This post was based on a comment I made after stumbling on this very video.
If you know anything about pop culture history, you may have seen little details and similarities as quickly as I had when seeing this. But as soon as I committed to a reply, I had a lot of fun going back through decades worth of material to justify what I was about to say:
This mashup is actually much more thematically tied than you’d expect. And knowing just how might help you understand our mission statement at Pop History.
In 1966, two shows riffing on pop culture at the time both premiered and gained popularity among kids.
Batman was an adaptation of the character’s comics, popular throughout the decade as the Silver Age began to emerge among publications, but also quite underdeveloped in the long-run. The eventual pitch by producer William Dozier to render the action in pop-art camp went against the presumptions of network ABC and studio 20th Century Fox to maintain some seriousness.
The title sequence was made to look like it came right out of the comic book – minimally animated, stylistic, and letting the sound bubbles punctuate the theme song. The theme itself is pretty simple, built on a twelve-bar blues progression played brassy, and permeated with a stepwise riff that you can just hum. ♪ Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na ♪
Hm. Incidentally, that riff is pretty close to the stereotypical Oriental riff. Maybe “Mexican Radio” listens differently with that knowledge too.
The Monkees was a wholly original series that created the titular band from whole cloth. Yes, it was very much a response to the Beatles, especially their shockingly candid film A Hard Day’s Night, but there were quite a lot of notable differences. While the Beatles were continually hounded in public, the Monkees lived in a beach house and went on adventures just to make rent. More than that, the real-life band initially didn’t write any of their music. Instead, it was largely written by the career singer-songwriter Neil Diamond.
The show was a sitcom of sorts, but it didn’t shy away from going out of the studio and on location. The plots (and even some props) were right out of The Three Stooges, and there were plenty of musical interludes as candid as any promo made by the Beatles. However, the show itself wasn’t nearly as popular as their music, and the show ended after only two seasons.
Even so, their adventures did leave enough of an impression to remain an important milestone in music video history.
One thing I’d like to note is that ’90s throwback analyses tend to focus on the easy two-decade gap stuff – in this case, stuff associated with the ’70s. Punk, white reggae, skateboarding, and a lot of other neighborhood gang stuff. Less remarked upon, but no less prominent if you actually look back, are the ’60s staples of surf rock, psychadelics, spy movies, and pop art.
Actually, it should be remarked upon more, simply because one of the most prominent throwbacks was, of course, the Austin Powers series. Mike Myers and company embraced the same pop-art camp of Batman, but basically merged spy movie bravado with psychadelic, free-love aesthetic, when they had less blatant overlap in the actual decade.
Music in the ’90s was much more of a diverse throwback scene, with bands throwing in styles from the ’60s all the way up to the ’80s for kicks. Smash Mouth joined the likes of No Doubt and Goldfinger in defining a new tone for these throwbacks in their early careers – hard-edged, socially conscious grooves.
However, these bands quickly evolved and became just as well known for pop tunes dredged in their style. Not only that, but they also took a cue from many early ’80s bands and did covers of older songs. We’ll get to that.
Meanwhile, a promising pop musician was between gigs. Andy Sturmer had just broken up his band Jellyfish, itself quite a potpourri of influences. He found a new line of work by signing up to write and co-produce some music for a new band in Japan, to which he gave the name Puffy.
After their debut single and album became hits, the duo Ami and Yumi hosted a Japanese kids’ variety show called Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa Puffy. Think like The Amanda Show, if Amanda Bynes was also a pop star and occasionally bumped into a bunch of foreign talent. The show helped them crossover into the US, where they had to perform as Puffy AmiYumi, and after the show wrapped up, they were free to pursue new opportunities.
The Right Cover
“I thought love was only true in fairy tales.”
Such was the reason this song, written by Neil Diamond for the Monkees, was chosen to be the ending song for the runaway hit Shrek. Smash Mouth’s “All Star”, first used in the cult flop Mystery Men, was already slated for the famous opening scene, so it was a no-brainer for them to cover the ending song as well.
