Village Under the Sea: The Timeline of Cultural Influence that Created SpongeBob SquarePants
Prelude: Originally for this story, I was planning on writing a five-story-long epic that detailed this narrative journey about a lost seaman attempting to rediscover the aesthetic history of SpongeBob SquarePants and where exactly it came from and what it means. But as two years passed on and my energy steadily drained from me, I realized that being too ambitious was a bad thing. So, I instead decided to scale back my ambitions to produce content that people will not only like to consume but something that doesn’t drain my spirits to create. It’s best recommended that you read this in segmented parts to really let it soak in.
I Cannot Reveal the Words of the Golden Eel
I love the album The Mollusk by Ween. Many others love it too, but they only tend to remember one song off of it, that being the single Ocean Man, famously remembered as being the song that played along to the credits of some famous movie from a long-standing cartoon series. The song itself describes a mystical experience in which the narrator is guided by a figure known only as the ‘Ocean Man.’ The narrator constantly asks questions of him, making seemingly meaningless metaphors about how man’s condition relates to the ocean. If you ask the band about it themselves, they’ll probably scoff at you due to how much its demanded to be played at recorded venues like Live in Chicago or Live at Stubb’s.
According to an interview done by Drew Fortune for Stereogum, the track was recorded at a beach house in Jersey Shore during the off-season. It was the rental space that Gene and Dean Ween had rented for the recording sessions of the entire album, of which Ocean Man was recorded in the first two weeks alongside The Mollusk, The Golden Eel, and Mutilated Lips. Why they were there was because Gene and Dean just liked the concept due to how special of a place it was, and likely because it was an attempt at recreating the circumstances that allowed them to write The Pod. Though, that one was born out of mononucleosis from huffing Scotchgard. 
The difficulties were that they had to write this new album without their guitarist Andrew Weiss, but it was merely a necessary step in getting away from his fatherly figure:
We got a Ryder truck and took the stuff down. There were all these nice places, and we found this junky one that we loved. It was a really shitty rental property, as far as beach houses go. But it was right on the end of the island, which is completely deserted in the winter. There are no shops down there or side streets — just the boulevard at the end of an island in Jersey. We got there and didn’t have any idea what we were going to do. We had a friend Greg Frey, who ended up being our manager, set up the equipment, since we didn’t even know how to do that. Then, he just left us there [laughs]. The plan was we would go down on Sunday nights and come home on Thursdays to record. All the equipment was set up, but we didn’t have any material.
The first track Ween had produced for the album was of surprising origin: It was a cover of the English folk song Cold Blows the Wind, which they got the inspiration for from Gene’s songbook of 17th century folk songs. With the only reference being lyrics and some sheet music, they began to write their own chords and tempos for the song in the midst of an atmosphere that seemed to light the perfect spark: “It was raining, dark, and cold. It sounded nautical, scary, folky, and evil. That song was something we had never done before. It set us on this musical path of what was to come.”
In the first two weeks, we recorded there day and night, and drove home listening to the cassettes in the car. In the first two or three trips down to the shore, we pretty much wrote that whole record, or at least the best parts of it. We wrote “The Mollusk,” “Mutilated Lips,” “Ocean Man,” “The Golden Eel,” and “She Wanted To Leave.” Every song reinforced the vibe, but it was a vibe we weren’t looking for. We didn’t know that the environment was going to have such an effect. Each song, beginning with “Cold Blows The Wind,” inspired and reinforced that direction.
Releasing in 1997 after much difficulty, the album was a commercial failure in all regards. Despite it having a unique dark nautical theme with incorporated elements of psychedelia, sea shanties, and progressive rock, its uniqueness wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that it was a marketing blunder. It was only with Stephen Hillenburg choosing to feature their work at the end of the SpongeBob’s film debut did this album receive some long overdue praise for managing to capture its vibe perfectly.
Speaking of tying together vibes, the cover art is arguably the most important part of selling what it was all about, and for that, Ween contacted Storm Thorgerson of all the Pink Floyd records for a commission. Elektra coughed up the money despite Thorgerson not even knowing that Ween existed. Over time though, he became greatly interested in the album, so much so that he broke away from delegating the labor to others at the time just to ensure every call was from him. He amended his contract to say, “I want to do everything, and I won’t charge anymore. I want to do every poster, every ad, any promo CD, single, picture discs, whatever.”
Thorgerson designed the iconic album art, which consisted of an amalgamation of sea creatures to create this leviathan of sorts. In the process, he went to an aquarium and took bizarre photos, creating concept art by either drawing or painting them. Now, it cannot be understated just how much this album revitalized Thorgerson. While touring in England, he said to Ween “You guys are the band. You’re the rightful heirs to Floyd and Zeppelin.” His assistant elaborated to them: “You’ve got to understand. He hasn’t seen a show in fucking years. He thinks everything is shit.” This is how they knew something artistically special was in their hands.
While every other track either has a story or uninteresting process behind its creation, like Golden Eel coming from the band watching Gene’s roommate’s pet eel while on shrooms, Ocean Man is described in a very different way:
Aaron (Gene) had a mandolin, he was always playing it, and we discounted it. There wasn’t much to it, but when we wrote the lyrics, it was just magic, man. Everything just fell into place.
