The Mean Streets of Public Television

by Bill Reagan

13 January 2008

Oscar the Grouch and Miss Piggy roll up their sleeves for this latest battle in the culture wars: the controversial lyrics of "Elmo's Song".

Newsman: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this special edition of Crossfire.

Political and social lyrics were once an intrinsic part of America’s television theme song landscape: From Archie and Edith Bunker crooning “Didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight” announcing All in the Family to the chorus of voices singing “Temporary layoffs, good times, scratchin’ and surviving, good times” to open Good Times, the lyrics to these musical introductions offered additional illumination about the content of the programs.

While disguised as situation comedies, both All in the Family and Good Times addressed the serious issues that Americans of that era dealt with every day: The tectonic cultural shifts of racial integration (and the resistance to it), the Equal Rights Amendment, and the emergence of recreational drugs to name just the highlights. While a show like M*A*S*H* purportedly used the Korean war setting as a commentary on America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, that show was a tepid statement on the futility of war as means of problem resolution; it never tackled the most divisive issue of the Vietnam war, the heated and sometimes violent conflict of ideologies that occurred at home in the United States. Its silence on this divisive issue is reflected in its instrumental theme song.

While the lyrical potency of television theme songs has diminished since that epoch, in favor of instrumental themes or words innocuous (“I’ll be there for you”) or inane (“I hear the blues a-calling, tossed salads and scrambled eggs”), there is one oft-heard theme song that has revived the tradition of cultural commentary. But where Archie Bunker’s frustration with Meathead’s generation and James Evans’ frustration with an economy that didn’t offer him steady employment were aimed at audiences who could understand the issues being presented and appreciate the context, this recent example is directed at the youngest American television demographic: the pre-schooler.

The song in question? “Elmo’s World”, which introduces a 20-minute subset of the venerable and seemingly eternal fountain-of-youth-broadcasting known as Sesame Street. Joining us to discuss these controversial lyrics are two experts on children’s television: Representing the left, noted collector and infamous Sesame Street curmudgeon Oscar the Grouch, and from the right, celebrity activist and Muppet’s Show legend Miss Piggy.

Before we begin, let’s remind the audience of the words that make up “Elmo’s World”:

Harmless entertainer or subversive provocateur?

Little Elmo: harmless entertainer or subversive provocateur?

Da da da da , da da da da,
Elmo’s world
Elmo loves his goldfish,
his crayon, too
that’s Elmo’s world

Oscar, we’ll begin with you.

Oscar the Grouch: Thank you, Newsman. It is my privilege to discuss this important topic. What Elmo’s carefree melody belies is a plea for attention to the plight of America’s inner-city neighborhoods. As most people know, Sesame Street was created as a microcosm of America’s urban environment, with the racial and ethnic diversity notably set to “melting pot”.

Just as the show is an analogy for urban America, Elmo’s theme clearly mirrors the concerns facing residents of the real “Sesame Streets” in metropolises like Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore, places where a child’s available assets can, sadly, be contained in a 12-word song. While children of privilege live lives of disposable materialism with video games and cell phones and iPods, children like Elmo have to content themselves with nothing more than a crayon and a dime-store fish. Even the fish is a metaphor for Elmo’s claustrophobic, no-escape environment. That, Newsman, is Elmo’s World.

Miss Piggy: You got all that from 12 words and a few da da da’s? I applaud your interpretive skills, Oscar, but your argument isn’t corroborated by the lyrics of the song. Yes, Sesame Street was designed to reflect America’s urban dynamic, but it’s unfair to dismiss every avenue of urban America as what you call a “no-escape environment.” While I have never lived on Sesame Street, I have many friends who do, and with the possible exception of Snuffleupagus, the people who live there strike me as notably happy.

Oscar: You think I’m happy? I live in a trash can! And with the recent ubiquity of recycling campaigns, that means a daily delivery of egg shells, apple cores and coffee grinds.

The location under discussion

The location under discussion

Miss Piggy: But that’s you, Oscar. I’m sure if “Oscar’s World” had a theme song, it would offer a different, grouchier message. But our furry red friend’s anthem is in fact a paean to self-reliance as only Walt Whitman could have asserted: It is not a lament of his lot, but a celebration of it.

Our culture is in perpetual upheaval, and we no longer have high expectations for our children: Abraham Lincoln famously taught himself math by writing with charcoal on a shovel, yet these days, kids can’t pass a math test without using a calculator; the late 20th century saw the near total demise of imagination in America’s youth, enforced by parents who sought to distract their children so those children would not in turn distract them.

When I young—which wasn’t long ago, by the way—kids could reinvent themselves as space explorers with nothing more than a big cardboard box and a magic marker; today, kids refuse to participate unless they are fully costumed and armed with bazooka-strength water cannons for annihilating the alien enemy. Elmo reminds us that a crayon and an imagination offers us the world. His crayon and the fish are representations of his “half-full” perspective.

Oscar: You sound like the sweat shop owner arguing that paying the workers $1 an hour is generous because it’s $1 more than they’d be making without him. That a child can be creative with a crayon is essential, but what about being creative with a trumpet? What about being creative with a basketball? I was cut from the same cloth as Elmo, I understand his situation: Elmo’s song illuminates the dearth of opportunity available to city youth of all colors, be it red, yellow, or blue.

Miss Piggy: But the world described in the song isn’t Elmo’s world at all: Elmo has a television; Elmo has a computer; Elmo has far more opportunity than the lyrics imply. It’s a typical liberal perspective to think that the all powerful and benevolent government is necessary because one well-publicized character doesn’t have an MP3 player. Frankly, Elmo doesn’t need an MP3 player. Before there was an America, there were the people who would become Americans, who worked hard to raise this nation through its infancy, whose courage and will forged something from nothing. Elmo celebrates this pioneer spirit in his song.

Oscar: They didn’t forge something from nothing—they forged something from their available resources. They chopped wood to keep warm, they planted gardens to feed their families. Elmo doesn’t have access to firewood, he has no land for planting a garden: Elmo doesn’t have resources.

Ironic, really, considering the steady stream of Elmo-related marketing ploys created to line the pockets of corporate America—in this case, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Americans pay millions of dollars for anything stamped with the Elmo brand, from cake pans to toothbrushes to Band-Aids, yet if you follow the trail of money, you’ll find that despite massive corporate revenue, Elmo’s world is unchanged. He doesn’t even get more crayons!

Forgive the easy analogy, but Elmo is little more than a puppet to corporate greed, the proverbial cash-cow that never gets a taste of its own milk. And just as the corporation benefits from Elmo’s labor without proper compensation for his efforts, America profits from the work of the blue-collar urban work force without sharing those profits with the very people who made it possible.

Miss Piggy: Oscar, I think you’re thinking of the theme to Marx’s World. Elmo is not Woody Guthrie, and it’s not accurate to dye him as a proletariat rebel trying to awaken America’s kindergarteners to the financial disparities that inevitably result from a robust capitalist economy. Modern Americans have an oversize sense of entitlement, what I call the Cookie Monster mentality: Consumption for the sake of consumption. Elmo reminds us that happiness comes not from having more, but from doing more with what we have.

Oscar: Elmo reminds me that you are a bourgeois pig!

Miss Piggy: What! Why you little dust mop…Hi-yah!

Newsman: Ladies and gentlemen, um, we will resume this conversation when and if Oscar regains consciousness.

Waldorf: Didn’t Crossfire used to be funny?

Statler: Yeah, but then Pat Buchanan left.

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