Not much else to say about the song itself, other than to point you to Sideways on YouTube talking about the musical choices in Shrek 1 and 2. He points out that the choices of using pop music vs original score reflect the diegetic arcs of the characters, and that the transition from Smash Mouth to Donkey performing “I’m a Believer” succinctly wraps up those arcs like the happily-ever-after it’s underscoring.
What’s more relevant here… is the music video.
So Smash Mouth had embraced pop staples like diners, the beach, and studio backlots prior to this, but not quite as brightly as this. Simple plot, comedy of errors, guest appearances. It’s basically one big episode of The Monkees condensed into a tight video.
I’m not sure whether there’s much to say about the “plot” of the video either. A lady bumps into Steve Harwell and leaves him to chase her down to give her dropped keys back. There’s a dated cross-dresser gag, the bizarre chimp switcheroo, and even some tiny nods to the backlot nature. Even the fact that punks are considered the type to hound Shrek for autographs is interesting.
This would not be the last time Smash Mouth did a Neil Diamond song either. For their next album Get the Picture? – which I personally saw being promoted on their website at the time – Neil gave them a new song called “You Are My Number One”, which they performed with a guest toast by the late Ranking Roger.
Teen Titans was a breakthrough in its debut. Co-creator Glen Murakami was given credit for the “western anime” aesthetic – itself quite in vogue on Cartoon Network through imports like Code Lyoko and Totally Spies, plus sibling productions like Xiaolin Showdown – but it maintained a balance of wacky hijinx and serious, heavy drama that no other show on the lineup could quite match.
Much of its lasting appeal, of course, was summed up in the theme song, by our friends Puffy AmiYumi and Andy Sturmer.
It’s got a punk rhythm. It’s got ringing guitar chords reminiscent of the famous James Bond chord. It’s got electric organ filling out the harmonies. It’s got a very simple pop tune structure, with title drops in call-and-response.
But you know what it also has? A stepwise organ riff that is lifted wholesale from Batman.
Even before Teen Titans Go took it to the extreme, Sturmer was paying homage to the Batman of old. Bruce Wayne might be nowhere to be seen, but Robin and the team appropriately pick up the mantle. Teen angst mandates a helping of darkness, but they still have fun when they can.
Having now been introduced to Cartoon Network, Puffy were given another means to expand into the States – a full cartoon series to accompany their stage branding.
Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi was basically an animated Monkees, with a few notable quirks. Like their seniors, Ami and Yumi are characterized much more individually than their real-life counterparts, but even more so here by making Ami the girly one and Yumi the punk one. The duo are then coaxed into the same Stoogey plots mostly by their manager Kaz, and they’re doing them while still hounded by fans at every turn.
While anime-inspired as well, the world around them is decidedly taken from UPA, a studio that was just able to survive into the mid-’60s but inspired much of the mainstream pop-art aesthetic during its lifespan.
Back in the day, UPA had an animator named Lee Mishkin working on a revival of Mr. Magoo. After leaving, he worked on the animated New 3 Stooges show, and he was later hired as a contractor to draw and animate the intro for – you guessed it – Batman.
So what’s the purpose of this little journey anyway? Just sounds like I’m narrating a bunch of Wikipedia articles, right?
Well, it’s a taste of my thought process when it comes to things that seem to be either random, or similar but in an uninteresting way. Like, “Of course these songs sound the same. They’re both catchy pop and came out pretty close together. That’s it, right?”
Sometimes they might be. But pop culture is hardly a realm of anything “unrelated”.
The tired refrain of “There’s nothing new under the sun” that plagues pop music is actually a useful reminder of how influences and environmental factors are both unavoidable and actually important to understand.
There are much bigger topics we’ll be covering on Pop History that rely on environmental factors too big to ignore. And you ignore them at your own risk.