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November 11, 2009

Book Notes - John Ortved ("The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

The Simpsons is one of my favorite television comedies of all time, and John Ortved has written an invaluable oral history about the show. Covering the show's inception of The Tracey Ullman Show to its unlikely and unpredicted success in its first season and on through its later years, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History not only reminds us of the greatness of the show but also its cultural importance.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"How did such a curious artifact become "the most powerful, lasting, and resonant entertainment force television has ever seen"? That is the task taken up by Ortved's "uncensored, unauthorized" history, which is as tasty as a pink-glazed donut with sprinkles, as refreshing as a Duff beer and as piquant as a curry slushy from Kwik-E Mart. "

In his own words, here is John Ortved's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History:

The Simpsons is a very popular television series that I have spent the last 3 years writing about, first in an article for Vanity Fair, then in book form.

The following tracklist will reveal my completely eclectic, aka "awful" taste in music--and yet I consider myself radically ahead of the curve. As a teenager, most of the CDs I bought were soundtracks because, to me, it seemed like the most efficient way to collect all the songs I liked. This seems hugely dorky, and it is, but it could also be seen as innovative, and a precursor to mp3's and iTunes. It could also be true that no girls were making me mix tapes, and I wanted to feel like someone was making compilations for me.

Either way, I hope you enjoy the following and forgive my lack of musical expertise. I'm basically from the Homer Simpson school of audiophilia, which teaches that "Grand Funk Railroad paved the way for Jefferson Airplane, which cleared the way for Jefferson Starship. The stage was now set for the Alan Parsons Project, which I believe was some sort of hovercraft."

Oy. Before I get off on a quoting marathon, let the nerdery begin:

Bill Cosby "Dope Pusher"

This was the 3rd track on Bill Cosby's anti-drug public service; it's basically just the Cos yelling at some kids so incomprehensibly that, ironically, it seems like he's on something. The Simpsons have the most impressive list of guest stars of any program ever, but they'll never get Cosby (who has said that Bart Simpson was "sent to destroy" The Cosby Show). I put this track at the top of the list not because it has any worth, but because it's a celebrity making music, which, despite the Cos's best intentions, is perhaps the highest form of self-indulgence (Demetri Martin and David Cross review some of the worst here.). So much of my book is about Hollywood egos being completely out of control and while Cosby seems like a guy who is actually pretty down to earth, it just worked too well with The Simpsons history to let it slide. Oh, in 1972, when this album was released, it won a Grammy.

The Arcade Fire, "Wake Up"

I went to school in Montreal with a couple of these kids and I don't think I've completed a creative project since then without the help of their music. This is the ultimate coming of age song – there's an inspirational, but weighty vibe that I find symbolic of the creative act. I hear it in the heavy, cheerful guitar riffs, but also in the desperation to the lyrics, which are balanced with a hopeful, dance-y melody. Spike Jonze's smartest move in making Where The Wild Things Are was attaching this song to the trailer.

The Damned "Jet Boy Jet Girl"

The Simpsons story really begins with Matt Groening in LA in the very early 80s punk scene. This song, originally by Elton Motello, perfectly captures the subversiveness and irreverence of Groening's early work: it's a punk track about a gay love triangle whose chorus, "oo-hoo-oo-oo; he gave me head," mocks those 60s surfer tunes which were, at one point, considered rebellious. It's gender-bending, loud, and fun – everything those people who didn't actually live in the 80s enjoy thinking it was like.

De La Soul "Please Porridge"

I'm not a fan of the "skits" on hip hop records (they are never funny), which De La pioneered. I wish MCs were willing to exert the effort necessary to place their satires and parodies into their songs, like De La manages to do here. "Porridge" is set to a classic snare and bass beat, but it's infused with rhythms from a wooden block and upbeat piano riffs. It sounds like a hip hop song for kids – but it's really quite progressive; a clever narrative runs throughout, peppered with pop culture allusions – including a sample from Kermit The Frog – my favorite being, "I click, I click the TV to The Simpsons." De La Soul innovated the think-y, irreverent, articulate vein of hip hop; they were The Simpsons of rap.

Blood Sugar Sex Magic "The Red Hot Chili Peppers"

This was the last tape I ever bought. I was 12 and my father promptly confiscated it (Will Smith was right: parents just don't understand). This was the age many of us were starting to define ourselves through the pieces of culture we embraced. There was a lot of Guns and Roses' "Use Your Illusion (I and II)" that summer. In fact, I think that was the summer of confiscation: kids all over were losing their Bart Simpson T-shirts, MC Hammer fades, not to mention their Chili Peppers' albums. Adults were freaked out that their kids would sympathize with an underachiever, or wanted to hear songs with words like "shit" in them. Seven years later, Eminem would release his first album, which included a delightful track about killing his wife and stuffing her in a trunk.

