Initial Aside: Presented at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in 2013.
See also the paper’s Handout.
In a 2004 book called Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, David Arnold argues that television itself is The Simpsons’ “central defining element of culture.” Similarly, in his 2006 book, Watching with ‘The Simpsons’: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality, Jonathan Gray suggests: “For sheer density and frequency of jokes, nothing on The Simpsons receives as much parody and ridicule as the sitcom and its surrounding apparatus.” Many people—apparently including media scholars—fail to identify the extent to which cultural forms engage with music. In fact, on The Simpsons, music is the single most extensive, culturally-defining element. It is unquestionably more densely-referenced and parodied than television or the sitcom. The show’s music includes nearly one thousand references to existing music (quotations, parodies, re-performances, etc.), a large array of musical guests, numerous original songs and excerpts, and thousands of instrumental cues. Also, the show’s use of music is often intertextual, discursive, and—more loosely—postmodern.
“Knowledge” of music does not begin and end within a specialized “language” involving specific pitches, harmonies, and forms. In fact, genres, styles, tone colours, melodic contours, textures, rhythms, tempos, and lyrics frequently prove far more useful than any number of notes, chords, and structures in producing music-related meaning. Intrinsic to this manner of interpreting cultural works is the idea from Mikhail Bakhtin that an utterance actually only means something within the context of coming into dialogue with another such utterance. Michel Foucault similarly explored the idea of suspending accepted unities and continuities in favour of discontinuity and the temporal dispersions at work within a complex field of discourse. Additional scholars, such as Julia Kristeva and Linda Hutcheon, also find concepts of intertextuality, parody, and postmodernism to provide highly useful sites for enabling the interpretation of culture and meaning. The Simpsons provides a very rich case study for how music and musicians participate in such things.
The Simpsons uses pop-rock from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, musical theatre, film music, and jazz more often than classical, church, country, folk, and rap music. However, it mines all of them for their referential and/or comedic potential. The show constantly walks a fine line between parody and homage (such as in its many references to film, theatre, and literature), but it does so nowhere more fully than in its culturally resistant attitude towards music. The Simpsons revises and re-reads the past of virtually all types of music—and of the cartoons, sitcoms, movies, plays, musicals, celebrities, characterizations, cultural hierarchies, sexuality, religion, and otherness through which we encounter them. In many ways, the separation of Simpsons’ viewers from the past and the show’s re-reading of that past hold for pop songs and other music from the mid- to late-20th century just as much as they do for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Italian opera.
The Simpsons tends to use culturally “strong” references, such as former Top 40 hits, movie adaptations of music theatre, and well-known classical works. However, it is also true that no-one, including me, experiences the show already knowing all of these things. So, the show frequently increases our cultural literacy, paralleling the re-use of earlier songs and classical works in mid-century cartoons, as discussed by Daniel Goldmark in Tunes for ’Tunes. In addition, music in The Simpsons succeeds best when it is not merely an allusive “imitation” or “hodge-podge” pastiche. The show often features music in creative, new contexts, such as its musical theatre versions of classic plays and films—including A Streetcar Named Desire and Planet of the Apes.
The show’s music is not high-brow, low-brow, or middle-brow. Instead, it provides a very strong example of Peter Swirski’s concept of “no-brow.” In addition, the show’s creators, characters, and audience members often consume music as what Richard A. Peterson termed “cultural omnivores.” The show rarely implies that some music is “better” than other music. In fact, it often erases the very idea that any kind of music must be either “good” or “bad” at all. Such an approach takes breaking down the idea of cultural hierarchy to a whole new level.
The entry-point for most people’s knowledge of music in The Simpsons is Danny Elfman’s Emmy-nominated 1989 theme song. However, that was his only contribution to show. Elfman had been the leader in the 1970s and ’80s of the LA rock group Oingo Boingo, and in the mid- to late-1980s he had just transitioned into composing for TV and film. His theme evokes 1960s’ TV themes, especially Hoyt Curtin’s work for The Jetsons and The Flintstones. Those shows were mainstays of the original wave of sitcom-length cartoons about unusual families that were intended primarily for adults and shown in prime-time. The Simpsons revived that idea in the late 1980s, and Elfman’s theme appropriately uses mildly-eccentric rhythms, quirky intervals, and flighty/angular melodic content. In fact, though, Elfman’s work in rock music had already been in a quite similar, “adult cartoon” area stylistically. Indeed, his 1981 Boingo song “Nasty Habits” strongly anticipates the Simpsons’ theme.
