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Mar 11

THE SIMPSONS – “Do The Bartman”

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#660, 16th February 1991

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.

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  1. 1
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 18 Mar 2011 #

    haha i had never heard that Michael Jackson wrote this!? are you winding us up, Tom?

    we didn’t watch the Simpsons because it controversially competed with The Cosby Show in the fabled 8pm Thursday slot, and my family were trueblood Cosbyists (plus my dad said he “didn’t watch cartoons”)

    But even if we hadn’t been, there was the sense at first that there was something cheap and nasty about it – it was on Fox, which had been making a name for itself with shows that were cheaper and nastier than the competition. The hugely popular Fox show “Married With Children” was the Simpsons’ direct antecedent: the resemblance Homer and Bart bore to that show’s loutish, pathetic father and snotty son felt entirely natural and a continuation of that show’s (and by extension, Fox’s) project to be the anti-Cosby by portraying openly fractious families that much of the time didn’t treat each other all that well. The first running gag the Simpsons ever had was Homer literally strangling Bart til Bart’s eyes bugged out – you still see The Strangle invoked now but it’s like a vestigial relic of those days, before Homer had become so docile, when the Simpsons were rubbing everyone the wrong way

  2. 2
    poohugh on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Around this time, Bart vs The Space Mutants computer game also added to Simpsons mania in general, and Bart in particular. I craved the game even though i’d never seen an episode.

  3. 3
    Rory on 18 Mar 2011 #

    One of the few points of overlap between the UK and Australian number ones this year (a week at the top a month later for us). We were able to gorge on The Simpsons on terrestrial TV throughout the 1990s. But I’m not sure I’d ever heard this before… not much to it, is there.

  4. 4
    Tom on 18 Mar 2011 #

    I am quite possibly *being* wound up by Matt Groening and Wikipedia – I’m very sceptical on this!

  5. 5
    punctum on 18 Mar 2011 #

    It does not seem to be in dispute that The Simpsons is the greatest cartoon TV series ever made, and few series of any kind have set out so deliberately to be “great.” It is generally agreed that it puts all other cartoon TV series, and by implication most other TV series, to shame (else why the Malcolm In The Middles and Arrested Developments, cartoon series in all bar flesh?) – but was its purpose to make everyone else ashamed?

    For at least the first five or six years of its existence, The Simpsons was easy to admire and hard to love. Its writing and execution were, beyond question, great and near-faultless – yet doesn’t true greatness lie in the necessary belief in the existence of faults? The writers’ and artists’ intricate, intimate sketching of the characters and their meticulously ruthless examination of how politics, education, circumstance and circumspect media can all conspire to derail a family and the community in which it exists were so perfectly realised, every subtext minutely highlighted, commentary in the background comprehensive and ceaseless, its politics so on the mark, the whole so perfect that I sometimes yearned to kick it all to pieces. The Simpsons is “great” – but it’s the kind of purposely omniscient and rather bullying greatness which denies any debate and defies any argument, and this has been solidified by its now two decades of archival history; such a deliberate monument, and so proud of its own monumental status that after a while it becomes suffocating and the viewer (this one, anyway) is compelled to wish for the simpler (though no less profound) pleasures of Fred and Barney.

    Even its politics are far from seamless. The Simpsons is so apparently complete a world that it’s easy to overlook that it’s predominantly a man’s (or overgrown boy’s) world; Homer’s stupid acceptance plays against (or with) Bart’s knowing recklessness so fervently that one doesn’t necessarily notice Marge being largely confined to a wearily loving shrug of her blue-rinsed shoulders, or the other major female characters expressing themselves largely through a saxophone or a baby’s rattle. There is also the suspicion that it is only The Simpsons‘ cartoon status which allows anti-capitalist storylines and beliefs to be aired on a Murdoch-owned channel, the sort of words which would crucify, or at least blacklist, a real-life speaker. The fact that Murdoch can cameo on the show with such ease should make us doubly suspicious; as with the medieval court jesters, or with Tony Benn, so loved and idolised since he ceased to be an active political threat, it seems that the show is given free licence to say the otherwise unsayable – and does the unsayable get neutralised as a result?

    “Do The Bartman” hardly exists as a record; a jaunty, pre-teen Prince-type hop through what is essentially a glorified ad, and not a particularly funny one either; references to putting mothballs in the beef stew recall ancient relics like Terry Scott’s “My Brother,” and the record sounded dated before it had even ended. Its success was ostensibly rather unexpected, since in early 1991 The Simpsons was still only airing on satellite TV in Britain – but the record was secretly co-written, co-produced and co-sung by Michael Jackson; as with “We Are The World,” it whetted the fans’ appetite for his next record proper. But where was the series’ cutting humour, where was the mischief, the genuine rebellion? Or did the producers’ politics stop at the cheap Korean labour they use to do most of the animation?

  6. 6
    Matt DC on 18 Mar 2011 #

    If you put this record as a kiddified midpoint between Bad and Dangerous it doesn’t seem that unlikely that this was written by Jacko.

