America says we love a chorus / But don’t get complicated and bore us, / Though the meaning might be missing / We need to know the words after just one listen. These are the sage words of YouTube-comedian-turned-IRL-comedian Bo Burnham on his song “Repeat Stuff,” a parody of the pop music industry at large, cracking the age-old chestnut that any vacuous words with a fun rhythm can be spun into Top 40 gold if the right chords and attitude accompany it. Burnham’s been sending up pop music in the same way for a few years now: he found fame as a teenager by uploading videos of himself deadpanning his way through jaunty acoustic pop songs that were stuffed with incongruous, jarring jokes and politically incorrect characters. But these words caught my attention in particular this week, in the wake of parody king Weird Al’s return to the cultural zeitgeist as his new album Mandatory Fun instantly hit the No.1 spot on the Billboard charts. If parodies of pop music time and time again draw attention to that same idea—that radio-ready tunes are just vessels waiting to be filled with any inane or offensive sentiment—how is the thirst for them still so ripe in 2014?
Weird Al has been in the parody game since 1976, and recently said himself to the Guardian, “If you'd asked me 30 years ago whether I'd still be making parody albums, I'd have laughed.” The formula has changed remarkably little in all that time: avoiding political commentary and personal attacks, Al goes for the surreal and the absurd rather than the mean, and so has the adoration of his fans and the artists he covers alike. It’s a rare thing for someone who’s found their niche in sending up the work of others to be so universally beloved, but it seems like that might actually be the crucial mast of Al’s career: the reason he’s flying so high in 2014 is that his comedy, and the way he’s now distributing it, captures something very specific about our current cultural mood.
Today, we don’t just consume stuff online, we document every second of our interaction with said stuff. Within seconds of its release we re-produce it, screenshot it, memeify it and attach emojis to it (you don’t have to look much further than Nicki’s “Anaconda” cover for an example). Our culture is a feedback loop, and by that logic we no longer need parody artists to exist, feeding top-down satirical interpretations of pop cultural phenomena to us, because pop, high and parody culture all exist together in one entangled knot. So how does Weird Al make sense? Firstly, because he gets it. He made a video for every single one of his new tracks, and he’s distributed them daily in the build-up to the release of his new record. He’s tapped into the instantaneous-reponse mindset of his audience by providing a new piece of content to gratify his followers every single day, and he’s even managed to pull off the near-impossible feat of releasing a parody of a song while that song (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) was still No.1 in the US charts.