What exactly was that magic that they experienced? Well, it’s not that important to answer why, as I’ve tried to do so before often to the detriment of my psyche, but I think I have some clues. Whatever magic they experienced, it feels as if transferred onto me whenever I thought about marine life. You see, ever since I was a child, I always had this unexplainable fascination with marine biology despite never living near an ocean. This was an obsession to the point where I convinced my mom to, instead of telling about her job at career day in kindergarten, I instead made her teach about sharks by my request. As I grew out of these childhood interests, this fascination with marine life was suppressed. It only peeked through with an occasional spiral while surfing the Internet—one caused by my attention disorder.
Another weird fascination of mine despite having no relation to it is that of maritime folk music, particularly sea shanties: Work songs to accompany rhythmical labor among sailing vessels. This interest in my life didn’t develop until much later into my teens where I found a unique sentimentality to them. If one wanted to be analytical, you could say it was sought to provide historical connection between the long time of suffering and anxiousness I experienced then in high school to that which 17th-century sailors did during great voyages. However, I’d prefer to say it was just because my sister asked me to check out various Celtic punk bands and the rest was history: Unsurprising amount of overlap there.
Despite all of these interests in maritime knowledge in my childhood with no relation to my life, the one facet of it that was intimate to me, was that of The Mollusk, which allotted itself perfectly between the two aforementioned stages of my, uh, nautical inclination. It was the first album of Ween’s I had heard, and it spoke to me as someone already trying to find the alternative through music. I was becoming fearful over the realization I could only afford to push the edge in one area, and unknowingly, this album was the one I let my guard down to out of their discography.
Coincidentally, this was a record where Ween also had to let down a persona of confidence. Prior to this, “Gene and Dean were that college band of kooky best friends who didn’t really knew what they wanted to be, so instead they just played every style and genre, and that comradery and jestering shined through.” To them, that confidence to bend any genre meant there was “no such thing as taking a risk to them; instead they loved to take the piss.” However, my favorite record demanded an effort where the piss needed less taking and more honing. Ween’s repertoire of musical knowledge had to be focused into a single concept that showcased their sublime diversity. 
It’s because of these decisions to pursue something truly standout did this album leave many impressions within me: Like, what is the creature on the cover from Thorgerson’s imagination supposed to be? A friendly version of Cthulhu, perhaps? The mystical evocation of it as ‘the Mollusk’ alongside other scraps of religious subtext direct towards some desire of emergent surrealism. If it’s not that, then it’s the tradition of rejecting traditional voice to use “sock puppet-like characters [that] feed into the adorably childish comedy of the record.” Throughout, there’s a stark contrast between the erratic whaling of the heavy chords and psychedelic filters and the heartfelt moments of emotional clemency like in It’s Gonna Be Alright or the progenitor Cold Blows the Wind. As a band, Ween is telling you through this record that they’re earnest despite what their history has lead you to believe about their artistic character.
Now… for that magic I dwelt on earlier — the same magic that conjured Ocean Man into existence. I believe that a Hegelian force was encouraging the forging of this album, one concerned with reaching a specific condition of securing a cultural catalyst to uncovering a greater environmental arc. Centuries of colonial nautical culture had influenced Ween in that moment to devise this album, all stemming from the decision to use Gene’s book and Dean’s decision as reference. But the culture it was made in was one that had notable modern influences on it from people and forces that changed the way we looked at the ocean and its psychedelia forever.
The ’90s was defined by many different things. What about it that primarily influenced Ween was likely all the drugs, MTV, pizza, and grunge. What seems like an incredibly irrelevant influence was that of the environmentalist movement. But yes, it was the decade of Greenpeace giving Shell a taste of their own medicine, republicans beginning their rampant attacks against green energy, oncoming science detailing grimmer predictions for the future. But most symbolically however, on December 11, 1997, was the Kyoto Protocol: American industry predicts “disaster” if CO2 reductions are enforced, but environmentalists are dissatisfied with weak goals of the treaty. Long before the discourse over the Paris Climate Accord, and when the stakes seemed much less higher, this was the performative commitment to address the persistent issue of climate change.
I’m not gonna sit here and preach that it was climate anxiety that secretly fueled all art during this time, but rather I’ll preach that it was the much earlier anxieties of older scientists that set a legacy that could’ve allowed for this exact type of art to develop. It’s much different.
The Life Aquatic with Stephen Zissou
For a second, think about how the ‘Western’ world, or perhaps more broadly, the Old World, has historically perceived the ocean. What was the primary purpose of the ocean to most great civilizations’ operation? Well, starting all the way from Thales and his wacky theories of the Earth floating on water and water itself being the element and first principle of all existing things, Heraclitus later expanded on his ideas with the principle of panta rhei, describing that the cosmos is engaged in a permanent water cycle: “earth becomes water, water becomes earth, and in this permanent transition and change, everything is in fact one.” Thales’ and Heraclitus’ world reflected that of the sea: One that never stands still and is indestructible and giving away to the idea that no same instance is the same. In this way, the ocean was literally dynamic land that always remade itself. 
The ocean must therefore be regarded as the “other”, something that is not terra firma and something that is always to some degree unknowable. […] Maps and planning documents suggest a false sense of the static, obscuring the continuous movement of the water that makes it impossible to truly locate a point in the ocean as a permanent material place. Returning to Heraclitus at this point, the ocean is constant flux — requiring us to re-think conceptions of ocean space in terms of both geophysical and social processes.
