Logarithmic History and the Music of “The Simpsons”

Initial Aside: This paper was originally presented at IASPM-US at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN in 2006. You can find a lot of the music mentioned herein on YouTube. On the other hand, videos from The Simpsons (especially of complete episodes) tend to be taken down fairly quickly. Several compilation CDs of the show’s music have also been released.

The animated—and often satirical—television show The Simpsons emerged as a half-hour weekly series in December of 1989. Its highly differentiated characters and storylines provide a wealth of source material for addressing various worldviews and situations. The show has won numerous awards, while also garnering a fairly heavy amount of scholarly attention—including books on philosophy, religion, ideology, and sociology. However, The Simpsons also provides a very rich site for potentially developing the musical/cultural literacy of its viewers. Over the course of about 365 episodes, the creative team of The Simpsons has used music in five primary ways: (1) over 700 references to existing, “external” music; (2) about 250 uses of original songs and/or lyrics (including brief fragments); (3) several dozen opening- and end-title variations of the show’s main theme, (4) probably at least 5,000 background instrumental music cues, and (5) over 100 musicians as special guests. On page 2 of the handout (included at the end of this version of the paper), I list these musicians—who comprise a substantial 28% of the show’s guests. However, to stress an irreverent attitude to the music industry, the show has lambasted the Grammy Awards a number of times.

Music in The Simpsons inscribes an update of the way music functioned culturally in the classic short cartoons of the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s. Millions of people heard pop song standards, jazz, opera, and/or classical music for the first time when these cartoons appeared on television in the 1970s and ’80s. In the 1990s and 2000s, a similar number of people heard certain types of music for the first time on The Simpsons. The show has facilitated a broad exposure to music. However, I am less certain about the extent to which most of the show’s viewers would necessarily understand the majority of its extremely wide uses of—and contexts for—music.

The show’s music includes Danny Elfman’s quirky, largely-orchestral theme from 1989. It channels the style of classic, 1960s’ “fun” themes for primetime animated TV shows—such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons. However, it also relates to his own past of elaborate compositional arrangements as leader of the Los Angeles-based group Oingo Boingo. Here’s an excerpt from Boingo’s 1981 “new wave” rock song “Nasty Habits,” written and sung by Elfman. The song’s modal, gestural, and orchestrational aspects strongly suggest that he had already fully formed his style by the very early 1980s—and that he later only re-applied it to television and film music.

Elfman’s Simpsons‘ theme, though ubiquitous, is his sole contribution to the music of The Simpsons. However, you may remember the show’s similar continuity with earlier television music from such episodes as 1993’s “Marge vs. the Monorail.” It includes an homage to the 1960 opening-titles theme of The Flintstones. Similarly, the 1997 episode “Lisa’s Sax” includes an homage to the 1970 opening-titles theme of the TV sitcom All in the Family. Specifically, it transfers Archie and Edith’s nostalgia for the 1930s and ’40s from the point-of-view of the 1970s to Homer and Marge’s nostalgia for the 1970s from the point-of-view of the 1990s. Their personalities and voices also fit perfectly.

The Simpsons early focus on intra-family bickering and other eccentricities resulted in the 1990 novelty album The Simpsons Sing the Blues. Among other things, it features the U.S. #11 pop/rap hit “Do the Bartman.” That song was secretly written by a particular (and peculiar) Bart Simpson-fan—someone mentioned in the previous clip: Michael Jackson! Jackson also appeared (again, secretly) in an actual Simpsons‘ episode: 1991’s “Stark Raving Dad.” He provided spoken dialogue, under the guise of a delusional—not to mention large and white!—mental patient who merely believes he is Michael Jackson. However, the pop star bizarrely left the mental patient’s sung “Michael Jackson” elements to a “colleague-in-tow”-who impersonated his famous, high singing voice. The show’s creators only later revealed Jackson’s actual participation in making both the episode and the earlier song. Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard would probably delight in such a complex, multi-layered, and postmodern concealment of a major pop star’s own identity.

