Day One hundred and thirty-four: "Polkarama" from Straight Outta Lynwood
It is an increasingly fuzzy memory at this point, but for a while there I was a professional music critic. It was a big part of my job and my life for a number of years. When my livelihood was earned writing about the latest hip hop, pop and R&B releases I felt plugged into the cultural zeitgeist where new music was concerned in a way I do not now. One of the biggest luxuries of being a semi-literate outsider artist making their living begging for money on the outer fringes of the internet is that I am no longer obligated to know or care about new music.
I can write off contemporary music as young folks business, the domain of teenagers and drunk people at loud bars and concerts trying to get laid. But when I was the primary Hip Hop writer for The A.V. Club I felt a need to keep abreast of trends in contemporary rap, pop and soul that was part joy, part weary obligation.
I had a love-hate relationship freighted heavily towards love with pop music that found its purest expression in the column where I wrote about every Now That’s What I Call Music compilation in order. Writing that column gave me a new appreciation for pop song craft and the plastic perfection of a great pop song as well as all manner of guilty pleasure from the exuberant trashiness that has always characterized the most infectious, irresistible chart fodder.
A similar combination of genuine appreciation and guilty delight informs Al’s polka medleys. There’s always been a strong element of music criticism coursing through Al’s oeuvre. Medleys afford Al the space to comment on a whole string of wildly popular, ubiquitous and unavoidable contemporary smashes in the space of just a few minutes.
In the parlance of the British, Al is taking the piss out of the top hits of the day, using the inveterately unserious vehicle of the polka medley to render somber hits silly, silly hits preposterous and sexy songs cartoonish and buffoonish.
In his polka medleys, Al simultaneously honors and mocks the frothy ephemera that fill our iPods and brains with maddeningly irresistible noise. When I was writing my Now That’s What I Call Music! column, I felt like my primary muse was Will.I.Am. Speaking of whom, how much greater of an artist and writer would William Shakespeare have been if he’d called himself Will.I.Am Shakespeare and collaborated with the Fergie of his day? I mean, don’t get me wrong. Shakespeare did pretty good. Some of his plays are tight but if he had a sixteenth century version of the Duchess herself, Fergie Ferg, rocking by his side, vibing with him and bringing the sexy? He could have been one of the all-time greats. But no, he was cursed to live in a pre-Fergie age. Thank God we’re luckier than that poor schmuck.
So I was delighted that "Polkarama" kicks off with Black Eyed Peas “Let’s Get it Started”, which began life as “Let’s Get Retarded” before someone realized that that was wildly offensive. Why didn’t anyone figure that out before the song was released with that title? I have no idea. Needless to say, Al uses the non-offensive version of the chorus as the gleeful kick-off to his tour through the highs and lows of the pop charts, from the cheeseball douche bag pop of Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” to the arena-rock pomposity of Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound” to the gender-bending, neurotic neo-new wave of the Killer’s “Somebody Told Me.”
Medleys afford Al the freedom to get nakedly sexual in ways he never does in his non-polka work, although in Al and the band’s jovial hands 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” actually seems to be about a shop full of sweets rather than sex. On a steamier note, Al teases his way through Pussycat Dolls’ “Don't cha” in a way that anticipates Kyle Gass’ performance of the same tune the following year in Wild Hogs.
Good lord is that movie ever an abomination. It’s safe to say Al does not want credit for that bit, which works infinitely better within the framework of a polka medley.
Yes, “Polkarama” was a real blast from the past, a musical magic carpet ride to a time when I knew and cared about pop music, within reason, and considered it, if not a sacred obligation, then at least an important part of my job to keep up with what the kids were listening to, which here includes Kanye & Jamie Foxx (“Golddigger”), Snoop Dogg and Pharrell (“Drop It Like It’s Hot”), Gorrilaz and De La Soul (“Feel Good Inc.”) and many more.
On a purely personal and selfish level I dug this medley because it reconnected me to a time when I went to shows and eagerly debated the merits of new albums and felt a responsibility both to my readers and to the history of pop culture and music writing to keep current, to keep on top of things, not to let things slide so badly that I'd never be able to catch up even if I wanted to.
I’m not saying that’s my relationship with pop music now. Obviously I’ve stayed current, relevant and knowledgable about pop music trends (and consequently very employable) through things like writing one hundred thirty four articles about the work of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic but obviously my experience of new music has changed with time even more dramatically than most.
“Polkarama” is a tuneful reminder of why I love pop music particularly when it is ridiculous, even when I’m not professionally obligated to do so.
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