SoundTreks | The Simpsons Sing the Blues
The Simpsons, for those of you who were too young to have been there at the start, took the world by storm almost immediately. The novelty of an animated program in prime time was enough to draw huge numbers, and many stayed for the sharp writing and general satire (it should be remembered that The Simpsons was originally positioned as a send-up of family sitcoms). Even in the early days of the show, when the animation was looser, the voices unhoned, and the attitude a bit more generally cynical, people openly responded, and, as we can still see all these years later, it managed to root itself deeply into American culture. Not just pop culture, but culture. This show changed a lot about the way we create humor.
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Since the show was so popular so quickly, marketers wasted no time coming up with merchandise. There was a period from about 1990 until 1992 or so, when you couldn’t open your eyes without seeing one of those “Bart Simpson: Underachiever” t-shirts. Fox also took the opportunity to crank out The Simpsons Sing the Blues, a hastily-constructed album of The Simpsons actors rapping, singing, and tooling around with folks like Buster Poindexter, DJ Jazzy Jeff, B.B. King, Dr. John, and even Michael Jackson. The album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, went double platinum, and the music video premiere of “Do the Bartman” was a major television event for anyone who was young in 1991.
Here in 2016, SoundTreks has decided to look back and see if the record is any good, if the music is actually worthwhile, or if it was merely a product of the hype machine. Is The Simpsons Sing the Blues a cultural oddity, or an important contribution to The Simpsons brand? Let’s listen.
Track 1. “Do the Bartman”
Bartman was a superhero alter-ego concocted by Bart Simpson, and the image of Bart wearing the purple hood and cape became well-known to consumers of Simpsons merchandise. Curiously, Bartman was not, nor did he become, a regular part of the TV show.
“Do the Bartman” is a rap/dance number, performed by Bart (Nancy Cartwright), singing about how naughty he is (most awkward lyric: “Droppin’ banana peels all over the floor,” with the meter forcing stress onto the word “the”), but in a dance context. Michael Jackson co-wrote the song and sings backup. Jackson, we should recall, appeared (speaking, but not singing) on The Simpsons in one notable early episode. “Do the Bartman” is a fun, funny song, and while the lyrics hold up in a general comedy sense, as a dance song it may sound dated to young ears; the dance beats are certainly of their time. But, if one squints their ears, one can hear a perfectly serviceable late-’80s Michael Jackson song inside of it.
From what I understand, the original Simpsons Sing the Blues album was going to be only songs of this ilk: funny Simpsons-themed rap/pop songs performed by the cast but mostly written by The Simpsons writers. The media blitz surrounded the record eventually attracted other big names, though, and the ultimate sound of the album is more eclectic. As we shall see in the utterly jarring…
Track 2. “School Day”
Yes, it’s a cover of the Chuck Berry song “School Days” from 1957. Buster Poindexter and Bart Simpson wail the familiar lyrics over a surprisingly gigantic electric blues production. Why “School Days?” From a modern perspective, it’s hard to imagine The Simpsons starting up, so I feel a primer on the show’s early ethos is necessary. As I said, The Simpsons originally functioned as a sharp satire of nuclear family sitcoms. It took place in a sitcom universe, but one marred by ugly colors, nuclear power plants, and doofus dads that were too callow to lead their unruly families. Bart was originally intended to be the center of the show, although Homer gradually usurped the lead. Homer wasn’t always the functionally retarded man he is today. He used to be just a put-upon schlub.
So from that ethos, “School Day” perhaps makes some sense. Bart is, from the early days, a funny but below-average schoolkid, darkened by satire. He’s an edgier Dennis the Menace (a fact he himself points out in an episode of the show).
And why the blues? I’m still trying to figure out why that was the chosen sound for so many tracks on this record. Limp pop from the year it was released makes sense. Electric blues? Did that have anything to do with The Simpsons?
Track 3. “Born Under a Bad Sign”
Another giant blues number with giant production values. B.B. King plays guitar on this track, and that’s the horn section from Tower of Power. The original “Born Under a Bad Sign” was recorded by Alan King in 1967. This rendition of it is bold, big, and actually kind of great, as electric blues go. How could it not be with such great production and talent behind it.
The problem is that we have Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta) singing the lead vocal. I adore Castellaneta as a voice actor, even beyond The Simpsons (watch Earthworm Jim sometime and see his best and funniest performances). But when he’s singing in his Homer voice, it sounds, well just bad. Homer is not a good singer. Which is, of course, part of the joke, but that doesn’t make this track easy to listen to.
Track 4. “Moanin’ Lisa Blues”
One would think that the pervading sound of The Simpsons, at least in 1990, would have been closer to, well Oingo Boingo, the New Wave band fronted by Danny Elfman, the show’s theme-writer. The show was unique and off-color and off-kilter, and something a little more tipsy and rock-y would have, one would assume, been more appropriate.
This is, however, the one time when the blues may have been right on key. Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) is the soulful, intelligent member of the family, and she expresses her angst through jazz and blues saxophone. This song is from an early episode of the show when Lisa goes through an existential crisis, and finds a mentor in an old jazz musician named Bleeding Gums Murphy. Something calm and jazzy would have fit the show better, but a giant electric blues production is fine. Plus Yeardley Smith’s vocals fit better than Castellaneta’s.