Fast forward to the Medieval period, rising populations demanded great changes to many established fisheries that radically changed European aquatic environments. “Many fisheries met the demand for food by economic reorientation from subsistence to artisanal and then even fully commercial purposes. Exploitation slowly shifted from limited or deteriorating local inland and inshore fish populations to frontier, commonly marine, and increasingly pelagic resources.” This was the beginning of an approach to the sea that concerned primarily one thing: Commerce. Major cities all over the continent saw intense maritime activity and a growing aristocracy of tradesmen spoiled by their wealth, lifting their chins from their palaces overlooking the sea. However, this is in contradiction to how many assume Medieval peoples thought of the seas. 
The stereotypical view of medieval geophilosophy was the image of a king sat on his throne as a display of his earthly power, defending against the aquatic outside and its threat of disruption. A natural consequence of this being the mystification of the oceans: Horrifying stories of monsters that lurk within the mysterious depths blossomed superstition and further contributed to inspiring Renaissance thinkers to label the times as a moody. Medieval lordship conjures images of fields and architectural beauty complemented by the land around it: “[Medieval] polities are based on fertile inland plains, centrally placed crossroads, agrarian and mineral resource extraction.”
Truth is, comical defensiveness applied just as much to aquatic settlement as inland. This is justified however as these times were also the rise of seaborne violence, which is something it’s inextricably linked to. Not only was the factor of physical geography influential in urban center formation, the threat of maritime violence was another major factor. But what was the cause of all this violence? It’s the main thing that’ll define the ‘Western’ attitude towards the seas from here on out: Commerce. In short, holding power over the seas depended on a strong military fleet able to secure and maintain a polity’s maritime trading interests to the detriment of competitors.
Forwarding even more into the 1600s, a question arose about what can be localized in the sea: The murky transition period between medieval societal growth, maritime trade, and maritime domination culminate in a clearer link to modern attitudes at this point. Questions became less about hypothesizing what the ocean meant to a people so dumbfounded by it and more about how it should be divided amongst those who claimed it. “Exploration had become common at the time and mainly served the acquisition of property, both in terms of tradable goods such as spices and in terms of territory which was colonized and appropriated by subjugating the indigenous peoples.” The ocean proved quite a surmountable issue to the principles of property types, with many thinkers of this time claiming that it was common property.
Grotius argued that ownership of the sea was, not just impossible, but also immoral. He argued that it was the fundamental right of all private individuals to acquire goods and protect them so long as they didn’t violate the freedom of another to possess legitimate goods: Something he tied to the boundless nature of the sea. The broader implications of his arguments were that, because of it being fluid, it couldn’t be possessed like it was demarcated as an object and subsequently a property. “The sea ‘wants’ to serve everyone, and it can do just that because it is apparently inexhaustible and not used up by any particular activities or — at the time of Grotius at least — not damaged by human use.” It’s these arguments of ownership that laid the backdrop for the entirety of colonialism up until the modern period.
(…) the question at issue is the outer sea, the ocean that expanse of water which antiquity describes as the immense, the infinite, bounded only by the heavens, parent of all things; the ocean which the ancients believed was perpetually supplied with water not only by fountains, rivers, and seas, but by the clouds, and by the very stars of heaven themselves; the ocean which, although surrounding this earth, the home of the human race, with the ebb and flow of its tides, can be neither seized nor inclosed; nay, which rather possesses the earth than is by it possessed. (ibid.)
At modernity’s dawn, an existential proposition was met: After centuries of indirect debate over what could be reasonably possessed regarding the ocean, many skeptics started to wonder just how much this linear attitude of ownership really translates to real-world possession. In a claim of ownership over the sea, what a polity is claiming is a very, very small portion of the substantiality of it. After all, the only relevant space laid claim to is the brisk surface that touches the air, and even further than that, it’s primarily the filtered routes that proved to be the most optimal paths for shipping. The reality that the oceans contain far more than the use they’re designated for by empire was something that only had to be explored by 19th century naturalists intrigued enough to understand the world that was culturally locked off.
Progress-wise, vast amounts of knowledge were spearheaded by many lesser known scientists, but accredited is Charles Darwin on his voyages of the HMS Beagle where he came up with his theory of evolution and formation of coral reefs. A lesser known expedition but one just as important was undertaken by the HMS Challenger — the findings of creating new trends of theorizing on how so many varieties of life could’ve emerged in environments previously thought hostile. Despite immense progress, it was still largely held back because of the lack of technologies that’d allow for explorations of the depths previously thought unapproachable by any man.
While marine laboratories popped up in France and the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the subject of marine biology was still held back by an inability to become intimate with its subject. Diving suits had existed for centuries, but they were primarily used for cleaning and maintenance on vessels: One wasn’t expected to dive to see the biology but rather remove it if it stood in the way of the ship. Submarines — the perfect vessel to perform scientific investigation — were overwhelmingly used for warfare, with civilian adoption not being seen until the mid-20th century. Not to mention the naked issue of it being an exclusive academic practice. I mean, they didn’t just give out the little specialized equipment they had to anyone!
All of this would radically change in the early mid-20th century when a Frenchman, who lost the opportunity to graduate from the École navale, started pursuing his passion for the ocean in a different, more radical direction. Jacques-Yves Cousteau started experimenting with the idea of accessible underwater diving equipment for recreational use while he was serving on the Condorcet, a semi-dreadnought battleship used in WWI. It was the years of the Great Wars that were decisive for the practice of diving.