Starting in 1990, for the first Simpsons‘ Halloween special (the original “Treehouse of Horror”), television music veteran Alf Clausen firmly took the show’s musical reins. The heavy reliance on music in The Simpsons has been handled quite efficiently ever since Clausen began his work on it. I attended a Simpsons‘ music scoring session for the 1997-98 season-ending episode “Natural Born Kissers.” Clausen conducted the orchestra on the sound stage, with a full-score “note-checker” and various technicians also participating from inside the control room. The ensemble of top-notch musicians recorded its several dozen cues in descending order of orchestra size. It perfected—probably with no advance copy of the music—the episode’s 5 ¼ minutes of instrumental cues in a little over an hour. To demonstrate the wealth of film and television music that we don’t generally notice, here’s a multi-cue scene from that episode. It includes brooding, minor-key, and/or dissonant music for aspects of danger—or, at the end of the clip, for merely apparent danger. Among other things, this recalls thriller-style “danger” music from classic, mid-century Alfred Hitchcock films and/or classic short cartoons. The scene also includes a romantic title-theme variation. [6:49-8:08 of 1998-05-17]

In addition to Clausen’s frequent orchestral underscoring and theme variations, he also contributed to most of the show’s original songs, “mini-musicals,” and song parodies. For example, his two Emmy-winning original compositions (with lyrics by Ken Keeler) include “We Put the Spring in Springfield,” from 1996’s “Bart after Dark.” In that episode, Homer punishes Bart by inadvertently making him work at what turns out to be a burlesque house: the Maison Derrière. Near the end of the episode, the characters sing (and, appropriately, dance) Clausen and Keeler’s elaborate production-number song. It evokes the diffusion of New Orleans’ jazz into mainstream popular music during the 1920s’ Prohibition and “Jazz Age,” plus one “substitute turnaround” in barbershop style. [17:59-19:07]

As an example of one of Clausen’s many parodies, I’ll play a song from 1997’s “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious.” In that episode, the Simpsons hire a British nanny—”Shari Bobbins”—who parallels Julie Andrews’s title character from the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins. One of the songs in this music-theatre-themed episode parodies that film’s song “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Co-composed by Clausen and the episode’s two writers, the gestures, orchestration, general style, and selected lyrics of “Cut Every Corner” closely match the original song. However, details of the melody, rhythm, and harmony cleverly remain just far enough removed from the original so as to avoid copyright infringement. Clausen similarly created a memorably-used variation of the 1943, instrumental, swing-era hit “Holiday for Strings”—for Homer’s daydreamed and beloved “Land of Chocolate.” Also, end-title variations of the show’s main theme (or the use of existing songs) extend selected episodes further into the stylistic worlds of specific movies, TV shows, and other contexts. The several dozen end-title variations inscribe such diverse styles as the “Addams Family” TV theme (for a Halloween episode), the Hill Street Blues‘ TV theme (for an episode in which idealistic Marge joins the Springfield police force), and guest end-titles ranging from Tito Puente’s Latin big-band “world pop” to Sonic Youth’s “experimental/alternative” rock.

The vast majority of the over 700 references to existing pieces of music in The Simpsons appear in the middle of various episodes—nearly every episode, in fact! In addition to the styles I’ve already played or mentioned, the show also includes references to folk music, country music, hymns, children’s music, early music, symphonies, opera, and the blues. The “quality of use” varies considerably, including: (1) visual and text-only references (such as a restaurant called “Smoke on the Water”), (2) characters speaking parts of songs (such as Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s “Our House”), (3) characters singing parts of songs, (4) actual recordings “dropped in” (with or without simultaneous character participation), and (5) what I call “more-than-just-voice re-performances.” Categories 3 (sung) and 4 (dropped in) are the most common, followed by 2 (spoken), and then by 1 (non-verbalized) and 5 (re-performed). This distribution makes sense—given the show’s predominant “order of operations”—pre-production (writing), production (voice-recording and animation), and post-production (music). Elaborate re-performances—and the similar creation and recording of original songs—thus stand as “special events.”