Track 5. “Deep, Deep Trouble”
Written by Matt Groening and DJ Jazzy Jeff, featuring a sample from Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di,” which may be one of the most sampled rap songs of all time. In terms of timeless pop hits, “Deep, Deep Trouble” is far more clever, fun, and interesting than “Do the Bartman.” It also feels like a better encapsulation of the attitude of the show, and not just because of the re-mixed Bart Simpson dialogue. Probably because Groening co-wrote and knew what he wanted.
Oddly, the function of the song is exactly the same at “Do the Bartman.” They’re both raps by Bart Simpson, declaring his naughty attitude, and talking about the trouble he gets into. Although this song has an actual narrative, and is less celebratory. The lyrics detail one particular incident of foul behavior that led to Bart getting his head shaved as a punishment. It’s a story rap, a subgenre that doesn’t seem to be in the pop consciousness any longer.
It’s probably the best track on the album.
Track 6. “God Bless the Child”
This is Lisa Simpson singing an obnoxious adult contemporary version of the Billie Holiday song from 1942. The original is great, by the way, as was anything done by the amazing Billie Holiday. This track takes the original, beefs up the production, adds a backup Hammond organ, echoey drums, and a light-jazz saxophone. It takes a great song and makes it icky.
I can’t fault Smith’s vocals. She actually sounds like she had some professional music training. But the song is not attractive. I’m having trouble sussing out which one I dislike more between this track and the next one.
Track 7. “I Love to See You Smile”
This is Homer and Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner) singing a loving duet penned by Randy Newman. The original song was written in 1989 for the movie Parenthood, and was nominated for an Academy Award. When they made this song, it was a re-purposing of something in the current pop consciousness. Like if they cracked out with, I don’t know, “Gangnam Style” a few years ago. Neither the Homer or the Marge voices are really conducive to music, of course, but, again, that may be part of the intended pleasure.
Here’s the thing about Randy Newman: he is the source of a deep abiding ambivalence. On some days, his music is witty, funny, and light, presented to a relaxed audience with a wink and a smile. Other days, his music is grating, dumb, smart-aleckey, corny, hokey and presented to an audience who would like to throttle Newman. Here, I think we’re very close to the latter.
Track 8. “Springfield Soul Stew”
This is a riff/parody of King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew” from 1967. Marge dictates to musicians which musical ingredients she wants, and they pile up into a full electric blues explosion. It’s more quaint than funny. Eventually, Marge stops talking, and the musicians fade out.
This track sounds like something the musicians thought up on the day, and perhaps recorded in one take. It’s just electric blues jamming after a while. I once again have to question how all this evokes The Simpsons, or what it has to do with Springfield. We don’t hear about places around that fictional city or any of the other characters therein. But perhaps I’m missing the point. Maybe we just had some talented musicians, and I should be grateful to hear them jam so.
Track 9. “Look at All Those Idiots”
“Look at All Those Idiots” is easily the funniest song on the album. Written by Simpsons writers Sam Simon and Jeff Martin, it’s a rap song performed by C. Montgomery Burns (Harry Shearer) and his toady sidekick Smithers (also Shearer) about how Burns’ blue-collar employees are shiftless, lazy, and dumb. Of all the tracks on this album, this is the one that truly understands the show, and presents an expansion of the show’s established humor. Shearer is hilarious in both roles, and his atonal understanding of the music is in-keeping with the character. This is a good one for mix tapes. Or perhaps for spots on The Dr. Demento Show.
Track 10. “Sibling Rivalry”
A long duet from Bart and Lisa about playing pranks and tolerating one’s siblings. It shifts genres and sounds a lot, so there’s bound to be a section you like, even if the opening is slow and kid of dull. Like “Look at All Those Idiots,” this track is devoted to the actual characters from the show and their sitcom-like relationships with one another. It’s hard to get worked up about “Sibling Rivalry,” however, because it’s not really fun to listen to or all that funny.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the 1990 TV Show?
When looking at the 27-season history of The Simpsons, the show handily trumps this long-ago tie-in product. Instead I will compare this record to the whole of The Simpsons that we had in 1990. Which was, to remind you, a mere two seasons.
The show still wins out, however. The show was slowly changing the way TV humor was presented, and old-fashioned sitcoms were being smashed subtly to the ground by this fantasy cartoon skewer. Bart, the star of the show, was given his due on this record – he was given three entire tracks to himself – and Mr. Burns had a great moment to shine, but the others, especially Homer, weren’t given much in terms of character, music, or wit. The Simpsons Sing the Blues is not a full or necessarily accurate representation of The Simpsons.
Musically, it’s also all over the place. While I usually appreciate eclecticism, this record is too jumbled. It’s not so much eclectic as it is a mishmash. The blues numbers are all well and good, but they clash with the comedy elements and the hip-hop elements. It’s tonally weak. Also, electric blues is, in many cases, a toothless form, and utilizing it, even well, adds nothing to The Simpsons mythos. The Simpsons Sing the Blues is not an awful record by any means, but it does feel like a trifling fan product more than a fully formed musical creation. These days, it functions best as nostalgia. A record of what The Simpsons was in the early days, and how quickly it became as large as it did.
Top Image: 20th Century Fox
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.