Taking refuge in Megève following the armistice of 1940, Cousteau befriended his neighbor Marcel Ichac who conveniently shared a similar desire to his, which was to reveal to the general populace places that were historically considered unknown and inaccessible: For Ichac, it was the peaks of the mountains, and for Cousteau, it was the depths of the oceans. In this mutual recognition, the two (with the help of Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas) produced the first French underwater film: Par dix-huit mètres de fond (18 meters deep). This was the first step that separated Cousteau from every marine biologist that preceded him, as he was obsessed with not only the science but showcasing it to the world. Film was the medium in which he attempted to showcase this ‘alien’ world, so the dramatization was inherent and nearly unashamed in the future sentiment it would foster in environmentalism.
Speaking of it, that facet of his politics wasn’t just for theatrical display: In October 1960, the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA) was planning on dumping a large amount of radioactive waste into the Mediterranean Sea, arguing that oceanographers such as Vsevelod Romansky had recommended it. However, this was repudiated for the disingenuous bullshit it was by a team of French scientists, including Cousteau. “The CEA claimed that there was little circulation (and hence little need for concern) at the dump site between Nice and Corsica, but French public opinion sided with the oceanographers rather than with the CEA atomic energy scientists. […] Cousteau organized a publicity campaign which in less than two weeks gained wide popular support. The train carrying the waste was stopped by women and children sitting on the railway tracks, and it was sent back to its origin.” 
As much as he was a conservationist, he was also an innovator credited for co-designing the technology known as the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) and therefore the innovation of modern underwater diving. Originally based off the primitive design of the régulateur by Benoît Rouquayrol, Cousteau, along with Émile Gagnan, founded La Spirotechnique as a vision of the industrial gas company Air Liquide to mass-produce the technology, when it was known as Aqua-Lung. In cooperation with engineer Jean Mollard, Cousteau developed the famous submarine SP-350 Denise, which was a submarine designed for exploration rather than the long legacy of combat they’ve developed a name for. Its legacy would prove to be one of recognizing the validity submarine technology had for scientific (and eventually, civilian) inquiry, allowing researches to become ever more intimate with their subject. What the ultimate goal of these two innovations was was to disenchant people from the familiar world that defined the sea only as a chasm to be crossed, and any oddities were an advantage to whoever could claim them. In a step back in evolution, man could return to the sea from where it evolved with science as its guiding spirit.
Cousteau produced many films over his lifetime, but the two most relevant ones here are that of Épaves (Shipwrecks) in 1943 and Le Monde sans soleil (World Without Sun) in 1964. Épaves marked the debut of the very first Aqua-Lung prototypes, but it also marked a notable amateur period of his films in which he’d had to buy hundreds of small camera film reels of the same width as standard film and cemented them together to make long reels. Contrasting, World Without Sun showed a mark improvement in his film-making ability (largely but receiving a reward for Best Documentary) but also in that it detailed the developments of an intricate plan to connect man with the ocean beyond close observation.
World Without Sun has a plot that revolves around chronicling the attempt of Continental Shelf Station Two to create an environment where humans could live and work on the seafloor. Intentionally, it was funded in part by the petrochemical industry to demonstrate the practicality of exploiting the ocean via underwater habitat as bases of operation. This direction disgusted Cousteau, who instead pointed the documentary towards conservation. “The lyrical and dramatic underwater sequences also likely contributed to the beginning of an era of ocean conservation as well as incidentally promoting sport diving. Memorable sequences involve men cavorting with fishes, an underwater chess game, and the diving saucer reaching depths of 300 meters, encountering new and unique forms of life.” 
This video, that is a snippet from BBC’s Oceans series, features Cousteau’s grandson exploring what remains of the Continental Shelf some forty years later: He’s in awe at reliving the memories of the men who built their lives around these expeditions. Throughout the video, Cousteau posthumously remarks about the idea of a ‘village under the sea.’ Literally, this refers to the attempts to expand humanity’s presence to the new frontier of the sea, but in another sense, this also refers to the life already living there: The schools of fish swimming hypnotically, the hermit crabs crawling along the sandy floor, the mussels drifting idly by the currents, and the larger fish swallowing their prey. What Cousteau was appealing to was something far more than a pedagogical expansion, but rather a recognition of the mutual cohabitation of all life on Earth. To end off, I’ll leave the transcription of the poetry Phillipe Cousteau reads from:
I will always remember that day on July 1963 when you joined the Continental Shelf Two expedition along the Shaab Rumi reef in the Red Sea. The sun was setting, but I would not give you time to relax; I was too impatient to show you our village under the sea. Hastily, we both donned our Aqua-Lungs and slowly, sensually we submerged into the welcoming water — as warm as our blood. We started for an unforgettable stroll with slow strokes of our long, stretched legs and breathing deep lungfuls of air. […] Twilight was turning to sheer darkness, and as our structures became shadows, the fish were just moving pieces of the sea. I was still holding your hand when we returned to the ladder. I felt strangely proud, not of what we had achieved, but because our dreams were always shared so intimately. I saw your shining face proud to have something to give back to me, and I smiled, because I knew that pursuing rainbows in your plane, you would always seek after the vanishing shapes of a better world.
