'Schoolhouse Rock!' at 50: Those are magic numbers

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'Schoolhouse Rock!' at 50: Those are magic numbers
The educational snippets are the ultimate font of Gen X nostalgia. But what is it we’re nostalgic for?

by James Poniewozik

NEW YORK, NY.- When I was in second grade, my teacher held a contest: The first students to memorize their multiplication tables would get dinner at McDonald’s. I was one of them. I’d like to credit hard work or the motivation of those golden fries, but in truth it was easy. I learned it from “Schoolhouse Rock.”

It was not the last time that watching too much TV would pay off for me, but it was perhaps the sweetest.

If you were an American kid around when I was (nineteen-seventy-cough), you probably have “Schoolhouse Rock” hard-wired into your brain too. The musical shorts, which began airing on ABC in 1973, taught Generation X multiplication, grammar, history and, eventually, nostalgia.

That last lesson stuck best. Winona Ryder and company crooned “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill” in the 1994 generational-statement film “Reality Bites.” De La Soul borrowed “Three Is a Magic Number” as the backbone for their buoyant self-introduction, “The Magic Number,” in 1989. Nostalgia for “Schoolhouse Rock” is now itself old enough to be nostalgic for.

On Wednesday, ABC will tap into that spirit with a prime time “50th Anniversary Singalong,” in which the Black Eyed Peas, the Muppets, Shaquille O’Neal and others will hook up the words, phrases and clauses of the Saturday-morning favorites.

The special promises wholesome family fun, and I can think of worse things to do on a weeknight than musically unpacking my adjectives in the judgment-free zone of my living room. But nostalgia is not just a fun emotion. Like some of the best “Schoolhouse Rock” songs, it carries a note of wistfulness.

In this case, it’s a reminder of a time when network TV gave us a common culture, language and lyrics, before we were sliced into subcultures and demographics. Pre-internet, pre-cable, pre-DVD — pre-VHS, even — “Schoolhouse Rock” convened a classroom of millions for three-minute servings of revolutionary art alongside installments of “The Great Grape Ape Show.”

Like much classic kids’ TV, “Schoolhouse Rock” was brought to you by Madison Avenue. Ad executive David McCall, who noticed that his son could memorize pop songs but struggled with arithmetic, suggested to George Newall, a creative director, and Thomas Yohe, an art director, that they figure out how to set math to music.

As Newell told The New York Times in 1994, they pitched the idea to Michael Eisner, then the director of children’s programming at ABC, who happened to be meeting with legendary Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. “I think you should buy it right away,” Jones said.

Unlike the dutiful news interstitials that vitamin-fortified other Saturday-morning cartoon lineups, “Schoolhouse Rock” harnessed the power of comedy and ear worms. The facts and figures made it educational. But they weren’t what made it art.

That was the animation, psychedelically colorful and chock-full of rapid-fire slapstick gags. Above all, there was the sophisticated music. Jazz composer Bob Dorough wrote the banger-filled first season, “Multiplication Rock,” surveying a range of styles from the duodecimal prog-rock of “Little Twelvetoes” to the spiraling lullaby of “Figure Eight.”

The lyrics were sly and funny but could also detour, like a fidgety schoolkid sitting by the window, into daydreams. The blissful “Three Is a Magic Number” isn’t just a primer on multiples; it’s a rumination on the triad foundations of the universe, from geometry to love. (If your voice does not break singing, “A man and a woman had a little baby,” you’re doing something wrong.)

The following seasons, about grammar, American history and science, added other contributors, including Lynn Ahrens, the future Broadway songwriter thanks to whom an entire generation cannot recite the preamble to the Constitution without breaking into song.

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The words and numbers in “Schoolhouse Rock” were never just words and numbers. Like the early years of “Sesame Street,” the shorts had an anarchic spirit and a pluralistic sensibility. “I Got Six” is a funk explosion whose Afrocentric animation includes a dashiki-ed African prince with six rings on all 10 fingers. “Verb: That’s What’s Happening” — imagine if Curtis Mayfield taught your English class — depicts a Black superhero long before Black Panther made it to the movie screen.

