Day Forty: "Polka Party!"

By the time Polka Party! was released, Al had long since graduated from being the skinny, accordion-toting teenage oddball performing rock songs on an instrument that will always be associated with polka. As I have illustrated here to an exhaustive degree, while the gimmick of making, and parodying rock music with an accordion was central to Al’s pre-album output and to his self-titled debut, beginning with In 3-D, Al and his producer Rick Derringer made a conscious effort to minimize the role the cumbersome instrument played on each album. 

The accordion stopped being a central gimmick and became a role player that occupied a central space in Al’s patented polka medleys but otherwise faded into the background so that Al and his crack live band could perform parodies that sound as much like the originals as humanly possible. And I could be wrong, but I can’t think of even a single accordion in any of the songs Yankovic has spoofed through the years. It’s not like Al had to haul out the accordion every night on tour so he could faithfully replicate the accordion solo in “Like A Virgin” or anything. 

Relegating the accordion to the background was a good move for Al both creatively and commercially. In 3-D is a huge improvement over Al’s scruffy, scrappy self-titled debut. I can’t say I found myself missing the prominent accordion on his subsequent releases.

If Al was intent on downplaying the significance of the accordion in his music, then why is he on the cover of Polka Party! grinning big as he plays the accordion, surrounded by cartoonish caricatures of sneering punks? To be honest, I could always just email Al and ask him that question directly but I know his time is valuable so I try not to waste it. Besides, Al already told me his life story for Weird Al: The Book and it would be poor form to ask him to continually re-tell it for my benefit. 

Before Al, polka parties were I'm just going to flat out say it—kinda corny, kinda lame.

Before Al, polka parties were I'm just going to flat out say it—kinda corny, kinda lame.

Besides, I literally wrote the book on (and with) “Weird Al”” Yankovic so shouldn’t I know? The cover is of course a very curious, very “Weird Al” Yankovic joke. The humor comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of Alpine and punk rock culture but it also comes from this particular mash-up—corny polka accordion geek and angry punk rockers—being perversely non-commercial. 

That goes double for the title. Polka Party! is quite possibly the least commercial and least accurate title you could give a follow-up to a pair of hit albums, particularly one that only features as much, and also as little, actual polka content as Al’s previous two albums, neither of which had “polka” in the title or an image of Al playing the accordion on the cover. 

I’ve come to really enjoy Al’s polka medleys, and to see them as essential to his comic sensibility and his life’s work in comedy, and even I think it’s a little perverse to name an album over a polka medley that, almost by definition, is cursed to bleed into all the other parodies in listener’s imaginations. 

Earlier polka medleys got their comic juice from the way Al and his merry band of mirth-makers took solemn, self-important anthems and reimagined them as happy champagne-and-bubbles music. “Polka Party!”, in sharp contrast, opens by taking songs that were already silly, fluffy and ridiculous and makes them even sillier. 

After all, it’s not like someone had to deflate the solemnity or self-seriousness of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”, a song perhaps known for its outrageous, stop-motion-animation music video. “Sledgehammer” is so goofy and so comic that it was repurposed as the theme song to an outrageous cop show parody. On a similar note, the following song, “Sussudio” is so silly and such disposable fluff that it’s almost a novelty song in its own right. The next nugget in Al and his band’s satirical targets isn’t just a silly song, it’s a song actually sung by a comedian and comic actor: Eddie Murphy’s Rick James-written and produced “Party All The Time.” 

Incidentally, I like to think that James wrote a song about a man who was turned off that a woman he’s interested in parties too much and realized, “yeah, it would make no sense for me to sing this. Better give it to somebody less synonymous with out-of-control partying and drug abuse.” 

It’s not all goofy larks on the docket, however. “Polka Party!” has fun making solemn songs like Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” and “Shout” feel completely ridiculous but “Polka Party!” doesn’t really come into its own in a way that differentiates it from Al’s other polka medleys until he closes the hits portion with Madonna's “Papa Don’t Preach.” 

“Papa Don’t Preach” is the kind of song Al’s polka medleys are made for. It’s ubiquitous, so everyone will be able to recognize it even in drastically altered form, but it also takes itself very seriously. It doesn’t just want to divert the masses for a few minutes. It wants to say something very serious and very dramatic and very important about The World That We Live In.

So it is a subversive delight to hear Al, of all people, crooning goofily about his incredible determination to hold onto his baby rather than giving it up for adoption or having an abortion. 

In the end, naming the album Polka Party! after a track even Al super-fans would probably have a hard time picking out from all of his other polka medleys was a strange but inspired joke. Creatively and comedically, naming the album Polka Party! after the requisite polka medley was, and remains, an audacious and clever gag, but commercially at least, it fell extremely flat. 

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