The impact that Cousteau had on changing the way an entire generation thought about marine biology and what relationship humans had with it cannot be understated. His along with the collective efforts of so many unnamed others are what contributed to reconsidering exactly how ‘Western’ society has philosophized about the oceans and what purpose they serve to humanity, if any. Prior to modernity, the oceans were known as the board in which ‘civilized’ men projected their hubris to claim entire chunks of the world in the name of their polity. While the seas contained entire worlds beneath the surface, the surface contains the memories of so many crimes committed in the name of commerce: Colonialism, slavery, war…
If any creatures of the depths were acknowledged, it was purely to slaughter them in the name of the profit-motive, and their interactions with man were mythologized as epic struggles between primitive industrial technologies and the might of Mother Nature. The language of property determined exactly what value creatures near fisheries had towards the people. Most civilian studies of marine habitat was passively observed and served the needs of ever-increasing scales of production. Ancient life was referred to in terms of profit, obstacle, and exploitation. The issue was exactly how to portray this as the tragedy it was through the language of film to an audience that has been violently conditioned to view the sea as nothing more than a burden that either stood in the way of empire or, in the worst cases, was scaled and turned into an object that could be removed.
Most people, by virtue of their species and through no fault of their own, became so adjusted to land that they almost forgot how much older and familiar to Earth that marine life is than terrestrial. If legends were made about what lived underwater, it was anthropocentric: Always about which human civilizations succumbed to the fate of being lost down below. However, Cousteau’s approach was radically different, especially in his metaphor of the ‘village under the sea.’ Cousteau believed that the seas weren’t a place where doomed civilizations were bound to end but rather the progenitors for the civilizations we see today. It was this clever narrativizing of evolution that provided the dramatic backdrop he needed for his films to punch through.
In a sense, what Cousteau was doing was less archaeology and more like social studies, albeit studying societies that are far older than ours. And poetically, Cousteau’s descendants performed modern undersea archaeology to discover a civilization that didn’t slide underwater as it collapsed but rather built its foundations there.
Because he was a showman, the science Cousteau operated with had to take on this characteristic, and this created the method of reporting scientific data known as ‘divulgationism.’ If that doesn’t sound familiar to you, you might know it by another name: Popular science. And the primary medium through which popular science was able to manifest itself to others was that of the documentary. “[A]mong their many authors and protagonists, there is a trio of aces who have reigned in their respective domains: if Carl Sagan showed us the cosmos and David Attenborough has taken us to distant lands, the silent world that lies beneath the surface of the oceans was revealed to us by the one who preceded them all, Jacques-Ives Cousteau.” 
The language spoken was that of the nature documentary, something which couldn’t reach most television sets back in 1956, but that didn’t stop Le monde du silence earning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It would take several decades before another documentary film won the award in 2004. Put simply: If the printing press was the medium through which theology was brought to the public, then the documentary and television was the medium through which science was brought to the public.
Cutting edge science provided an incredible amount of knowledge for the ‘Western’ world to take another step towards understanding our relationship with the oceans. But the issue that befell the tactic was the absurd idea that one man could act as a spokesperson for an entire scientific community. It was a task that Cousteau seemingly handled well with the sheer number of expeditions he took on and documentaries he produced, but some troubling secrets were revealed about his life posthumously. During WWII, Cousteau had spied on the Italians, but not for the French Resistance, but rather for the government of Vichy France. One may excuse this as just him covering his ass, but he also showed his first documentary to Nazi leaders in Paris. From this, it seems he was more than complicit in being an asset for fascist propagation.
Militarism could never escape Cousteau’s life entirely from when it accidentally spurred him to pursue marine biology to working for the Nazis, but it also defined his life in the context of what contrasted the goals of his expeditions. Living underwater was more than just entertaining a dream, as it was also a plea for humankind to turn its current focus away from the ongoing Space Race and instead towards the wonders of its own planet it was neglecting. Much like conscious reflection, Cousteau, with his films, urged people to turn inwards to ponder curiously about the old frontier than to distract ourselves with a political boxing match over which modern empire could be the first into space. Ironic it is then that so many use the adjective ‘alien’ to describe marine life in this wake considering how much more ancient it is than any ape that walked the Earth.
In truth, we are the aliens to the village under the sea, using our TVs to gaze at men on a lifeless moon than the life we’ve been marginalizing to further depths for so long.
The Killing of a Caviar Dish
On August 21, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma, a child by the name of Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born to a father who was a draftsman and designer in the aerospace industry and a mother who taught visually impaired students. Fortunately, Stephen had no recollection of his life in Oklahoma, mostly remembering growing up in Anaheim, California. At a young age, Stephen developed a great interest in art that started off with his first drawing of an orange slice (yes, really), and it’s speculated that this creative skill and artistry came from his mother’s side: She was “really, really gifted and great painter” according to Stephen several decades later. But more on that side of him later. 
In his teen years, Stephen attended Savanna High School in Anaheim and embodied the archetype of a ‘band geek’. Regardless of how sad that sounded, the truly interesting part was that he took part in a diving program at Woods Coves in Laguna Beach as part of an ROCP at his high school. Perhaps he pursued this as an extension of his equally weird fascination with exploring tide pools and bringing home objects that eventually died because of being displaced from their natural habitat. In connecting the chain, his years of diving reinforced his fascination with the ocean and launched him on the trajectory of being a marine biologist.
Continuing along the grueling train of formal education, Hillenburg (and because he’s now at the age where it’s appropriate to refer to him by his surname, I’ll continue to do so) enrolled in college at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California under a marine-science major. Skipping by all of the technical details of earning a B.A., he graduated and started pursuing various jobs in the ’80s. First was a park service attendant in Utah and then an art director in San Francisco. The job he actually wanted was secured, which was teaching children at the Orange County Marine Institute about marine biology. “We taught tide-pool ecology, nautical history, diversity and adaptation. Working there, I saw how enamored kids are with undersea life, especially with tide-pool creatures.”
