By now, we’re all either using or are pretty well versed in the colossal impact of TikTok across the entertainment landscape. Since TikTok’s 2018 merger with musical.ly, the video platform has accelerated the trajectories of acts such as Doja Cat, Flo Milli, Young T & Bugsey and Lil Nas X (to name just a few). Take Flo Milli, for example. Her breakout Beef FloMix success on the app and of subsequent In The Party (now used in over 300,000 videos on the app to date), helped foreground the singles’ primetime, gold status via the Recording Industry Association of America in recent months.
Outside of musicians usurping TikTok’s tools and tactics in a bid to secure mainstay status, consumers are also re-discovering an array of music from yesteryear, nourishing their yearn for nostalgia (or maybe their quarter-life mini-crises). The leap towards sentimentality at large, however, is hardly a new phenomenon – just look at Spotify’s “wrapped” campaign, or our constant time stamps on various Facebook-owned subsidiaries.
A particular trend focusing on songs from children’s cartoons (adults well over 25 are involved, too) emerged on TikTok earlier this year. This is partly due to 19-year-old Merlysha Pierre, AKA @swagsurfff’s, multiple visuals breaking down songs from Nickelodeon mainstay The Backyardigans, which first aired over a decade ago on the network. Because of Pierre’s efforts, The Backyardigans’ track Castaways mustered its way to the apex of Spotify’s Viral Song’s chart last month.
Many childhood theme and soundtrack songs have “broken TikTok” in the past, including a trap-leaning variant of Ben 10’s intro last year. However, as time goes on, the persistent fascination with animated children’s programming continues to rear its head on the app and across music-sharing platforms and digital service platforms (DSPs) – The Backyardigans has 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify, for example.
Jerrard L, a data scientist and TikTok enthusiast, believes that nostalgia could be propelling the trend, a common occurrence in today’s world. “I think it’s nice for people to feel nostalgic and reminisce about things in the past. Sometimes those things can bring back good memories and I think everyone has just been wanting to think of the good things over the pandemic,” he says.
Charles “Chizzy” Stephens III is a multi-platinum songwriter and producer who has worked with the likes of A$AP Ferg, Justin Beiber and Jennifer Lopez, and also contributed to Teen Titan Go!’s soundtrack with Catchin’ Villains. As he notes, the tendency to spotlight these particular songs from cartoons isn’t only re-emerging within TikTok communities and on DSPs, but also on other social media platforms. When Catching Villains first aired in October 2017, a Facebook user emphasised the songs “hit” potential days after the inaugural airing, leading to a snippet first going viral on the social media outlet.
“After Facebook, it ended up on Twitter – it goes up there every couple of months,” Stephens says. “There’s something going on right now on Twitter, where they post what’s going on on TikTok.” As of this month, Catching Villains continues to procure more views across social media, as fans of all ages (re)discover the rap-infused, lighthearted creation.
By and large, contributors to these infamous cartoon scores aren’t solely in this role. They typically balance an array of positions, with side-hustles both on and off the show (sometimes voice acting is the side-hustle). For example, popular multi-hyphenate creator Olivia Olson, like Stephens, has gone viral with an array of sounds and cartoon-related backing tracks, such as Phineas and Ferb’s Busted. Most will probably remember Olson as the little girl who sung an impressive rendition of All I Want For Christmas Is You in Love Actually. But she’s also voiced the character of Vanessa Doofenshmirtz on Phineas and Ferb, and regularly lends her voice to other programmes like Adventure Time, while balancing a solo career, developing a cartoon series of her own and re-emerging as a formal actress on screen. “I feel like I held myself back for a while [from on screen acting], because of a lot of things in the industry,” she shares. “It would be a shame to not try again.”
Breaking into the cartoon space (and television at large), particularly scoring music, appears to be, like most industries, heavily reliant on networking and, in some cases, nepotism. In 2009, composer David Richard highlighted this in an article highlighting the cartoon landscape for fellow creators. Both Olson and Stephens, as well as Doug Wieselman – lead composer for The Backyardigans – landed opportunities through similar methods of luck and proximate connections.
“My first experience with TV and film was when I moved to LA [in 2012],” says Stephens. “I had met Bill Bergman, my mentor, through a songwriter in LA who I had been working with. She recommended me to him. From there he reached out to me and brought me in on some [television] projects.”
One of Stephens’ submissions ended up becoming the theme song to Lifetime’s Bring It series, which centres dance troupes across the US. “I’d never been paid for music upfront before,” he says. “I did a couple of other scenes for the first season, but the theme song remained [across the six seasons].”
Olivia Olson’s father, Martin Olson, served as the head writer on Phineas and Ferb’s first season and helped in bringing her on board. “I started singing a lot of demos for a lot of the female characters,” she says. After encouragement from the show’s creators, Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, she was written into the show and subsequently lent her vocals to a portion of the cartoons soundtracking.
Like Castaways’ colossal success on streaming platforms, anthems like Chatchin’ Villains and Phineas and Ferb’s Busted boast millions of streams and views in their own right. Combined, all possess more than 30-million streams across Spotify and YouTube.
Success for creators in this landscape can and does at times surpass the impact for their solo work. Olson, Stephens and Wieselman are all active soloists in their own right – Olson is gearing up to release new single Crows and Wieselman is working on a bird-related album (yes, an album literally relating to sounds from our flying feathered friends). However, in light of their success on-screen, all are content with their position as formal musicians.
“If I could just help people or touch people [I’d be happy]. I know it sounds really corny,” Oliva Olson says. “I’m not seeking notoriety or to be a popstar. I just want to create music that makes people feel good.”
Doug Wieselman concurs and reiterates his appreciation for his work on The Backyardigans being rediscovered. “I’m happy because I think that the work that we did was really good. I’m happy that those kids who are in college now are discovering the quality of their work.”
The music in The Backyardigans is particularly significant for its infusion of genres from across the world. “We got pretty obscure,” says Wieselman. “Greek rebetiko music and South African genres, samba, just a lot of really obscure things.” During its run on Nickelodeon, The Backyardigans earned an abundance of Emmy’s, including the 2008 Outstanding Special Class Animated Program.
Avid TikTok users like Jerrard. L note that the quality and sustenance behind older cartoons is particularly apparent when compared to today’s marketplace.“ I feel like children’s TV back in the day was a lot richer,” he says. But he thinks that today’s infants and youth will still have a wide pool of nostalgia to delve into as they grow up and reminisce in years to come. “I don’t know much about children’s TV now, but I’m sure there are some shows with cool songs or characters that will have a strong impact on them too.”
Social media retail executive Alex Lewis knows of one. He watches Disney’s Big City Greens, an animated series currently airing on the network. “Big City Greens has so many great moments in that show,” he says. “Kids will always have their own specific niche interests and be able to create their own worlds out of them that can outlive and transcend people’s current interests. There are a lot of people that maybe didn’t watch [The Backyardigans], for example, who are getting to witness the show now, in this time, because of people who had experiences with that show growing up. I think that as long as these platforms exist for storytelling and creation, any of those stories will be able to catch on.”
Like with most social media apps today, conversation, intrigue and trends on TikTok are able to move the pendulum forward, or indeed backward, to relive a moment under a different or amplified lens. Re-telling the past will always inevitably find an outlet – think of it as a virtual rumour mill. And for the creators of these songs, they can sometimes lead to more opportunities beyond the appreciation of their art. Hopefully, with time, we’ll start to see the creators of these works credited and amplified amongst the hysteria.