Jingle Bells, Batman Smells
This parodic folksong is representative of the "culture"—texts, toys, uses of technology, social practices, and shared meanings—young people create when they selectively incorporate commercial products into their peer activities. Borrowing from cultural traditions (the song "Jingle Bells") and contemporary media/material objects they find in their everyday lives (Batman products), the inventive remixing children engage in frequently inverts the powerlessness they experience in relation to adult authority and institutions. In this song the belittlement of the Dynamic Duo's heroic status, the breakdown of their super car, and the celebration of the escape of their enemy, the Joker, playfully challenges the moral order of right and wrong that organizes social behavior. Another variant of the song more explicitly challenges adult authority by changing the last line to: "And the Commissioner broke his leg." Other folksongs challenge adult authority and institutions more directly still, as in the parody "On top of Old Smoky/All covered with sand/I shot my poor teacher/With a pink rubber band."
Adults often expect children's toys, games, and play activities to be educational; they frequently express concern if mass-marketed products seem to promote anti-social behaviors: acquisitiveness, competition, play fighting/violence, and sexuality being the most objectionable. A great deal of the oral lore children share with each other deliberately transgresses these norms in order to create a distinct (often covert) culture among their peers that they control, however temporarily. Similarly, the lore that children create allows them to explore social taboos.
The song "Batman smells" exhibits common themes found in children's folklore. Batman's odor is an example of grosslore that allows children to pursue the curiosity they have about their own bodies. A fartlore variant of the song celebrates another villain in the last line: "And Mr. Freeze cut the cheese." The pun of Robin laying an egg is a rich example of many common features of childlore: (1) it demonstrates children's inventive play with, and contravention of, the rules of language; (2) it fantastically and nonsensically (as a challenge to adult insistence on rationality and reality) transforms Robin into an animal; and (3) it may be interpreted as an example of the common theme of food. If the adult authority invested in the hero status of Batman and Robin is challenged in this song, so too does the song undercut their masculinity. Variants of the song feature a last line that has Batman, Robin, or the Joker doing ballet. Interpreting this variant requires attention to the singer-audience context in which the song is performed. Childlore frequently reinforces traditional definitions of gender. By inverting traditional definitions of strong masculinity this variant is an example of children's awareness of and interest in gender difference. In another context, sung by girls, this variant is an example of the ways girls' lore sometimes challenges gender hierarchies.
Given the inventive, appropriative nature of children's culture, it is probable that "Batman Smells" is part of a longer tradition of folk parodies. It is likely that it was preceded by parodies of "Jingle Bells" dating from the publication of that song in 1857. As children have always turned the products of mass culture back into their own folklore, it is certain that "Batman Smells" has been sung continuously by generations of children (and adults) since the first Batman comic appeared in 1939. The song is a perennial favorite and has been infinitely reinvented because Batman has been continuously marketed to young people and adults as comic books, cartoons, television shows, action figures, Halloween costumes, movies, and video games. Now, with the gross and oppositional characteristics of children's folklore more pervasively available through 24/7 cable television programming and children themselves disseminating their parodies through streaming videos on the internet, the covert world(s) of children's folklore have become a more apparent and central part of our information societies and commercial cultures.1
1 Jay Mechling, "Children's Folklore," in Elliott Oring, ed., Folk Groups and Folklore Genres (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1986): 91–120.
Jingle bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg
Batmobile lost a wheel
And Joker got away
Unknown Author, Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, n.d. Annotated by Mike Willard.