singles) and try to be a little bit more competitive with everybody else in the world on YouTube.”