When a pop-culture phenomenon grows big enough, fast enough, it creates a vortex that sucks in everything in its path and demands more. Fads of the highest order create an intense hunger for more product, which can’t be satiated until the fad burns itself out. At that point, it’s time for stores to be stocked with the detritus of the next culture-wide fad. It’s goodbye Menudo, hello New Edition, or possibly the other way around.
But when something reaches that level of ubiquity and global popularity, it stops being viewed primarily as art or entertainment, and becomes an industry. And industries die unless there are new products coming down the pipeline at a steady clip. That’s when things start to get dicey, when smart people make stupid decisions out of greed and fear that the money-train might stop rolling before all the money is unloaded. This is the panic-driven thinking that famously transformed E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial from a popular movie into a migraine-inducing videogame about falling into holes, and led George Lucas to give Star Wars to Bruce Vilanch for, essentially, The Star Wars Smile Time Variety Hour. Both films were operating from a position of strength: They conquered the world, and audiences couldn’t get enough of their wares. But the marketers let the need to churn out product as quickly as possible destroy any consideration of quality control. Audiences wanted more E.T. and Star Wars in the worst way, and that’s exactly what they got.
In that Star Wars Holiday Special MWOF entry, I wrote about the film’s bifurcated nature as seminal mythology for our times and silly space nonsense designed to sell toys and entertain small children. The Simpsons has an even more violently split personality. It’s the foremost pop-culture achievement of the 20th century, and the greatest television show of all time. (Without Simpsons quotes, how would the socially awkward communicate with each other? Sure, there would still be Monty Python sketches and “Weird Al” lyrics, but then what?) But to the businessmen over at Fox back in the early 1990s, it was silly animated nonsense designed to sell toys and entertain small children. It also entertained everyone else, but that was just a nifty bonus.
From that standpoint, it made all the sense in the world for The Simpsons’ cartoon cut-ups to test out their pipes on a cash-in album, 1990’s The Simpsons Sing The Blues. It’s a testament to the public’s insatiable appetite for Simpsons product that an album of voiceover artists pretending to be cartoon characters on a purely sonic project of novelty songs and wacky covers went platinum. In its first week. It eventually went triple-platinum, presumably making a small fortune for Matt Groening, who gets a big cut of all Simpsons merchandise.
The Simpsons Sing The Blues was a hit on multiple fronts. “Do The Bartman,” which was co-written by an uncredited Michael Jackson, and “Deep, Deep Trouble” both prompted hit music videos; “Do The Bartman” even inspired a modestly popular dance craze. Though The Simpsons Sing The Blues isn’t remembered particularly fondly these days, it was a huge hit worldwide. That runaway success is more attributable to the show’s massive popularity than the album’s negligible artistic achievements. Ultimately, it was just a form of ancillary merchandise, the equivalent of a poorly constructed Bart Simpson giveaway doll from Burger King.
Still, The Simpsons is a deeply musical show: Most of the people reading this have probably committed at least a few of its ditties to memory. (“See My Vest” and “Who Needs The Kwik-E-Mart” spring to mind.) So why not have Springfield’s first family get musical? The question, “Why did they follow up that hit?” invariably contains its own answer. Success never needs any further justification: They followed it up because the last one made a whole lot of money.
So busy little elves quickly began working on a sequel to The Simpsons Sing The Blues. Even in the early ’90s, the show’s white-hot buzz had begun to fade: It was still popular, but store shelves were no longer overflowing with cheaply assembled Simpsons merchandise. The show was transforming from a fad, which can support a project as tacky and mercenary as The Simpsons Sing The Blues, to a mere cultural institution, which cannot.
The Yellow Album (remarkably, the title, redolent of hot, steaming urine, is one of the lesser miscalculations involved) wasn’t released until 1998, and it emerged to withering reviews and worse sales. “Love?”, the kick-off track, pairs the comedy-rap stylings of young Bart Simpson with a generic dance-rap track purloined from the C+C Music Factory outtake pile. (C+C Music Factory heads Robert Clivillés and David Cole produced “Love?” and “I Just Can’t Help Myself.”) In 1998, it sounded prehistoric.
“Love?” finds Bart appropriating the cartoonish sing-song delivery of previous My World Of Flops subject Dee Dee Ramone, and by extension, proto-rapper Bobby “Boris” Pickett as he raps about meandering around Springfield, pondering the complexities of love. Bart proudly declaims, “The Bartman’s posse is immune to love,” but he learns otherwise when he spies Milhouse with a girl: “It can’t be true / My best friend Milhouse: traitor to the crew / He’s holding hands / He’s talking sweet / With that new little girl from across the street / He’s lost his cool, his brain’s gone south / He doesn’t even care that she’s a metal-mouth!”
