Day Forty-Three: "Toothless People" from Polka Party!
I have had the honor and the curious but exceedingly welcome professional responsibility of listening to all of “Weird Al” Yankovic songs, first for Weird Al: The Book and now, in an even more comprehensive fashion, for The Weird Accordion To Al. So it goes without saying that I’m more familiar with Al’s oeuvre than most folks, even hardcore fans.
But even if you’re a more casual fan (you know, the kind who reads a 200,000 word, 178 part series on each of his songs) there’s a good chance that when you hear the first thirty seconds of a song that “Weird Al” Yankovic has parodied, you probably feel an intense surge of recognition. This might be because you’re a big fan of the parody, or at least familiar with it. But it’s probably also because over the course of his nearly 40 years in the recording business, Al has pretty much only parodied monster hits, songs of the summer and ubiquitous top 40 and Classic Radio all-time champions.
Al spoofs the kinds of hits that you can generally recognize within the first thirty seconds, or enough time to get properly disappointed that you’re probably hearing the original hit, and not the Al parody because, for some reason, classic rock is too cowardly to play Al. Let’s face it: when filtered through his “Weird” lens, their so-called “reality” is even more of a hideous, mercenary sham. Al reflects back the bleak existential truth of rock music back to the people who would exploit and corrupt it, and they sometimes feel so ashamed and exposed that they instantly commit suicide.
His work is that powerful. Like the L. Ron Hubbard book Hubbard claimed was so powerful that it would drive minds unprepared for its truths permanently insane, Al’s music has the power to drive people mad. They don’t call him “Weird” because he’s not weird, they call him
“Weird” because he’s out of his gourd.
But I digress. Al’s golden ear for not just hits, but hits that would endure, is nearly infallible, which makes “Toothless People” such a bizarre anomaly in Al’s oeuvre. For one of the only times in his career, if not the only time, Al parodied a pop hit that wasn’t actually a pop hit. It was not a song people seemed to like at all, let alone a hit that would be lodged so deeply into the public consciousness that they would recognize and welcome a parody.
Was “Ruthless People” a hit? It sure doesn’t seem like it was, and if you Google, “Mick Jagger, Ruthless People”, Bing turns up, “You don’t wanna know about that garbage song. How about some porn? Or some heroin Bitcoin ain’t dead here in Bing-land, baby! We’re illegal and immoral all day!”
You know how you know “Ruthless People” was a song no one liked and no one remembers? Because it’s a Mick Jagger solo song. That’s why. Only Jann Wenner pretends to like those to stay in Mick’s favor.
“Ruthless People” is an outlier in Al’s career in many ways. It wasn’t really a hit. People didn’t really remember it. Even more unfortunately for Al, it wasn’t a particularly good or memorable or distinctive song, so instead of an instant anthem for the ages like “Beat It” or “Like A Virgin”, Al was hanging his spoof on the rickety, shambling frame of a forgettable Mick Jagger song co-written with Daryl Hall for the film of the same name.
If the recurring themes of Polka Party! are any indication, Al’s head was in a pretty weird place in 1985 and 1986. Of the album’s ten songs (one polka, four parodies and five originals), two end with a nuclear apocalypse (“One of Those Days” and “Christmas At Ground Zero”) and two are about painful and debilitating medical conditions (“Living With A Hernia” and “Toothless People”). It is perhaps not terribly surprising that Polka Party! failed to match the commercial success of Al’s first three albums, particularly the second and third.
While the medical ailment-themed “Living With A Hernia” is a weird and wonderful delight, “Toothless People” is one of the few near complete misses in Al’s discography. Ever the student, Al has clearly done a whole lot of research on toothlessness, gum disease and tooth decay.
The origin story for most pop smashes begin with a songwriter taking out a bunch of library books about dry sockets and gum disease, but this proved one case where the formula failed. “Ruthless People” is plenty educational as it details some of the horrors of improper dental care, including “Trench mouth” and “gum disease” and a permanent end to visits from the Tooth Fairy but even Al can’t make this subject matter funny. If Al can’t, no one can.
Thankfully, “Toothless People” gave Al nowhere to go but up, both in terms of Polka Party! and the inherently more successful parodies that would follow.
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