ItsNotYouItsMe Blog: The Number Ones: Toni Basil’s “Mickey”

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Number Ones: Toni Basil’s “Mickey”


According to one of our preffered musical sources:

"Toni Basil – “Mickey”

HIT #1: December 11, 1982

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

It took a little while, but the arrival of MTV wreaked absolute fucking bedlam on the pop charts. At the dawn of the ’80s, most of the acts who hit #1 were established stars of one sort or another — Michael Jackson, Queen, Pink Floyd, Blondie — with occasional flukey late-disco one-offs like “Funkytown” sneaking through. But then, in August of 1981, MTV launched. Most of America had no access to cable in the early ’80s, but within a year and a half of MTV’s first day on the air, a middle-aged choreographer could score a #1 hit with a chirpy, revved-up novelty that a whole lot of people assumed was about anal sex. This choreographer managed to pull off this coup thanks to a flashy, memorable music video that actually predated MTV itself. Record-label execs must’ve been staggering around, dizzily struggling to process the new reality, learning that everything they’d known was now wrong.

The advent of MTV is one of the great inflection points of pop music history, like the sudden boom of disco or the advent of the streaming era. MTV was shallow and coked-out and, at least at the beginning, racist as all hell. It damaged entire generations’ attention spans, and it went on to unleash a great many plagues upon the world: Reality TV, the institution of spring break, Pauly Shore’s movie career. And yet this new development was a unilaterally good thing, at least from a chart watcher’s decades-later perspective. MTV introduced bright, zippy new sounds into an American mainstream. It largely booted sleepy adult-contempo ballads from their place of dominance. And it created an environment where a song like Toni Basil’s “Mickey” could become a smash. Given that Toni Basil’s “Mickey” fucking rules, MTV did the world a favor.




Toni Basil wasn’t really a musician, but even though she couldn’t have known it, she’d spent decades preparing for the early-MTV moment. Antonia Basilotta was the daughter of an orchestra conductor and a vaudeville comedian, so she was born into show business. Basil really was a cheerleader, though she graduated her Las Vegas high school more than 20 years before “Mickey” hit #1. In the early ’60s, she served as a dancer and assistant choreographer on the variety show Shindig! and in The TAMI Show, the classic 1964 concert film. She also choreographed and danced in the Monkees’ bugged-out 1968 psychedelic musical Head. This led a whole lot of people to believe, wrongly, that “Mickey” was really about Micky Dolenz.




In 1969, Basil and Karen Black played the two sex workers in the famous Easy Rider graveyard acid-trip montage. Basil acted in a few more movies in the ’70s, including Five Easy Pieces, Mother, Jugs & Speed, and the famously cursed Dennis Hopper clusterfuck The Last Movie. She also did choreography for things like American Graffiti and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour. Starting in 1971, Basil co-founded and managed the Lockers, the first street-dancing crew to achieve any kind of mainstream prominence. The Lockers, which included a few future breakdancing legends, opened for Frank Sinatra and Funkadelic, and they performed on Soul Train and Midnight Special and The Tonight Show. They also had a memorable spotlight moment during the first season of Saturday Night Live.



Basil also had a spotlight moment of her own on that first SNL season, when she sang and danced her way through a swing song called “Wham (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam).” In 1978, Basil introduced the Lockers’ street-dancing Swan Lake on SNL. Basil directed that sketch. Then, 1980, she also directed and choreographed the Talking Heads’ videos for “Once In A Lifetime” and “Crosseyed And Painless,” two singles that didn’t chart in the US. That means she’s responsible for some of the moves in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, the best concert film ever made. (The Talking Heads’ highest-charting single, 1983’s “Burning Down The House,” peaked at #9. It’s a 9.) Around that time, Basil was also directing avant-garde art-film shorts.




By 1980, then, Toni Basil was comfortable singing, dancing, acting, choreographing, and filmmaking. When she recorded her first album, 1981’s Word Of Mouth, Basil actually directed videos for every song on the LP. Word Of Mouth is a pretty good piece of twitchy, hook-centric new wave. At the time, Basil was dating Devo’s Gerald Casale, and the album features three Devo covers, with Devo working as Basil’s backing band. (Devo don’t have any top-10 hits. Their highest-charting single, 1980’s “Whip It,” peaked at #14.) But for the first single, Basil covered a song from the very end of the UK’s bubble-glam era.

Before Mike Chapman became a chart-topping producer for American bands like Blondie and the Knack, Chapman and his songwriting partner Nicky Chinn cranked out hits for UK glam-pop groups like the Sweet and Smokie. (They also wrote Exile’s 1978 American #1 “Kiss You All Over.”) One of the Chapman/Chinn song factory’s clients was Racey, a sort of glam/power-pop hybrid who had a few UK hits in the late ’70s. Their giddy 1979 stomper “Kitty” was not one of those hits. But Toni Basil took “Kitty,” switched its genders around, and added a stupidly effective cheerleader-chant refrain. (She should’ve gotten a songwriting credit for adding the “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine” bit, the part of the song that everyone remembers, but she didn’t.) Thus, “Kitty” became “Mickey.”




“Mickey,” weirdly enough, is the second time an American woman got to #1 in the US by covering a song from late-’70s British bubbleglam also-rans and flipping the genders around. It came less than a year after Joan Jett And The Blackhearts pulled it off with “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” For me, that really underlines the connection that glam had to punk and new wave — one great continuity of drunk and horny British yobs changing the world.

