- Released Tuesday 20 November 1990
- Written by Bryan Loren with Michael Jackson and Matt Groening
- Performed and produced by Bryan Loren with Michael Jackson
- Video directed by Brad Bird
Anything with “Bart” in the title was a guaranteed smash in 1990. You could have slapped the word on the most gas-guzzling automobile on the planet; even in this most environmentally-conscious of years you’d have created the most popular car on the road.
Simpsons merchandise bearing Bart’s gurning face had cascaded into shops for months, from the inevitable (sweatshirts, figurines) to the downright implausible (air fresheners, talking toothbrushes). But on 20 November came the big one: the first spin-off single.
The remarkable success of Do the Bartman announced The Simpsons as an international phenomenon. The song sold millions right around the world, even in countries where the show had yet to air on terrestrial television. Part of its appeal was almost certainly down to this imbalance between the show’s reputation (huge) and its reach (modest). Buying a copy became a chance for everyone to feel part of the year’s trendiest TV craze, even if you didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about. It carried a whiff of the exotic, the alternative and the slightly dangerous. It was also several steps up from a ‘Don’t Have A Cow!’ T-shirt.
But exerting an equal attraction was Do the Bartman’s status as an unashamed, out-and-out novelty record. Daft, irritating, comical, pointless: all the elements of a textbook novelty song were present, topped off with that guaranteed winner: a funny voice. Reassuringly silly, unselfconsciously simple, it couldn’t fail.
Except it did. In the United States, wary of the market for musical gimmicks based on cartoon characters, Geffen Records released the song only to radio stations. It duly spent nine weeks skulking on Billboard’s airplay chart. In other countries, less overdosed on The Simpsons and much more used to exchanging money for singalong nonsense, it went to number one: Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Australia and, in February 1991, the UK.
Hype surrounded the song from its conception. David Geffen commissioned a Simpsons tie-in album in summer 1990, scheduled for a pre-Christmas release. Recording began in September, and several tracks had already been taped when Michael Jackson reportedly rang Matt Groening out of the blue to ask if he could contribute a song. A fan of the show, Jackson – with his usual bluster – announced he wanted to give Bart a number one single.
Groening thought the whole thing was a hoax, and understandably so: no one gets “rung up” by Michael Jackson just like that. Only it was Jackson, and he was deadly serious. He really did want to write a song for Bart. Desperately, in fact. So desperate that, to avoid upsetting his record company Sony, he was willing to take his name off the song and deny any involvement in its production.
So it was that Jackson’s co-writer Bryan Loren ended up receiving sole credit for Do the Bartman, despite – according to Groening – contributing almost nothing to the lyrics and having only a token role in the recording. To this day Loren insists he did the bulk of the work and that Groening’s explanation is incorrect. Whoever did or did not write Do the Bartman (even Groening claims he penned some of the words), the whole is-it-or-isn’t-it-Michael-Jackson hoo-ha did the song no harm whatsoever. It probably even helped.
One thing that Jackson did insist on was a namecheck, however. It was inserted about halfway through the song, with all the subtlety of a crotch-grab:
You just might start a chain reaction,
If you can do the Bartman, you’re bad like Michael Jackson!
A second namedrop was also added towards the end, in the form of Bart addressing Jackson in person – a gesture that summoned up memories of Paul McCartney trying a similar tactic in The Girl is Mine:
Eat your heart out, Michael!
But listening to Do the Bartman today, these are two very minor quibbles. The real problems begin with the very first note.
The song has dated horribly. The production screams Early 1990s, and not in a good way. There are no live instruments to be heard on the track. Everything is created on synthesisers, including the drums. This isn’t itself a criticism – two of the best albums of 1990 contained almost nothing but music produced electronically: Behaviour by Pet Shop Boys and Violator by Depeche Mode. What is a problem is the way the synths are used: blandly, repetitively, and with no variation whatsoever.
The same dry, compressed keyboard sound runs through the whole song, as does the same key (A flat) and, once the chorus begins, the same four-chord sequence: A flat/B flat minor/A flat/G flat, always over an A flat bass. Nothing arrives to break the monotony: no key change, no middle eight, nothing. Time and again your ear instinctively expects something else to happen: a new melody, a new tempo, even some new instruments. When they don’t arrive, you’re disappointed.
