Day One hundred and sixty: "NOW That's What I Call Polka!" from Mandatory Fun
American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic’s history with the Cyrus family is long and deep, in a shallow, superficial kind of way.
Al’s deep, seething, intensely personal and very real hatred of “Achy Breaky Heart”, the signature of song of Miley’s mulleted papa Billy Ray, inspired him to write “Achy Breaky Song”, Al’s first single to get airplay on country stations. Most artists would have changed their whole persona and image to capitalize on this new audience. Al, to his credit, did not procure a bunch of Nudie suits, join the Grand Ol’ Opry and change his name to “Country” Al Yankovic. Nope, he kept it Weird. I applaud him for that.
Al next revisited the recorded output of the Cyrus clan when he parodied Miley’s exquisitely plastic pop single “Party in the USA” as the wonderfully warped “Party in the USA.” That was before Miley, like so many former child stars (they say even Robert Downey Jr. had a bit of a wild streak in his youth!), particularly of the Disney persuasion, broke wild and her persona changed ever so slightly from “Wholesome, Apple-Cheeked Christian Country Pop Disney Princess” to “Pansexual Pop Art Hip Hop Provocateur/Sensual spectacle.”
It’s funny the things you remember. For some reason, I will always remember an interview with Miley around the time of “Party in the USA” when she responded to a question about her favorite Jay-Z song (he’s name-dropped on “Party in the USA”) with an unwisely candid admission that she didn’t really listen to Hip Hop or Jay-Z so she didn’t really have one.
In its own strange way, that was a brave admission. She was being “real” in a Hip Hop way about the fundamental inauthenticity of her image. You know what happened after that: three weeks later was getting the lyrics to the Luniz’s “I Got Five On It” tattooed on her lower back, signing to Rap-A-Lot records and doing ciphers with Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel. She went Hip Hop in a big way, is what I’m saying.
Miley’s number one hit “Wrecking Ball” is a product of her Hip Hop period, as evidenced by it coming from an album entitled Bangerz rather than her previous album, Nice Clean Pop Songs For Christians to Listen To. She’d reinvented herself as a brazenly sexual, race and gender-gender-bending pop ARTIST but there’s nothing particularly Hip Hop or provocative about “Wrecking Ball.”
Rather, “Wrecking Ball” is a string-laden ballad so raw and overwhelming in its cinematic melodrama and deep, deep pain that it retains some of its shattering emotional power even in tongue-in-cheek, upbeat polka medley form. Al’s polka medleys allow us to see and hear groaningly familiar, ubiquitous smashes in new and sometimes revelatory ways.
“Wrecking Ball” consequently doesn’t need a full orchestra or Miley’s wildly emotive vocals to pack a punch. Even as a joke, it’s a monster. “Wrecking Ball” is followed by “Pumped Up Kicks”, an icily infectious pop song about a school shooting that derives its novelty from the ironic gulf between its grim subject matter and its breezy, catchy, infectious, mall-ready sound.
In Al and the gang’s hands, however, there’s nothing sly or secret about the bloody nature of the subject matter: the gunshot sound effect prominently featured in the medley gives the game away in the most amusingly literal possible way. From there, it’s a dizzy spin through the most maddeningly infectious anthems of the early teens, from Psy’s “Gangnam Style” to Kesha’s “Timber” to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
As always, Al radically transforms everything he touches here. In Al’s hands, there’s absolutely nothing remotely cool about Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ poignantly wannabe Woke anthem “Thrift Store.” Al sounds less like a hipster dandy celebrating the creativity of the poor and soulful than a deliriously unselfconscious doofus, a real dork.
A polka version of “Gangnam Style” is always going to be fun, especially with Al giving the “Sexy Lady” part of Psy’s obnoxious materialistic anthem a Jerry Lewis by way of Professor Frink inflection but I always prefer serious songs to disposable pop in medleys. A polka version of “Hey Jude” is inherently more subversive than something like LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.”
“Now That’s What I Call Music” ends on a satisfyingly familiar note with a polkafied burst of Daft Punk’s Pharrell Williams-assisted “Get Lucky” that focusses on a recurring theme in Al’s polka medleys: the maddening, oddly infectious repetitive excess of hit pop songs. If the chorus of “Get Lucky” lodged deep in the minds of the listening public and refused to leave that’s probably because Pharrell repeats the title of Daft Punk’s smash over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, to the point of madness.
These pleasingly familiar mash-ups of monster hits afford Al the opportunity to simultaneously play crowd-pleasing party musician and covert music critic. By radically re-shaping and re-conceiving the top hits of the day, Al is commenting on these songs and the role they play in our culture while simultaneously honoring and exploiting the hypnotic power they hold over the music-buying public.
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