Some time while he was working there, one of the educational directors, recognizing Hillenburg’s artistic talents, asked him if he would be interested in creating an educational comic about “the animal life of tidal pools.” Hillenburg took the opportunity and created a comic called The Intertidal Zone, which notably took inspiration from underground comics in the same vein as the edginess of MAD Magazine. Interestingly, his teachers always told him that he could draw fish for a living — like those kitschy office paintings made to give you some visual stimulation — but he promptly rejected this as a limitation on his creative abilities. In his words, he wanted to draw “weird, little paintings.”
Oh, I guess I should mention that Hillenburg was practicing his artistic streak all throughout his academics and graduate career, and this dwindled on his mind to the point where he realized during his work at the Ocean Institute that art was his preferred calling over teaching marine biology. “Initially I think I assumed that if I went to school for art I would never have any way of making a living, so I thought it might be smarter to keep art my passion and hobby and study something else. But by the time I got to the end of my undergrad work, I realized I should be in art.” When the ’70s were still hot, Hillenburg was taken to the International Tournée of Animation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he was floored by foreign animated films, particularly abstract European animation projects like the Dutch The Killing of an Egg by Paul Driessen.
More relevant to his life, Hillenburg also attended the Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation where he saw various films by students of the California Institute of Arts (CalArts), which would end up inspiring him to enroll in the school’s experimental animation program in 1989. He studied under the founding director of the program, Jules Engel, who was equally a fantastic teacher (according to Hillenburg) as he was a legendary animator. If you don’t recognize his name, than you might recognize his work on Disney’s Fantasia. Although, what Engel would consider his pivotal work was rather his strides with abstraction that really showcased what animation could accomplish as a medium. Engel accepted him based on what he saw on Intertidal Zone and also a shared connection with both of them being painters.
I was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. Jules Engel had a lot of fun meeting his new students on our very first day in the Experimental Animation department. He would ask the Experimental Animation students to identify themselves out of all the film and video students. He would then announce, I love you! to us all as a way of introducing himself. He was very affectionate with his students and charmed our visiting parents too, so much so that when my mother read his obituary in the South Carolina State newspaper, she called to say, Your friend, that cute little man that liked you, Jules Engel, died. 
— Helen Hill, filmmaker and animation teacher
Hillenburg graduated in 1992 with a Master of Fine Arts in experimental animation, and with that, he showcased his first animated works, The Green Beret (1991) and Wormholes (1992). While Green Beret was a very grotesque film about a physically challenged Girl Scout with enormous fists who destroyed houses and whole neighborhoods while trying to sell cookies, Wormholes was something with a lot more dignity and less edginess. Its subject matter was about the theory of relativity, in which Hillenburg described it as “a poetic animated film based on relativistic phenomena.” “He described the latter as ‘a poetic animated film based on relativistic phenomena’ in his grant proposal in 1991 to the Princess Grace Foundation.” Thankfully, the foundation did agree to fund Hillenburg’s project, providing him with a Graduate Film Scholarship. With that, Wormholes was shown at several animation film festivals.
If I want to make some commentary, Wormholes indirectly displays a lot of Hillenburg’s fascination with marine biology even if it was never literally stated as the theme: Buildings rose from a flat, horizonless ground akin to how hydrothermal vents sprout up from the crushing depths of the ocean’s bottom; their silhouettes eerily resembling natural gas plants in some low-lying areas of North America. Lifeforms present in the film are just as alien as the architecture, performing the same actions as any other living thing but in such unorthodox ways that provide a sense of how mundane surrealism is in Hillenburg’s world. Yet, these oddities are contrasted with the mundane constant of the subject driving his car, but are then broken up by incomprehensible squiggles of mathematical equations clouding up the screen, all referring back to the multi-eyed fly who serves as both a point of strangeness and a point of sobriety. My takeaway is that Hillenburg clearly wants us transported into another world here: One that is simultaneously alien yet intimate, and it’s all through the pod of familiarity (the car).
Making beautiful art and putting it on display at festivals is great and all, but that’s no way to sustain any livelihood, so Hillenburg had to pursue a professional job. But who was hiring? Let me introduce you to this little known television network called Nickelodeon. Originally, it was first tested in 1977 as part of QUBE, an experimental multi-programmed cable television system that played a huge role in interactive television (in layman’s terms: Cable). It launched in April of 1979 with a show called Pinwheel as its inaugural program. Things ran smoothly until QUBE’s owner, the now defunct Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, sold it alongside sister networks to Viacom in 1986. The relevant part of the program for us didn’t occur until, in its streak of introducing sister channels, Nickelodeon introduced the flagship brand Nicktoons in August 1991. The problem here is apparent: If you’re running a network for animated shows, you need animators with passionate ideas.
Now, for some historical context, cartoons were usually segmented as part of a regular television schedule within Saturday morning time slots. This was a tight, tight window and it caused fierce competition among broadcast networks battling for underage viewers. The introduction of Nicktoons fundamentally changed this in the ’90s, as corporates now allowed for entire broadcast networks to be dedicated just to cartoons: The demand for animators and potential projects soared. This wasn’t just a monopoly either, as Warner Bros. was offering a solely cartoon-based network of their own that would later come to be known as Cartoon Network (CN) in 1992. When Millennials reminisce on how this was the ‘golden age’ of cartoons, these market forces, that provided a brief window where innovation was considered profitable, are what they’re referring to.
