Day One hundred and twelve: "Polka Power!" from Running with Scissors
Well folks, in this, the weirdest timeline, we have reached the halcyon days of the late 1990s, an era of Y2K panic, Bill Clinton feeling everybody’s pain and a very special compilation called Now That's What I Call Music! that combined all the hottest hits in music on one compact disc.
The series debuted in the United States after much success in the United Kingdom in 1998, about a year before the release of Running with Scissors, and reflected the all-the-hits-all-the-time aesthetic of Al’s polka medleys so purely that it inspired the title of the polka medley ("NOW That's What I Call Polka!”) on 2014’s Mandatory Fun.
When Running with Scissors came out, I had just started reviewing music for The A.V Club, beginning with the Bulworth soundtrack, a zeitgeist-capturing surprise hit that gave the world the Mya, Pras and Ol’ Dirty Bastard masterpiece “Ghetto Supersta.” That generation-defining anthem gets the polka treatment on Running with Scissors’ “Polka Power!”
That would be more of a coincidence if the scope of Al’s career didn’t entail pretty the entirety of pop culture over the past forty years. Kevin Bacon wishes he was as connected as Al. Pretty much everything can be linked to him. It’s a pretty cheap trick.
When I started writing ineptly about music in the late 1990s, Al had been using his music as a sly, clever form of musical and cultural criticism for over fifteen years. Al brings to his music the skill set of a music critic among myriad other gifts. Not unlike Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, and also, I suppose, Taken 2, Al has a very particular set of skills that he has acquired over a very long career.
So he doesn’t just approach things from the perspective of a musician or pop star. He approaches them from the perspective of a music historian and critic and filmmaker and music video director and businessman and television sidekick/bandleader and kid’s show show-runner and coffee table book editor and copy-editor and about a million other things as well. Al is a renaissance man and different aspects of his careers reflect his diverse and remarkable gifts.
Al can do your job better than you, but he can also do a bunch of things that are pretty difficult, and that very few, if any, other people can do, such as being a rock star for nearly half a century with the accordion as a signature instrument or getting nominated for fifteen Grammy Awards as a mustachioed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing funnyman.
The polka medleys, for example, offer Al an opportunity to at once goofily inhabit the role of fun-loving party clown and comment satirically and irreverently on the state of pop music using inflection, tone and, of course, zany sound effects rather than parody lyrics. These polka medleys also hearken back to the early days of Al's career as an entertainer, the pre-album phase. As a young, hungry artist, without much in the way of original material, let alone hits, what do you do to entertain a potentially hostile crowd? You play the latest hits, of course.
On “Polka Power!” Al plays the songs everyone knew at the time, and continue to know to this day, beginning with the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”, the Girl Power anthem that lends the medley its name. To put things in Millennial, Buzzfeed terms, I was feeling all the feels. Well, maybe not ALL the feels. That should be reserved for the work of young adult superstar and my personal enemy John Green. But a lot of the feels. Maybe 80 percent of the feels.
“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is” goes the Noel Coward epigram. I believe it was in direct reference to “Wannabe.” Oh, but to hear that beloved chestnut of my cherished past performed in any context, but particularly in a “Weird Al” Yankovic polka medley, induces a tidal wave of nostalgia, as does the next song given the business, “Flagpole Sitta” from Harvey Danger.
Speaking of coincidences and the blurry line between criticism and performance, Sean Nelson, the songwriter and lead singer of Harvey Danger, has spent the last few decades working as a music critic and editor for The Stranger in addition to his musical endeavors.
We then segue from a slacker anthem written and sung by a music critic to the breakout single of the first album I reviewed professionally, and let me tell you, that song, in any context, is a delight. The songs that follow had my nostalgia buttons firing wildly. It’s one sing-along guilty pleasure after another.
“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)!” “Tubthumping!”, “Semi-Charmed Life”, “MMMBop.” It’s all the songs I love to hear as a lame Gen-Xer and don’t hear anywhere often enough, probably because I don’t find myself bumping old That's What I Call Music! CDs in my boombox very often. Or often enough.
“Polka Power!” hit particularly close to home for me. It inspired a whirlwind of memories and emotions and nostalgia. I feel like in this particularly medley, Al and the band were giving the business to the music of my generation, and listening to “Polka Power!” made me appreciate anew how infectious, and also how incredibly, wonderfully stupid and plastic this music was as well.
This is one of my favorite polka medleys, but that probably says as much, if not more, about the place I was at in my life when it was released as it does about the medley itself.
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