Before "Baby Shark" made the Hot 100, "Silly Symphonies" were all the rage
Thank a South Korean educational content brand for producing, possibly, the most-listened-to, version of the earworm "Baby Shark."
It was a little over a decade ago when "Baby Shark" teased its true potential. That's when a video of the song went viral in Germany.
That turned out to be small potatoes compared to the Pinkfong remix. The brand behind the sensation has produced tens of thousands of children's videos. This includes multiple variations on "Baby Shark." One of these versions went supernova after it was published to YouTube. That was in 2016. In it, the Seoul-based company laid a K-pop beat underneath the vocals. They plucked two cherub-cheeked children to do the hand motions of the lyrics for the video.
Pinkfong's "Baby Shark" mania hit and had the Ellen Degenereses and James Cordens of the world subjecting us to the #babysharkchallenge. While this was happening, Bob Cunningham, attempted to pin down just what made the Pinkfong song so very listenable. Cunningham is an educator and senior adviser for the nonprofit consortium Understood.org.
He described the formula to the Associated Press, saying it had a "catchy rhythm," "silly sounds," and "colorful and cute animation." It is reminiscent of what gave rise to the first iteration of children's hits.
Children's music has been part of the music industry since the get-go. "Ever since there has been a music business, there has been a children's music business," explained Simon Frith in his collection of essays Taking Pop Music Seriously. Frith is a professor of music.
Thomas Edison debuted the phonograph in 1877. Just 11 years later, an unknown employee of the Edison company recorded "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" for the company's short-lived talking doll venture. That recording was found in the desk of an assistant in the 1960s. It earned the nursery rhyme the distinction of being the earliest-known children's recording and the earliest-known commercial recording. It might even be "the first recording to be made by someone who was paid to perform for a sound recording," according to the Library of Congress.
"Baby Shark" stands in the shoes of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies. These also matched music to animation to great success using catchy rhythms, silly sounds, colorful (when the technology allowed), and sometimes cute, always eye-catching, animation.
Unlike "Baby Shark," this "musical novelty" series of short films released from 1929 to 1939 achieved critical success. That was in addition to popular success. The Sillies did so by marrying clever animation with a range of music. That music encompassed "classical melodies, traditional folk tunes, operatic themes-and popular songs." That's what film scholar J.B. Kaufman explains in Animation World Magazine.
Silly Symphonies came just at the right moment. In the 1920s and '30s, composers and graphic artists were exploring the frontiers of animation. "What all these experimenters shared was a common interest in, indeed a fascination for" finding the "rhythm" between sight and sound on screen. That's according to music scholar Jon Newsom writing for the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress.
That balancing act was a big deal at Disney HQ. The studio's exacting synchronization of music and animated movement began to be referred to within the industry as "mickey mousing."
Theater organist and orchestra leader Carl W. Stalling was a big part of how that came to be. He engineered a way to allow his musicians to hear what was happening in an animated sequence through an ingenious "click track." Stalling was also the one who convinced Disney to let him score the Sillys before they were animated. This began with the very first mini-musical, "The Skeleton Dance" (1929).
The alchemy of the music inspiring the animation was groundbreaking. Stalling famously used whatever music he thought fit the bill for his work.
The true "going viral" moment for Sillies came with the debut of "The Three Little Pigs" at New York's Radio City Music Hall on May 27, 1933.
"It received a sensational public response as it was shown in neighborhood theaters, becoming the most phenomenal short cartoon of its time," writes classic cartoon researcher Devon Baxter.
Disney had imagined the cartoon as a light, humorous operetta, explains Baxter. The dialogue was sung in rhythm by the pigs, who bob and sway hypnotically as they work against their foil, the Big Bad Wolf. The cheery cartoon is immensely watchable. For Americans weathering the Great Depression, its happy-go-lucky tone was just what children-and adults-needed.
Ann Ronell of Tin Pan Alley fame had previously collaborated with Disney. She worked with composer Frank Churchill on "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf," and their result was pieced together throughout the cartoon.
Sol Bourne was general manager of Irving Berlin Music, Inc. He believed he had a massive hit on his hands when he heard the song on screen. Subsequently, Irving Berlin Music negotiated to get Disney Studio's music rights.
Like "Baby Shark" moving from YouTube to a chart debut, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" made a definitive statement on its own. TIME magazine declared it was one of the year's "catchiest songs," and more than 201,000 copies of sheet music for it was sold in the second half of 1933 alone.
Kaufman and film and media scholar Russell Merritt wrote a Silly Symphonies companion book. They said that before 1934 had even begun, "the song had been widely recorded and had set a new precedent by introducing the Disney studio into the world of popular music." Who knows- it possibly even threw the chum in the water for what was lurking deep below, a catchy family of sharks (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo).