John K. – Madman or Genius? Or both?

When we were seven, we unknowingly listened to the likes of Beethoven, Rossini, Debussy, and even Raymond Scott on an almost daily basis, and we ate it all up. So much for kids not appreciating the classics – looks like all it took to spoon-feed a bit of “The Thieving Magpie” was to sugarcoat it in toilet humor.

I’m talking, of course, about The Ren & Stimpy Show, everyone’s favorite adult-oriented animated series for kids. The concepts in this 1990s cartoon were so crude and vile that it’s a wonder that it ever got the OK from Nickelodeon to air. But creator John Kricfalusi (“John K.” as credited on the show) wasn’t an idiot – in fact, he was far from it. Maybe insane genius is more appropriate. He seems to have found a unique way to get kids to appreciate music, and that was good news for the music community. Behind all the farting, hair licking, and whizzing on electric fences, Ren & Stimpy offered up a soundtrack for the ages (comprised of both well-known existing works and original compositions). The juxtaposition of the animated debauchery with, say, “The Toy Trumpet” is so jarring and yet so unbelievably appropriate that you have no choice but to appreciate the creative executions that the series put forth.

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Mixing classical music with cartoons wasn’t a new concept when R&S came out, of course. In 1940, Fantasia was released by Walt Disney, which was undoubtedly a cinematic masterpiece in its efforts to bring life to works of Bach, Stravinsky, Schubert, and a host of other composers of note. Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies followed suit, with a more lighthearted approach, by introducing familiar characters and intertwining complex musical scores to help facilitate the storylines. These animated works all took music and matched it to images you’d “expect” to see. But Ren & Stimpy completely redefined this practice. It turns every perception you’ve ever had about classical music on its head.

You probably won't be learning this in music class.

You probably won't be learning this in music class.

The truth is, musical perceptions are highly contextual. If nothing else, Ren & Stimpy proves this by mixing its accompaniment with “inappropriate” storylines. Logic tells us that, for example, Tchaikovsky and the concept of marrying a chicken are two entities that wouldn’t blend well. Certainly, Tchaikovsky is too pure, too deeply rooted in music history to be associated with such child’s play! And yet, John K. was able to understand that the music can take on any meaning it desires. Did he ruin Tchaikovsky by associating the composer with this nonsense? Not at all, I would argue. Rather, he highlights the versatility that such an artist is able provide in his music.

Kids probably won’t appreciate the artistic genius behind these creative decisions, but that does not mean that the series is of no value to the musical enrichment of children. Grade schoolers by nature have low attention spans; we cannot expect them to sit through a three-hour concert and appreciate the music quietly and respectfully. But we can expect that they will take the music in stride when it is married to silly cartoons. So maybe parents should re-consider what kind of programming is valuable to children and what kind is harmful. The Ren & Stimpy Show may have helped kids build an appreciation for music without them realizing it. Then, when little Billy enters middle school and Teacher places a clarinet in his hands, he knows what it’s all about. And what it’s capable of. And what he’s capable of.

And that’s pretty awesome.

In other news, I’m happy to be on board to contribute to SmarterMusic! Hooray music!

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