Fake, and Occasionally Superior: The Simpsons Bootleg
Molly Young on the Source Material for Over 30 Years of Knock-Offs
- Text: Molly Young
My local corner deli carries knock-off Swedish Fish by the counter. They are exactly the same as regular Swedish Fish but slightly pudgier, cheaper, and renamed (accurately) Gummy Red Fish. It's the purest form of bootleg: a commodity that attempts to replace but not to deceive, ruthlessly stripping away inessentials (why should we care what nationality our candy identifies with?) while retaining the required redness, gummyness, and fish shape. Gummy Red Fish.
If perfect bootlegs are a rare breed, provocatively imperfect bootlegs are more common than ever. In 2016, Vetements held a warehouse sale on the outskirts of Seoul inspired by the volume of counterfeit Vetements sold in South Korea. Fans camped out for a chance to buy authentic pieces subtly altered to suggest that they were fakes. At Gucci, Alessandro Michele showed (real) Gucci t-shirts based on fake Gucci t-shirts followed by sweatshirts and dresses printed with the name intentionally misspelled as Guccy. And the brand continues to collaborate with the Harlem-based king of couture bootlegs, Dapper Dan. What Demna and Alessandro demonstrate is a new index of influence—specifically, that we're living in an era where coverage in Vogue and appearances on the red carpet are less indicative of relevance than the desirability and availability of knock-offs. If you can produce a collection premised entirely on the compulsion of people to rip off your own product, you've made it. It is a snake eating its own tail inside a Rubik’s cube on top of a Baudrillard book resting on an M.C. Escher staircase.
If Vetements and Gucci offered a full circle of bootleggery, items in the category have traditionally moved in a single direction: away from a vector of conventional influence and out towards the margins. A classic—at this point, almost a classical—example is The Simpsons, which is simultaneously the property of a megacorporation (Fox) and the source material for nearly thirty years’ worth of bootlegs. Shortly after the show's debut in 1989, bendable toys were rolled out to capitalize on the property's instant popularity, and within months The Simpsons merchandise flooded store shelves: comic books, action figures, guitar picks, toothbrush timers, perfume, skateboards, backpacks, lunch boxes, telephones, Pogs, bongs, bed linens, key chains, Pez dispensers, plush dolls, bowling balls…if it could be mass-produced, it could be Simpsonized. In just over a year the merchandise generated $2 billion worldwide. Bart Simpson t-shirts were soon selling at a rate of a million shirts per day in North America, which resulted in a surge of imitations from clever sub-rosa entrepreneurs. This is the customary trajectory for any fad: a spike in the market carves out room for a shadow economy of knock-offs, which allows consumers access to a look they might not otherwise have access to.
It also allows the consumer to customize the good to their own taste. Unlike, say, faux Vuitton bags or Rolexes, Simpsons bootlegs were never prized for their fidelity to an original. Many of them were riffs on the Bart Simpson character, using his signature traits—lack of respect for authority, allegiance to skateboarding, mastery of pranks—as a symbolic prompt for bizarre or subversive or foul or funny commentary in 100% cotton tee form. The point was not to trick people into buying a fake Bart shirt; it was to offer a fake Bart shirt that was incontestably fake and obviously superior to the legally-sanctioned options.
The bootlegs broke down into a number of categories, aimed at any and every subcultural audience. For gym rats, there was a swole Bart lifting barbells. For the strident jingoists, there were Gulf War-themed propaganda shirts with Bart strangling Saddam Hussein or spouting epithets or urinating on the nation of Iraq. For Iowa residents, there was Bart dressed like a cow and advertising the state fair. For medical professionals, there was Bart as a cardiac surgeon. For deadheads, there was Bart with the lightning skull logo. For misogynists, there was Bart being strangled between a woman’s ass cheeks (caption: "CRACK KILLS”). The list goes on. It wasn’t a fashion fad, it was a meme: pop culture mutating at lightning speed, picking up and discarding meaning as it tumbled forward. What's a clever bootleg if not a hot take?
“The second-third-fourth iteration of an idea can be better than the original for sure, but this is all on a scale,” said the artist Andrew Kuo (aka @earlboykins), who has been creating his own Bart iterations for years. “How good was the original and how good is the thing after the filter?”
