Day Thirty-Five: "Hooked On Polkas" from Dare To Be Stupid
“Hooked On Polkas” is the second of Al’s polka medleys to pop up on an album but the first to exclusively feature new songs instead of the first polka medley’s combination of contemporary pop hits and classic rock anthems like “Hey Jude” and “My Generation.” On the first polka medley, impishly titled “Polkas On .45” after the “Stars On .45” series, Al and his band of merry-makers made satirical mincemeat out of some of the most respected songs in rock history.
On “Hooked On Polkas”, Al and his band narrow their focus to contemporary top 40 hits. “Weird Al” Yankovic and his band take listeners on a speedy, tongue-in-cheek journey through the pop charts. By the time “Hooked On Polkas” ended Al’s third long playing record, Al had firmly established himself as the world’s preeminent parodist of pop hits. But he was more than that. He was also a proven hitmaker in his own right, with popular favorites like “Eat It”, “Like A Surgeon” and “King Of Suede” to his name. By taking the entirety of top 40 radio and putting it in a blender, Al proved himself uniquely gifted at re-contextualizing hits in ways at once goofy and oddly revelatory.
That’s what Al is doing on “Hooked On Polkas.” He’s taking songs everybody at the time knew due to their ubiquity on radio and on MTV and recreating them in his own goofball image. “Footloose”, for example, is radically re-imagined as a jazzy little a cappella ditty instead of a propulsive rocker.
“We’re Not Gonna Take It”, meanwhile, morphs from a hair-metal anthem of snotty, if pointless rebellion into an old school declaration of defiance you can easily imagine a barber shop quartet in matching suits performing while marching in unison down main street some time in the 1930s or 1940s.
In its original, non-polka form, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” derives much of its power from the iconic baggage that Tina Turner brought to it, to the sense that it reflects, in an artful but very real way, Turner’s exquisitely world-weary take on life in general but love specifically. That sense was only heightened when the song provided the title to the well-received but now half-forgotten Tina and Ike Turner biopic.
Turner transforms the song into a survivors’ world-weary lament. Turner is the raspy, authoritative voice of experience, of hard-earned wisdom. When Al sings the song, however, he’s doing it from the perspective of a youthful dullard, a goober devoid of any life experience at all, let alone the kind that allows Turner to sing her signature song with such bittersweet conviction.
The genius of Al and his band is twofold. First and foremost, they can perform pretty much any style or genre of music. Secondly, but almost as impressively, they can also transform any genre of music, and every song, into polka. Well, not every song, necessarily. I’m not sure what Al could do with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or John Cage’s “4’33” but he’s illustrated a remarkable gift over the decades for transforming everything into a polka medley.
Al paved his own lane professionally while still in his twenties, and polka medleys were a big part of his overall aesthetic, commercially, professionally and satirically. They allowed Al to disappear inside words and melodies of a bunch of different artists at once, while finding the connective tissue to stitch together songs and anthems from across the pop culture spectrum.
Medleys also allowed Al to be a little dirtier and more risqué than he tends to be on his own parodies or original compositions. “Hooked On Polkas” is a good example. Before Al closes with his own “Ear Booker Polka”, he ends the hit portion of the medley with an extremely repetitive riff on the chorus of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, an intensely homoerotic song about ejaculation. Al would never record something like this himself, but for a fraction of one medley, he and his band suddenly sound a whole lot dirtier.
Dare To Be Stupid’s first half ranks alongside Al’s best work. The second half is a little weaker, but ending one of his best and best-loved albums with “Hooked On Polkas” further established how important these medleys were to Al. They weren’t just filler, or a blast of the familiar in an unfamiliar context, but rather a stealthily satirical ongoing project cheekily subverting rock pretension by cross-breeding it with the goofball world of polka.
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