On May 1, 1999, Nickelodeon premiered the first episode of Spongebob Squarepants.
Almost two decades later and over 200 episodes and two movies, the show premiered its 20th season a few weeks ago and a third movie is anticipated in 2020.
Only a few weeks after it’s season 20 premiere, creator Stephen Hillenburg died of ALS on November 26 at the age of 57. While he didn’t get to witness the ending of a great era, he did see his art transform into a legacy in pop culture.
The show is typically well-known for the bubbly, energetic, and somewhat annoying (actually, really annoying, but isn’t that part of the character?) yellow sponge and his friends as they live their comical day-to-day lives, hilarious for kids and adults alike (via memes).
It’s a sense of nostalgia for the Millennials, who grew up with the show and for Generation Z, who currently enjoy the seasons that Millennials look at and think, “man, this show still exists?” (tbh most Millennials start to forget after season 5 — look it up and tell me I’m wrong)
All in all, the comedic quality of the show and it’s episodes/movies is usually the focus of the show itself. While all that is indeed interesting, I’m sure you know what I’m most interested in: how to make a Krabby Patty. Also, the music.
From classics like “Best Day Ever” to “The F.U.N. Song” and of course the theme song, every song is easy to remember and irresistibly singable. They’re fun little diddlies that just add to the show itself. Well let me tell you, they don’t just do that. Oh no. Just like a lot of music, even a kids cartoon like Spongebob Squarepants has music with layers beneath the surface; who knew there was more to the music than it just being fun and cheesy!
Spongebob has 90+ original songs written throughout the series. This is not to include background and borrowed music.
In context, their catalog typically compliments the scenes of the show. The music supervisor, Nick Carr, has especially done a great job incorporating the music while maintaining both individual scenes and the show’s overall flow. Therein lies the question: how does the music flow so well throughout the series?
Nick Carr and co. manage to maintain a unique and coherent style; I dare to say the style is so developed, one could label it the “Spongebob Squarepants sound.. There’s always a sense of light-heartedness and jovial naivety in each song; even the somber songs come out to be almost sappy. The quality of the music is usually focused and bright, similar to that of Spongebob’s voice expect less annoying — usually. I can also guarantee that whenever you hear a tuba in any of the songs, the nostalgia will set in. Guaranteed. See? I told you.
Impressively enough, Nick Carr and co. take things a step further and play around with a handful of genres. What’s more is that the genres seem to be incorporated around the “Spongebob sound”, rather than the other way around. For sake of ease, we’ll categorize the genres used to define the show’s music catalog.
surf songs: beach boys
If there is a genre that captures the vibe of the show, it’s surf music, which makes sense since the show is set under the sea. Especially earlier in the series, it seems as if the composers pretty much stole the entire Beach Boys catalog. It was regular for the the band to use keyboard, banjo, rhythm guitar, bass, and a whole lotta random brass and woodwind instruments; similar to that of a classic Spongebob tune. The surf style comes back fairly consistent throughout the series. Classics like “Ripped Pants”, “Bossy Boots Song”, “Ocean Man”, and the “BEST DAY EVER.” It screams every Beach Boys song they’ve come out with, I know.
The other genre that defines the show is seaside shanties: pirate music. As soon as you hear a fiddle and a ‘yo-ho’, ‘ey-ey’, or a long ‘ohhh’, it’s a shanty. The theme song (legit with a pirate as the first thing you hear). Every Mr. Krabs song including one titled “Mr. Krabs’ Sea Shanty”. The background music to “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor” you hear in every other episode.
Most of the folk style gravitates towards the acoustic side of folk: acoustic guitar and harmonica are the two instruments Carr and co. use from that genre. The contexts of the songs generally have to do with outdoor activities like in “The Campfire Song Song”, “Bee Land for the Tree Line”, and “Give Jellyfish Fields a Chance.”
