Day Ninety-Eight: "Alternative Polka" from Bad Hair Day
If I had not chosen the Weird Accordion to Al as the title for this series, an accurate, but unnecessarily specific alternate title for it could have been How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Polka Medleys. Before I began this project, I wasn’t terribly enamored of Al’s polkafied takes on the hits of the day. They seemed like place-holders more than anything else, and while I appreciated the way they thrust the accordion defiantly back into the center of the sonic mix, a rarity post-“Weird Al” Yankovic and I liked how irreverent they were, they didn’t do a whole lot for me.
Writing about every “Weird Al” Yankovic song in obsessive detail has given me a whole new appreciation for Al’s polkas and the role they play in Al’s ongoing project subverting and undermining rock and roll’s regrettable tendency towards pretension and self-seriousness, however.
The pretension-puncturing, whoopee cushion prankishness of Al’s polka medleys was particularly essential during the post-Nevermind period where alternative-rock dominated the airwaves with a watered-down, more commercial version of college rock from previous decades. Love the Replacements? Then you might enjoy Soul Asylum, which scored the rare honor of inspiring both a parody (“Syndicated Incorporated”, which found Al really challenging himself creatively by recording a song about different television programs) and the “Black Gold” pastiche “The Night Santa Went Crazy.”
I didn’t imagine Al had any special love for Dave Pirner, but when we worked together on Weird Al: The Book, Al would talk often about how he felt like he had a ticket for a runaway train, how he felt a little out of touch, a little insane. Looking back, he was almost definitely quoting Soul Asylum lyrics.
Also, in the mid 1990s, Al developed an off-puttingly aggressive way of seeking permission to parody songs. Instead of asking a pop star if he could spoof a particular hit, he’d show up unannounced in a pop star’s home, clearly inebriated, and then angrily announce that he was going to take their song, and then he was going to take their woman, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
To be honest, it was a little off-putting and unnecessarily confrontational but it worked, and in one fell swoop, Al secured the right to parody Soul Asylum's “Frustrated Incorporated” and began going steady with Pirner’s then-girlfriend Winona Ryder. But that’s a tale for another column.
In the mid 1990s, Al played both with the songs and sounds of the alternative rock “revolution.” Lollapalooza, the silly name silly human being Perry Farrell gave his traveling carnival of arts and culture, inspired the title of Alapalooza and for Bad Hair Day’s polka medley he chose the title “Alternative Polka” and a medley heavy on what was then known as alternative rock even though, if you really think about it, it’s like, an alternative to what?
We kick off with the familiar sound of a slide guitar from Beck’s “Loser” that almost instantly shifts from the lazy, stoned rhythm of the original to the peppy, breezy, manic oompah-band craziness of the polka. The songs, or rather the song snippets, that follow, alternate between songs that have faded in the public memory since Al raced through them (R.E.M’s “Bang and Blame”, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “My Friends”, Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing”) and anthems so ridiculously ubiquitous that even decades later, we all seemingly know all the words to them even if we didn’t care for them in the first place, like Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”, or Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, whose generational-defining howl of, “In spite of my rage I am still just a rat in a cage” cries out angrily for the “Weird Al” Yankovic polka medley tribute as much as The Who’s ‘My Generation” did.
Medleys afford the squeaky-clean Al, who has never so much as murdered even a single prostitute, an opportunity to channel the sensibilities of less family-friendly rockers. That may not be the explicit point of the polka medleys, but that’s a consistent pleasure of these manic mix-em-ups.
On “Alternative Polka”, for example, Al lovingly channels Trent Reznor at his most Hot Tropic transgressive when he vows to make sweet passionate love in an almost feral fashion as a means of ascending to a higher level of spirituality. Of course, Reznor expressed those sentiments in a more direct, guttural fashion necessitating the use of comical sound effects in place of graphic profanity.
Al gets nearly as dirty on Alanis Morrissette’s "You Oughta Know” but he trades sex for drugs by closing the medley with the part of Green Day’s “Basket Case” that asks, “Am I just paranoid? Or am I just stoned?” It’s impossible to imagine a non-Al song ending this way. That’s what makes it the perfect ending for a medley.
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