The range of music on The Simpsons is vastly wider than the show’s original theme, though. In fact, the show’s story-appropriate stylistic variations of that theme were done by the show’s composer-conductor, Alf Clausen.
In the 1960s, Clausen studied at Boston’s jazz-oriented Berklee College of Music. Among other things, he then worked in the 1970s as the composer and musical director for a popular-music-oriented TV variety show—The Donny & Marie Osmond Show—and in the mid- to late-1980s as the composer for the TV shows Moonlighting and ALF. He also worked as an orchestrator for such comedy films as The Naked Gun and (one of my favourites) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In the 1990s and 2000s—alongside his composing, arranging, and conducting for The Simpsons—Clausen also composed for and conducted his own big-band jazz group. Given that background, it makes perfect sense that his strongest contributions to The Simpsons would include parodies and allusions concerning the history and variety of such things as popular music, jazz, and film & TV music. Clausen has composed and conducted the music for more than 500 episodes, starting with the show’s 1990 Halloween episode (“Treehouse of Horror I”) and continuing to the recent, 24th season, etc. The show is the longest-running American prime-time scripted television series.
Clausen’s instrumental music generally uses either an orchestra or a chamber ensemble. However, he also sometimes makes use of electronic instruments, such as synthesizers. He often evokes existing musical genres and approaches. The Simpsons’ annual Halloween episodes and similar fantasy sequences have allowed him a certain amount of “cartoon-like” rein. Those episodes include electronic sounds that had become associated in the 1940s and ’50s with such things as “disturbed psyches” and “otherness” in such psychological thrillers and science-fiction films as Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Forbidden Planet. Clausen received Emmy nominations for the dramatic underscore of nine Halloween episodes from 1991-2010 and for additional episodes from 1993, 2001, and 2008. For 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, however, the show’s co-creator James L. Brooks decided to hire film composer Hans Zimmer, who had earlier worked with Brooks on several movies. Similarly, a 2012 Oscar-nominated Simpsons’ short film—called The Longest Daycare, featuring Maggie (a silent film, appropriately), and based on segments from a 1992 episode scored by Clausen—also features music by Zimmer. Clausen’s stoic response to having been snubbed was: “Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.”
Clausen also wrote the music for The Simpsons’ numerous songs and “mini-musicals.” He won prime-time Emmy song awards for the music of 1996’s “We Put the Spring in Springfield” and 1997’s “You’re Checkin’ In,” with seven additional nominations for songs from 1994 to 2005. Awards such as the Emmys only mean so much, and The Simpsons frequently makes fun of them. They can, however, serve as a starting point for considering some of the genres, styles, and pieces that are referenced and/or parodied on the show. “We Put the Spring in Springfield” (from the 1996 episode “Bart after Dark”) evokes rambunctious dance-club music from the Jazz Age of the 1920s. The creators also certainly had in mind the revival of that style and setting in such musical theatre shows as 1975’s Chicago. The song, with lyrics by Ken Keeler, is an example of a foregrounded piece of music suddenly appearing out of nowhere in order to strengthen the narrative and characterizations. Early in the episode, Homer punishes Bart for one of his random acts of minor property damage by making him work at what turns out to be Springfield’s burlesque house, the Maison Derriere. The context of the episode is loosely based on the 1978 country-oriented musical comedy, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which is best known in its 1982 film version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. The style of Clausen’s song, though, is 1920s’ Dixieland jazz, with mostly female vocals.
Over the course of the episode, Marge convinces the citizens of Springfield that it would be best to demolish the burlesque house. Towards the end, an angry mob gathers at the Maison Derriere and starts smashing things. Homer, though, wants to preserve the establishment and begins the Maison-supporting song with a slow, recitative-like introduction, initially unaccompanied, but then with piano. Several characters make visual responses of surprise to the non sequitur of a song beginning in such a context.
You could close down Moe’s or the Kwik-E-Mart, and nobody would care,
But the heart and soul of Springfield’s in our Maison Derriere.
