Disturbed

The Cultural Absorbency of SpongeBob SquarePants

If SpongeBob SquarePants were an actual person, he’d be in high school at this point.

Airing in 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants has become not only one of the longest running animated cartoons in TV history, but he has also established himself as a cultural phenomenon. Children and adults alike know he lives in a pineapple under the sea, having become the darling of both the twilight of ’90s Nickelodeon cartoon fans and kids born in the 21st century. In short, SpongeBob has been around for a while.

In the 15 years SpongeBob has been on the air, we’ve since seen a dramatic change in computer technology. Youtube wasn’t even around when SpongeBob first aired, but now his escapades span the video service in more ways than one. Since the advent of the online video remix, SpongeBob and his friends have served as fuel for countless comical remixes of popular songs, mostly derived from a selection of the show’s most memorable scenes.

The season 2 episode Band Geeks, which aired September 7, 2001, introduces us to one of the show’s earliest musical performances. In Band Geeks, SpongeBob’s neighbor, Squidward Tentacles, reignites his clarinet-dueling rivalry with his arch nemesis, Squilliam Fancyson. To prove to Squilliam that he possesses more musical prowess, Squidward bets (on a bluff) that he can conduct a knockout musical ensemble to open the Bubble Bowl, the underwater equivalent of the Super Bowl. The only problem is: Squidward doesn’t actually have any musical talent, let alone a band to conduct for the opening ceremony. He enlists in the denizens of Bikini Bottom to take up instruments and practice for the big show, but, predictably, their quirky personalities thwart his efforts.

It’s now the night of the Bubble Bowl, and Squidward’s band still hasn’t practiced a single note. But, rather than play horrendously on brass and wind instruments, SpongeBob and the gang surprise him with rockin’ percussion and electric guitars, performing Van Halen’s Sweet Victory in a haze of fog machines and neon lights.

One of Squidward’s few shining moments, the scene has since become one of the show’s most memorable. So much so, that fans have taken the source video and remixed Squidward’s band to pantomime playing many songs (mostly nu metal) that were popular in the early aughts. For example:

The shot begins with again with Squidward nervously expecting a complete debacle, an embarrassment that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Instead, Linkin Park’s hit single “Numb” begins, with villain Plankton playing the opening ditty on synth, followed up by Patrick’s drum playing when the heavy riff and percussion come in. The creator then splices in scenes from outside of the Band Geeks episode to more accurately mirror the song playing: we see speakers thumping and SpongeBob scratching a record. The characters’ expressions perfectly reflect the quiet verse/loud chorus nature of Linkin Park’s music: Plankton is expressionless as he strikes each key, and SpongeBob has a blank gaze on his face while singing the opening lyrics. But once Chester Bennington begins injecting more emotion just before and during the chorus, SpongeBob begins using his arms as part of his performace, pointing at the crowd in a sweeping motion during the lyric “But under the pressure of walking in your shoes.”

This remix works so well because, as Chuck Tryon writes in “Pop Politics: Online Parody Videos, Intertextuality and Political Participation:”

“Most parodies reiterate elements of the original video if only to create a point of departure from the original, but the primary techniques are inversion, in which the video maker inverts the meaning of the original by adding new elements, and exaggeration … (Tryon 210).” One could argue exaggeration is a central tenant of both cartoons and nu metal, so the two fuse here so naturally, it’s hard not to laugh. The chorus, in particular, when the amps come in and the guitars explode, syncs with the stage lights and fog machines splaying over the stage, as SpongeBob delivers emotional vocals with his eyes closed. Sandy shreds on her guitar in the background while SpongeBob laments how Numb the recipient of the song has made him feel. At the bridge, in particular, beginning at 2:10, the song and the visuals combine in a way that summarizes the conceit of the entire episode.

And I know

I may end up failing too

But I know

You were just like me

With someone disappointed in you

Squidward, after recovering from the aftershock, finally gets invested in the song. Squilliam is so crushed from seeing his rival outperform him, he faints from the awesomeness unfolding before him. He is carried away on a stretcher as Squidward’s grinning face enters the frame, waving goodbye to the pressures of trying to live up to another’s expectations, the theme of “Numb.”

In another (NSFW lyrics) example, we have another seminal nu metal song, Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness,” played over the same scene.

Again, the editing is so tight, with Patrick’s drum playing looping over to match the cadence of the song. Ms. Puff and Sandy back him up on guitar, the anger in their faces leaving you anticipating the big drop. The editor takes some more liberties with the source materials though, distorting certain images (like the live action shots of the crowd, which do appear in the original, and the shots of the guitar and keytar before the first verse) and also adds in fade-to-black transitions before and after SpongeBob utters the first few growls in the intro (0:50), adding to the dramatic tension.

New to this interpretation of the scene, the editor departs from the Bubble Bowl scene to one of SpongeBob serenading the surly Squidward with a ukelele in the second verse. From the first verse, the language shifts from the lead singer describing his own struggle with “the sickness” to the second person. As SpongeBob sings to Squidward (at 2:02):

I can see inside you, the sickness is rising
Don’t try to deny what you feel

and

It seems you’re having some trouble
In dealing with these changes
Living with these changes (oh no)

SpongeBob has gone from his empassioned performance onstage to the lowkey acoustics of a ukelele, with a sly smile on his face, as if he has already accepted “the sickness” and is now trying to coerce Squidward into doing the same. Finally, at the breakdown (3:07), the lyrics take a VERY dark turn, the lead singer yelling at his abusive mother for a full minute, swearing at her and wishing she were dead. When SpongeBob is finished with his tirade, Squidward’s surprised face comes on as the music turns quiet once again, as if to give both him and the audience a moment to absorb and recover from what we just heard the kid-friendly yellow sponge say. By extending and rearranging a few shots here and there, the meaning of the original scene inverts from one of celebration to one of lamentation and anguish.

But I can’t leave SpongeBob hanging on such a dark note. Here you go, buddy. Have some more upbeats remixes.

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