    I have a very fond memory of this, as a first-year in secondary school it was the one song that everyone bought on tape even if they didn’t like pop music the rest of the time. I’m no more able to be objective about it than I am about Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System.

  7. 7
    Cumbrian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    This, frankly, is not much cop. They’d have been better off releasing some of the stuff that Michael Jackson sang when he guested on the show itself (as “the big white guy who thinks he’s the little black guy”). This just never really goes anywhere, as noted above, is not funny and just meanders to a close without realling grabbing me.

    Shock horror, I’m not much of a Michael Jackson fan – indeed, as Punctum describes The Simpsons, so I personally find Jacko, easy to admire, hard to love. I’ve always liked Prince more.

    We were having a conversation about The Simpsons a few weeks ago on the I’m A Believer thread. Presumably we can return to that now. There is a blinding quote on that thread from Grandpa Simpson that (I think) Swanstep put up.

  8. 8
    Mark G on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Elephant in the room time!

    It bears a strong resemblance to “Do the Wildman” by Wild Man Fischer.

    Back whenever, I felt it was wrong that Larry wasn’t getting royalties on this. Then I found out he didn’t write his version, so whatever…

  9. 9
    Matt DC on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Also Punctum is being perhaps a bit harsh on Marge’s character and definitely harsh on Lisa’s.

  10. 10
    Tim Byron on 18 Mar 2011 #

    My mum was very anti-Simpsons, because she felt that Bart was a particularly bad role model, and I basically couldn’t watch the Simpsons (which was available on free-to-air TV in Australia) very regularly until my brother got a TV in his room circa 1995-1996. Which of course made us want to watch it more! With all this, I should have been a big fan of ‘Do The Bartman’, but I do remember not getting the joke, if there was one. Cartwright’s rapping skills make the rapper on “3AM Eternal” sound much better by comparison! I think you underestimate the chorus a little, Tom – it sounds a bit slight, but it’s got a nagging catchiness, and good Michael Jackson harmonies. It was years later that I discovered it was Michael Jackson. But I think I prefer “Happy Birthday Lisa”!

    An interesting post-script to this was that Prince reworked “My Name Is Prince” to become “My Name Is Bart”, which was presumably meant as a sequel to “Do The Bartman”. YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xu_zT4EY1Ig

    Perhaps mercifully, it never got released, but in case you wanted more Nancy Cartwright rap…

  11. 11
    will on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Yes, a second division Michael Jackson single. And not very funny.

    Years later I bought the Simpsons Sing The Blues album from a charity shop for a quid and found out that there wasn’t much funny on that either.

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 18 Mar 2011 #

    #2 Watch: A week of ‘(I Wanna Give You) Devotion’ by Nomad featuring MC Mikee Freedom, then two weeks of a remixed version of Madonna’s ‘Crazy For You’

    The sleeve is by far the best thing about ‘The Simpsons Sing The Blues’ LP, though I quite enjoy the sentiment of ‘Look At All Those Idiots’ by Smithers & Burns. As for the Bart songs, they always remind me of the words of a friend at the time – “It’s much more obvious that its a woman’s voice when you haven’t got the pictures, isn’t it?”

  13. 13
    Chelovek na lune on 18 Mar 2011 #

    If nothing else it was an accurate indication of how crap most of Michael Jackson’s output during the decades ahead was gonna be…

  14. 14
    weej on 18 Mar 2011 #

    This is the first of a very unlikely run of four singles number one singles in a row I bought, and unlike two others I don’t feel ashamed of it at all. It’s simply a good song, well written, well-produced and well-performed. Even the vocals aren’t bad. I didn’t think it was a comedy song at the time, never found funny since then, but as Tom says, it’s not meant to be. I’m giving it a 7, why not?

  15. 15
    Erithian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Cumbrian #7 – indeed we were, touching on the fact that, as you pointed out Homer has been a teenager in several different eras, and the odd position of commenting on contemporary society when your characters don’t age a day in twenty years. Where shall we take this?

    I was somewhat resistant to The Simpsons, being all part of the evil Murdoch empire (in fact I thought Bart was referring to someone called “Boomer” until I realised it was Homer) – then eventually I actually saw it and realised how outstanding it was: in particular the way it flits from one plot idea to another and seems to have used enough comic ideas for half a British series by the time you reach the ad break.

  16. 16
    Mark G on 18 Mar 2011 #

    #11 I beat you, I got the two CD “sings the blues” and its follow-up album in fopp for a quid, and haven’t played it at all.

  17. 17
    weej on 18 Mar 2011 #

    By the way, can’t believe people are comparing this unfavorably to the Happy Birthday Lisa song, surely one of the most mawkish and pointless moments of the shows first eight seasons.

  18. 18
    Erithian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    For me it’s “We Put The Spring In Springfield”, the one about how valuable the local brothel is, followed by “The Monorail Song”. But “Happy Birthday Lisa” is really pretty too.

