Day Seventy-Four: "Polka Your Eyes Out" from Off the Deep End
When I was in my twenties, and thought I knew everything, one of my favorite pejorative adjectives for work I found lacking was “dated.” As a tedious brat, I was personally insulted when entertainment from an earlier era was chockablock with campy signifiers from the age that produced it, like the gratuitous break-dancing sequences that litter bad 1980s exploitation movies.
I look at things differently now. For starters, I love gratuitous breakdancing sequences and feel they should be included in all movies. These days, I love it when a piece of entertainment is impossible to remove from the cultural moment that produced it. I don’t see “dated” as a negative quality anymore. Accordingly, one of the things I love about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s music is how deeply rooted it is in our cultural past.
“I Can’t Watch This” isn’t just a song about television: it’s damn near an audio, funny (or at least funnyish) version of a 1992 issue of TV Guide. It’s a crazy trip back in time to a far-away era when we were obsessed with Twin Peaks and a kooky show called America’s Home Videos bewitched a couch potato nation of easily entertained mouth-breathers.
But the most wonderfully dated element of any “Weird Al” Yankovic album is the polka medley of contemporary hits. This is particularly true of “Polka Your Eyes Out.” Like the unlikely combination of artists parodied on the album (Nirvana, Milli Vanili, New Kids on the Block, Gerardo and M.C Hammer) “Polka Your Eyes Out” indelibly captures a very strange, very singular moment in pop music and pop culture where the grunge and alternative revolution smashed up hard against the dying embers of Hair Metal, pop-rap and the traditional metal of Metallica.
“Polka Your Eyes” out begins differently than any other medley, with a straight-forward recreation of the opening of Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” bleeding inevitably into a polka goof of the same song. In his medleys, Al and his band polkafied contemporary hits (and oldies, and Rolling Stones songs, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”) but here we hear both a faithful recreation of the original version (from a man and band uniquely gifted at performing the music of others) and then the polka version immediately afterwards.
From there, we skip giddily from genre to genre as Al revisits a series of previous muses/inspirations, including The B-52s (who he pastiched on “Mr. Popeil” and micro-covers “Love Shack” here) and R.E.M, who would go on to inform three consecutive Al albums. UHF of course featured the “Stand” parody “Spam”, this features “Losing My Religion” in the medley and Alapalooza is blessed with the gorgeous pastiche/homage “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV.”
Elsewhere, Al and his band try their hand at a bunch of acts and songs they clearly feel much less affection towards, including irritatingly catchy hit-makers EMF (“Unbelievable”), Technotronic and hairspray abusers Motley Crue and Warrant. Al and the boys goof on “Dr. Feelgood” and “Cherry Pie” here but pop music moves quickly and by the time Al tipped his cap to this least respected of sub-genres, it was pretty much over.
One of the transgressive thrills of the medleys involves Al adopting the musical costumes of acts that deal with sex with a bluntness and a graphicness at odds with Al’s family-friendly aesthetic. “Naughty Al” Yankovic consequently makes his presence felt on such famously leering songs as the aforementioned “Cherry Pie” (which sources tell me includes what are known as “double entendres”) and the DiVinyls’ “I Touch Myself”, which is all about an unfortunate woman who finds herself all alone in the gas station of love, forced to use the self-service pump.
“Polka Your Eyes Out” captures a strange cultural moment when a resurgent Metallica shared the airwaves with funky hip hop jokers like Digital Underground and pop royalty Janet Jackson, who is commemorated here with a snippet from “Miss You Much.”
I’ve discovered that there are few things in my life that cannot be connected very directly to “Weird Al” Yankovic. At the risk of once again wowing you with my hipness and discriminating taste, the most transcendent musical experience of the past few months has been seeing Vanilla Ice perform an exquisitely endless “Ice Ice Baby” at this year’s Gathering of the Juggalos in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. So I was delighted, if not particularly surprised, that the big medley from 1992 prominently features “Ice Ice Baby” about halfway through then returns to it at the end by pairing it with BellBivDevoe’s “Do Me” in a medley within-a-medley.
Listening to Al’s polka medleys is a warm, soothing bath of nostalgia but sometimes the song choices hit particularly close to home and feels like Al has a unique line into your psyche and the psyches of his fans in addition to possessing a peerless genius for discerning what pop music will endure and what history will erase.
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