Like The Beatles and the Daleks, The Simpsons were a craze before they were a cultural fixed point. “Do The Bartman” is the 1991 equivalent of a moptop wig, part of a deluge of merchandising which might have killed a lesser show off. Instead, the Simpsons books, toys, shampoos, clothes, beer steins, records et al. simply accelerated Bart and Homer’s brand recognition.
Which was particularly important in Britain where most people couldn’t actually watch the thing. The Simpsons was the most unusual of crazes, where the merchandise and spin-offs were far more accessible than the actual product. If you didn’t have Sky – and in the pre-Premiership days you almost certainly didn’t – you waited for a video copy to circulate your way, an episode or two at a time. Once you did see it, the show was so instantly, obviously terrific that this slow spread actually boosted the merchandise’s appeal: if you couldn’t get hold of Simpsons TV, something like “Do The Bartman” at least provided a way to join in. (One effect of this is that Simpsonsmania in the UK was utterly Bart-centric – it was presented as his show, not as the family’s show, and the episodes which seemed to get most play when it did arrive on terrestrial TV were “Bart Gets An F” and “Bart The General”)
When Matt Groening revealed that this song was actually written by Michael Jackson – and we’ll take his word for it – he said he’d been amazed people hadn’t realised before. To be fair, though, “Bartman” isn’t exactly a standout entry in Jackson’s canon: it’s a pleasant, breezy bit of pop-funk with some nice bass noises and lots of space for catchphrases, sound effects, and Nancy Cartwright rapping. Even the chorus is unassuming, sounding like its main aim is to get itself out of the way so we can fit in more of Bart himself. So stripped of its temporary mystique of Being About The Simpsons, “Do The Bartman” stands or falls on what Bart gets to do.
And that is… not much. Cartwright actually nails exactly (whether she means to or not) the enthusiastic clumsiness of kids trying to rap – but what’s striking about “Bartman” is that it’s not funny. It doesn’t even seem to be aiming for funny. Perhaps that’s not a shock – the humour in The Simpsons and the humour of comic songs don’t really feel related – but it makes the record a pointless thing to return to, however endearing it is. Like the moptop wigs, it’s a triumph of aura over use.