In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. As part of Simpsons Week, we’re picking our favorite songs from the show.
“Happy Birthday Lisa” (1991)
Considering Michael Jackson’s affinity for and association with Peter Pan, it makes sense that he’d be a Bart Simpson fan, too. As America’s preeminent 28-year-old fourth grader, Bart is another Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up; unlike Peter Pan, the King Of Pop eventually got to visit Bart and his fictional world. He even wrote a song with the character—his second contribution to the Simpsons catalog after the No. 1 novelty hit “Do The Bartman.” Though, at the time, Jackson couldn’t cop to his participation in either recording.
The story of “Stark Raving Dad”’s production is one of the more bizarre passages in Simpsons history, marked by the secrecy surrounding Jackson’s appearance as Leon Kompowsky, the hulking patient of a Springfield mental institution who happens to speak and sing in the voice of… Michael Jackson. Well, he almost sings in the voice of Michael Jackson: As a stipulation of Jackson’s guest appearance, Leon’s singing was provided by soundalike Kipp Lennon. The musician told producers he wanted to keep his brothers guessing as to whether or not he’d actually recorded Leon’s singing parts; the pseudonymous credit “John Jay Smith” did the trick for the non-Jacksons in the audience. It was the final time a Simpsons guest would appear on the show under an assumed name; Neil Patrick Harris and Joe Mantegna (in the dual role of Fat Tony and “Joe Mantegna as Fat Tony”) used their real names just three episodes later in “Bart The Murderer.”
But no amount of behind-the-scenes shell games can disguise the fact that “Lisa It’s Your Birthday” is a Michael Jackson composition. Jackson’s pure pop genius and unrepentant sentimentality are in full effect, though Leon and Bart’s final work omits any of the singer’s signature vocal flourishes. (In one of the episode’s finest moments of self-parody, Bart chides Leon for adding a “hee hee hee” to their song’s first draft: “You’re just putting that in because it’s commercial.”) In its piano-and-bongoes arrangement, “Lisa It’s Your Birthday” resembles nothing less than the gorgeously skeletal demo for the posthumously released Jackson track “Love Never Felt So Good,” its elementary licks belying the fine craftsmanship at work. It’s a gentle little number, in line with the sonic gentleness Jackson’s voice lends to an episode in which Homer’s pink dress shirt gets him labeled a “free-thinking anarchist.” The strongest testament to the song’s quality, however, arrives during the closing moments of “Stark Raving Dad”: “Happy Birthday Lisa” is just as catchy in Leon’s “true” voice, a gruff, working-class “New Joisy” patois courtesy of Hank Azaria.