September 21, 2020

Cowabunga! When the Ninja Turtles and a Rapping Bart Simpson Stormed the Pop Charts

A couple of weeks ago I got to thinking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their early nineties bid for pop music stardom. I owned a copy of the Turtles’ Pizza Hut-released cassette at the time (I discuss my odd, probably unhealthy fascination with animated and other fictional bands here) and have hazy memories of being on the grounds for the Coming Out of Their Shells tour when I worked at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in college, and I got to wondering how all of this came to be.

I’ll have to return to my in-depth analysis of the Turtles phenomenon because, of course, once I started reading up on it, I stumbled upon a whole world of animated and other fictional bands from the early nineties. In addition to the Turtles’ campaign, the Simpsons and Barbie released albums within a couple of months of each other. Nintendo was reportedly working on an album featuring the Mario Bros. and other characters from its games (though this later morphed into a different project). Even old hands like the Chipmunks tried to get in on the action.

For a stretch of time in 1990 and 1991, these fictional acts joined a handful of real-life ones in targeting a pre-teen audience, with music that sounded more like the slick pop of Michael Jackson and Madonna than the quaint musings of Raffi and other purveyors of “children’s music.” The trend was pronounced enough that New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles gave it a name: tot rock.

Rock & Roll Parents Having Rock & Roll Kids

So, what gave rise to the trend? While it had roots in the mid-eighties mall-pop of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, the tot-rock phenomenon is more directly tied to the New Kids on the Block conquering America in 1989 and 1990. In 1990 alone, the boy band brought in $61 million, more than any other entertainer, while generating tens of millions of dollars in sales of T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia. The group wasn’t necessarily targeting the pre-teen crowd but the kids came out in droves, anyway, revealing a huge, largely untapped market. According to research conducted at the time, children between the ages of 6 and 14 controlled some $6 million in discretionary income every year.

None of this should have come as a surprise to anyone following demographic trends. In some ways, the rise of tot-rock was simply the outcome of Baby Boomers’ kids reaching the age of consumption. “With rock & roll parents now having rock & roll kids, there’s a big opportunity out there to win a new audience,” said Geoff Bywater, vice president of marketing at MCA Records. MCA was at the time assembling the proposed album based on the Mario Bros. characters.

“It’s the second Baby Boom, if you will,” said Ralph King, president of Rincon Records, the label behind the Barbie album. “We saw a potential market and, from the research, it was apparent that those kids were very active in terms of entertainment buying, that there was a strong appeal to them for music and products that they perceived to be more credible and a little more grown up.”

Credible and grown-up? Historically, six-year-old children might not have been concerned about such things. But the media scene in 1990 was very different than it had been a decade before. In November 1990, Pareles pointed to the advent of MTV as one of the major catalysts of the change. With music videos on television 24 hours a day, rock music was no longer a “sonic abstraction,” a secret body of knowledge access to which could only be gained through an older sibling or some other sage-like figure. Now it was a constant presence. And especially because so many videos borrowed the visual language of both Saturday morning cartoons and advertisements, kids couldn’t help but take notice.

Fred Meyerson, vice president of Rincon, described the phenomenon a bit more succinctly. “Kids are not stupid,” he said, “and what we found in our research is even kids who are four and five really are aware of Madonna and MC Hammer and everybody else. And they hear the music, and they understand that that’s what high-quality music is. And what’s been traditionally marketed to them are songs about ducks.”

Growing Synergy Between Music and TV

A handful of real-life acts were assembled and marketed directly to the tot-rock crowd. Among them: the Party, made up of former New Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers; Guys Next Door, a New Kids knockoff with a Saturday morning music and comedy series; and the entirely pre-teen Another Bad Creation, who scored a Top 10 hit with the single “Iesha” from their debut album, Coolin’ at the Playground Ya Know! But the most high-profile of the tot-rock acts, if not also the most successful, were the cartoons.

