Day One hundred and twenty-nine: "Genius in France" from Poodle Hat
Well, folks, we have officially made it to the very end of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic’s eleventh album, 2003’s Poodle Hat. By this point you should know what that means. While the first song on every album is for the masses, the final song of every album is for the die-hards, the true believers, the kind of people whose brains exploded with joy when Al announced that for his 2018 tour, he was going to be leaving the sets and screens and hits behind to deliver concerts full of album cuts, pastiches and half-forgotten rarities.
Sure enough, Poodle Hat’s first track, parody and single is a spoof of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, a song pretty much everyone alive at the time knew whether they liked it or not. Its popularity and ubiquity transcended music. It won Eminem an Academy Award, making it the first Hip Hop song to win an Oscar
For Poodle Hat’s final track, Al paid tribute to one of his favorite artists and a fellow staple of The Dr. Demento Show, Frank Zappa, an artist and icon who thrived on being not just disliked or misunderstood but outright hated. Considering my love for similarly maligned and misunderstood artists like Phish and Insane Clown Posse, you’d think that’d make him more appealing to me.
Instead I’ve successfully been scared away from plunging into Zappa’s oeuvre by his reputation for being ragingly inaccessible and contemptuous of his audience and also humanity. I guess I bought into the Best Show depiction of Zappa as a sneering elitist whose life and career represented one long meditation on the stupidity of the American people and the idiots who buy pop records and enjoy things that are popular. Then again, The Best Show has also spoken ill of Insane Clown Posse, and I’ve come to have a certain affection for those blokes.
The sheer volume of Zappa’s work is similarly intimidating. When someone seems to have released four million projects of every shape and form over the course of their career, it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s easier sometimes to just write the whole thing off.
It’s easier, sure, but it’s not necessarily right, or fair. Listening to “Genius in France” made me think maybe I should give Zappa a chance. I was tempted to say “another chance” but the truth is that I never gave Zappa a chance to begin with. Instead, I was content to let Zappa’s music fall into the outsized category of “Not for me.”
Thankfully, Al has a much different attitude towards the prickly iconoclast. Al’s love, appreciation and understanding of Zappa comes through in every note of this eight minute, fifty four second opus. Frank Zappa was too busy being dead to contribute to “Genius in France”, the way Ben Folds contributed to “Why Does This Always Happen to Me”, Al’s tribute to him, so Al and his collaborators got the next best thing in the form of Frank’s son Dweezil, who contributes a guitar solo.
Lyrically, “Genius in France” is a snarky riff on the legend of Jerry Lewis, who is, rightly and wrongly considered a yammering, obnoxious twit here in his home country but is considered a towering giant in France. Alas, the singer of “Genius in France” wishes he had the dignity and grace of Hardly Working/Slapstick-era Jerry Lewis.
In that respect, the song is a spiritual sequel, lyrically at least, to “That Boy Could Dance”, another insult-riddled tribute to an almost impressively sub-par waste of DNA who nevertheless possesses something that causes some folks to not just excuse their egregious faults but revere them.
In “That Boy Could Dance”, the titular boy’s dancing ability renders him a God among men, but more specifically women, despite being a feeble-minded, drooling halfwit. We never learn exactly what impresses the Frenchies about the subject of "Genius in France" but their affection is as preposterously outsized as it is unmerited.
As I have written before, Al is a peerless student of music, pop culture and what I have taken to calling “The Old Jokes.” In “Genius in France” the subset of the Old Jokes Al is lovingly resurrecting are “French Jokes.” At his most direct, Al sings of the overly impressed Frenchmen, “People in France have lots of attitude/They're snotty and rude, they like disgusting food” but mainly the Frogs’ shortcomings are illustrated through their idiotic deification of someone who, by his own estimation, is among the least impressive people in history.
“Genius in France” is no mere song. No, it’s closer to a suite that combines an entire album worth of ideas, ambition and genres into a nearly nine minute epic. It's not written so much as it is composed. Zappa was as fearlessly eclectic as Al. Accordingly, “Genius in France” is a shape-shifting marvel that’s bluegrass and freewheeling one moment and disco fabulous the next.
It’s continually mutating sonically but lyrically it’s obsessed with the intersection of American stupidity and Gaelic gullibility. Not every line is a winner, but Al does manage some nifty couplets, like when he humblebrags, “I'm the biggest dork there is alive/My mom picked out my clothes for me 'till I was 35/And I forgot to mention/I'm not even welcome at the Star Trek convention.”
“Genius in France” is exhausting in the best way. By the end I didn’t just feel like I’d come to the close of an unusually long and ambitious song: I felt like Al and the gang had taken me on a journey. A ridiculous, ridiculous journey but one with a certain gonzo majesty all the same.
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