There’s a whole episode in season two called “Band Geeks”, so there you go. It comes to no surprise that the technique and instrumental style of the episode was that of a marching band. Ironically, however, the original song for that episode, “Sweet Victory” was similar to an 80s rock song. We’ll let that one pass.
Other than that episode, Carr and co. bring this genre back a few more times, but not the way you would think. There are five particular songs, “Now That We’re Men” from The SpongeBob SquarePants movie and well as “The Great Snail Race,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Life Insurance,” and “There’s a Sponge in My Soup” that utilize the marching band style. There’s something that connects all five songs, however, that I’ll get back to a little later.
jingles & sing-alongs
Whenever you hear Spongebob sing, you can expect off-the-whim jingles like “Banned in Bikini Bottom” and “Frying Up Krabby Patties.” A couple other jingles are used without Spongebob, like the “Old-Timey Krabby Patty Jingle.”
Come time for songs like “The F.U.N. Song” and “The Campfire Song Song”, you can expect there to be lyrics at the bottom. That means you are expected to sing.
Carr and co. explore other various genres, but the ones above are the core genres that are consistently incorporated throughout the series.
Here are some others that may capture your eyes; these songs more-so follow a musical timeline.
Medieval: All the music from the episode “Dunces and Dragons”
Opera/Operetta: “Dear Friend”, sung by Teresa Parente. The Famed Bikini Bottom Opera House might also describe a true opera experience.
1930s ragtime: “I’m Ready to Go to Work”
1940s early pop: “You’re Old”
1940s and 50s Marvel theme songs that legit sound the same for a ton of the superheroes: every Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy song
American Musical Theatre / every early Disney movie: every song from the episode “The Sponge Who Could Fly”. It could very well be a Disney production that we never knew happened. Eh, they probably just stole the idea.
1960s rock’n’roll: There’s actually two distinctions of early rock that Carr and co. established throughout the series. The “Elvis” rock and the “Beatles” rock. “Kung Fu Rock” is pretty much “Jailhouse Rock” – Elvis. Now when you listen to songs like “Wall of Energy” “Gary’s Song” and “Earworm”, keep in mind the similarities between the style of those songs and the style of the Beatles around the end of the 1960s. I bet if you’re on some sort of psychedelic, you would think that both Spongebob and the Beatles were part of the same band.
1970s R&B/Soul: “Striped Sweater” could have easily been a part of the Gladys and the Pips catalog.
1980s rock: “That’s What Friends Do” and “Sweet Victory” (see, 1980s song in an episode about marching band, real consistent, Spongebob) take from the likes of AC/DC, Bon Jovi, and The Rolling Stones.
1990s hip-hop: “When Worlds Collide”
1990s punk rock: “Just a Kid”
1990s boy band: “It’s All About You”
An important element that the show-runners keep consistent is the association of instruments to characters.
Do you ever notice that when you hear a tuba in a Spongebob song, you think of Spongebob? How about a clarinet; do you think of Squidward? Fiddle and Mr. Krabs? That can especially be useful for the writers when trying to foreshadow a scene or cast a spotlight on a specific character based on one sound. I’m sure there are a few more instrument-to-character connections, so I’ll leave you to do the discovering; this post is already long enough.
In order to maintain the show’s musical flow, Carr and co. wisely use a lot of reoccurring musical ideas.
There are a couple of different ways they approach the variations – most of which are tastefully interlaced, except there is one excerpt they used like 5 times in the series. Not even for one or two episodes. No. Four episodes within a span of 15 years and a movie. I’ll get to it, no worries.
Similar to the Simpsons but more frequent like Family Guy, the creators take liberties and change up the theme song in a few episodes with different interlaced thematic ideas. The only changes that were truly noticeable were during the two Christmas episodes and a Halloween special. There were other variations, but they were so insignificant they might as well have not changed it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Another way Carr and co. use theme variation is through borrowed music.
