Day One hundred and twenty-two "Angry White Boy Polka" from Poodle Hat
As both a pop culture writer and human being, I am both fascinated and deeply irritated by the human need to publicly profess our complete lack of knowledge or experience regarding some person, place or thing. You see this all the time on online message boards. “I have no idea who this person is!” a commenter will post about some figure in the news with a combination of pride, embarrassment and the kind of pointless narcissism that leads people to think that strangers will be inherently interested in what they have and have not come into contact with over the course of their life.
“I don’t even know who/what this is!” frequently has a self-aggrandizing undercurrent. The underlying implication seems to be that the person professing proud ignorance of some pop-culture phenomenon has more important things to think about than, say, 6ix9ine or Li’l Peep. Alternately, there’s the none too subtle suggestion that the 6ix9ine and/or Li’l Peeps of the world are not worth knowing about, nor is so much of pop culture, and it’s better to live in blissful ignorance of such ephemera than to waste your time with things that do not matter, that are not good, and will not stand the test of time.
There’s something inherently reactionary, self-regarding and condescending about “I don’t even know what/who that is!” even when used in an ostensibly self-deprecating context, even when we’re supposed to be mocking how hopelessly out of touch and un-hip we are. Yet the “I don’t even know who/what this is!” impulse is as human and unavoidable as it is annoying, and I would be lying if I said that that phrase didn’t float through my brain throughout “Angry White Boy Polka”, the recent hit polka medley on 2003’s Poodle Hat.
Ideally, we should should know every song on a “Weird Al” Yankovic polka medley. These aren’t just popular songs: these are songs that seemingly everyone knows, that we, as a culture, have collectively learned by heart and can consequently happily sing along to when we hear them in an impish, irreverent polka medley. That’s why, to me, the perfect song for a polka medley is The Who’s “My Generation”, The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” or the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” These are all songs that take themselves seriously, lyrically and musically, that are important and substantive and consequently ideal for Al’s Spike Jones-style tomfoolery.
We need to know the original context of a song in an Al parody for his prankish subversion to really register but listening to the “Angry White Boy Polka” I repeatedly and annoyingly found myself thinking, “I don’t know this song at all!” and “I have no idea who this is!” That’s partially because Al chose acts for his medley from sections of the pop music landscape I wasn’t paying attention to in the early oughts, or ever. I’m talking hip, fashionable hipster rock outfits like The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes and The Strokes as well as deeply unhip, unfashionable Nu-Metal artists and rap-rock meatheads like Papa Roach, System of a Down, Disturbed, Limp Bizkit, Staind and P.O.D.
As the title conveys, the underlying satirical conceit behind the parody is to subvert and lampoon the ponderous self-seriousness of white boys in love with their own angst and pain but because I didn’t know a lot of these songs in their original context, that didn’t work for me as well as it would have if I were more familiar with them.
That’s the tricky thing about the polka medleys: they play very directly to nostalgia both personal and cultural. So my lack of familiarity with, and by extension, nostalgia for, the songs being mashed up here inhibited my enjoyment of the medley as a whole, although I did appreciate the parts that overlap with my own journey through music, so a very brief spin through Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba" and a Barber Shop quartet style revisitation of “The Real Slim Shady” were particular highlights.
I was a full-time professional music critic when Poodle Hat was released yet I still somehow wasn’t familiar with many of the songs Al goofed on it. I’ve only grown less engaged with popular music and out of touch in the ensuing decades. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve never actually listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. I’m consequently reluctant to listen to Al’s medley of songs from it because I want to get the most out of it as humanly possible, and my experiences with “Angry White Boy Polka” suggest that that’s not going to be possible until I’ve familiarized with the medley’s source material.
I am totally okay with that. God knows that Al does his homework when it comes to composing his parodies, medleys and originals. I don’t mind doing a little homework of my own to ensure that I get the most out of all of Al’s songs, particularly his first single in four years.
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