When my kids were school-age, I got the full “Schoolhouse Rock” DVD set for them, which is to say, I got it for me. (You can now stream the ’70s seasons, plus a brief 1980s series about computers and a clunky 1990s revival, “Money Rock,” through Disney+.)

Re-watching the series taught me about a new subject: Time.

The songs are as catchy as ever. But to screen “Schoolhouse Rock” as an adult is to visit a different period in cultural history, and not just because of the bell-bottoms. The America of “Schoolhouse Rock” was divided by Vietnam and Watergate, but it could at least subscribe to basic common facts and civic principles.

Consider Bill, the underdog paper hero of “I’m Just a Bill,” longing to become a law that would keep that cartoon school bus safe at railroad crossings. Now he’s a time traveler, from a pre-Reagan age when government activism, however imperfect, was considered a force for good.

Today, with culture-warring politicians like the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, red-penciling school curriculums, weaponizing pronouns and hammering history teachers for “indoctrination,” the potential land mines add up. “The Great American Melting Pot” did not imagine a future president telling asylum-seekers, “Our country is full.” When “Interjections” depicted a doctor giving a child a shot, it did not anticipate legislators denouncing Big Bird for advocating childhood vaccination.

(Likewise, when “Elementary, My Dear” taught counting by twos with a gospel-style Noah’s Ark song, it didn’t fear repercussions for bringing religion into kids’ TV.)

And that’s before you even get to “Science Rock.” “The Energy Blues” makes a matter-of-fact pitch for conservation that would cause smoke eruptions today. (In 2009, a climate-focused season, “Earth Rock” went straight to DVD.) When “Schoolhouse Rock” showed kids a three-minute video on how the body worked, there was no internet algorithm to suggest a rebuttal by someone who “did his own research.”

That said, I wouldn’t romanticize the “Schoolhouse Rock” era as a paradise of educational consensus. In 1974, the year before the “America Rock” season began, protesters against desegregation in Boston threw rocks at buses carrying Black students. And the series had its own blind spots, which historians and educators have since pointed out.

In particular, “America Rock,” an upbeat celebration of the bicentennial, covers the American Revolution and women’s suffrage but skips over the Civil War and slavery. (The Roots filled in this hole in a 2017 episode of “black-ish” with “I Am a Slave,” about Juneteenth.) “Elbow Room” is a jaunty story of westward expansion from the point of view of white settlers, with little note of who got elbowed out. (One scene shows a settler taking a toy arrow through his hat.) America’s unflattering history didn’t make the cut because mass broadcasting meant not alienating the masses.

But whatever its limits, “Schoolhouse Rock” at least told us we were equal: We counted with the same numbers, our hearts pumped the same blood, we were entitled to the same inalienable rights.

And it operated in a period when people saw the same media and accepted the same facts. Months after its premiere, the Watergate hearings also aired on national TV. They were able eventually to turn even many Republicans against President Richard Nixon, in part because Americans watched the same story together, without a partisan cable and internet ecosystem to spin the investigation as a witch hunt.

It’s tempting to say that you couldn’t make “Schoolhouse Rock” again today. But I’m sure you could, even if it would be slightly different. Current kids’ shows like Netflix’s “We the People” are in a way exactly that. What you couldn’t create again today is the mass audience, or the context in which we assembled, one nation, sitting cross-legged in front of our cathode-ray teacher.

Instead, we have “Schoolhouse Rock” binge-watches and singalongs, which, like all exercises in nostalgia, offer the tantalizing pleasure of stretching to touch yesterday, though we know we can’t. The past is like infinity, a concept that “Schoolhouse Rock” also introduced to my generation. “No one ever gets there,” as “My Hero, Zero” taught us. “But you could try.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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