After 16 years, the preschool show The Backyardigans has finally had its musical genius recognized. Much like the Little Einsteins theme song experienced a viral nostalgia resurgence via remixes thanks to Vine, the children's song "Castaways" from The Backyardigans is enjoying its time in the sun as a top viral hit and certified summer bop, thanks to TikTok being populated by those of us who grew up with the show.
But is that the only reason? My spider-sense says there's more to this. Let's start with a little history on the show: The Backyardigans is an animated Nick Jr preschool show that started airing in 2004 starring colorful child characters of various species who played pretend and went on adventures together from their backyards. What makes the show unique though is its strong commitment to presenting the arts to its young audience in an unadulterated manner.
Each episode's songs are rooted in a different genre of music, with the other episodes in season 1 featuring genres like 1920s jazz, hip-hop, salsa, disco, polka, and Broadway. As the show progressed through the seasons, show composers Douglas Wieselman and Evan Lurie dug deeper into sub-genres, incorporating ones such as Norteño, jug band, 1960s Italian Pop, circus music, roller disco, Raï, college fight songs, and comic opera. But the cultural exploration didn't stop with the music – each musical number (to which there are generally four per episode) was fully choreographed by professional dancers and filmed for the animators to translate over to the animated characters. And the dances match the nationality, flavor, history, and style of the episode's musical theme incredibly well. The level of detail in children's shows often goes unnoticed by the general adult world, which is a shame.
Focusing on "Castaways," the song is from an episode of the same name, episode 111. It's about – you guessed it – castaways on a desert island. The episode's musical theme is Bossa Nova, which is a jazz-influenced Brazilian samba characterized by the distinct syncopated beat, use of developed harmonic and diminished chords, and restrained, almost under-stated groove. Think of it as smooth jazz samba fusion; while it doesn't have a specific dance that accompanies it like the samba, cha-cha, or mambo, the beat and style translate for many of the Latin dance steps. If you're listening to "Castaways" or other Bossa Nova music and think, "this sounds familiar", it's probably because the most famous Bossa Nova song was essentially the first meme: "The Girl from Ipanema" is arguably the most popular in this genre. But not anymore, thanks to The Backyardigans and TikTok (you're welcome, older generations).
So what makes "Castaways" such an earworm? For starters, it's the Bossa Nova beat – it's catchy, repetitive, yet still musically interesting thanks to the overlaying melody and instrumentation. The repeating motifs (repetitive catchy bits like the descending notes in "cast-a-ways") comprise the majority of the melody. But what keeps this from being incredibly repetitive and annoying (looking at you, Baby Shark) is its use of harmonies. The chords used to harmonize the melody in Castaways fit in the Bossa Nova style by not resolving the tonic down, but instead leaving it hanging, creating musical tension and thus keeping the listener more musically engaged with the song. In addition, by using the syncopated minor triads and frequently returning to the major seven chord to harmonize, it sets itself apart from the generic pop or other music one might generally encounter in everyday life (unless you're a big fan of hanging out in elevators).
What does this mean in English? The song is fun and different, therefore your brain likes it and it makes your hips want to move nice and sweet and sassy, and that's just what the Backyardigans do in the show. The dances in the "Castaways" sequence are more on the Rhumba side with some Cha-Cha and Salsa steps thrown in for added flavor, making this more akin to a mid-century Latin flavored social style of dance, which is historically and culturally valid for the Bossa Nova, believe it or not. Being such easy-going music, it was favored by house bands because it fit with a variety of steps and got more people dancing. And of course, club 101: the more people dance, the more drinks they buy, and the happier everyone is – especially the club owners.
Wrapping this up, the enduring spirit and music of the children's shows we grew up with is rooted in nostalgia. Ordinarily, that alone would be enough to warrant a resurgence for a renewed 15 minutes of viral fame, especially after a year that has many people retreating back to adolescent comforts, but "Castaways" endures because of its strong musical influences and roots in the broader genre as a whole. If you find yourself jamming out to Castaways, have you checked out some of the other Backyardigans tracks? If not, I recommend it – how many other children's shows can you name that have entire episodes dedicated to the waltzes of Strauss?
And since you're here…
BCTV Daily Dispatch: For a look at what's going on across the television and streaming landscape, sign up for Bleeding Cool's daily email round-up of the news you need to know here.