Number Ones: When MJ taught us to Do The Bartman

bartman

DO THE BARTMAN – THE SIMPSONS
#1 MARCH 16-22, 1991

There’s a joke on The Simpsons where Lisa sees footage from the ’80s, taken outside a cinema. The sign reads ‘Yahoo Serious Festival’ and she says, confused: “I know those words, but that sign doesn’t make sense.” It’s a joke about context, and how quickly and completely once seemingly-ubiquitous fads disappear. And while The Simpsons has cemented itself as the most important and dominant pop cultural marker since The Beatles or Oprah’s Book Club, a lot of the early marketing around the show now seems quaint, ridiculous, and systematic of the consumerist cynicism the show would lampoon so successfully in later years. Early on, the network assumed the show was a flash-in-the-pan (cartoons aimed at adults hadn’t been a thing since The Flintstones), and reacted promptly with a flood of merchandise.

Back in 1991, the show’s promotion efforts – and storylines – were centered around Bart Simpson, a disaffected, ten-year-old rebel who tapped nicely into this ‘alternative’ thing the kids were all digging. While Homer would soon become the show’s breakout character (with Marge and Lisa secretly the best ones), the early merchandise mainly featured Bart Simpson and his silhouette-friendly*, authority-baiting stance. So it wasn’t at all surprising that during these heady days, Bart Simpson cut his own pop single. What is surprising, however, is that it was written and produced by the world’s other most-famous ten-year-old (in arrested form) – Michael Jackson.

Jackson shared such a kinship with the four-fingered rebel, that he cold-called the show’s producers and offered to write a number one single for Bart and appear on the show. Note: that level of polite arrogance can only be achieved after a career like Mike’s.

In the official credits to Do The Bartman, however, Jackson’s name is nowhere to be seen. Instead there is a sole songwriter – Jackson’s longtime friend Bryan Loren – while MJ’s production work, as well as some very distinctive Jackson backing vocals (I’ll let you pick them), also remain off the record. Jackson was contractually tied to Sony, you see, who seem to frown upon their top stars writing and producing hit records for another label – they’re old fashioned that way. Matt Groening confirmed it was Jackson’s work in 1998, stating “it has always [been] amazing to me that no one ever found out that Michael Jackson wrote that song.” There’s even a not-so-subtle clue in the song’s lyrics: “If you can do the Bart, you’re bad like Michael Jackson” – with ‘bad’ in this instance referring to some bad, bad breaching of contract law.

Jackson was an angry, defiant man – a cursory listen to the likes of ‘They Don’t Care About Us’, ‘Who Is It?’, ‘This Time Around’, ‘Dirty Diana’, ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Beat It’, and numerous other songs shows a very real paranoia and anger bubbling underneath his ‘heal the world’ facade. Bart Simpson had a direct fuck-you-ness that likely appealed strongly to Jackson, and it is interesting (or thoroughly depressing) to note how Jackson related so strongly to a naughty ten-year-old boy who bucks the authority figures Jackson spent his childhood being terrified by. He would soon trade Bart for Macaulay and find a real-life child star to cradle. Not in that way.

This wasn’t the only song in the key of Springfield that Jackson penned either: he wrote the classic ‘Happy Birthday Lisa’ when guesting on a ’91 episode, voicing a deluded mental patient believing himself to be Michael Jackson. The fact he recorded this guest spot under a pseudonym** for contractual reasons adds a meta-layer Charlie Kaufman would be proud of.

Although the ‘Do The Bartman’ video was a huge hit on MTV, it wasn’t ever released as a single in the US, instead being used to con kiddies into shelling out for the rushed ten-track soundtrack The Simpsons Sing The Blues. This was back in the days when CD prices flew north of $30, yet the record became the highest-selling TV soundtrack since 1985’s Miami Vice.*** We were lucky enough to be able to purchase the single version here in Australia, and the song sat at number one in Australia for a single week, bumping Londonbeat’s ‘I’ve Been Thinking About You’ from the top on January 16, before being toppled seven days later by ‘Sucker DJ’ by Dimples D. As Lou Reed said, “Those were different times.”

The single did well in other countries, too, topping the NZ and Irish charts, while selling over 400,000 copies in the UK, sitting at #1 for three weeks. This English success was despite the fact ‘The Simpsons’ was only airing at the time on Sky Channel, back in the days when you needed one of those futuristic – in a Beyond 2000 sense – satellite dishes on your roof.

Later that same year Bart and MJ teamed up again, this time on the epic ‘Black and White’ video, which featured a cartoon tail where Bart is rocking out to MJ before an angry Homer turns off the television****. A second single from The Simpsons Sing The Blues – ‘Deep Deep Trouble’, which features DJ Jazzy Jeff inserting some cartoonish scratching – reached #35 on the ARIA charts, resulting in Bart being dropped from the label, and the Amendment-To-Be becoming the biggest musical star on the show.

Bart would later become famous as the ‘I Didn’t Do It’ kid, before fading into obscurity – although there are whispers he can be seen playing in a pizza-themed Velvet Underground band in NYC from time-to-time. Or maybe that was Milhouse’s dad…


 

* A trick Matt Groening copped from Walt Disney, after observing that every classic cartoon character is identifiable in silhouette form.

**His pseudonym? Jay John Smith. The laziness of this is amazing – it’s like he wanted to be caught.

***90210 was still a few years away from perfecting this TV soundtrack phenomenon, effectively using the show’s young fanbase to break musical acts and sell CDs. Everyone from The Goo Goo Dolls and Maroon 5 to The Flaming Lips and Color Me Badd turned up to perform live on the show; often the closing credits were hijacked by a music video from the official 90210 soundtrack. One moving episode saw Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) witness his father being blown to bits by a car bomb. He fell to his knees and let out an anguished cry – possibly the most moving scene that season. Sharp cut to Tori Spelling at a jukebox saying “Jeremy Jordan! Cool!”, before ‘The Right Kind Of Love’ new-jack-swings in, to really undercut any drama they were going for. Fantastic!

**** A year of intense anger therapy seemingly took place somewhere during the first few seasons, judging by the more placid Homer in season four onward. In 1991, Prince couldn’t sing about female masturbation, yet Homer could choke his son until he turned blue. America.

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