Michael Jackson "Black Or White"

Clearly not Michael's best, but this song, video and album came out shortly after Michael appeared as a 300 lb white mental patient on The Simpsons (he didn't actually sing "Man In The Mirror" on The Simpsons – he had a stand-in) creating a moment of pop confluence that nearly makes my head explode. Throw Madonna, or Michael Jordan in there and it would have been a 90's Yalta. But this also the point where we saw MJ step right over the edge. The tabloid freak show had started, and with "Black or White" Michael had clearly become more about the pop than the music. The Simpsons thing was cool, but then there's Macauley Culkin in this video, lip-syncing a rap, before the beautiful and batshit crazy computer special effects finale.

Alabama "Hats off to Hard Riding Cowboys"

One element of The Simpsons we rejoice is its hyper-allusiveness: they can refer to The Flinstones, to 18th century French politics, to literature to Hollywood--all within a few beats of a single scene. They are especially adept at tipping their hat to their comedy lineage – which I think is classy, and appropriate. This song is a dedication to the past greats of country music – the band plays a lick or two from each of their forbearers' signature songs--it's romantic and smart and quite catchy. And I don't care what everybody in their right mind says: I like Alabama (one of 8 bands in the history of Rock and Roll to put out more than 20 gold records – so take that – the others are The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Aerosmith, Chicago, Rush, The Beach Boys and Kiss).

Bob Dylan "Song to Woody"

Bob Dylan is a guy who completely chose his own place in the pop canon; I think his different contortions over the decades make him, almost more than anyone else, the perfect pop animal. Only Dylan could go from folk singer, to born-again-Christian, to Victoria Secret pitchman and still have more cred than anyone else in the business. The Simpsons hasn't engaged in the same kind of shape shifting, far from it, but the series freely admits that it's a massively successful product of the Fox Corporation. It's incredibly honest about its place in the world and, like Dylan, makes no promises as to its identity.

Vivian Girls, "Where Do You Run To"

Hollywood doesn't make a ton of bones about its sexism. Women are drastically underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera. And The Simpsons was no different. Sam Simon, the original showrunner, adhered to the accepted wisdom that "women aren't funny" and kept them out of his writing room, a trend that has for the most part, continued at the show. Vivian Girls are an all-girl, kick-ass and yet completely sexy punk group. I could have gone with a Blondie track and made the same point, but I wanted something contemporary.

Warren Zevon "Werewolves of London"

I added this song for 2 reasons:

First, something I love about The Simpsons is the "what the f**k did I just see?" factor. There are many weird, weird moments in the show that are funny for their own sake, like Season 12's "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes" episode where Homer keeps getting drugged by Victorian-era puppet masters. Similarly, this song is fantastic, but makes no goddam sense: "He'll rip your lungs out, Jim – I'd like to meet his tailor." What?

The second reason is that while writing the book, I drank a lot at a bar called Maxx Fish in the Lower East Side, and they were always playing this song.

The Donnas "Dancing With Myself"

I'm kind of cheating here, (having used "Jet Boy Jet Girl" earlier), but I wanted to use this cover to explicitly acknowledge the imitators The Simpsons have inspired. There's both the good (Family Guy, South Park), the bad (American Dad) and the ugly (Fish Police, Dilbert). In the annals of covers, I think this one is right up there with Jeff Buckley's rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"--as good as the original, if not better (there's a Nouvelle Vague version of this song as well--it's fun, but nowhere near as good).

Kraftwerk "The Robots"

There is a big nerd element to The Simpsons – from its fans, to the writing room, to authors who write books about it, and then go on websites to write corresponding track lists – and there is something very nerdy about electro, especially German 80s electro. Still, listen to Kraftwerk and then any contemporary hip hope with synth (ahem, Kanye), and you'll be blown away by all thievery. I imagine Kraftwerk was a great way to say goodbye to the 70s; I highly recommend bringing both them and The Simpsons with you on your next drug adventure.

Rolling Stones "Yesterdays Papers"

I'm ending with a Rolling Stones track because, as John Alberti says in my book, "Maybe The Simpsons have stretched it into the Rolling Stones because the Rolling Stones are so corporatized now it's really hard to imagine that they were ever subversive or edgy or countercultural. It seems like they're beating a dead horse to pick up a paycheck," which I think is a very accurate description, if you watch any of the current episodes. The Stones may be my greatest rock band in history, just as The Simpsons are probably the greatest TV show ever produced – which is why it is especially sad to watch them both ride so ingloriously, not into the sunset, but towards the bank.

John Ortved and The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History links:

excerpts from the book

Bookgasm review
Bookslut review
The Complete Review review
Gelf review
Monkey See review
NeuFutur review
St. Petersburg Times review
Washington Post review

ArtsBeat interview with the author
CBC News profile of the author
The Daily Beast post by the author about the book
Toronto Star profile of the author
Vanity Fair article by the author that spawned the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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