Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Toni Basil- "Mickey"

Toni Basil- “Mickey”

Album Year: 1982
Age: 0
Track Number: 7

And speaking of timelines written out of continuity, we come to Toni Basil, who is still going strong at 68 years young. Toni Basil’s CV is beyond impressive in the number of pivotal moments and members of pop culture history she has been around, but she will likely always be remembered first and foremost for the smash hit “Mickey”.

I first encountered “Mickey” as a meme. Sailing its course through musical history, the song wound up in the mouth of Wayne Campbell as he sings it to his girlfriend Cassandra while cruising around in “the Murph Mobile”. He blurts it out at first as an irritation. Like a recursive loop, it has been stuck in his head all day since it was the last thing he heard before he left the house. The song acts like an itch he can’t scratch. Soon though, Cassandra joins him and the barrier between grading infection and pop bliss is breached. Giving in to the itch, the two are free to delight in the song’s irresistibility. It’s no longer a nuisance. It’s now a shared cause, this insatiable Tourette’s-like need to sing a song.

It’s one of music’s most mystical affects, the way it commands you beyond your desires, beyond the pleasure principle. One admits to defeat, gives in to the power of the song. Often, it’s not even a song you like, a song you may want to quit, but which can’t quit you.

I watched the VHS of “Wayne’s World” over and over until the heads were worn down, so I knew “Mickey” as a symptom before I really knew it as a song. I understood its infectiousness and why, even if I never listened to it again, it wasn’t going anywhere in my mind. I got the handclaps and how they would fit into a ritualized cheerleading routine. The song almost seems to have been arranged and engineered to be a hit, with the meticulousness of a dance routine. “Hey Timmy, You’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind!,” a girl would kindly write to me in a note passed between classes in high school. “Mickey” was so catchy that it was now backdrop, infinitely accessible. It still is. One line and you know exactly the song, if not the sentiment.

Likewise, Toni Basil was a bit of a cipher. It wasn’t until researching this song that I found out that Basil was already 40 years old when her breakthrough single shot up the charts. It’s appropriate that “Mickey” would help kick start MTV since television is where she got her start. As a young woman, one of her earliest gigs was the T.A.M.I. show in 1965, an iconic television event displaying the talents of The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones, not to mention a career-defining performance by James Brown (The Rolling Stones had the bad fortune to go on after Brown, but their career seems to have recovered).

Her work on the T.A.M.I. Show as both a go-go dancer and choreographer secured her a long career working behind the scenes of music. She rounded out the sixties, as she would throughout her career, bridging the gap between the counterculture and the mainstream. She was friends with several Beatles and appeared in a couple films with buddies Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces) and Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie and Easy Rider, where she was one of the prostitutes in the infamous graveyard LSD scene).

Her first film though was also her first music video. It’s unclear if “Breakaway”, Basil’s Tamla Motown-esque first single in 1966 (written by Ed “Tainted Love” Cobb), was supposed to transform her into a star, but if so she chose a strange medium for a crossover vehicle. Directed by found footage artist Bruce Conner (“A Movie”), “Breakaway” features original footage of Basil dancing and stripping in a frenzy of artistic poses rendered in motion blur zoom shost in stark black and white. Far from the piece you’d expect from a soul song of the era, the visuals almost seem a better accompaniment to some dream synthesis of This Mortal Coil and rave music. That is, until halfway through and the entire song plays backwards, far more apropos of the early psychedelia on display here.

Basil would go on herself to direct videos for Talking Heads (“Once In a Lifetime”, “Crosseyed & Painless”), in addition to directing all of her own videos. It was likely Basil then that would connect Conner to David Byrne and Brian Eno, who had Conner direct two videos from My Life in the Bush With Ghosts. Conner was also a mutual connection to Devo (he did their “Mongoloid” video), a group Basil was an early champion of. On a recent Sound Opinions podcast, hosts Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot recalled a story wherein it was Basil’s then boyfriend Dean Stockwell (of all people) who put one of Basil’s tapes of Devo into Neil Young’s hand, forging the friendship that would culminate in their collaboration on Rust Never Sleeps and “Human Highway”.

Basil also knew David Bowie. She had done choreography for his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, by far the most elaborate Bowie stage show, and even though she didn’t hand Bowie and Iggy Pop the demo tapes that got Devo signed, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest her opinion had some affect. Regardless, her relationship to Devo would tighten and she eventually wound up not only covering 3 Devo songs on her debut, Word of Mouth, but dating Gerry Casale himself.