As for what the appeal of each network was, Nicktoons wanted to appeal to contemporary youth culture more while Cartoon Network largely relied on nostalgia, and the former had origins in mixed media while the latter was strictly homogeneous. To put it in even more cryptic language: Nicktoons was the Sega to Cartoon Network’s Nintendo. While the latter appealed to archival of the cartoons of yore, Nickelodeon went the other direction and embraced being on the cutting edge of cultural relevance. But the issue with wanting to appeal to the new upfront is that everything you bank on also has to take its time to develop and come out, so for awhile, Nicktoons relied on importing foreign cartoons for most of its programming block.
Geraldine Laybourne, the channel’s then-president, greenlit three pitches for full series that’d make up original programming in 1991: Jim Jinkins’ Doug, John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy Show, and Arlene Klasky’s Rugrats. Two years later is when Hillenburg plays his part. His first professional job was a director for the show Rocko’s Modern Life, which was originally created by Joe Murray as Nickelodeon’s first in-house animated production. Now, Murray is a familiar figure in Hillenburg’s life, as they crossed paths at the 1992 Ottawa International Animation Festival, where Hillenburg’s Wormholes and Murray’s My Dog Zero were both in competition. Murray was searching for people to help direct his animation project for Nicktoons at the time, and his impression of Hillenburg’s work made him offer the role of director to him.
“He was planning on being a starving artist”: “[I spent] several thousand dollars to make a film and [realized] I may not make it back — I had loans out. Fortunately, Joe Murray saw my film … and he took a huge chance.” Considering this, and if I had to describe what working on that series taught Hillenburg, it’d be a great deal of writing and producing animation for TV. But what directive lessons did it teach him? Well, the show’s contents were jarring, what with it being a show about an anthropomorphic Australian wallaby named Rocko and his friends consisting of a steer, a neurotic turtle, and his faithful dog Spunky (who was inspired by My Dog Zero).
But it makes sense, as Murray consistently expressed the idea that his show had to reject formulaic writing and break into new ground: Things that “rode the edge.” This inspired him to hire writers who worked outside of animation, usually improv actors and comic artists. Other key points of Rocko’s Modern Life were that the writers explicitly targeted both children and adults as a way of breaking the societal attitude of cartoons being just for children. Murray thought there was an appeal in them for adults, and he was directly proven by the fact that adults have been creating cartoons since they became a thing (duh). It was this that created a constant battle between artistic vision and what the censors caught on to. That hostility against them started since the inception though, in which Murray was skeptical of Nickelodeon’s invitation since all he saw were reruns of Inspector Gadget and Strawberry Shortcake: Not the most challenging media in his opinion; “the same thing” as he’d say.
Anti-authoritarianism was the word that defined the creation process of Rocko’s Modern Life and what about it that influenced practically everyone who worked on it, including Hillenburg. So hostile was Murray towards Nickelodeon that he and his staff didn’t work at the company itself but rather in offices in Studio City. He even wrote into his contract that no company representatives could visit unannounced, and kept a quote by Hunter S. Thompson that expressed the anti-authority spirit of the whole operation tacked up on his wall: “The TV business is … a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.” Only in Nickelodeon’s desperation for new content was he allowed to get away with these demands. The atmosphere was described as “controlled anarchy” by the show’s main writer Martin Olson: Shenanigans consisted of writer Dan Povenmire making edits by flinging a letter opener over his back at the storyboard to the voice actors improvising lewdly at length, and fake executive memos being distributed that mocked feedback from Nickelodeon execs. 
Interestingly, Murray also looked to wildlife for inspiration like Hillenburg, although his was short-lived and defined by a momentary trip to the zoo where he saw a wallaby. He identified with how oblivious it was to the atmosphere of craziness around it. “Murray thought. In that nonplussed marsupial, doing its best to stay calm in trying circumstances, Murray recognized a kindred spirit — an analogy for his own struggles coping with adulthood.” That’s the ultimate takeaway that the show had for Hillenburg though: The tragedy in Murray’s own life, caused by his wife’s suicide, intertwined with the mania of his art. “For a time, he thought the suicide was a direct result of the show getting picked up and his career taking off.” It was this spirit that the show drove itself forward: Murray was the protagonist who set the tone for the whole comedy like his beloved Rocko character. It was his resilience, libertarianism, and charisma are what led to the blossoming of a creative studio that would go on to define an entire decade. To understand what it meant for the people watching it, I’ll leave these words:
“Rocko was about what children were actually going through, in essence: emerging into a very scary world, because the world is fucking scary.”
— Martin Olson
Snapping back to Hillenburg’s role in the project, it was early on that the aforementioned Martin Olson encouraged him to create a television series based on the work he’d produced on Intertidal Zone. But this proposition scared him after years of witnessing Murray lose himself over the problems and demands of his own show. The ideas stewing in Hillenburg’s mind were still just seeds that were originally planted when he saw series such as Mighty Mouse and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and he’d admit later on that it takes years for that spark of inspiration to result in something meaningful. For Hillenburg, a show like Olson suggested would require synthesizing his two interests of animation and marine biology, something that was especially enticing to him at the time considering the residual anxiety left over from suddenly changing careers. What finally convinced him to create this series was a drive to the beach on the Santa Monica Freeway one day. I think something called him.
All of the direct influences on his knowledge from working on Rocko’s Modern Life had prepared him for how he wanted to approach this project. Getting the animal theme out of the way, Hillenburg chose directly from his life experience of teaching marine biology: It was destined to set underwater with a focus on the creatures he once made a living teaching about. “I wanted to create a small town underwater where the characters were more like us than like fish. They have fire. They take walks. They drive. They have pets and holidays.” This fit in line with the idea that the show had to be both fantastic yet believable: There had to be an anchor of recognition to prevent disbelief from drowning out the audience.