The song proper then kicks off in a fast, energetic, march-derived style of traditional jazz’s polyphonic improvisation. The song includes the participation of male musicians, but visually lacks certain audible instruments—such as clarinet, banjo, drums, and bass. The initial vocals are by the venue’s entrepreneurial proprietor, Belle, soon joined by a chorus line of scantily-clad young women. They sing the praises of their establishment with rhyming-couplet analogies and the song’s title-tag in each half-verse. In the second half of the song’s first bridge, Rev. Lovejoy voices his objection to the place, but he is reminded that his own father frequents it. The song is a bit like a faster, more-compressed version of “All That Jazz,” from Chicago.
Verse 1a (Belle):
We’re the sauce on your steak. We’re the cheese in your cake.
We put the spring in Springfield.
Verse 1b (Maison):
We’re the lace on the nightgown, the point after touchdown.
Yes, we put the spring in Springfield.
Bridge 1a (Belle):
We’re that little extra spice that makes existence extra nice,
a giddy little thrill at a reasonable price.
Bridge 1b (Rev. Lovejoy):
Our only major quarrel’s with your total lack of morals.
Bridge 1c (Maison):
Our skimpy costumes ain’t so bad; they seem to entertain your dad.
An instrumental transition brings us to Verse 2 (a half-verse), sung by Belle and her employees, solidifying their case and with the notable accompaniment of one of Bumblebee Man’s antennas as a kind of sounding spring. This part of the song causes the sheep-like mob quickly to change its attitude towards the establishment. The song’s second bridge begins with a trio of Police Chief Wiggum, Krusty the Clown, and Principal Skinner; followed by the always JFK-like Mayor Quimby and his long-suffering/Jacqueline-like wife (who once worked there), plus Grampa Simpson and fellow old-timer Jasper. It concludes with an a cappella contribution by Bart (still in tempo), closed out by a “stop-time,” minimally-accompanied, close-harmony turnaround by Jimbo and two other bullies. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Homer’s song-opening, so these characters are thus united in a kind of “bad boy” or “meta bully” category.
Verse 2a (Maison):
The gin in your martini, the clams on your linguine.
Yes, we keep the [antenna boing] in Springfield.
Bridge 2a (Trio/Quimbys):
We remember our first visit. The service was exquisite.
Why, Joseph, I had no idea. Come on, now, you were working here.
Bridge 2b (Old-Timers):
Without it we’d have had no fun since March of 1961.
Bridge 2c (Bart/Bullies):
To shut them down now would be twisted.
We just heard this place existed.
The “stop-time” aesthetic of the end of Bridge 2 enables a sleazier, half-speed continuation for the remainder of song. The ending alternates the Maison Derriere staff with further vocal and/or audio-visual contributions by Kwik-E-Mart manager Apu, a group of Springfield’s men (similar to the male chorus in Roxie’s self-named main song in Chicago), plus Sideshow Mel, Moe the Bartender, and so on. The song gets increasingly cartoon-like as the “spring” analogy is extended to such diverse things as Hinduism, a jack-in-the-box, a slide-whistle, and trash-can-lid percussion. Even though the tempo of the music is now slow, the song ends with a rapid-fire series of slapstick gags and rapid-referencing characterizations: a pie in the face, someone hit by a mallet, frat-boy-like enthusiasm, an ayooga-horn, a random fishing moment, and ending (during the song’s final cadence) with Barney the Drunk’s famous belch. The over-the-top depictions—and the song itself—certainly enact a sense of campiness—but really without the typically-inscribed homosexual overtones.
Verse 3a (Maison/Apu):
We’re the highlights in your hairdo, the extra arms on Vishnu.
Verse 3b/extension (Cast):
So don’t take the [Krusty-brand Jack-in-the-Box boing] …
we won’t take the …
Yes, let’s keep the [crash of trash-can lids] in Springfield!
