Before SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg passed away last November, composer Nicolas Carr asked him what he thought the best part of the series is. Hillenburg’s reply came without hesitation: “The music.”
When thinking about classic animated shows, usually the first things that come to mind are its funny characters or memorable episodes. But there are rare occasions where the show’s music becomes just as crucial as its plot or humor. SpongeBob SquarePants fits in that realm, bringing joy to fans of all ages through catchy melodies.
First premiering on July 17, 1999 on Nickelodeon, the world was introduced to creator Stephen Hillenburg’s goofy-but-relatable cast of underwater creatures: the man-child SpongeBob and his pet snail Gary, his not-so-smart best friend Patrick Star, cynical Squidward Tentacles, villainous Plankton, money-hungry Mr. Krabs and competitive Sandy Cheeks. The show began as a fun joyride to Bikini Bottom, but quickly grew to become a meaningful part of many viewers’ lives. And the music has helped carry that feeling throughout the past 20 years.
Sure, there have been silly moments like “Ripped Pants” and “The Striped Sweater Song” that showcase the characters’ comedic side. But overall, there is a magic in which the songwriters and producers are able to create music that isn’t confined to Bikini Bottom. They inject their love for ‘60s and ‘70s rock, soul and pop into nearly every song, elevating them beyond just simple ditties for a children’s show. The melodies have heart, the choruses are brilliantly catchy and the pure lyricism possesses a relatability that extends across all ages. And the sonic nostalgia threaded in these songs have transformed them into something, well, timeless.
From “The Best Day Ever” to “Where’s Gary,” these tunes have remained buzzy earworms that have eclipsed our TV screens and bled into karaoke sessions, social media memes and even the genesis of a 12-piece SpongeBob-inspired soul band called Tom Kenny & The Hi-Seas. Earlier this year, longtime fans rallied together to create a Super Bowl petition demanding that the show’s “Sweet Victory” be performed at halftime in honor of the late Hillenburg. (A brief clip from its parent episode did end up being used to introduce guest performer Travis Scott.)
The creator always made it a point to keep the music as crucial element of the show, and shared that goal with his creative team. Tom Kenny, handpicked by Hillenburg as the voice of SpongeBob, first met the creator during their work on Rocko’s Modern Life. At the time, Kenny voiced Heffer Wolfe while Hillenburg served as creative director from 1993-1996. Nicolas Carr, who also worked on Rocko’s Modern Life as music editor in 1996, was later brought on as the SpongeBob composer by Hillenburg. Andy Paley, a composer and songwriter who’s worked with Beach Boys, Phil Spector and Madonna, got a taste of cartoons as the songwriter for The Ren & Stimpy Show in 1993. Vince Waller, also The Ren & Stimpy Show alum, joined SpongeBob in 2000. He now serves as executive producer alongside Marc Ceccarelli (“The show had everything that I already cut my teeth on with Ren & Stimpy,” Waller says).
Over the past two decades, the show has released five albums: 2001’s SpongeBob SquarePants: Original Theme Highlights, 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie — Music from the Movie and More… (which peaked on the Billboard 200 at No. 76), 2005’s The Yellow Album, 2006’s The Best Day Ever and 2009’s SpongeBob’s Greatest Hits (peaked at No. 62). The music later transcended from the small screen to the stage in 2016, when director Tina Landau created the Tony-award winning SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.
For the show’s 20th anniversary, Kenny, Paley, Carr, Waller and Ceccarelli went down memory lane with Billboard, to discuss the music’s growth throughout the years, and how they helped bring Hillenburg’s vision to life.
BRINGING MAGIC TO THE MUSIC
“The Drunken Sailor”
This score, which was first introduced in season two, is a traditional-sounding nautical melody that is best associated with the show’s money-hungry boss — Mr. Krabs.
Carr: I don’t play the accordion, but I picked up a little Chinese accordion in a toy store and started fooling around with it. That was actually one of the first cues that I did for the show, because I found that the production libraries offered a few versions of it. They were oftentimes not the right feel, so I needed something a little more rousing and not quite so drunken-sounding. Mr. Krabs is an old salty sailor and he was in the Navy. So when we’re at The Krusty Krab there’s often a nautical feeling. I think [the cue] suits him well, like what shall we do with this crazy guy, you know? The music can add to the humor of the whole situation rather than using something that’s just a generic comic book cue.
“The Best Day Ever”
Debuting on the end credits of 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, “Best Day Ever” has since blossomed into an instantly recognizable and cheerful paen for both the series and the SpongeBob community.
