Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why that "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" song gave me nightmares

Brian Hyland and the song which I completely misinterpreted as a kid.

You know which song scared the hell out of me as a kid? "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." This will sound ridiculous, I realize. How could anyone be frightened by this totally innocuous, slightly risque 1960 novelty number about a young woman who comes to regret her choice in swimwear? Answer: because I was a kid at the time and kids' minds work in weird ways. I'm not sure how exactly I heard this song at first, but I'm guessing it was because my mother had a 45 of it in her collection. While the rest of the world heard a fun little bubblegum pop tune about good times at the beach, I heard a song about a girl freezing to death in the ocean. The fact that the song was so light and upbeat only made it more horrifying: not only was the singer totally unconcerned about the girl, but he was actually making fun of her with this record. Here are the lyrics which bothered me so much back then. (To recap the "plot" of song to this point, a young woman has come to the beach wearing the rather immodest garment of the title. Concealing her shame with a blanket, the damsel at first timidly progressed from the locker room to the shore. Now, having shed the blanket, she has secluded herself in the water and seems to be suffering from hypothermia.)

HYLAND: 
Now she's afraid to come out of the water
And I wonder what she's gonna do.
Now she's afraid to come out of the water
And the poor little girl's turning blue.

FEMALE VOCALIST:
Two, three, four, tell the people what she wore!

HYLAND & CHORUS:
It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini
That she wore for the first time today
An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini
So in the water she wanted to stay

FEMALE BACKING VOCALISTS:
From the locker to the blanket!
From the blanket to the shore!
From the shore to the water!

HYLAND:
Guess there isn't any more!

The two lines which really bothered me were "The poor little girl's turning blue" and "Guess there isn't any more!" I cannot tell you the impact these lyrics had on my then-developing mind. Just so you know, this song no longer bothers me. I have it on my iPod, and it comes up in shuffle mode occasionally without causing me any stress. I can even now appreciate the cleverness of the lightly Latin arrangement, with the interplay between Brian Hyland and the sexy-sounding, flirtatious female vocalists -- not to mention the record's supreme use of cowbell. But when I was 4 or 5 years old, this song was a total nightmare to me. Kids, huh? Try to figure 'em out.



P.S. - This song was Hyland's first and biggest hit, and he was only 16 at the time. He'd go on to have other Top 40 smashes in the 1960s and 70s, including more serious tunes like "Sealed With a Kiss" and "Gypsy Woman," but none were bigger than "Bikini." So massive was the song's success that Hyland shamelessly copied himself with a sound-alike follow-up record which totally bombed. Here's that one. It's kinda fun, I guess.

3 comments:

  1. Awwww. The only song that I can think of as having that same kind of worry is Carol of the Bells, more because whenever I hear it, I automatically picture a punch of children running at me with ice picks. Now imagine if they wore yellow polka dot bikinis while doing so!

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  2. Coincidentally, "Bikini" was inspired by a child -- the songwriter's daughter, in fact, which makes the song even more harmless and cute. We played "Carol of the Bells" at our Christmas concert, and I guess I've always liked how creepy and unsettling it is. Ditto "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," the only carol to namecheck Satan.

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  3. I'm curious to know whether you've ever heard Devo's cover of this song. They recorded it for the soundtrack of Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise (one of the many films they contributed songs to while they were between labels in the mid-'80s), but I know it better from the Rhino anthology Pioneers Who Got Scalped.

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