The “Spring” scene downplays the women and girls of Springfield, Marge is absent, and so is Lisa—the show’s most enlightened, intelligent, and musical character. However, the scene’s emphasis on men makes sense, given that the Maison Derriere is a gentleman’s club, that its most vocal proponents among the townspeople are men, and that its particular modes of entertainment are meant to induce a certain “springiness” in its patrons—but a relatively non-sexual thrill: rated “PG,” not “R.” The show’s writers played up the episode’s unusual focus in a self-aware way. In an earlier scene in the Maison’s Hall of Fame, Homer spots a 40th-wedding anniversary photo of President Eisenhower in the late 1950s surrounded by the establishment’s entertainers. Homer also reads the ending of the photo’s caption out loud: “Not pictured: Mrs. Eisenhower.” On a “meta” level, the song sequence says: “Not pictured: Marge and Lisa Simpson.” Actually, anti-Maison ringleader Marge has been off renting a bulldozer, missed the sea-change in attitude affected by the song (even among the rest of the town’s women), sings an extremely lame counter-argument about morals and ethics, and ends up destroying the house anyhow. The scene also references music via a 1970 Crosby Stills Nash & Young song by describing the Maison as a “very, very, very fine house.”
In addition, the episode’s opening titles’ couch-gag parodies the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and slightly evokes the orchestral ending of its final song, “A Day in the Life.” In fact, “Bart after Dark” has 37 instances of music throughout. Those include the theme song, themes and other music for TV shows within the TV show, small things sung by Lisa and Bart, a title variation, whistling, background scoring, Offenbach’s “can-can,” stripper music, rim-shots, piano jazz, and an instrumental version of “We Put the Spring in Springfield” for the end-titles.
Clausen’s other Emmy-winning song, “You’re Checkin’ In” (from 1997’s “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson”), parodies contemporary Broadway musicals featuring updated socio-cultural commentaries—such as Rent. The made-up musical featuring the song is called Kickin’ It: A Musical Journey through the Betty Ford Center. Ken Keeler’s lyrics reference the real and film-role lives of famous actors struggling with drug addictions. The song thus skewers such out-of-control celebrities as Robert Downey, Jr. and Charlie Sheen.
Also, the 2004 action-movie satire by South Park’s creators—Team America: World Police—parodies Rent more directly (especially stylistically) in its song “Everyone Has AIDS,” from the similarly made-up musical: Lease.
Two Emmy-nominated episodes of The Simpsons parody additional musical theatre works throughout. The show takes major advantage of copyright law still being obsessed almost entirely with melodies and words. The 1964 fantasy film Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, is cynically treated in the 1997 episode “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious.” “A Spoonful of Sugar” is parodied in the alternate universe of The Simpsons as “Cut Every Corner.”
Similarly, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s late-1970s’ musical Evita, best known in its 1996 film version starring Madonna, inspired the 2003 episode “The President Wore Pearls.” Lisa runs for Student President (with mixed results), and the episode evokes Evita a number of times, including the parody of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” in “A Vote for a Winner.” The episode ends with a facetious, textual epilogue claiming that the show’s creators hadn’t heard of an Eva Perón musical, but they didn’t do that for Mary Poppins—or anything else, in fact.
The Simpsons influenced such more obviously “adult-themed” animated shows as South Park (1997- ) and Family Guy (1999- ). South Park, especially the 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, shares an interest with The Simpsons in parodying musical theatre. However, the South Park movie has a particular, warped affection for Broadway-derived and Disney film musicals. (I wrote about that film’s music in the inaugural issue of the online journal ECHO.) Family Guy also sometimes includes extended sequences that quote musical theatre or other music. It almost always does so, though, in random, extended cutaways. For example, the 2009 episode “The Juice is Loose” (about O. J. Simpson) includes what should be merely a passing reference to country singer Conway Twitty. However, it follows the reference with a segment from the 1970s’ TV variety show Hee Haw of Twitty performing an entire song. South Park, in its two-part “Cartoon Wars” episode from 2006, the show skewers Family Guy for precisely this sort of thing. Concurrently, it treats The Simpsons much more favourably, including a fairly respectful character parody of Bart. My main response to Family Guy is that there is no reasonably-deep intertextuality or useful discourse in play when music is just randomly “dropped in” for extended surface interruptions.
As Michel Foucault reminds us: “Discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs.” The Simpsons’ “as-and-when” engagement with pieces of music and their contexts means that their origins are not ultimately more important than what the show does with them. I hope I’ve been able to convince you in this brief introduction that the show has, indeed, done quite a lot with music—and that the subject deserves an extended treatment.