Turtle Power! Bart Rules! Cowabunga! Ay Caramba! Mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Simpsons in the same breath on any grade school playground today, and you're likely to spark the most spirited "Who's cooler?" duel since the Monkees versus the Beatles. Rat Fink versus the Trolls. Goofy Grape versus Rootin' Tootin' Raspberry.
No kid stands on the fence in this debate. It's black and white--or rather, green and orange. Every moppet's either nutty for the Ninjas or bonkers over Bart. And they wear their favorites proudly on their sleeves. Not to mention their lunch boxes, their watches, their combs, their key chains, their shoelaces, their socks . . . Is it any surprise that the two cartoon competitors would eventually record their own rock albums? Released within mere weeks of each other, the Turtles' MCA debut Coming Out of Their Shells and the Geffen release The Simpsons Sing the Blues are now neck-and-neck on the playground playlists, blaring combatively from cranked-up My First Sonys. Suddenly, the Turtles and the Simpsons aren't just colorful graphics and goofy voices. They're bona-fide rock stars. Heck, with sales topping the $3 million mark, the Turtles have already moved more records than Wilson Phillips and Bell Biv DeVoe combined. And Bart Simpson's made the cover of Rolling Stone and the heavy-rotation charts on MTV.
All that's left for each set of characters to do is take on living physical forms and go out on tour.
Alas--and send the kids out of the room for this part--neither the Turtles nor the Simpsons are real. The Simpsons, admits their publicist Linda Brown, cannot conduct an interview without a conference call hookup between their creators and voice actors. They need to know the questions in advance so that suitably witty repartee can be developed. Plus, they require at least two pots of coffee. And forget booking them into Madison Square Garden. Their animated likenesses make for lousy human-size costumes, as witnessed by their less-than-credible Ice Capades appearance last summer.
And the Turtles?
Whoa! Cowabunga, dude! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are real--or so insists their record company. And to prove it, four characters looking very much like the live-action, Jim Henson-designed creations from the blockbuster movie have taken to the road on a full-scale forty-city concert tour, signing autographs for bug-eyed believers and doing Oprah.
"You gotta understand something," says Raphael, the "cool but rude" Turtle over the telephone from a pizza-strewn hotel room somewhere in Baltimore, Maryland. "Those Simpson guys are cartoons. We're real. I mean, has Bart Simpson ever called you on the phone? Are you gonna go see him live onstage? There you go, dude. Those are characters that are cartoons, and that's the extent of their existence. We are, like, living, breathing, happening mutant turtles that have cartoons fashioned after us."
What's more, insists Raphael, unlike some of today's pop artists, the Turtles really sing and play their own instruments onstage despite the rather obvious handicap of being equipped with only three fingers per hand. "Donatello [the `science nerd'] took care of that problem," Raphael quickly retorts. "He adapted instruments specifically for our own requirements. Like Michaelangelo, he's got a three-string guitar. You know, he tunes it to an open E and he can bar chord."
The green giants staunchly deny the rumors that their music is either prerecorded or performed by real musicians hidden from the audience on their elaborate stage. They prefer to credit the state-of-the-art technology of Donatello's gizmos for their slick studio sound.
"What happens is, like, Michaelangelo's guitar goes through a special amplifier that will modulate it and make it sound just like a regular guitar," Raphael explains. "I don't play a lot of saxophone in the show, 'cause I do a lot of singing. So I play mostly percussion. I got stuff like this little Octa-Pad, which is a kind of remote-control drum kit. And I can go any place on the stage and still trigger my drum kit offstage. It's totally cool!"
AND TOTALLY BELIEVABLE, at least to most of the kids in their audience. These are, after all, the same tykes who swallowed Milli Vanilli's act--and weren't all that outraged when the news came out that the dynamic duo was artificially produced. Adult rock fans may bemoan the lack of any real, honest-to-goodness, non-lip-synching performers for their kids to fawn over today, but their offspring aren't fazed by the phoniness. Instead, they're happily scooping up cassettes by a growing number of characters who seem to be leaping right off the Toys R Us shelves into the recording studios. Besides the Turtles and the Simpsons discs, there's also the California Raisins, who've been making hit records since 1987. And then there's the reunited Chipmunks, who recently celebrated their 25th anniversary in rock 'n' roll with an all-star TV special. Even Barbie has gotten into the act, releasing an album with a glamorous eat-your- heart-out-Whitney-Houston cover titled, appropriately, "The Look." The reasons for this "tot-rock" explosion are clear, notes the New York Times, citing recent statistics which reveal that children between the ages of six and fourteen now control an estimated $6 billion a year of their parents' disposable income. Acts like the TMNT and the Simpsons, observes the Times, are simply "riding a successful hype, moving into one more entertainment niche because it's there."