The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

POLKA NOT FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: I am not what you might call a terribly musical person. The only place I really listen to music is in my car, where I keep my radio tuned to the classical music channel that broadcasts out of Albany. As I like classical music, primarily because I can play the music and not really listen to it, this arrangement suits me just fine. During the school year, however, listening to classical music is a little harder to do. The only reason I get classical music from Albany in the first place is because the communications department of the old alma mater, the State University of New York, College of Arts and Sciences at New Paltz, rebroadcasts the classical music station’s signal. In the summer, this is not a problem; I can listen to the classics, especially the music of the Baroque, till my heart’s content. From September to May, however, classical music goes off the air at seven o’clock so that the college’s radio station can play what today’s musically conscious youth want to hear. Since what today’s musically conscious youth listens to is either rap, which I don’t care for, or a series of loud metallic sounds that bear a striking resemblance to a bad night at the demolition derby, I must look elsewhere for my aural wallpaper.

This is the background to the horrible events of last week. Faced with finding a new source of 17th and 18th century music, I was hitting the seek button on the car radio with ever greater desperation, trying to find some semblance of Johann Sebastian Bach or even one of his kids and finding naught zip zilch zero rien nada and not even bupkis. Well, I thought, naively enough, maybe someone’s playing Sinatra or the Gershwins or Cole Porter. As I wondered through the hellish wasteland that is local FM radio; at night the local AM stations broadcast a wide selection of static; looking vainly for Bach and Boccherini, Basie and Bennett, I came across the ultimate in radio niche marketing. Yes, I had found the polka channel. Utterly aghast, I tried to change the channel while simultaneously avoiding running down a cohort of jaywalking kids. I missed the kids, but did not succeed in changing the channel in time. Traffic then surrounded me, compelling me to stop playing with the radio and pay attention to the road. I was trapped in the polka zone, where no one can hear you scream.

I don’t want to sound snobbish or anti-Polish here, but is there a musical form anywhere on this planet more annoying than the polka? Given Poland’s long and tortured history, I can well understand why the polka became so popular there. If I’d spent the better part of two hundred years occupied by Russians, Prussians, Austrians, Austro-Hungarians in the place of Austrians, more Russians, Imperial Germans in the place of merely royal Prussians, Bolshevik Russians in the place of Tsarist (or Czarist, pick whatever spelling you like, it’s a free country) Russians, Nazi Germans in the place of Imperial Germans in the place of merely royal Prussians, the Soviet Union in place of Bolshevik Russians in the place of Tsarist (or Czarist) Russians, then I’d probably tell the fiddler to play something cheerful to help me forget my troubles too. Having this lot lord it over you like they were God’s gift to Europe is just too damn annoying for words, especially since in the two hundred or so years that preceded the two hundred years of occupation Poland was a great power much given to stomping on various Austrians, Russians, Prussians, etc., etc., etc. Yes, if I found myself in this situation sometimes I’d need a burst of pure high energy polka to keep me sane and prevent me from hanging myself with a length of kielbasa, which, when all is said and done, is not a terribly dignified way to die.

But I don’t live in Poland, I live in the United States, the land of endless dreams and boundless opportunities, where, as Ronald Reagan always reminded us, it’s always morning in America, always a bright and sunny summer’s day even when we are up to our asses in snow. In these circumstances, the polka is not only irritating in the extreme, but is the musical equivalent of dragging your fingernails across a blackboard twice.

Even in America, land of eternal optimism, it is impossible for anyone to be this relentlessly cheerful all the time. It really is enough to make you want to throttle the accordion player with your bare hands. Listening to the polka is like going out with the prettiest, most popular girl in high school, the captain of the cheerleading squad, a girl filled with school spirit and tremendous energy, optimism and personality, and then realizing halfway through the first hamburger that this girl has made it to high school without large portions of her conscious mind actually becoming conscious. Now, when you’re in high school, this may or may not matter to you. After all, she may have the mental acuity of a can of Spam on a good day, but she’s the most popular girl in school, she’s got vim, vigor, enthusiasm, and really nice breasts. So as a teenager you make allowances. When you’re my age, though, and you meet someone like this you just want to smack her until she comes to her senses, even if she still has nice breasts.

And I wonder why the polka channel is broadcasting here in the Northeast anyway. Surely the bulk of the Polish-American population, which must be the polka channel’s target audience, is closer to Chicago and Detroit then it is here in our happy little burg. I’ll grant you, these folks are completely within their constitutional rights to broadcast Jimmy Sturr records morning, noon, and night; I can always change the channel if I don’t want to listen to polkas, but it does seem to me that devoting an entire channel to the polka is a bit much. And why does Jimmy Sturr keep winning Grammys for best polka album? Is he the only polka player the Grammy voters have ever heard of? I think it would be better for everyone involved if the polka channel alerted the unsuspecting listener before the music started, giving us the same sort of warning one sees on rap or heavy metal albums, something on the order of danger, the following broadcast contains extremely cheery ethnic music not suitable for diabetics, pessimists, French existentialist philosophers, and persons suffering from reality overload. Then we'd know to get out of the way before the Beer Barrel Polka came roaring out of our radios at us.

All of which, of course, makes me wonder why there can’t be a Sinatra channel. Someone out there must have enough money to start such a venture. I wish I did. I miss Frank.



  • At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well...I don't know where to start...Frist, I've lived in Poland for 28 years and I've never noticed that polka was popular there as it is here, in the US. I have a Master of Music degree and I think I will notice that as I've notice here in The US as beeing very popular. Second, polka is not a polish genre of music (dance).It originated in the middle of the 19th century in Czech lands. Regards.


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