Paley: I had this lyric in my head: “Mr. Sun came up and he smiled at me/ said it’s gonna be a good one, just wait and see.” Then Tom gave me the line, “Feeling so ecstatic, stratified.” I just thought that was so brilliant. We were thinking about the Beach Boys, The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” and put ourselves in the mood of those kinds of records. It was a really good moment and it’s become an anthem for the show.
Kenny: [Paley and I] wanted to write songs that would be performed by SpongeBob and his friends. These characters’ voices are so distinct, so we thought we could write songs almost as if they were writing for themselves. “Best Day Ever” is an expression of SpongeBob’s whole philosophy of life. It’s sunny and optimistic, but it also has clouds in it. We wrote that so where it didn’t mention living in the Pineapple or having a pet snail named Gary. We consciously made it not SpongeBob-specific because we wanted it to be one of those sunshine-pop songs like [The Beach Boys] “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” or “Daydream” by The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Paley: SpongeBob: The Musical references different parts of the song’s melody throughout. Tom and I were watching people in the audience when the orchestra played just the chords — you saw emotional reactions immediately. I watched an interview of [Tony award-winning composer Tom Kitt], and he said [the musical] all started with “The Best Day Ever.” So that was a great compliment to hear.
Kenny: Steve Hillenburg was actually in the studio playing ukulele. So it’s nice that’s got his fingerprints on that song. It wound up in the first SpongeBob movie in 2004 over the closing credits. And then it kept on having these new lives. They built an episode around it, and then it wound up in a lot of theme park attractions. It’s funny, I would hear it on the radio and really hip bands would have it on their playlists. In SpongeBob: The Musical, it’s the only song from the show aside from the theme.
“Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas)”
This holiday tune calls back to classics like The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” and The Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” due to its lively ‘60s-inspired melody, making it all the more nostalgic.
Paley: For one day out of the year, how about you set your pettiness aside and be a nice person? That was the inspiration behind “Don’t Be a Jerk (It’s Christmas)”. Like, don’t take the prize out of the cornflakes box please! Let somebody else have it! Don’t go into the “10 items or less” line at the grocery store when you have 20 things in your shopping cart! I remember [The Beach Boys’] Brian Wilson calling me up to say, “Andy that is the greatest song I ever heard!” Whenever I go shopping at Target around Thanksgiving, I hear it play. It’s almost up there with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bells.” It comes from the production, which really has a classic sound.
Kenny: The song had a different title at first, where “jerk” was a different word that ends in K and starts with a D. But it was not to be sung by SpongeBob. [Laughs.] We were just writing this fun Weird Al-like song, because people just seem to be being so nasty and impolite. We thought it should be a SpongeBob song, because it’s him pleading for civility and being on your best behavior at this time of year.
Featured in season four’s “Have You Seen This Snail?” episode, this track highlights SpongeBob’s tender side as he tearfully muses about losing his dear pet Gary.
Paley: Tom and I were sitting in a room in the Nickelodeon offices with some execs, and they said they wanted to create an episode where Gary gets lost. By the time I came home, I had written enough of “Where’s Gary” where I called Tom to share with him. We had it done in an hour. This is the one that kids come up all the time and tell us, “I know what it’s like because I lost my dog once. I know how SpongeBob feels!”
Kenny: It’s kind of an homage to “Runaway” by [‘60s rock singer] Del Shannon. Me and Andy are such rock n’ roll history fans. It’s kind of like that  Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do! where people wrote songs that sound like ‘60s pop. We get to write songs that are nods to the stuff we love.
Marking one of the few times a song was not performed by Tom Kenny, this power ballad (sung by David Glen Eisley) is associated with one of the series’ most triumphant moments: when Squidward and his band won the Bubble Bowl.
Kenny: A lot of times, shows purchase library music. Once you buy it, you can use it as much as you want. From what I understand, “Sweet Victory” was one of those. Something like, “Generic Power Ballad No. 4.” It sounds like Night Ranger’s [1984 single] “Sister Christian.” The producers just thought it was so intense and bombastic. It’s one of my favorite episodes, where SpongeBob rises up like he’s a member of Journey or something. It makes me laugh every time, because it’s so stupid! [Laughs.]
I was aware of that [Super Bowl LIII halftime] petition when it was happening. I thought it was a trip! And then it happened — sort of. I think people were waiting for something bigger, as much as they love Adam Levine’s [of Maroon 5] nipples. But they were a little disappointed that SpongeBob didn’t have a heavier presence. But just to be in the halftime at all was pretty cool. I do wish it had been more of a duet.
