LOS ANGELES—With an outrageous Star Wars send-up riding high atop the pop charts and countless hit albums under his belt, superstar song parodist Alfred "Weird Al" Yankovic stands as a true giant in the highly competitive novelty-song industry.
But Yankovic, who first burst onto the scene in 1979 with the seminal Knack spoof "My Bologna," has never been one to let success alter his commitment to constantly pushing the envelope. Refusing to rest on his laurels, the platinum-selling wacky accordionist is taking time out between stops on his sold-out Running With Scissors '99 tour to work on what goofy-music insiders say will be his most incisive satiric salvo yet: the upcoming Ricky Martin/Starbucks Coffee parody "Livin' La Vida Mocha."
Yankovic says the biting "Mocha," an ingenious and unlikely conflation of two unrelated pop-cultural phenomena, represented a musical merger "too good to pass up."
"I take my work as America's premier satirist of contemporary societal mores very seriously, and I didn't want to enter into any project that wouldn't have a long-lasting impact," the Grammy-winning artist explains. "You have to pick a subject with real staying power as a cultural signifier, or the song runs the risk of becoming dated and irrelevant within just a few months. With Ricky Martin-mania sweeping the nation, I knew I'd found the canvas I needed."
Once "Livin' La Vida Loca" was chosen as the song's foundation, Yankovic says, the next step was to sift through various themes until finally coming up with the perfect counterpoint: Starbucks.
"As soon as I came up with the chorus of 'Gulp, gulp, drink it up/Livin' la vida mocha/At four bucks a cup/You're gonna soon go broke-ah,'" Yankovic says, "I realized I'd tapped into something very powerful, something that would resonate deep within the American cultural consciousness."
The song, with approximately half its lyrics already completed, is said to rank among Yankovic's best work. Detailing the crazy, mixed-up life of an overpriced-coffee addict unable to stop his tortured caffeine binges—and facing financial ruin as a result—the piece is "dark… very, very dark," according to noted critic, essayist and syndicated radio host Barret "Dr. Demento" Hansen. A longtime admirer of Yankovic's oeuvre, Demento recently reviewed an advance copy of the partially completed lyrics in The Atlantic Monthly.
"The protagonist of 'Livin' La Vida Mocha,' like all of Yankovic's greatest anti-heroes, is a study in contradictions," Demento writes. "He knows that his crazed desire for Starbucks, a desire that mirrors our society's suicidal embrace of a cruel and morally bankrupt materialistic individualism, is destroying his mind. Yet, like our own out-of-control consumer culture, he is helpless to stop his spiral into the widening gyre. It is sure to make number one on the Funny Five."
Advance buzz on the song is so overwhelmingly positive, Yankovic has already been approached by representatives of The VH1 Fashion Awards, The MTV Movie Awards and Mexico's hugely popular comedy/variety program ¡Pedro Es Gordo! to perform the piece on the air.
Yankovic says he is not concerning himself with such offers at this time.
"Right now, I can't let myself think about that sort of thing," he says. "At this point, I need to concentrate and remain focused on what's really important: living the work. As an artist, everything else is secondary."
In addition to finishing the lyrics, Yankovic is working closely with his creative staff to develop a video for the song that will remain true to his unique vision. Proper execution of the video, he says, is crucial, as the visuals must "breathe life into" the song's irreverent depiction of caffeine-fueled mayhem.
"We're currently working with top prop-comics on a possible scene in which Al's dripping head emerges from a steaming coffee urn, surrounded by throngs of gyrating, salsa-dancing women," says Yankovic's longtime collaborator, drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz. "But Al has expressed fears that the image may prove to be too silly, thus lessening the impact of the song. So we're also weighing the option of a giant coffee cup, in which Al would float on an inner-tube crafted to resemble a giant donut. He is a very exacting artist. He demands nothing less than perfection."
Such unflinching, uncompromising parody, however, may prove dangerous: There are rumors that the song's blistering critique of the successful Starbucks chain has already angered the Seattle-based coffee chain's powerful ownership. Some have even gone so far as to predict a possible Starbucks lawsuit intended to suppress "Mocha's" explosive content.
But according to "Weird Al" amateur website discographer and archivist "Stupid Bill" Herberger, Yankovic is unlikely to bow to pressure from corporate America—or even, for that matter, Ricky Martin himself, who recently blasted "Mocha" as "a blatant attempt to sully the integrity of my work."
Despite the feathers Yankovic may ruffle, Herberger says nothing will stop the artist in his quest to probe society's delicate underbelly.
"As a satirist, Al is returning to his indie-rock roots with this one," Herberger says. "The tone hearkens back to the days of the independently released 'Another One Rides The Bus' seven-inch on the short-lived Placebo Records label. He's taking no prisoners."
"This is all about one thing: the parody," Herberger adds. "I am in awe of the courage displayed by this great, nutsy, screwball man."
Whether Yankovic can live up to the pressure remains to be seen. Like any great artist, he's had his share of failures, from the commercial belly-flop of the 1986 album Polka Party! to the lukewarm critical reception afforded his 1989 film UHF. But through it all, he has always come back fighting. A true gadfly, his goofy nasal voice and ferocious accordion solos serve as a Greek chorus to the hypocrisies and excesses of our age. One thing is certain: Whatever happens, "Weird Al" isn't going away. His voice will not be silenced.
Yankovic himself remains stoic on the matter. "I do what I do because I must," he says. "If it brings on the wrath of the powers that be, so be it. I am driven by my own personal demons to seek out the greatest novelty songs I have within me. I am an artist. I must create."