Day Forty-Two: "Don't Wear Those Shoes" from Polka Party!
At this stage in Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place’s life, I am writing somewhere between eleven and fourteen original articles for this website a week in addition to the five columns I’m writing for Splitsider, Rotten Tomatoes and TCM Backlot. So a lot of my life is about efficiency and time management and getting the absolute most, work-wise, out of energy and research and preparation.
So I very briefly contemplated combining two of my columns/obsessions by writing about Polka Party! for My World of Flops, since it’s one of the few out and out flops in Al’s oeuvre. Oh sure, UHF and The Weird Al Show were not big commercial successes at the time of their release, but UHF has gone from flop to favorite, from failure to beloved cult success and The Weird Al Show has a small but devoted cult.
Yet Polka Party! remains the kind of pop culture orphan that attracts defenders more than fans, a real contrarian’s choice. It’s easy to see where the album went wrong commercially. The cover was a mistake, as it failed to increase Al’s popularity among punks or polka enthusiasts, as was naming the album after the polka medley and a style of music that was only played on ten percent of the album. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Country Classics would have been as misleading and uncommercial a title, and more people buy country albums than polka platters.
Al probably should not have returned so quickly to the comedic well of painful medical procedures with “Living With A Hernia” so soon after “Like A Surgeon” satiated the public’s need for surgery-themed spoofs from Al, possibly for good. While we’re second-guessing the young Al, “Ruthless People” was a poor choice to parody, on account of it being terrible and forgettable and no one liking it.
Yet I would happily rank Polka Party! a Secret Success, unsurprisingly, thanks to fun outliers like “Don’t Wear Those Shoes”, a quintessential weird album cut that joins “Christmas At Ground Zero”, “Good Enough for Now” and “Dog Eat Dog” as solid to great originals that, along with “Living With A Hernia” and “Addicted To Spuds”, make Polka Party! one of the most underrated albums in Al’s career.
With its chiming synthesizer, infectious walking baseline and pop-operatic bigness, “Don’t Wear Those Those” sounds like nothing else Al had recorded up until that point. Even more impressively, it still sounds like nothing else Al has done in the decades since. The song is carried by a soaring melody and glossy, dramatic production that seems to mock the non-sequitur absurdity of the lyrics.
As the title conveys, “Don’t Wear Those Shoes” is sung from the perspective of an obsessive who is willing to tolerate a nearly endless gauntlet of misbehavior, abuse and craziness from his partner on the sole condition that whoever he’s appealing to (who seems to be their partner) refrain from wearing specific footwear.
Al has always found the humor and levity in larger-than-life, over-the-top forms of torment. Think “One More Minute”, where the singer lovingly catalogs the torture he’d prefer to spending another brutal second with an ex. On a similar note, the protagonist of “Don’t Wear Those Shoes” invites the subject of his desperate pleas to subject him to the torments of the damned. They’re free to wreck his car or shave off all his hair, and run the vacuum during his favorite show (how predictable that in the first verse the torment would involve television?), and make phone calls to Europe to people they don’t even know.
They’re similarly invited to spend his money and waste his time and because this is a “Weird Al” Yankovic song, the masochistic offers escalate and escalate until the deranged singer is trying to convince himself, the listener and the song’s subject that he could “learn to live” with a six inch railroad spike” being shoved through his head. Now that is a very generous offer, but I don’t think he could live with that. He’d probably die almost instantly, and all things considered, it’s probably preferable to suffer through someone’s unfortunate choice in shoes than risk incurring possible permanent brain injury.
The more I listen to the song, the more I think the song’s singer is just a masochist, and that shoes don’t really factor into the equation. We never know why these shoes are so dreadfully offensive and unforgivable. We don’t need to know. That would just spoil the mystery. I suppose that since I have Al’s email address, I could ask him myself but now that Carly Simon has revealed that her song, “You’re So Vain” was written about eccentric Hollywood 1970s player Vainy McVainGuy, the reason the singer of “Don’t Wear Those Shoes” hates those shoes so much has usurped it as the music world’s biggest and most tantalizing mystery.
When we were working together, Al swore a blood oath to never reveal the secret of “Don’t Wear Those Shoes” until his dying breaths. So, you know, you’ve got that to look forward to but given Al’s healthy lifestyle that could be decades from now. But it’ll be worth it, believe you me.
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