In its final form, “Mickey” is one of the great obnoxious crowd-rockers of the early new wave era. Back when it was still a Racey song called “Kitty,” “Mickey” was already a supercharged head-rush. Basil makes it better. Basil’s “Mickey” takes its monster stomp-clap shuffle beat directly from the Knack’s Chapman-produced smash “My Sharona.” That beat works beautifully with the original song’s mocking nyah-nyah organ and its freaked-out horny frustrated euphoria. Basil’s cheerleader chant somehow enhances all of this, giving it a mad sense of headlong energy.

Basil’s vocal on “Mickey” isn’t exactly a showy or muscular performance, but it’s great for what it is. She’s flirting and pouting at the same time, and she gets all of that across. Basil’s narrator really wants to get with this Mickey guy, and she feigns disbelief that he won’t hurry up and take her home already. Because she’s flipped the genders around, a vaguely creepy song about a guy badgering a girl turns into something much lighter and more playful.

The “you’re so pretty” bit is a fun little twist on masculine objectification, and there’s a line on the song — “Come on and give it to me any way you can/ Any way you want it to, and I’ll take it like a man” — that lost of people assumed was about buttfucking. There were, in fact, further theories that “Mickey” was a song about a straight woman attempting to seduce a gay man. Basil says that all of this is bullshit, and since “Mickey” was originally a guy singing about a girl, the facts back her up. But songs have a way of taking on meanings that go way beyond authorial intent. If you want “Mickey” to be a song about buttfucking, it’s a song about buttfucking.

In certain quarters, “Mickey” has a reputation for being a bad song, or a guilty pleasure. It’s not that. In the history of pop music, the following things have almost always been forces for good: Energy, excitement, maddening clapping-game chants, desperately horny vocals, cheap and trebly Farfisa organ sounds, gigantic stomping stop-start quasi-tribal drums, possibly-not-intentional sexual innuendo. “Mickey” has all of those things. It kicks ass.

“Mickey” is probably the first #1 song that mostly just exists to be the soundtrack to a video. Basil had the idea for the video before she’d settled on a song to cover. In the cheerleader-themed clip, she wears an updated version of her old Las Vegas high-school cheerleading uniform. The other dancers are part of a champion cheerleading squad from LA’s Carson High School; Basil met them when she was shooting videos of cheerleaders. So all the other girls in the video are actual teenagers. But when Basil shot and directed the video, she was 38 or 39. She shot the clip in 1981, before MTV was a thing that existed.

Basil didn’t really tour as a singer, so she used the “Mickey” video to promote the song around the world. Every US label turned the single down, but it became a hit in the UK and Australia in 1981. In LA, the radio station KIQQ started playing an import copy, and Chrysalis finally decided to release “Mickey” in the US. Their timing was good. The “Mickey” video was not exactly a big-budget extravaganza, but it was eye-grabbing and memorable, and it had character. You didn’t have to see it a lot of times for it to leave an impression. Toni Basil has been steadily working in show business for over 50 years, but the vision of her in that cheerleading outfit and that pseudo-clown makeup is the one that everyone will always remember. The word “iconic” gets overused, but that’s an iconic image.

Basil never had another hit after “Mickey,” though a couple of her later singles made the lower reaches of the Hot 100. She released another album in 1983, and a couple of its tracks did well on the Dance chart, but her music career was essentially over after “Mickey.” But Toni Basil kept working. She choreographed her old collaborator David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour in 1987, and she worked with Bette Midler and Tina Turner, both of whom will show up in this column. She guest judged on a couple of seasons of So You Think You Can Dance. She did choreography for movies: That Thing You Do!, My Best Friend’s Wedding, both Legally Blonde flicks. Just last year, she worked on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.




So Toni Basil won’t be in this column again. But a few years later, her fellow choreographer-turned-singer Paula Abdul followed her career path, and we’ll see plenty of Abdul in this column. We’ll also see cheerleader-centric tracks from Gwen Stefani and Taylor Swift that work, more or less, as installments from the extended “Mickey” universe. And we’ll see many, many more songs with heavily choreographed videos. “Mickey” has a legacy.



GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1983, “Weird Al” Yankovic teamed up with future Tiny Toon Adventures/Animaniacs voice actor Tress MacNeille on “Ricky,” an I Love Lucy-themed “Mickey” parody. “Ricky,” which peaked at #64, was the first Yankovic single to chart on the Hot 100. Here’s the video:




(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of a song that will end up in this column. “White & Nerdy” peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Run-D.M.C. used a version of the “Mickey” cheerleader chant as the hook of their classic 1987 single “It’s Tricky.” Here’s the “It’s Tricky” video:




(“It’s Tricky” peaked at #57. Run-D.M.C.’s highest-charting single, the 1986 Aerosmith collab “Walk This Way,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mike Myers and Tia Carrere singing “Mickey” in the 1992 Penelope Spheeris masterpiece Wayne’s World:




BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lisa Kudrow using “Mickey” to distract herself from a smoke alarm on a 2001 episode of Friends:




BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At UFC 189 in 2015, CM Punk, who had once been my favorite pro wrestler, made his debut as a legit MMA fighter, and he got his whole entire shit wrecked by a fighter named Mickey Gall. Here’s Gall walking out to the cage to “Mickey”:




(CM Punk’s entrance music, both at that UFC event and a couple of different phases of his pro wrestling career, was Living Colour’s 1988 single “Cult Of Personality.” “Cult Of Personality” peaked at #13.)" - Stereogum.com

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