“For me, it’s helpful to consider ideas or memes as “alive,” in that they have a health, and they either live on or don’t, depending on if we take care of them or let them wilt,” said Kuo. “For example, The Simpsons bootlegs have stuck around because they’re graphically malleable, striking, and their story is still interesting. Borrowing is the best, but you have to do something to the original for it to work. That’s what keeps the idea healthy.”
The master archivist tracking the health of bootleg Bart is a man known as Leo, who lives in London and ran the canonical Instagram account, @bootlegbart until it was shut down in late October. Thanks to Leo, bootleg Bart was documented and contextualized for an audience of 90s nostalgists, ironists, Simpsons fans, and recreational scholars of counterfeit culture (including followers like Virgil Abloh and Eric Andre). According to Leo, bootlegs bubbled up almost instantaneously after the show aired—again, an internet-speed phenomenon before most citizens had ever been online. “1990 was Bart’s year,” Leo told me. "He was everywhere.”
A popular subgenre of the Bart bootleg explosion was Black Bart, which is what it sounds like: Bart Simpson, but black. Black Bart appeared on t-shirts with a gold chain and a high top fade, or accessorizing with a kufi hat and Africa-shaped necklace, or high-fiving Nelson Mandela, or quoting Public Enemy, or dunking a basketball. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening weighed in at the time with an elliptical approval: "Bart is like Santa Claus. No one really knows what color he is.'' Russell Adams, the chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University contributed to a 1990 New York Times piece with a theory about why Bart had been embraced by the black community: Bart was, above all, an anti-establishment figure. "There is a suppressed rage in the cartoon that black people are picking up on," he told the Times. The same article quoted Ernest White, the host of a daily call-in program in Washington D.C., as saying that the subject of Black Bart often came up on his radio show. ''I guess this presence of the Black Bart t-shirt says there is an association with the underdog, a need to fight the establishment,” White told the Times.
Curiously, a 1991 academic paper ("Black Bart" Simpson: Appropriation and Revitalization in Commodity Culture) indicated bootleg Simpsons as "the most popular Afrocentric appropriation of mass culture iconography," but also pointed out that few of the Black Bart’s appeared to be created by black people, and a screen-printer in Philadelphia reported that the Nelson Mandela-themed shirts in particular were typically the work of "white progressives." The popularity of Black Bart was such that even the bootlegs were bootlegged, variations springing up out of commercial self-interest rather than authentic participation. A quarter-century later, it's even harder to detangle the layers upon layers of appropriation and re-appropriation heaped upon each other. Some fakery is artful mischief. Some is cheap entrepreneurial opportunism. Some is an inhibiting force against innovation. Most of it falls somewhere in between.
The Simpsons bootleg doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, its lifespan suggesting just how endlessly malleable a bootleg can be. Indicative of the longevity of, and unwavering adoration for, a Simpson family bootleg is Lil Yachty’s sparkling Bart piece, which he commissioned in 2017 as an homage to Gucci Mane’s Bart chain from the early 2000s; the Yachty version replaces Bart’s spiked hair with the rapper’s signature red braids. (He wore the chain for a performance on The Tonight Show in 2017, in which he freestyled about 59 Simpsons characters.) The references become references to references, as the bootleg continues to accumulate cultural significance. More recently, Official Simpsons merchandise has gone high-fashion (again): This summer XLARGE® released a line of Simpsons tees and a pair of shorts printed with an all-over Duff Beer print, all properly licensed from 20th Century Fox. Ditto for the Off-White SS19 collection, which featured a Bart-themed Italian cotton-cashmere sweater and a couple of Simpsons t-shirts. The sweater retails for $1,640.
Which brings us back to the mouth of the ouroboros: bootlegs were born of an economic necessity. Not everyone can afford the real thing; a lot of us can afford only a gesture at it—a copy, well- or poorly-executed—to represent the thing as best it can. If there's one lesson that bootlegs teach, it is about the fungibility of most things. As a shapeshifting shadow of something authentic, a bootleg says so much more than an original is able to. A bootleg is not like a crush, where the object of affection is irreplaceable. To buy a bootleg is to acknowledge that “close enough!” is good enough, and sometimes, better.
Molly Young is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a co-author of the book D C-T!.
- Text: Molly Young