I recently spent a week’s vacation home with my kids, who were off for spring break. That meant a lot of visits to museums and the like, which, if you are a parent, you know means repeated exposure to the message that they, you and the rest of humanity are a plague on the Earth. Aquariums, zoos, natural history museums—every visit comes with exhibits and demonstrations explaining just how and how badly people and their useless junk have raped our fragile planet. Then it’s time to visit the gift shop!
Today is Earth Day, which means more environmentally-themed kids’ programming. PBS Kids has a full slate of Earth Day episodes from Curious George and others, plus more at their website. But I was most intrigued this year by Schoolhouse Rock! Earth, a collection of new eco-friendly animated videos, plus a remastered version of the classic “Energy Blues” cartoon from the 1970s.
Being close to obsessed with the original Schoolhouse Rock myself, and having imposed it on my own kids, I wish for my own sake and the planet’s that I had better things to say about the new offerings. Educationally, the new songs cover an admirable range of topics—global warming, alternative energy, water conservation; but compared with the originals, the animation is flat and the songs lifeless.
This may be partly the rose-colored nostalgia of an old man. But truth be told, you can see the decline of Schoolhouse Rock videos in their original run. The early Multiplication, America, Grammar and Science Rock series cover a wide range of genres, from pop (“Three Is a Magic Number”) to funk (“Verb”) to folk (“Three Ring Government”); they were written for kids, but the music holds up by adult standards. The James Brown-esque “I Got Six”—complete with dashiki-clad, blinged-out prince—is simply badass.
But by the time the franchise got to the Reagan-era Money Rock series, the animation became flatter, and the songs more generic and tuneless. Watching the progression on the DVD collection with my kids is like watching the movie Boogie Nights, where the decline of the porn industry and the characters’ lives is mirrored by the descent into crappy pop music in the early ’80s. The new Schoolhouse Rock! Earth songs are well-intended enough, but they’re written as generic kids’ music—an especially strange thing in a time when adult musicians like They Might Be Giants regularly record kids’ albums.
But the fact that the new videos have been made at all at least says something about how the culture has come full circle since the ’70s. I remember re-watching “Energy Blues” with Tuned In Jr. a few years ago, and thinking how remote its Carter-era conservation message seemed in the Bush administration—all that talk about “stretching out” our resources and turning off lights, at a time when SUVs were still flying off the car lots. Screw turning down the thermostat! The scientists will invent something to fix our problems! Or we’ll get a new planet someday!
Today, the economy and the culture seem to be back in a place closer to the oil-shock, recessionary era I remember from when I was watching Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday mornings. I just wish it had a better set of new videos to go with it. In the meantime, “Energy Blues,” and much of the rest of the Schoolhouse Rock catalog, are available on DVD—and also floating out there on YouTube. Not that I’d suggest watching them online for free, of course. But it would be better for the planet than buying another DVD.