One of the earliest non-theme original songs featured on the show, the Spongebob-Plankton duet demonstrates the former’s undying optimism that is juxtaposed by the latter’s entertainingly wicked spirit.
Kenny: That might’ve been from the second or third episode we recorded. You could kind of see the roadmap of SpongeBob’s relationship with Plankton. SpongeBob is being exactly who he is, trying to teach this guy who is way too uptight and negative to have fun. Plankton is like, “Oh, I’ll blow up the room with bombs, that sounds fun.” So it’s this duet where their points of view are juxtaposed.
I knew [the voice of Plankton] Doug Lawrence from Rocko’s Modern Life — he voiced Filbert the turtle, who is totally different from Plankton. He’s a guy who revels in negativity and destruction. And SpongeBob is the sweet, naive guy who just wants everyone to be happy and get along. We were together in the studio while recording. I like to have everyone in the room — which a lot of shows don’t do anymore. Comedically, the way Plankton just hijacks this positive song and turns it into a Sturm und Drang with all the nuclear fire and uranium bomb references. He thinks he understands fun… but let’s not blow people up!
Cast of Nickelodeon’s Spongebob Squarepants on set of SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout anniversary special. Clockwise from left: Bill Fagerbakke (voice of Patrick Star), Rodger Bumpass (voice of Squidward Tentacles), Tom Kenny (center) (voice of Spongebob Squarepants), Doug Lawrence (voice of Plankton), Carolyn Lawrence (voice of Sandy Cheeks), Clancy Brown (voice of Mr. Krabs).Courtesy of Nickelodeon
SNEAKY DOSES OF ADULT HUMOR
Paley: You gotta censor yourself sometimes. But sometimes we get stuff past the executives. On It’s a SpongeBob Christmas [album], we did a message from SpongeBob and the cast. It’s a very traditional but deadpan thing to do on Christmas records, like with The Beach Boys, Ronettes, Crystals. On the Beach Boys’ message, Dennis Wilson stuttered in the studio and Tom tried not to laugh. But he ends up imitating the stutter: “Hi, this is SpongeBob SquarePants/ We hope all of you hap-happened to enjoy our humble holiday musical gift to you.” I’m not even kidding — it took us an hour to get him to record that because he was laughing so hard! So I send the master to the execs and they go, “Andy, didn’t you notice that Tom stutters?” I immediately threw Tom under the bus — I have no loyalty whatsoever — and said that’s what he wanted. [Laughs.]
Carr: I try and push things over the top. I try to get way too serious almost to where it’s like that’s ridiculous. If it’s dramatic, I get these really horrific shock moments. So when Mr. Krabs is kind of messed up, I’ll play the “Drunken Sailor” song. If I put a piece of music to it that makes me laugh, then I know that’s the right piece.
Paley: I moved from Boston to L.A. just to work with Brian Wilson, that’s why I live here. We have a long history of writing records together. So I asked if he could come in and sing some background vocals for “Being a Krabby Patty.” The last thing Tommy Ramone played drums on before he died was a punk song we did called “Riding the Hook.” James Burton, who’s a great session guitar player and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, was Elvis Presley’s guitar player for many years. He played on [The Best Day Ever] too, for “You Will Obey.”
Kenny: One of the songs on that album called “Barnacles!” is kind of a Tex-Mex song. We got Flacko Jiménez to play on it, he’s a really famous Mexican accordionist. I brought him in on my own dime to play on it. Then a couple of years later Obama gave him a Presidential Medal of whatever and I was like, “Wow, we were ahead of the curve on Flacko.”
Paley: “Barnacles” is an expletive in Bikini Bottom. On the song Mr. Krabs says, “I kissed my ass-ets goodbye.” So we got that into the record — it flew right past Nickelodeon! But we also had to switch the opening lyrics from “So in Bikini Bottom, we have a B-word” to “We have a word that’s preferred.” But they don’t catch everything!
THE POWER OF ANIMATION
Paley: The show has exploded and has this really long-lasting power. Tom and I try to write these songs as seriously as possible and so people can emotionally relate to it — we don’t think of it as a novelty. And I think it’s been successful in that way. It being a cartoon doesn’t really matter. If the melody and lyrics are heartfelt, anyone can sing it.
Waller: The music has become just as iconic as SpongeBob’s shape. It has quality, but it’s also lively and fun. It really resonates with kids when they hear it again, it sort of goes BING!
