My colleague, the ever-inquisitive Dave Olson, prompted an interesting conversation yesterday by simply asking a small group of us how we finish the childhood standard, “Jingle Bells, Batman smells.”
Most of us answered “…the Joker got away,” but both Dave and I had actually learned a variant, “…the commissioner broke his leg.” Alternatively, I’ve also heard the Joker breaking his leg and I guess there are also versions out there where the Joker does ballet.
I had just been pondering this same issue after having a similar conversation with my six year old daughter, who chided me for not knowing that “…the Joker broke his leg” was the correct answer. In a twist, I had actually sung “…the Joker got away” because I thought THAT was the version she’d learned.
It’s a peculiar little issue sure to divide opinions over the holidays. Luckily, Dave found some academic writing from the Center for History and New Media that helps address these discrepancies while also making a good point about the song as a whole.
In an annotation to “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” Mike Willard writes that the song is an example of early childhood subversion, which rings true. “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” was probably one of the first pieces of satire I ever learned, or at least one of the first that I learned and retained, and it has a few important qualities necessary for good musical satire that, in this case, are available to a very young audience:
- A shared melody. Because of how easy and recognizable it is (you can recognize “Jingle Bells” by knocking the rhythm on a table), “Jingle Bells” is easy to set alternate lyrics to. Everyone–EVERYONE–knows that melody, and we all learned it at an early age.
- A set of referents. We all learned about Batman at a very early age. I mean, come on. Batman. What first grader worth their salt hasn’t learned about Batman? Robin, the Joker and even the commissioner all come along with that territory and, if they aren’t known, they are easily explained within the context of Batman.
- Relevant themes. In Willard’s annotation to the song, he notes that “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” has the enticing and alluring themes of bodily functions, like bad hygiene and laying of eggs (which comes with some clever wordplay). One version also features “…Mr. Freeze cut the cheese” in lieu of “…the Batmobile lost its wheel” and Willard calls these “childlore,” “grosslore” and “fartlore,” which are the greatest terms to ever come out of scholarly work.
- The subversion of authority. It’s not “The Anarchist Cookbook,” but budding revolutionaries have to start somewhere. “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” uses a melody passed down to children and takes it apart, and it takes character tropes known from popular culture with it: a police commissioner becomes injured, the bad guy gets away, the hero stinks. It invokes aspects that are known to be taboo and thus alluring. It can be done away from adult ears on the playground, on the bus, or on the sidewalk during playtime, forming a piece of culture that can be shared among children even when they aren’t in front of a piece of technology. In other words, it’s the ultimate grade-school shareable.
Some things to keep in mind when you’re belting this out with your favorite little revolutionary this holiday season.