Friday, July 23, 2021

Green Phoenix - Let's Talk...Schoolhouse Rock!

 School House Rock!.png

So I realize that it is entirely possible that I might have been far too subtle for you all to pick up on my general personality, despite my many personal stories. I know that you all must think of me as this incredibly suave and cool individual, always aware of the latest trends and a person well-liked by everyone I meet.

Thus it is with a heavy heart that I must break this notion to you all. For you see, I am, in point of fact, a massive nerd with an obsession for not only countless fandoms but intellectual pursuits in general.

Okay all kidding aside, I really do enjoy watching educational content, even to this day. My Netflix account is filled with documentary films and series and I even have a subscription to CuriosityStream to feed my educational media fascination. And this fascination goes back to my very earliest moments of childhood. I've spoken of the Walking with... series and its impact on my love of biological and paleontological documentaries, but my general love of learning stemmed from Bill Nye the Science Guy and the focus of today's article: School House Rock!.

Developed in the early 1970s and airing until 1984 before returning intermittently in the 1990s and 2000s, Schoolhouse Rock! was a series of short animated music videos that touched on specific subjects in numerous general subjects. It was developed after the creator noticed that his child often struggled to remember their multiplication tables, despite being able to memorize all the lyrics to Rolling Stones songs.

Schoolhouse Rock! helped generations of kids learn all kinds of fascinating subjects and I figured that this would be the perfect opportunity to discuss my personal experience and what the series means to me. This isn't a review, but more of a general retrospective.

I grew up with Schoolhouse Rock! through a collection of VHS tapes. I remember watching these videos almost religiously as a child and it was only the loss of our VCR that stopped me from watching them whenever the mood struck me. Thankfully with the advent of Disney+, I was able to rediscover the wonder of this show and even see segments that I had never seen before.

My VHS collection was released in the late 90s and is thus missing the Earth Rock collection, focusing on conservation and green energy. In addition, the series had a fifth season which focused on computers, coding, and technology in general called "Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips" that was very dated even at the time of its release due to the sheer swiftness of technological progress in the late 1980s. All in all, the Schoolhouse Rock! collection can be divided into the following seasons:

The first season Multiplication Rock was released in 1973 and is comprised of 11 episodes. Each song covers the multiples of a particular number, such that the entire season together could give a child a complete understanding of the 12 times multiplication table. Songs in this season include "Three is a Magic Number" (the original pilot song), "Ready or Not, Here I Come" (covering the multiples of 5), and the exceptionally jazzy "Naughty Number Nine", which actually got in trouble upon release for its villainous cat character smoking. We also have Jazz drummer and vocalist Grady Tate performing "I Got Six" which was notable for being the first short in the franchise to feature a black character at the forefront of the song.
Conjunction Junction

The second season was Grammar Rock was released between 1973 and 1976 (with two additional songs released in 1993), comprised of 9 episodes in total. This is probably the most famous of the seasons with many of the songs becoming staples of the franchise. Each song is written so as to explain and explore a specific area of speech (nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc.). The most famous song in this collection is almost certainly "Conjunction Junction", where a train conductor uses train cablecars to explain conjugations. In fact, I can guess with certainty that as soon as I said those words, you likely began humming the tune. We also have "Verb: That's What Happening" which paid homage to blaxploitation films to explore verbs, "Interjections!" which is fairly self-explanatory, and "Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla" which is a really silly song explaining the importance of pronouns.. Much like Multiplication Rock, Grammar Rock has maintained its watchability even after nearly 50 years, which is more than I can say for the next season.

The third season was released in 1975 and 1976 in reaction to America's bicentennial, fittingly called American Rock. As with a lot of American history-oriented media, these 12 episodes (including two released in the early 2000s on DVD collections) present an overly simplified and whitewashed explanation of American history, values, and governmental structure. How well the song has aged is largely dependent upon its content, with explanations of government and its role aging much better than the historical elements. The most famous song in this collection is "I'm Just a Bill" explaining the process of making laws in the United States. We also have songs like "The Shot Heard Round the World" explaining the Revolutionary War and my personal favorite "Suffering till Suffrage" which is a fantastic anthem to the women's suffrage movement.

The fourth season, released in 1978 to 1979, called Science Rock, is something of an oddball in the rest of the franchise. Where collections like Grammar, Multiplication, or American are generic enough to create a distinct identity, science refers to countless different areas of study; far more than 9 short films could feasibly cover. As a result, science actually suffers from an issue of two parts. One is that the majority of the songs cover aspects of the human body (so much so that I'm surprised they didn't just make the whole season completely about the human body and call it Health Rock). Four of the nine segments are just about human biology, with the rest covering a myriad of topics from physics to astronomy to weather (which would be covered again in Earth Rock). Of the songs in this collection, "Interplanet Janet" and "The Energy Blues" are likely the most famous and popular songs, though I do have a soft spot for "Electricity, Electricity" myself. I think that if Schoolhouse Rock! ever felt compelled to return or reboot its content, Science Rock would benefit from being split up into potentially several different collections, likely Health and Physics being the priority.
Schoolhouse Rock! Election Collection DVD Review
The final season that I grew up watching was Money Rock. Released as part of the revival between 1994 and 1996, Money Rock explores various aspects of finances, like budgeting, taxes, and debt. Despite the seemingly dry subject matter, this is actually my favorite collection in the franchise; with fantastic songs like "Tax Man Max", who explains taxes, and "This for That", which explores the concept of trade and barter. Of the songs on this collection, "Walking on Wall Street" is likely the most famous as that pigeon explaining the stock market really is a lot of fun to listen to with his calm smooth jazz singing.

I really adore Schoolhouse Rock!. The advent of Disney+ has revitalized that interest with a furious passion. Not only is the educational aspect really well done for most of the segments (with only a few songs feeling outdated or inaccurate) but almost all of the music are inveterate earworms. I'm really not joking, I've been singing and humming these songs all week as I've been writing this.

It's starting to concern me...please send help!

If I did have to criticize the series a little bit, the animation is very cheap at times and you can sometimes smell the 1970s on everything. Lots of hippy iconography throughout, especially in the earliest songs. While this helps with the overall smooth jazz and relaxed educational vibe, it can be a little odd to modern viewers. Actually, let's talk about that relaxed tone.

Often in children's media, especially educational, there seems to be an insistent need for constant motion, noise, or other distraction to keep a child's mind engaged. This is the style that Bill Nye the Science Guy employed with its constant cutaways, consistent puns and shout-outs, and Bill Nye's generally loud persona. Schoolhouse Rock! doesn't really do that. While songs like "Electricity, Electricity" and "Verb: It's What's Happening" have a high energy feel to them, they really are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the songs have a mellow feeling to them, making them very nice to fall to sleep to.

All in all, Schoolhouse Rock! was a wonderful addition to any childhood and with Disney+ now available, I imagine that the opportunity for so many other children to learn the wonders of education through music to only increase.

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