How did Bart Simpson go from being a whirling dervish of countercultural anarchy to a cornball joke rapper who raps about slipping on “cool duds”? The Yellow Album suggests an emissary from an alternate universe where The Simpsons wasn’t a searing, trenchant satire of American culture and the hypocrisy and greed of our cultural institutions, but rather a cheesy vehicle for a novelty joke band. Imagine a less quasi-ethnic Shasta McNasty.
“Love?” is followed up by a cover of Eurythmics’ “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” that pairs Lisa Simpson with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and later, Simpsons mainstays Patty and Selma for a song that inspires the question, “What, exactly, is the joke here?” Is it that a stirring anthem of female empowerment is a hilariously incongruous song for a little white girl to sing? Or is it that the song fits Lisa’s persona so perfectly? Neither of those seem to fit, so the question becomes, “Is there even a joke here?” Apparently not.
Homer and Linda Ronstadt follow it up with a bizarrely faithful cover of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” that retains some of the original’s wistful melancholy, even though it’s being sung partially by a fictional cartoon bumbler. At least the cover is bad and puzzling in a more subdued, less obnoxious manner than the first two tracks, which are so awful, it’d be hard to avoid a mixed review even if they were followed by the actual White Album.
The Yellow Album is a non-ironic version of the kind of mercenary cash-in The Simpsons has satirized mercilessly over the years, most notably via Krusty The Clown, but also in the 1991 “Treehouse Of Horror II” episode where Bart wishes for money and fame, and his family ends up capitalizing on their ill-deserved success by releasing The Simpsons Go Calypso. The Simpsons delivered the definitive parody of schlocky cash-ins like this years before The Yellow Album was even released.
The Yellow Album isn’t an album so much as the most dramatic test of a true believer’s faith since God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The album dares Simpsons diehards like myself to make it through a harrowing 48-minute gauntlet of ill-considered covers, train-wreck collaborations (Lisa and P-Funk All Stars: oh, it happened), generic synth-pop grooves, and jokes that would be killed in Jay Leno’s writers’ room for being insufficiently edgy.
Simpsons fans are used to the show including songs that are funny, catchy, and perhaps most importantly, brief. But the songs on The Yellow Album go on interminably. Particularly “The Ten Commandments Of Bart,” a Matt Groening co-written vehicle for Bart Simpson, novelty joke rapper, that drones on for more than six unbearable minutes, as Bart elucidates his personal philosophy in rhyming couplets. (I prefer The Notorious B.I.G.’s phonetically similar, slightly more adult-oriented “Ten Crack Commandments.”)
On “Anyone Else,” from the second half of the 10-track opus, Lisa agitates for Bart to be replaced by anyone else in existence, in a wacky comedy song that suggests a less inspired version of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s “Brother For Sale.” Early direct-to-video projects from the Olsens and The Simpsons in its prime inhabit different worlds and different evolutionary planes, but to money-minded individuals, they were both mini-industries with multiple ancillary revenue sources, and special appeal to small children.
The Yellow Album features three songs co-written by John Boylan, who I first encountered in the book Star-Making Machinery: Inside The Business Of Rock And Roll, shoveling cocaine up the noses of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen while producing an album for them. By the time he worked on The Yellow Album (and before that, The Simpsons Sing The Blues), he had segued into children’s music, and in 1992, he produced the Alvin & The Chipmunks country album, Chipmunks In Low Places. I suspect Boylan saw his work on The Yellow Album as not terribly dissimilar from his work on Chipmunks. They were both novelty joke albums for children; one just happened to be a spin-off of one of Western civilization’s premier accomplishments.
At its height, The Simpsons was about everything. It was a sprawling, ambitious, all-inclusive satire of American life and culture and the institutions that played a huge role in molding the sensibilities of multiple generations of smartasses and cynics. The Yellow Album reduces the show and the family to its broadest, laziest, and dumbest elements: Bart is a troublemaker. Lisa is sassy. Homer is dumb. Apu works constantly. The Yellow Album shrinks something massive and important until it becomes unrecognizable.
But it gets worse. For its first nine songs, The Yellow Album bears only a slight resemblance to the television masterpiece that spawned it. The names, voices, and dynamic are all the same, but the soul is gone, along with the wit, irreverence, and everything else that makes The Simpsons great.
In its final track, however, The Yellow Album makes the mistake of tying the album into the television show, even knowing it can only suffer by comparison. The Yellow Album closes by expanding—and in the process, ruining—one of The Simpsons’ signature moments: The Kamp Krusty Theme Song introduced in the 1992 episode “Kamp Krusty.”
The original version from the show is a minute long. On The Yellow Album, “Hail To Thee, Kamp Krusty” extends the song’s length to nearly five minutes, throwing in verses from Otto, Lisa, and Martin Prince. “Hail To Thee, Kamp Krusty” is The Yellow Album in microcosm: It takes a beautiful joke and a beloved institution in such a bizarre, strained, inappropriate direction that it becomes punishing and exhausting.
Failure, fiasco, or secret success: Failure