The character Homer was arguably born in 1953. The show associates him with a rather wide range of popular music, and these songs strongly help to define his semi-inconsistent and “happy-go-lucky” personality. They include music from the mid- to late-1950s (such as “Rock around the Clock” and “Mister Sandman”) and the 1960s (such as “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” “Spanish Flea,” “It was a Very Good Year,” “Purple Haze,” and “Bad Moon Rising”). Homer’s later associations include 1980s’ Top 40, such as “Funkytown,” “It’s Rainin’ Men,” “Uptown Girl,” “We Built This City,” and “Get Out of My Dreams (and into My Car).” The show mainly limits his earlier and later references, such as “Achy Breaky Heart,” but he also forms a mid-1980s’ “retro” barbershop quartet in 1993’s “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” and manages a female country singer in 1992’s “Colonel Homer.” Mainly, though, the show positions the 1970s as “Homer’s decade.” His 1970s’ associations include rock music, such as several songs by each of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Deep Purple, Queen, and KISS; Grand Funk Railroad’s “Shinin’ On,” plus “War,” “The Joker,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” and “Hot Blooded.” However, Homer’s 1970s’ references also include such pop- and dance-oriented music as the Starland Vocal Band, “Mandy,” “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’,” “Macho Man,” and the “Piña Colada Song.” Of course, the homage to “Those were the Days” also exclusively references the 1970s. (These lists of “Homer’s” music were highly selective, covering only about 15% of his references.)

Marge, who is the same age as Homer, references music from a similar range of decades as her husband—but much less frequently. (Thus, the following lists cover most of her music references.) She also has the show’s highest character-proportion of spoken-only music references—which is probably just as well, given her rather grating vocal timbre. Marge’s songs typically inscribe her “idealistic and somewhat naïve” personality. They include 1931’s “You are My Sunshine,” music from the late-1950s (“A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On”), the 1960s (“The Name Game,” “Happy Together,” and Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual”), and the 1980s (“Hip to be Square”). Her 1970s’ music references include Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy;” Bobby Sherman and Jackson Browne; plus “I Shot the Sheriff,” and spoken-only references to “Honky Cat,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Comfortably Numb.” In one episode, the show memorably associates Marge with the Baha Men’s 2000 hit “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Other music also links Marge and Homer by way of such 1960s’ songs as “In a Gadda da Vida” and such 1970s’ songs as the theme from Love Story, plus “You are So Beautiful,” “You Light Up My Life,” “Close to You,” several sexy Barry White songs, and disco or dance-oriented songs, such as: “Brick House,” “The Hustle,” “Love will Keep Us Together,” and Gary Numan’s “Cars.”

Bart, who keeps turning 10, sneaks Iron Butterfly’s 1968 psychedelic rock anthem “In a Gadda Da Vida” into a church service bulletin, tries to learn how to play 1970s’-style hard rock guitar, is familiar with Michael Jackson’s 1982 album Thriller (especially the song “BeatmIt”), and goes to hear the semi-fictitious heavy metal band Spinal Tap. He also seems to know at least some Gilbert & Sullivan songs (late 19th century), Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town (1944), Richard Rodgers (1940s-’60s), Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” (1955), and Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” (1958). He also references “Soul Man” (1967), “Mickey” and “Rock the Casbah” (both from 1982), “Bad to the Bone” (1986), Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen (in parodying its “Toreador” song), and barbershop music (in asserting that it “sucks”). Bart’s songs often help to characterize the “hell-raiser” and/or “pseudo-hipster” sides of his personality. Also, his familiarity with pre-1990s’ styles seems to relate to the show’s inter-generational associations of certain late-’50s’ to early-’80s’ songs within the four possible combinations of Grandpa, Homer, and Bart. This music includes West Side Story‘s “Cool,” the “Batman” TV theme, plus “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Don’t Stop,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Take This Job and Shove It,” and “Eye of the Tiger.”

