Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Track 1: Alternative Polka

Well, this here's the first entry of my blog, in which I intend to write about songs, in the least academic way possible. So. Okay. I guess I'll start now.

Occasionally, when driving, the radio will lose signal, or I'll have forgotten the ancient (read: more than five years old) iPod where is housed my entire music library. When these things happen, I resort to listening to the music on my iPhone. This consists mostly of impulse purchases brokered through iTunes; for example, apparently there were times when I simply couldn't bear the thought of not hearing a song from E.L.O, Debbie Reynolds or the original Broadway cast of "The Full Monty."

One of the songs that occasionally pops up on my shuffle is "The Alternative Polka" by "Weird Al" Yankovic. 

Let's skip back in time: it's 1997, my 13th birthday party. Amid gifts of money, matching "best friends" necklaces and purses shaped like animals (there were two: a dog and a turtle), there was one gift that stood out: a cassette tape of the album "Bad Hair Day" by Weird Al. It was given to me by my friend Jennifer Creamer. Middle school was a weird time, which goes without saying, made more weird for me by the fact that I was re-zoned to a school which separated me from a lot of my friends, and forced me to make new ones all over again. 

Jennifer and I became friends because we were, at the time, the only girls in the band who played trumpet, and because we shared a love of comedy, however that manifests itself to a tween. Parody is one of those ways: the appeal, I guess, is that it's something you already know, but turned on its head and made absurd. This is perfect for a burgeoning teenager, to whom the absurdities of life are only just beginning to reveal themselves. So this tape instantly became my favorite thing. 

The album's major track, "Amish Paradise," which is, of course, a parody of "Gangster's Paradise," was a veritable laugh riot in my house. I had very little knowledge of the original track on which Weird Al's piece was based, but it didn't seem to matter, since the altered lyrics were so silly on their own. There was one particular set of lyrics that made me lose my proverbial shit so much that I had to rewind the tape at least twice every time I heard it:

Hitchin' up the buggy
churnin' lots of butter
raised a barn on Monday
soon I'll raise a-nudder!
Think you're really righteous?
Think you're pure at heart?
Well I know I'm a million times 
as humble as thou art.

Amazing stuff, right? See, it's funny because of the juxtaposition, guys. Amish dudes rapping? That's just wacky to the max, my friend.

It's this same juxtaposition that Weird Al applies to one of his most popular album staples, the "polka medleys." As the term suggests, these are medleys of songs of particular genre, all re-imagined as polka: there's "Polkas on 45," "Bohemian Polka," "Angry White Boy Polka" and so on. It's on "Bad Hair Day" that "Alternative Polka" appears, and which, at the risk of sounding too dramatic, changed my life.

The issue with comedy of the parody type is that it helps to understand the reference material. As I said, I didn't need to know too much about "Gangster's Paradise" to find it funny, but when I first heard "Alternative Polka," I had literally never heard any of the songs in the medley. I was coming off more than a decade of a musical repertoire consisting entirely of hymns, contemporary Christian tunes and the occasional foray into "light rock." 

(My big secret love in fifth grade, for example, was Phil Collins, specifically the song "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven," which was the soundtrack to an elaborate music video I had produced in my head, starring Tommy and Kimberly from "Power Rangers." And I will save the story on that for a future blog.)

Anyway, "Alternative Polka" was the first time I'd ever heard, for example, anything of the Smashing Pumpkins. Even set to the merry churning of accordions and a screeching, muted trumpet, the lyrics hit me hard: "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage!" I sat and pondered over these words. What exactly the singer meant I didn't quite grasp, but I was 13 and just starting to feel the stirrings of angst and suburban ennui, and I had the feeling that these words were somehow relevant to me. (Note: they were not. I was 13 and still watching "Power Rangers" when nobody was looking.) 

In any event, though I liked what I'd heard, I needed more context, needed to know the rest of lyrics. Without Google or YouTube or the saving grace of Grooveshark, this meant I had to actually start listening to the local rock station. I did this at night, with my little clock radio pulled next to me ear, the cord dangling down from the top bunk. So, eventually, I also heard some of the other artists represented in "Alternative Polka": Beck, Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, and most importantly, Green Day. While I never really explored much more into the catalogues of the other artists I heard, Green Day brought me into the world of mid-to-late '90s pop punk, a genre which dominated my musical taste for my teenage years. 

And it was a genre that was being rapidly eaten up by the Christian music industry, which meant it was totally okay to listen to on church trips, and so in my own home, on my very own CD player, in the light of day.

So, soon I was wearing ironic t-shirts and going to "shows" and dancing around in my clearance rack skate shoes and writing "punk's not dead" on my backpack. (PS: this was the signal to the rest of the world that punk was totally dead.)

And that was middle school, that was high school. And on into college, this love of "alternative" music meant listening to the college radio station, which opened up a whole world of new music with which to challenge the knowledge of friends, a whole new bevy of even more ironic t-shirts at the "merch" table of every band in every bar. The soundtrack of my life started with "Alternative Polka."

So, I thank you, "Weird Al" Yankovic: I genuinely like your music, and I sincerely dig your comedy.

And a million thanks to you, Jennifer Creamer, wherever you might be. I'd love to run into you some day, maybe have a drink, pop in Weird Al, and catch up on the last 15 years.

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