There are moments in art where the work seems to access some kind of divine space, elevated above either genre convention or our petty real-world day-to-day nonsense, where it’s as if all the artifice has been stripped back and you’re no longer seeing actors standing in front of a camera or listening to a musician sing over a guitar or seeing drawings arranged to look like they’re moving – you’re seeing a fundamental truth of the universe. The Simpsons accesses this space a few times over its run, but it’s hard to find many moments more potent than “I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was! Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’, and what is ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me! It’ll happen to you!” You can’t get a more efficient encapsulation of something everyone who was ever ‘cool’ has had to go through. A friend of mine once said that the only thing that never changes is human nature; there are few things that have faster turnaround in this world than coolness, and sometimes it seems like all of human culture is another person realising this. Homer’s journey this episode captures the anxiety of someone who realises the world left them behind without them noticing, and it’s something that strikes true even as the specific references and attitudes have, themselves, aged into irrelevance (“What computers?” indeed). It strikes me that there are two separate but equally useless impulses that the young are susceptible to: the need to be liked by everyone, and the need for everyone to like the things one likes; people susceptible to the former will look at what’s happening around them and reflect it, no matter how they feel about anything, and the latter will, if they’re lucky enough to have tapped into the zeitgeist, just take the order of things in their stride. Both will be shocked when the next generation sees the old order and topples it in an act of youthful rebellion.
(For whatever it’s worth, I was the first kind of person. Of course, out of both weird tastes and general social incompetence, I’ve never felt with it.)
The very same premise also means this episode acts as a layout of where the world was in 1996. As much as my generation (and younger) is rebelling against Boomers, I’ve also always been struck by how it rejects the Generation X ethos. If any one word defines Gen-X, it’s apathy – more often than not, apathy flavoured with depression, though I’ve been amused to read that as Gen-X has aged, they’ve become more laid-back, less likely to act as helicopter parents, less ambitious, more content with the comfortable and modest lifestyle they’ve managed to achieve (this is why I think Futurama is the perfect Gen-X show, because the earliest seasons have that strong sense of bitterness and the later seasons show the characters never quite escaping their ruts but finding more joy in the relationships and pleasures of them). The teenagers we meet in this episode are bitter, antagonistic, and indulging themselves in shitty moods that Homer, in all his infinite rockin’ joy, can’t comprehend. It’s something very different from your generic Millenial; the cool people of our generation loudly insist on positivity, optimism, and brash political action. Of course, there’s also things that carry across generations; aside from the general distrust of older people and a joy in watching people fuck themselves up for our entertainment, the line “I don’t even know anymore” is a hilarious underlining of how much of this is a front people put up to look cool, just as every generation of kids acts the way you’re supposed to to look cool.
(I am fully aware that generational divides are not 100%, and that not all Millenials, Gen Xers, or Boomers fit the ideas I’ve set up and that there are many different social groups in each generation. I do, however, think I’ve got the vibe of what’s cool and what isn’t)
This leaves us with this episode as an episode of a sitcom. I admit, as brilliant as central insight is and as funny as it can get, I would be shocked if this was in anyone’s list of favourite episodes. It doesn’t quite hold together as either a full statement on its thesis or as a series of comic escalations the way the series can at its best. Homer giving up being a freak feels like a convention to get us back to the status quo as opposed to a logical extension of everything he’s learned; the idea that he’s damaging his body by shooting a cannonball into it feels like the wrong kind of consequence for what the story is actually about. This was a story about a grown man trying to be cool to teenagers, and it feels like they were kept peripheral to the whole thing; in my experience, grown adults who try to be cool to teenagers tend not to have completely grown out of the emotional immaturity of teenagers. It feels like more like Homer should have come to realise that even if he succeeded at winning the approval of kids by degrading himself, all he would get for it is the approval of kids, which to me isn’t really worth the pleasures that come with being an adult at peace with one’s taste and sense of self. At the very least, this could have lead to a funnier joke than Sonic Youth watching Homer dive from the cannonball while eating the one big slice of watermelon. I honestly don’t want to make these essays into tracking the fall of The Simpsons, but I guess there is a point where you have to face the facts; the discipline of the show is starting to slip.
Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family walk in, glowing neon and with a spooky guitar chord, before Homer turns on the light and makes things normal again.
This episode was written by Brent Forrester and directed by Wesley Archer, and it was the last episode either of them worked on. The whole story was worked out by David S S Cohen. Forrester went to Lollapalooza to research the episode, and had a horrible time, much of which made it into the episode. Eric Stefani, founder of No Doubt, was an animator on the show at this time and put his former bandmates into the crowd. Cypress Hill, Sonic Youth, and Peter Frampton all guest starred as themselves, with the intention being to have a wide variety of genres represented (originally, the producers were hoping to snare Bob Dylan, but I’m really happy with Frampton’s performance). Pearl Jam, Hole, and Courtney Love were also originally wanted, but Sonic Youth insisted that if Love was in, they wouldn’t be. The Rover Hendrix joke has been called the worst Simpsons joke by various writers and producers.
Homer drops a reference to rainbow suspenders, presumably hoping for a repeat of the time he made them cool. I love that, as much as Homer believes he was tapped into the zeitgeist, he was never actually cool. There’s a great bit of dialogue that lays out the Simpson marriage (“You don’t have to join a freak show just because the opportunity came along.” / “You know, Marge, in some ways, you and I are very different people.”). I sometimes wonder how much of my interpretation of the show is as rooted in the reality as Billy Corgan’s take on Homer’s act. There’s a lovely note of Bart actually coming to admire Homer for his achievements.
“Hullabalooza” was a parody of Lollapalooza. The flashback of Homer meeting the guys in the van is a reference to Dazed And Confused. Homer’s act is based on Frank Richards. Otto’s hallucination of his shoes talking is based on the song “1999” by Prince. Homer’s walk when wearing his Rastafarian hat is based on Robert Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’ comic. Homer quotes “Rock And Roll All Nite” by KISS, “Don’t Fear The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult, and “Appetite For Destruction” by Guns & Roses.
Iconic Moments: 4. “I used to be with it!” | “I used to rock and roll all night, and party ev-e-ry day. Then it was every other day. Now I’m lucky if I can find half an hour a week in which to get funky.” | “Homer Simpson, smiling politely. | “Are you being sarcastic, dude?”