Most of these theme variations take from the borrowed music and Spongebobify it through lyrical changes and instrumental modification to adapt to the Spongeboby quality. You witness this happening in songs such as “Nick’s B Danube” ( “Blue Danube Waltz”), “Goofy Goober Rock” (“Just a Gigolo”), “O Krusty Krab” (“O Christmas Tree”) and I’m sure a few others I’m missing.
Ok, are you ready for the annoying one? Let me give you a brief background of where this next thematic arrangement comes from.
Many TV shows utilize production companies that provide a catalog typically fit for visual media, whether it be for films, TV shows, video games, and even freakin’ greeting cards! They are useful not only in providing a catalog of music but also act as a liaison to make the licensing process less time-consuming. Spongebob, as well as many other popular shows, use Associated production music, or APM, to assist you in not only finding the right music for your scene but also elements and melodies that you can utilize in original works — a resource Spongebob tends to use and abuse with this next one here.
Fight! Fight! Fight!
I’m going to return to the importance of marching band in the series. The fact that they dedicate a whole episode to the Bikini Bottom community [terribly] participating in a marching band shows Carr and co.’s enthusiasm. Obvious, right? What’s not so obvious is that they actually use the melody of a marching song throughout the series.
“Fight! Fight! Fight! (a)” by Will Schaefer was released in 2000 primarily for high school and University marching and concert bands. Well, Carr and co. bumped into it and must have adored it because they use the same melody for the classic Spongebob anthem, “Now That We’re Men”. Take a listen to the two songs and note the instrumental similarities. Pretty much the same thing. I find it intriguing, however, that the song does manage to differentiate itself by veering the style more towards a sea shanty than a marching song, especially with the background chants similar to what you’d hear in a shanty. Good on them for that. The melody ends up returning throughout the series in songs “The Great Snail Race,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Life Insurance,” and “There’s a Sponge in My Soup.” The first song was a fun reference that I could hum to since I already know the melody. After the second, it just started to get old.
In addition to those used in theme variations, Carr and co. utilize songs that range from European Western Music (classical music) to rock’n’roll.
In context, either the song is the central focus — whether a character is singing the song, or some variation of it, or the original performance is played — or it’s used as background music.
I think it’ll be best if you just hear some them in context vs the original. This is only a few, but trust me when I say there is PLENTY of borrowed music throughout the series. Ready? Here we go.
“Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight”, Tiny Tim | Help Wanted, S01E01
“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, Johann Sebastian Bach | Scaredy Pants, S01E26
“Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony” (1st movement), Ludwig van Beethoven | Atlantis SquarePantis, S05E92
“Waltz of the Flowers” (from The Nutcracker), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | I ♥ Dancing, S07E127b
“Beautiful Dreamer”, Stephen Foster | Truth or Square, S06E124
“Blue Danube”, Johann Strauss | “Nick’s B Danube”, Jellyfishing, S01E3a
“Twelfth Street Rag”, Euday L. Bowman | Many episodes
“Piano Concerto No. 21” (2nd movement), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Sleepy Time, S01E15A
A lot of the music in Spongebob Squarepants explores a hand full of popular tunes in pop culture.
Some are more familiar than others, so for the sake of having to Google too many people, here’s a list of very well-known artists (or maybe you don’t know any of them, in which case you’re probably 16 or younger) who collaborated with Spongebob.
“Loop De Loop”, Ween | Your Shoe’s Untied, S02E21a
“SpongeBob and Patrick Confront the Psychic Wall of Energy”, The Flaming Lips | The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
“We’ve Got Scurvy”, P!nk | Truth or Square, S06E123
“Squeeze Me”, “Patrick Star”, “Sandy Squirrel”, Pharrell Williams | The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
See now? There is a lot more that goes into the music of Spongebob than you expected, huh? Trust me when I say there is a TON more about the music that I haven’t even dwelled into. And with that, I leave you this.
Rest in peace, Stephen Hillenburg.
August 21, 1961 – November 26, 2018
*fun fact, there is an actual Spongebob Broadway Musical that’s set to tour around North America in 2019. You’re welcome.