Toni Basil’s “Mickey” At 30: How Cheerleaders Make Pop So Fine

Sep 4th, 2012 // 1 Comment
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Toni Basil was a 38-year-old singer/actress in Los Angeles in the early ’80s when a local music scout counseled her to take one more shot at recording a hit for young pop music fans. Basil and her songwriters chose to take “Kitty”, a song by UK sensation Racey, and re-imagine it into a bubbly tune about a boy — one whom she’d describe in a cheerleader-style chant as “so fine”. The resulting song, “Mickey”, became a worldwide smash and one of the signature pop hits of the decade.

It almost didn’t happen, Basil says: “The record company asked me not to put the chant on because they were worried it would ruin the tune,” she told a TV interviewer a few years ago. It didn’t. Not only did the pep rally-inspired shouts help make the song (and the iconic video), but “Mickey” — which entered the Billboard Hot 100 an amazing 30 years ago today — set the stage for cheers to play a key role in many pop hits to come. (And in a modern twist, it even plays during Lollipop Chainsaw, the new game in which cheerleader Juliet Starling takes on the zombie apocalypse).

Let us take you by the hand and walk you through how “Mickey” echoed through the years.

“Mickey”-style staccato shouts (with or without hand claps) have helped define or reinvent the sound of numerous current artists — just ask Avril Lavigne, who has gone so far as to cover Basil’s classic live in concert (see below), or that little-known up-and-comer named Madonna, who fired up lead MDNA single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” by adding a cheery refrain.

Where Basil adopted the chant as a way to refashion herself as a kid-friendly starlet, others have used cheers mainly to inject attitude or even aggression into their melodies. Either way, the list of pop artists who should raise their pom poms in salute to Basil is a long one. Here’s a timeline with some of our favorite examples.

Toni Basil, “Mickey” (1982) – Director’s Cut. The original cheer-pop anthem. (The song hit #1 in December 1982.) Basil might have been a one-hit wonder, but “Mickey” helped spark a career that has spanned acting, choreography and the occasional gig judging dancers on television.

*****

Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl” (2005). The No Doubt frontwoman actually intended the pep squad cadence of her solo hit to be a sort of retort to a critic who had driven her a little b-a-n-a-n-a-s. As Gwen told NME, “Y’know someone one time called me a cheerleader, negatively, and I’ve never been a cheerleader. So I was, like, ‘OK, fuck you. You want me to be a cheerleader? Well, I will be one then. And I’ll rule the whole world, just you watch me.’” The hater in question? Courtney Love, who had likened Gwen to a cheerleader in an interview with Seventeen. (That said, we believe the title of the album that features this song — Love. Angel. Music. Baby. — refers to, well, those things directly, and not to Ms. Love.)

*****

Lil Mama, “Lip Gloss” (2007). An infectious — and yes, glossy — tune powered by a stomping beat and hand claps, “Lip Gloss” popped up as a summer jam to remind fans that cheer-powered songs can be fun even when school’s not in session. The chants in the song (which samples Roxanne Shante‘s “Roxanne’s Revenge”) help elevate Lil Mama’s verses into an irrepressible sing-along, and the result was a Top 10 single.

*****

The Ting Tings, “That’s Not My Name” (2007). With Katie White‘s sassy vocals and a swinging bassline, “Name” went to #1 in the UK. Q magazine even mentioned the song’s debt to “Mickey”, while describing the Tings’ approach as “brilliantly basic”. Just don’t call her Stacy.

*****

Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend” / “The Best Damn Thing” (2007). After 2004′s dour Under My Skin, Avril returned with a batch of snotty pop anthems for her 2007 album — many of them driven by cheer-along hooks. The inspiration was obvious — Entertainment Weekly nailed her style as “Toni-Basil-gone-bad”, and the Canadian superstar has been embracing it ever since.

*****

*****

Nicola Roberts, “Beat Of My Drum” (2011). Stepping out on her own post-Girls Aloud, Nicola threw a curveball to fans expecting more polished electro-pop. Her first single, “Beat Of My Drum” mixed rapid-fire beats and playful chants, and effectively re-introduced her to the pop world as a savvy left-field star. (That said, even left-field stars should avoid taking casual potshots at Madonna).

*****

Madonna, “Gimme All Your Luvin’” (2012). The lead single from MDNA, Madonna’s 38th Top Ten hit and accompanying football-themed video earned mixed reviews. Here, Madge twisted “Mickey”-style chants to her own ends: She casts superstars like Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. as (mere) cheerleaders to help make the case that she’s still pop’s star player.

*****

BONUS:

Avril Lavigne, “Hey Mickey” (live)

Did we miss any of your cheer-pop favorites? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below.

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  1. MusicManDave

    Love you Toni Basil. May you live forever chanting “Mickey” I can’t believe it is 30 years since this song was released.

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