When I was in the fifth grade, I transferred from a public school to a small private school, making me the new kid amongst a group of students who had known each other since Pre-K. And while the kids in my class weren't unfriendly, it was a bit of a struggle to try and find my place in this tight-knit group of classmates. Playing basketball helped, as did joining the school's Girl Scouts troop, but I really felt like part of the group when we all bonded over our shared love of SpongeBob SquarePants, which was just starting to become the cultural phenomenon that we know and love.
There was, and still is, a lot to love about SpongeBob. Created by Stephen Hillenburg — who passed away on this week — the show taught us all about the importance of friendship, about the joys of finding happiness and humor in everything, about finding your passion and taking pride in the things you do, and, perhaps most importantly, about embracing the things that made you an individual and maybe even a little weird. It was (and still remains, based on the proliferation of SpongeBob memes all these years later) relatable and entertaining in equal measure. And in the early 2000s, there was no way to entertain a group of kids easier than to start singing one of the songs from SpongeBob SquarePants.
According to a DVD commentary by the show's creative director, Derek Drymon, when developing the infamous SpongeBob SquarePants theme song, "Steve [Hillenbug]'s idea was to try to make the most annoying song you can, to — so when Saturday morning, when kids turn the TV on and parents are trying to sleep, you have this pirate screaming in the other room for the kids to jump on the floor." That mix of obnoxious, childlike nature — the sing-song pattern of the dialogue and lyrics, the cheery, upbeat music, and the proliferation of jokes — exemplifies everything that makes SpongeBob so addicting and entertaining to kids of all ages.
Every field trip, every class party, any excuse for a singalong that you could possibly imagine had my fifth grade class singing SpongeBob songs. We did rounds of the "F.U.N." song on the school bus; we all competed to see who could sing "The Campfire Song" the quickest; and if anyone wanted to annoy another student, the quickest way was to break into a round of Spongebob's "Krusty Krab Pizza" ditty, attempting to come up with the loudest and most obnoxious iterations of the song as we possibly could. It got to the point where one classmate would bring in their copy of the SpongeBob SquarePants soundtrack every day, and convince the teachers to play it for parties and quiet time.
"The show was sweet and kind-hearted, but not candy-assed in a Care Bears way," Tom Kenny, who has voiced SpongeBob since the show's first season in 1999, told The Guardian in 2016 about the show's enduring appeal. "It had everything. It had this knockabout Three Stooges kind of comedy, but also had a Seinfeld vibe: a show about nothing. Sometimes episodes would just be about SpongeBob trying to tie his shoes, but other times he’d be going on quests to find lost cities. I loved that juxtaposition. There was nothing like that on TV, but nobody ever thought it would get this big."
SpongeBob's mix of lowbrow humor and heartfelt vulnerability is perhaps best shown in the "Band Geeks" episode from Season 2. In it, Squidward, SpongeBob's grouchy neighbor and co-worker, and a passionate if untalented clarinet player, is offered the chance to play the Bubble Bowl halftime show by his lifelong rival, Squilliam. In an attempt to prove his musical talent (and to show up Squilliam), he recruits the citizens of Bikini Bottom into a marching band — but rehearsals immediately devolve into chaos and violence.
After Squidward leaves the final rehearsal in despair, ready to be embarrassed in front of Squilliam, SpongeBob rallies his friends and neighbors, and they arrive at the Bubble Bowl to deliver a performance of "Sweet Victory" that is shockingly good. There's a power ballad, pyrotechnics, and most importantly, Squidward gets a much needed victory over Squilliam.
"Sweet Victory" wasn't a popular choice for class singalongs, but it's remained my favorite SpongeBob musical moment. Watching a group of people who, just days before, thought mayonnaise was an instrument, work together in order to create something beautiful was inspiring to me. All of those Bikini Bottom weirdos had found something worth bonding over, and it brought them success and joy. And, to a kid who often felt like the odd one out in those days, seeing the quintessential loner, Squidward, have people support him and love him enough to ensure that he doesn't get humiliated in front of his rival, it gave me hope that I, too, would be able to make those kinds of friendships. Squidward's victory was a victory for all weird, sarcastic kids who never quite felt like they fit in.
SpongeBob SquarePants is full of moments (both musical and otherwise) that balance its inherent goofiness with genuine emotion. Like when SpongeBob admitted that he took a joke too far in order to fit in with Sandy's friends; Sandy's touching, pining ballad about being homesick for Texas, or SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs' heartbreaking song about missing each other when SpongeBob works for the Chum Bucket.
The show's musical numbers may have gotten bigger and flashier over the years — after all, it even inspired a Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical — but for me, the musical moments that will always mean the most are from those early days, when the songs were short, the rhymes were easy to memorize, and the emotions were always right beneath the surface.
I'm not close friends with anyone I went to middle school with anymore; there were many times when I felt like the odd one out. And it wasn't until I hit high school that I finally had a true group of friends, and learned how to put myself out there and find the people I connected with. But SpongeBob and its goofy, catchy songs helped me to feel included when I was an awkward, lonely kid — they helped me to let loose and have a little "F.U.N," too — and for that, I'll always be thankful.