Kenny: It’s beautiful how much this silly show means to people after 20 years. People that were little kids grew up on it, and now it’s still part of their lives in the form of memes and inside jokes they make with co-workers and their kids. I can’t remember where I saw this, but someone wrote a really interesting article that SpongeBob SquarePants existed in the pre-internet age. There’s something [special] about repurposing faces. They’re utilized in ways that wasn’t the original intention.
Like that SpongeBob chicken pose was not what was happening in that episode. He wasn’t making fun of someone, but I love that the audience was able to take that drawing and repurpose it for something completely new. What I love about all these memes was that they weren’t corporate or PR department-driven. It’s really participatory, you know? There’s kind of a DIY aspect to that, which is very Stephen Hillenburg.
The show came from just him drawing a little comic book to teach kids at the marine biology summer camp about the creatures in the tide pool. He just took a pen and some paper and said, “Okay, this is the sponge, this is the starfish, this is the crab.” Those were the prototypical versions of the SpongeBob characters.
Kenny: Everything with SpongeBob, that all came directly from Steve. I know that he saw the music as being part of the design. SpongeBob’s room is very Tiki-influenced. There’s a lot of bamboo furniture and those flowers on the walls are very South Pacific-looking flowers. Steve liked Hawaii, so SpongeBob is tropical and Polynesian. I think the show might be part of the reason that ukuleles are cool again. Nobody in my high school played it in the 70s. And now I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter and all her friends play the ukulele. That [instrument] is definitely a part of the show’s musical DNA. I remember Steve wanted that: frenetic Hawaiian Tiki music, but with more of a hop 1920s kind of sound.
Carr: I remember once I was with [show composer] Sage Guyton and he asked [Hillenburg], “What do you think is the best part of the show?” Steve without hesitation said, “the music.” I was floored! To have Steve say that, it meant a lot. [I’m grateful] for having met him because he changed my life. I can’t tell you how much I owe to that man, and how much I love him and miss him. Every time I work on the show, I always try to think, “Well, how would Steve dig this? Is this something that would make Steve laugh?” I can remember going to so many spotting sessions in a big theater and I’d just look over to see what’s Steve’s expression like. If he’s got a smile on his face then I know everything’s alright.
Kenny: I never aspired to have a song in a Broadway show, but because of Steve I do. And I’ve gone to all these different countries and [have had] all these weird experiences, like waving the checkered flag at a NASCAR race with a SpongeBob race car. Andy and I realized that we really enjoyed playing together, so now we have a band called Tom Kenny & the Hi-Seas. That’s something that I wouldn’t be doing if it wasn’t for SpongeBob or Steve. His gift just keeps on giving.
SPONGEBOB LAUGHS ON
Waller: We’re going to continue making it the liveliest show possible. Steve showed us humor and was always true to when we first started [the show]. Steve wasn’t a big laugher, but when he did you felt like you won something. And we saw him laugh a lot during the last two years [of his life].
Paley: I think it’s really lucky that [Tom and I] found each other. It’s a bromance! I don’t know anyone else who I’d rather bounce ideas off of and write songs with. We work really fast, and I’ve noticed that throughout my life if something happens fast then it’s probably good. Our work is really sincere, but you gotta keep it light and fun while you’re doing it. Somehow we have this great chemistry of composing songs together.
Kenny: I can’t speak for the giant multinational corporation’s plan since I’m not part of that. But I know on a microlevel, us creatives on the show are just trying to keep SpongeBob alive. Steve was diagnosed with ALS two years before he passed, so he definitely plotted and gave orders for the people that he turned it over to. Even in his absence, the job is the same as it was when Steve was in the recording booth with us: to do our best to bring the characters to life. I mean, SpongeBob’s never gone away in 20 years. There’s always been a movie, a show, a game or something in production.
Ceccarelli: We pick the music in every scene for the comedy aspect of it. It’s just like another tool, like the drawings or funny dialogue. The music [reflects] the humor and enhances whatever we’re showing on screen. From the needle drop library to the Hawaiian-inspired cues, there’s a really big rainbow of music that we show.
Kenny: Steve’s heart was so big and he put so much of it into the characters. When people tell us what the characters have meant to them and what the laughs that they’ve gotten from SpongeBob have gotten them through in their lives, it’s unexpectedly heavy. It’s not like a show that was big on Netflix for a year or two. The fencepost of SpongeBob has sunk way deep in the concrete of the pop cultural consciousness. It’s hard to dislodge it.