Day Twenty-Two: "That Boy Could Dance" from In 3-D
In 3-D is one of the albums that made me fall in love with music, and fall in love with comedy, and fall in love with “Weird Al.” But its influence went beyond that. Al’s second album, but the first to really explode into the mainstream, helped shape and mold and define my nascent comic sensibility as well as the comic sensibilities of countless members of my generation. He was, and remains, the Patron Saint of geeks, of weirdoes, of oddballs, of people who are too smart for their own good.
One of the reasons the album rocked my world was because it contained not just one great story but a whole bunch of them nestled together, some of them riffing on other stories and mythologies, like “Theme From Rocky VIII (Rye or the Kaiser)”, which is as much a parody of Rocky as it is of Journey.
“That Boy Can Dance” is a story song so epic and involved I could see an entire movie being made from it, a Footloose by way of Airplane! parody of the crowd-pleasing underdog dance movies. For in the annals of musical and dance underdogs, few begin from a sadder place than the hero of “That Boy Can Dance,” and even fewer reach as impressive heights.
The gent “That Boy Could Dance” rhapsodizes about is no garden variety klutz. No, he’s closer to feral, more Bat Boy than than the cute teen boy in the dance movie who turns into a star when he starts to strut his stuff. In fact, before “That Boy Can Dance” praises its title character it first buries him with words.
We learn that the boy in question is a shambling, embarrassing, only barely human train wreck of a human being cruelly nicknamed “Jimmy the Geek” for reasons that soon become apparent. He’s described as a “dumb-looking, scrawny little four eyed freak” and it only gets less flattering from there.
The dancing maniac “isn’t much to look at”, and he was “never very bright” but what really makes the song a mean-spirited delight are surreally mean details like, “He never passed his drivers test, he was always afraid of cars” and “he had a complexion that resembled the surface of Mars.”
The singer makes Jimmy the Geek sound like someone who belongs in the freak show in Tod Browning’s Freaks rather than a high school where he not only stands out from the rest of the guys; he seems to exist somewhere firmly outside of human civilization as well. Yet when this foul-smelling, crater-faced, car-fearing, ugly, dumb jerk, a man we learn “had a problem even tying his shoes” busts even a single move, be it the Funky Chicken, the Mashed Potato or the Hustle, he undergoes an amazing transformation.
Jimmy the Geek disappears and is replaced, The Nutty Professor-style, by a disco achiever who would someday be known and revered by women and dance-lovers the world over as the mighty, formidable “Diamond Jim", who “owns half of Montana” as well as the undying admiration and envy of a narrator who spends much of the song insulting this poor/remarkable man.
It’s not just that this fellow is lacking in intellect, although it is established in exhausting detail that he is, to put it in Smash Mouth terms, not the sharpest tool in the shed. He also seems to be profoundly deficient in every physical matter other than dance. In school, he was always picked last, and his presence alone was enough to ensure crushing defeat. He’s scrawny, has poor eyesight, is easily exhausted, smells bad and “drools just a bit” but his foul odor, perpetual drool and all-around sub-human, C.H.U.D-like vibe somehow doesn’t matter to women as much as his astonishing dancing ability.
“That Boy Can Dance” is as funny as it is means and few songs in Al’s oeuvre have taken such malicious delight in chronicling someone’s shortcomings. Yet because the song is so upbeat musically, so peppy and propulsive with its retro vibe, it ends up feeling oddly good-natured rather than needlessly cruel.
The song is an Al original yet it’s every bit as catchy and infectious an earwig as the parodies on the album. And I don’t need to remind you that “King of Pain”, “Beat It”, “Eye Of The Tiger”, “The Safety Dance” and “Jeopardy” are all insanely catchy songs, which is a big part of the reason they make for such terrific parodies.
Insane Ian’s cover of “That Boy Can Dance” is one of the highlights of 26 And A Half, an Al tribute album from 2011 that leans heavily on originals and in the process highlights Al’s gift as an original songwriter, not just a pop parodist. Because they’re building on the already successful and well-known, parodies have an inherent advantage over originals in Al’s work but terrific, memorable songs like “That Boy Can Dance” (which I like so much I named a tier of my Patreon campaign "Diamond Jim Status) illustrate why originals remain such an essential component of Al’s life and career.
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