  19. 19
    Simon on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Happy Birthday Mr Burns, on the other hand…

    I hadn’t realised until looking up SNPP just now how early this was in the Simpsons run, and by extension even earlier through Sky’s first showings. Midway through season 2, in fact, pre-Bush Snr’s Waltons comparison, pre-Homer quotables – pre-Michael Jackson starring episode itself, in fact. Commissioning an album of purely original material, even with Jackson as supposed ghostwriter, must still have been something of a shot in the dark.

  20. 20
    Simon on 18 Mar 2011 #

    And a vote from here for Monorail Song too, with a single transferrable vote for the whole of Stop The Planet Of The Apes, I Want To Get Off!

  21. 21
    glue_factory on 18 Mar 2011 #

    “I love legitimate theatre”

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 18 Mar 2011 #

    It should’ve been Nomad at the top. Fab track and I won’t hear a word against MC Mikee Freedom.

  23. 23
    Cumbrian on 18 Mar 2011 #

    The Songs In The Key Of Springfield disc is absolutely brilliant, as is The Simpsons Go Simpsonic. I heartily recommend them to any Simpsons fan.

  24. 24
    Rory on 18 Mar 2011 #

    “Duff Beer for me, Duff Beer for you, I’ll have a Duff, you have one too…”

  25. 25
    lonepilgrim on 18 Mar 2011 #

    I can’t remember hearing this before now – and I doubt whether I will remember it after today.
    I’d seen the Simpsons on a visit to the USA in 1988, when they were a (regular) short segment on the Tracey Ullman show. When they began to gain attention in the media in the following years I found it hard to imagine how something so slight could have such an impact let alone imagine that they’d go on to become the cultural monolith of today.
    1991 also saw the debut of ‘Ren and Stimpy’ and ‘Rugrats’ – both of which aimed their humour at both child and adult.
    My favourite Simpson song is ‘See my vest’ performed by Monty Burns

  26. 26
    hilker on 18 Mar 2011 #

    The video was directed by Brad Bird, who went on to direct The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and the forthcoming Mission: Impossible sequel.

  27. 27
    Tommy Mack on 18 Mar 2011 #

    I remember Matt Groening saying something about Bart starting out as the hero and the baton passing more and more to Homer (presumably as he, the writers and audience got older and more like Homer!) (and everyone realised what an annoying little bell-end Bart was). This being before Homer became an annoying prick too, somewhere around season 9 or so when all the good writers left to do King of the Hill and South Park.

    Re #5 Surely Marge is like a lot of women of her generation: could do much better, hasn’t ever been given the notion she could, ends up playing mother to her idiot man-child husband.

  28. 28
    thefatgit on 18 Mar 2011 #

    My Stepdad had got his satellite dish and box early, 1990. His philosophy was more of anything was better. So more channels meant more choice. Better right? Well, no. He often said that given the choice, he’d ditch the other channels and only keep the movies. Of course, subscriptions never worked like that.

    Pre-Premiership Sky was a fledgling concept. Sky Channel, Sky News (not rolling 24 hours, prime-time episodes of “Cops”). The attractors were subscription services like Sky Movies (new to air) and Sky Cinema (already in the TV domain). Sky Sports was largely fringe interest, with WWF wrestling as it’s “jewel in the crown”. There was MTV, and a host of European channels which early analogue boxes showed unencrypted (RAI’s Tutti Frutti game show created by some bloke called Berlusconi) late at night. You also had National Geographic, Discovery, Disney, Nickelodeon etc. as subscription add-ons.

    Sunday evening, The Simpsons on Sky! Probably the only thing all of us had agreed was really unmissable. The humour was sharper than anything I had seen. But of course, part of the attraction of the Simpsons were those “did you see” moments. Not much use, when everybody else had 4 channels. So The Simpsons was this kind of secret thing, that only a few “in the know” discussed. That is until the single came out. The arcade game came next, then the first video collection hit the shops. You can’t keep a good thing suppressed on some niche satellite service forever. Of course, when Sky got the rights to Premier League, then loads of new customers came flooding in.

    “Do The Bartman” was perfectly of it’s moment. I have no desire to hear it again.

  29. 29
    David Belbin on 18 Mar 2011 #

    Ah yes, agreed, the long wait to see The Simpsons was frustrating. I finally got to see an episode in France in 1991. Then, when visiting the US for the first time in 92, turned on the motel TV to watch the show… only to find, you guessed, they were playing the very same episode.

    The oldest Simpsons site had the story of Jackson’s writing this throwaway back in ’98, so I think we can probably accept that it is true: http://www.simpsonsfolder.com/scrapbook/articles/michaelwrote.html

  30. 30

    I dimly recall a writer at S&S setting himself the bold and forlorn task of proving that DUCKMAN was the greatest cartoon of all.

    (And he was wrong, for it is COW AND CHICKEN.)

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