"If You Can Do the Bart, You’re Bad Like Michael Jackson"

Slate's Culture Blog
June 26 2009 11:53 AM

"If You Can Do the Bart, You’re Bad Like Michael Jackson"

He has strangely colored skin, a legendarily dysfunctional family, and is perpetually 10 years old. No wonder Michael Jackson identified with Bart Simpson. On a DVD commentary track that's part of The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season box set, the show's executive producer, James L. Brooks, says he fielded a call from Jackson early in the show's run. "I love Bart," the King of Pop said. "I want to give Bart a No. 1 single."

Jackson delivered on his promise, ghostwriting the chart-topping " Do the Bartman ." (OK, it only went to No. 1 in the United Kingdom; it wasn't released as a single in America.) The song came out in November 1990—a year before 11-year-old Macaulay Culkin starred in Jackson's " Black or White " video—and sounds as dated as every other two-decade-old, light-rap ditty voiced by a cartoon character. (Also see: " Opposites Attract .") "Do the Bartman" did, however, accomplish the feat of uniting two cultural icons. The most-memorable lyric: "If you can do the Bart, you're bad like Michael Jackson."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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Around the same time Jackson launched Bart's singing career, he asked Simpsons creator Matt Groening whether he could be on the show. By 1992, when the M.J.-starring " Stark Raving Dad " aired as the third-season premiere, the show was transitioning from a T-shirt-selling fad (the " Eat My Shorts, Man! " era) to a work of pop art. Jackson's guest appearance, well before the era in which the likes of Helen Hunt and Lucy Lawless appeared on a weekly basis , marked him as part of the cultural vanguard.

The greatness of "Stark Raving Dad" has a lot more to do with the The Simpsons ' writing staff than with Jackson's voice-over talents. (As with "Do the Bartman," M.J. insisted on keeping his name off the episode; he was billed as "John Jay Smith.") The show's scripters came up with a plot device far more ingenious than simply dropping the singer into Springfield, instead placing the singer's falsetto voice inside a 300-pound mental patient who believes he's Michael Jackson. On the DVD commentary, writer Al Jean says the script run-through at the singer's manager's house was "the most nerve-racking table read I've been to in my life." To Jackson's credit, he didn't flinch at being depicted as a crazy Caucasian. The only two notes he gave on the script: an appeal to replace Prince with Elvis in a joke about mentally unstable musicians, and a request for a scene in which he stays up all night writing a song with Bart.

Put aside Jackson's professed desire to spend the evening with a young (albeit two-dimensional) boy and it's impossible not to be charmed by " Lisa, It's Your Birthday ." The minute-long song—written by Jackson but voiced by an imitator because, according to James L. Brooks, M.J. wanted to play "a joke on his brothers"—is one of the least-essential in the singer's catalog. It's also incredibly endearing, a sweet jingle written by a childlike adult for his favorite cartoon. That brief moment on The Simpsons feels like the perfect encapsulation of a life and a career. Michael Jackson: pop genius, forever young at heart, mental case.

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