Electronic dance music doesn’t need to worry about this kind of thing, because repetition is its calling card. But a novelty song’s calling card is novelty, and there really isn’t enough in Do the Bartman to keep you interested for more than a couple of minutes. By the time the song reaches the three-minute mark your attention is wandering; by the time the song hits five minutes, it’s left the room.
Granted, there are some promising touches at the beginning: a lolloping riff that swoops along the keyboard on each first beat of the bar, as if ducking around a corner or through a trapdoor; a bassline that noodles cheekily; and a rolling beat that gets the song ticking over nicely, thanks to a hi-hat that has been sequenced to play in 12/8 rather than 4/4, making the rhythm skip along rather than plod. But all of these things lose impact the more time passes, until boredom sets in and you’ve forgotten what was once good about them.
Then there’s the song’s tune – or rather, the absence of a tune, as this isn’t really a song at all. Most of the lyrics are rapped by Bart, while the chorus simply duplicates the notes of its accompanying four-chord sequence. The words are a mixture of inane rhymes and nonsense: no crime in the pantheon of novelty songs, but silliness can be inspired and not simply gibberish or slapstick (as demonstrated by contemporaneous episodes of The Simpsons TV show).
Worse, Loren and Jackson opt to portray Bart as an unimaginative and petty troublemaker, whose crimes include putting mothballs in the beef stew and “dropping banana peels all over the floor”. The Bart we know from The Simpsons would never settle for such pedestrian fare. It’s all a bit ooh-what-a-scamp and Bart-as-America’s-number-one-dropout: a hangover from how the show was depicted by the media in early 1990, and which, by November, was well out of date.
Nancy Cartwright delivers it all with gusto nonetheless, and can’t be faulted for enthusiasm or energy, even when saddled with a couplet such as:
I’m the kid that made delinquency an art
Last name Simpson, first name Bart
The chorus, sung by Loren and Jackson, is utter gobbledegook:
Everybody if you can, do the Bartman
Shake your body, turn it out if you can, man
Front to the back to the side, as you can can
Everybody in the house, do the Bartman
It was catchy enough to get lodged inside several million people’s heads, however – many of whom could probably recite the chorus today, along with whole slabs of the lyrics.
There is one ingredient to Do the Bartman that holds up well, even after a quarter of a century: the video.
Knocked together in a couple of weeks by Brad Bird and a studio of animators in Budapest, it supplies almost everything the song lacks: variety, imagination, even charm. For starters, we get a whole extra minute of footage before the music has even begun, involving Bart and his classmates fooling around at a dreary school recital:
This prelude establishes within seconds the kind of entertaining irreverence that’s so badly lacking in the song itself. Then once the beat begins, Bird and his team deploy every trick in the book to keep you watching: fast cuts, contrasting camera angles, crafty segues and colour changes, abstract shapes and shadows, plus some genuinely impressive dance moves devised by professional choreographer Michael Chambers:
Even Sideshow Bob pops up, snarling at the carry-on from inside his prison cell:
The action climaxes with an effortless sweep from Springfield to Egypt to the Great Wall of China and back to Springfield: a fantasia of geography whose resemblance to the preposterous finale of the video for Michael Jackson’s 1991 song Black and White is surely more than a coincidence.
Released globally at the start of 1991, the video for Do the Bartman was many people’s first ever glimpse of the animated Bart Simpson. In places like the UK and Ireland, it was the only glimpse for many years. It remains the most influential ambassador for the show in its entire history.
But while it still exudes real affection and excitement today, the same can’t be said for its parent. Do the Bartman, like most novelty songs, achieved a popularity out of all proportion to its merits. Unlike most novelty songs, however, it never had the guile to survive in the public consciousness with the same potency it mustered in the early 1990s.
Silly hit songs can linger in the memory for decades if they have enough quirky sincerity to survive the transition from contemporary craze to nostalgic frisson: think of Scaffold’s Lily the Pink, Benny Hill’s Ernie or Captain Sensible’s Happy Talk. Do the Bartman comes nowhere close to these kinds of novelties, either as a musical curiosity or cultural relic. It belongs in the same category as other whimsical UK chart-toppers of the turn of the decade that became massive very quickly, then after a year or so fell violently out of fashion: Let’s Party by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini by Bombalurina, and Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice to name but three.
It’s easy to feel oddly sentimental towards something like Whispering Grass by Windsor Davies and Don Estelle; it’s hard to feel the same about Do the Bartman. The video can still be admired, the impact still applauded, but the lumpen music and artless lyrics are impossible to love.