Animated pop and rock groups were nothing new, of course. The Beatles and the Jackson 5 had Saturday morning cartoons in in the sixties and seventies, respectively. And other series—The Archie Show and Josie and the Pussycats as well as The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and others—had characters (usually teens) form bands and perform “original” songs. Archie and Josie even spawned real-world album and single releases, with the former scoring a major hit with the “Sugar, Sugar.” But two significant developments in the mid-eighties created an especially large, cartoon-sized niche in the market.

First was the growing synergy between music and television and renewed emphasis on image as part of an artist’s overall presentation. “The industry is using the visual reference as a packaging tool,” said John Boylan, producer of the Simpsons album. Given these, animated characters even had a bit of an edge in the marketplace, since they had an established yet still malleable image.

The other? Well, the fact is, mainstream pop artists more cartoonish in the eighties and early nineties than ever before. From Michael Jackson and Madonna to Milli Vanilli to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, the go-to look and feel for many artists was loud, colorful and over the top. With cartoonish singers dominating the mainstream for the better part of the decade, the market was primed for actual cartoons. For kids, especially, it really wasn’t much of a leap from one to the other.

Tellingly, for several weeks in early 1991, the top five entries on the Billboard 200 album chart included Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection and The Simpsons Sing the Blues. When Mariah Carey is the least cartoonish artist in the top five, you know something’s up.

Check out highlights from the tot-rock phenomenon below.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – “Pizza Power”

Where do I even begin with the Ninja Turtles’ pop music adventure? The awkward appearance of Vanilla Ice in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze? The partnership with Pizza Hut that saw the pizza chain handing out cassettes of the Ninja Turtles album and Pizza Hut pizza boxes littering the stage during Ninja Turtles concerts? The bizarre PR campaign in which everyone from publicity people to producers insisted the Turtles were real and actually playing their instruments?

I suspect I’ll return to the Turtles’ Coming Out of Our Shells era sometime down the road so, for now, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts from Raphael, the group’s singer, saxophonist and percussionist, on the Turtles’ musical influences.

“Actually, you may not hear it to listen to our album,” he said in an interview for a 1991 newspaper article, “but our main musical influence is Bruce Springsteen. You know, his music comes form a feeling of isolation and being insecure and uncertain. And when we were growing up, those are the same feelings we felt. We were down in the sewer, you know, and it was just the four of us and Master Splinter. And we were isolated from everything else. And it wasn’t ’till we got older that we discovered everything that was going on around us—just like Bruce.”

The Simpsons – “Do the Bartman”

I wouldn’t necessarily have pegged The Simpsons Sing the Blues as a tot-rock album. I’ve never really thought of The Simpsons as a children’s cartoon, and so much of the album seems geared toward adults, with blues standards and guests like B.B. King and Dr. John. But I guess “Do the Bartman” alone qualifies it as such. The hip-hoppy track adopts the perspective of a nine-year-old scamp and boasts some kind of involvement by the King of Pop himself: Michael Jackson.

Controversy has swirled around Jackson’s role since before the album was released. Series creator Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks initially denied rumors that the King of Pop had any kind of involvement with the record. However, in 1998, Groening told the audience at an animation convention that Jackson co-wrote and co-produced the song but for contractual reasons couldn’t receive credit. More recently, songwriter Bryan Loren said that he (Loren) was the sole composer of the song and Jackson’s contributions were limited to backing vocals, coming up with the song’s title and insisting his name be mentioned in the lyrics.

Barbie – “Shy Boy”

The full-length Barbie album The Look was a mix of cover versions (e.g., the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun) and originals like “Shy Boy” and “Together We Can Do It (The World),” a duet with Shari Belafonte with a “We Are the World”-type message. According to a press release accompanying the album, the songs were chosen to “explore concepts relevant to children during their formative years: relationships, education, responsibility, creative play and just plain fun!”

The Look was by no means Barbie’s first foray into the pop music world. Toy company Mattel released the first Barbie 45 in 1961 and for years had a “rock star” line of dolls packaged with a cassette with Barbie singing. “Whatever the latest trends are, she’s there,” said Donna Gibbs, media relations director with Mattel.

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