Lisa, who keeps turning 8, plays the saxophone, loves aspects of jazz and the blues, and dislikes her school band’s hackneyed version of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” In fact, she successfully lobbies to replace the Sousa with the more “progressive” patriotic choice of James Brown’s 1985 song “Living in America.” In a January 2006 episode, the band even rehearses a version of the 1963 garage rock song “Louie Louie.” Lisa also often plays an unrestrained jazzy saxophone solo during band rehearsals depicted in the show’s opening titles sequences. In one episode, she sings a 1960s’-style protest song in front of the nuclear plant (to her own acoustic guitar accompaniment), then follows this up—by request—with the 1968 instrumental hit “Classical Gas.” Elsewhere, with her like-minded, left-leaning Grandma Simpson, she sings Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963). On another occasion, she makes use of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (from the 1976 musical Evita)—which is one of the show’s several references to Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals from the late-1960s through the mid-1980s. At other times, she plays the mid- to late-1970s’ songs “Wildfire” and “Baker Street” on her saxophone. At one point, Homer hilariously merges her rendition of the late-19th-century spiritual “When the Saints Go Marching In” with the similar-sounding WWI song “Over There.” Lisa also provides one of the show’s most elaborate re-performances in her played-and-sung version of Carole King’s 1974 song “Jazzman.” With one or two minor exceptions, baby sister Maggie does not speak. However, even her music appeared in the 2004 episode “Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays.” The episode includes several parodies of Egyptian-Canadianmchildren’s entertainer Raffi.

Due to its characters’ “frozen” ages, I initially expected to find a greater amount of contradictory “age-referent shifting” within the music of The Simpsons. However, the show has largely avoided excessive contradictions along these lines by “telescoping” its music references and flashbacks within overlapping historical windows. Thus, the show places the first decade of Homer and Marge’s childhoods from about 1953 to ’63, but it then stretches their early-adolescent years from 1963 to ’73, their high school years from 1968 to ’78, and their early dating period from 1973 to ’83. More significantly, it stretches their twenties from 1978 to ’98 and their thirties from 1983 to the present. For example, in a January 2006 episode Homer mentions to Bart that he is 38 years old, but in an October 1992 episode he indicates that he is 36. By this math, he and Marge will be in their thirties until as late as the year 2020. We should all be so lucky! Clearly, this “logarithmic history” precipitated the show’s referencing of music from certain decades much more than from others. As of the end of season 15 (the spring of 2004), 1970s’ music references stood at 37%, the 1960s at 31%, and the 1980s at 19%. All other music references combined for only 13%. Please stayed tuned for my eventual book project: “Be Sharp and the Rich Tapestry of Music in The Simpsons.” I expect to complete it during the year-and-a-half from 2006 to 2009.

Handout for Conference Version:

Logarithmic History and the Music of The Simpsons

Durrell Bowman, Ph.D.; IASPM-US, 2006

Primary Songs Referenced

  1. Nasty Habits” – Oingo Boingo (1981)
  2. Homage to “Meet the Flintstones” (“The Flintstones,” 1960)
    – on The Simpsons (1993)
  3. Homage to “Those were the Days” (“All in the Family,” 1971)
    – on The Simpsons (1997)
  4. parody of “A Spoonful of Sugar” (Mary Poppins, 1964)
    – “Cut Every Corner” (1997)

Primary Episodes Referenced

  1. “Natural Born Kissers” (1998): farm sequence
  2. “Bart after Dark” (1996): “We Put the Spring in Springfield”

Other Episodes (in order referenced)