Between forging artistic connections, Basil did some of her most groundbreaking work as a member of the dance troupe The Lockers. The Lockers were infamous for introducing “street dance” to mainstream audiences with appearances on Saturday Night Live, Soul Train, and The Tonight Show. Though Basil left the group in 1976, The Lockers had already cemented their influence on the burgeoning hip-hop culture by introducing a unique set of dance elements, such as their namesake piece, locking (now known as poplocking or popping and locking).

This was all before “Mickey”, which immediately vanquished all this entire ouevre behind the smokescreen of what might be the ultimate one hit wonder song. An anthemic beckoning for affection in the form of a cheerleading routine, “Mickey” was part of a wave that set out to prove synths were far more effective than traditional instruments in creating bubblegum. Like Devo, Basil was a pioneer of music video. She shot the iconic high velocity, high energy cheerleading video on her own over a year before MTV even existed. When MTV came around, the song went into heavy rotation and knocked Lionel Ritchie out of the number one slot on the pop charts.

Essentially a spot-on cover of “Kitty” by the forgotten powerpop band Racey, “Mickey” was named after Mickey Dolonz of the Monkees (Basil had done choreography for The Monkees’s “Head” film and appears as a backup dancer in the spectacular video for “Davy’s Song”), but appears on the surface to have no original sentiment to it beyond the name change. Yet, if that’s so, then why did Robert Christgau call Basil (quite crudely, mind you) “The only woman ever to offer to take it up the ass on top 40 radio”?

Perhaps it’s because when converting “Kitty” from a woman to a man, Mickey turns out to be quite gay. For the first half of the song, Mickey consistently resists Basil’s charms, so in the latter half Basil’s pleas become more revealing. “Now if you take me by the hooooo, who’s ever gonna know?/ Every time you move, I let a little more show/ There’s something you can use so don’t say no, Mickey/ So come on and give it to me anyway you can/ Anyway you wanna do it, I’ll take it like a man/ Oh, please, baby, please, don’t leave me in the damn, Mickey!”

Basil did a number of other interesting film and musical projects after the “Mickey” craze wore down, but her most interest legacy might be what arose in the song’s wake. “Kings of Rock” Run DMC copped a sample of The Knack’s “My Sharona” for “It’s Tricky”, but the song’s chorus openly riffed on “Mickey”, singing the “It’s tricky to rock a rhyme” line to the tune of “Hey Mickey, you’re so fine”. It’s unclear whether the group was aware of Basil’s roots in hip-hop street dance or whether they were just looking to appeal to the new wave kids alongside the metalheads, but the impact on one of hip hop’s first big singles is not insignificant.

The track also received the very first “Weird Al” Yankovic treatment on his self-titled debut album as “Ricky”, an ode to the I Love Lucy character. Weird Al’s early single “Another One Rides the Bus” had spun in regular rotation on Dr. Demento’s show, but for the bulk of Americans, “Ricky” was the first exposure to the parody musician eccentric who would go on to produce the first record I ever owned (more on that one later).

Though I don’t know of any artist who has cited the song as a direct influence, “Mickey” has to have at least subconsciously brought about the naughts trend of bringing pop onto the football field. Drumline songs by the likes of Gwen Stefani (“Hollaback Girl”, “What You Waitin’ For”) and Beyonce (“Get Me Bodied”, “Girls (Who Run the World)”) may have the opposite poise of Basil’s tongue-in-cheek boy crazy vapid cheerleader, but the song at least serves as a sonic ancestor who mapped the sociological terrain of high school sports first. Closer still in relationship is the call and response rah-rah chants of Avril Lavinge and Dr. Luke’s “Girlfriend”, which, like “Mickey”, is practically a cover of a powerpop song (The Rubinoos’s “I Want to Be Your Boyfriend”). Likewise to its spiritual kin, Lavigne, in twisting the gender of the original, puts forth an oppositional posture to the original (“I want to be your boyfriend” becomes “I don’t like your boyfriend”).

It’s likely Basil will never get the credit she deserves for any of her lasting influence because “Mickey” comes from a place of pure commerciality, the novelty song (making Weird Al’s gesture extra meta- a novelty parody of a novelty song). Yet, she’s already had so much influence and had her hands in so many interesting moments that it almost doesn’t seem worth it to fight for the recognition. Basil seems to do a better job in the background, choreographing music’s foreground as it passes by.

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