  1. “Marge vs. the Monorail” (1993)
  2. “Lisa’s Sax” (1997)
  3. “Stark Raving Dad” (1991)
  4. “Treehouse of Horror [I]” (1990)
  5. “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious” (1997)
  6. “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” (1993)
  7. “Colonel Homer” (1992)
  8. “Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays” (2004)

Recordings

  1. The Simpsons Sing the Blues (1990)
  2. The Yellow Album – The Simpsons (1998, recorded in 1993)
  3. Songs in the Key of Springfield (1997)
  4. Go Simpsonic with the Simpsons (1999, used for Music Clips 2-4)

Popular Music Artists Appearing on The Simpsons

– performing music as themselves, as other characters, “anonymously,” and/or providing dialogue
– excluding references, “dropped in” recordings, and re-performances (i.e., original artists not involved)
-partly based on http://snpp.com/guides/gueststars.html (which covers this up to Feb. 6, 2000)

Seasons 1-9 (Dec. 1989 – Spring 1998)

  • Tony Bennett
  • Ringo Starr
  • Michael Jackson (as mental patient Leon Kompowsky, credited as “John Jay Smith”)
  • Aerosmith (Tyler, Perry, Whitford, Hamilton, Kramer)
  • Sting
  • Beverly D’Angelo (as Lurleen Lumpkin)
  • Spinal Tap (McKean as St. Hubbins, Guest as Tufnel, Shearer as Smalls)
  • Tom Jones
  • Linda Ronstadt
  • Barry White
  • David Crosby
  • Bette Midler
  • the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Kiedis, Flea, Marshall, Smith)
  • the Dapper Dans (as the Be Sharps)
  • George Harrison
  • the Ramones (Joey, Johnny, C.J., Marky)
  • James Brown
  • Robert Goulet
  • James Taylor
  • Mandy Patinkin (spoken, non-musical)
  • Tito Puente (part 1 of two-part episode)
  • Tito Puente (part 2 of two-part episode)
  • Paul McCartney
  • Linda McCartney
  • Paul Anka
  • Jack Sheldon
  • Cyprus Hill (Sen Dog, B-Real, Mixmaster Muggs)
  • Peter Frampton
  • the Smashing Pumpkins (Corgan, Iha, Wretzky, Chamberlain)
  • Sonic Youth (Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon, Shelley)
  • Johnny Cash
  • Hank Williams Jr.
  • U2 (Bono, the Edge, Clayton, Mullen)

Seasons 10-11a (Fall 1998 – Feb. 6, 2000)

  • the Moody Blues (Thomas, Edge, Hayward, Lodge)
  • Cyndi Lauper
  • Dolly Parton
  • Elton John
  • the B-52’s (the group is credited as a whole)
  • NRBQ (credited as a whole)
  • Britney Spears
  • Bachman-Turner Overdrive (just Bachman, Turner)

Seasons 11b-15 (Feb. 13, 2000 – May 5, 2005)

  • Shawn Colvin (as Rachel Jordan)
  • Kid Rock
  • Joe C.
  • Willie Nelson
  • the Who (Daltry, Entwistle, Townshend)
  • N’Sync (Lance, J.C., Joey, Chris, Justin)
  • Shawn Colvin (re-appearance as Rachel Jordan)
  • R.E.M. (Buck, Mills, Stipe)
  • Judith Owen
  • Phish (Anastasio, Fishman, Gordon, McConnell)
  • Mick Jagger
  • Keith Richards
  • Lenny Kravitz
  • Elvis Costello
  • Tom Petty
  • Brian Setzer
  • Tony Bennett
  • Baha Men (Carey, Hield, Prosper)
  • Little Richard
  • blink-182 (Barker, Delonge, Hoppus)
  • ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic
  • David Byrne
  • Jackson Browne
  • Brave Combo (credited as a whole)
  • 50 Cent
  • Fantasia Barrino
  • Baha Men (re-appearance; credited as a whole)
  • Los Lobos (credited as a whole)

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