The second element was the desire to break new ground, and for Hillenburg, that required changing the buddy comedy mold that had dominated Nickelodeon’s early lineup, especially in jaded shows like Ren & Stimpy. Like the show he worked on previously, the dynamic of this new show revolved around a centralized protagonist who set the tone for every other character in the show. When choosing animals, unlike Murray, Hillenburg focused on creatures that represented what he liked rather than what represented him. He wound up choosing a sea sponge, as he considered it a funny animal to fit an equally funny show. As for what his character should be, — what Hillenburg liked — he modeled him after childlike figures that created a sense of earnestness and curiosity in their performances. The final touches were aesthetic: This sea sponge was modeled after a kitchen sponge because it suited a “nerdy, squeaky clean oddball” that Hillenburg was looking for. More deeply, it was something so typically thought of for a single, unsightly purpose, that it was perfect for a protagonist who’d open their eyes wide and optimistically to the world.
For such a square character, he had to have an equally square name: Not exactly the name of an everyman but the name of someone who doesn’t define themselves by their own weight. That name ended up being Robert, err, Bob for short. While Rocko’s Modern Life was the product of a cynical person attempting to find calm in the chaos that encircled their life, Hillenburg’s idea was putting innocence and sincerity at the crux of his production. And it’s this same attitude he donned when he pitched the show to Nickelodeon: He wore a Hawaiian shirt, an aquarium with models of the characters, and played surf music to set the theme.
Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the U.S. Empire?
The history that follows is self-evident and not really worth explaining: Hillenburg’s pitch gets accepted, he develops it as Nickelodeon’s first original Saturday-morning cartoon (in a betrayal of their market share), and it becomes an immediate hit. It reaches such levels of popularity that it becomes a worldwide phenomenon and, by the end of 2001, it boasted the highest ratings of any children’s series on television. Later on, Hillenburg avoided jumping the shark on directing the show after the third season and that movie (if you recall), and he remained away from it until new movie productions called his name. For critical response, let’s see how some old reviews received Hillenburg’s direction:
“[SpongeBob is] the anti-Bart Simpson, temperamentally and physically: his head is as squared-off and neat as Bart’s is unruly, and he has a personality to match — conscientious, optimistic and blind to the faults in the world and those around him.”
— James Poniewozik, Time magazine 
[SpongeBob SquarePants] is clever without being impenetrable to young viewers and goofy without boring grown-ups to tears. It’s the most charming toon on television, and one of the weirdest. … Like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, SpongeBob joyfully dances on the fine line between childhood and adulthood, guilelessness and camp, the warped and the sweet. 
— Joyce Millman, New York Times
Now seems like the perfect time to ditch Hillenburg and talk about his work all on its own merits, but we shouldn’t let go of him just yet. What I’m getting at here is crucial for continually acknowledging his contribution and background. This is art criticism, dammit! While on the topic of criticism, the way in which Hillenburg chose to pitch the show to Nickelodeon higher-ups has a lot more going for it than initially assumed. It seems straightforward: A show that takes place in an aquatic environment uses stereotypical items associated with that theme to sell itself. But these are, in actuality, the cultural foundations that inspired the legendary art direction of the show that, I personally think, is criminally overlooked.
Let me get this out of the way: SpongeBob SquarePants is fundamentally a ’60s cartoon with ’90s charisma. What I mean by that is that’s where Hillenburg clearly drew his inspiration from when designing the show’s backbone. The comedy, set by SpongeBob the protagonist, was directly influenced by the works of oldies like Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, and the Three Stooges. The fundamental chemistry that makes the show so special relies on each character being a wacky abstraction hiding an ancient archetype: Patrick being a mopey sea star hides his spirit of being the useful idiot; Squidward being a cynical squid hides his spirit of being the experienced foil to complement a naive protagonist. The direct observation, of it being a show about wacky sea creatures getting into funny situations, appealed to children. But the below surface-level observations, of these characters resembling real people and how they interact with an impossibly naive person, are what make it not only appealing to adults but especially parents, i.e. those who find themselves in this exact dialectic with their children.
It makes sense why Squidward is cited as the most important character of the show outside of the protagonist, as he’s the most direct link between surface-level appreciation children have for the show and the subsurface appreciation adults have for it. Considering how deep underwater squid are known to go, this isn’t surprising. Apart from Squidward, every other main character is defined by their relationship to SpongeBob as a childlike nuisance (that ultimately proves himself worth keeping around): Mr. Krabs exploits his enthusiasm for work to make a profit off him, Plankton exploits his compassion to convince him to work for his own goals, Sandy is aggravated at his tendency to make serious mistakes and be timid in the face of challenge but she admires his sincerity and resolve, and Mrs. Puff dreads his presence as a Sisyphean burden on her life. All of it combines together in slapstick comedy reminiscent of the black-and-white slapstick comedy films Hillenburg cites as inspiration.
Another major indirect influence that contributes to the ’60s structure of SpongeBob is the show The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (often just shortened to The Bullwinkle Show). Many of the metastructural elements of the show gave it its reputation: The usage of a narrator who announced humorous titles for the next episode, breaking the fourth wall to ask the children watching to perform specific tasks such as turning the television dials, and frequent usage of cliffhanger shorts that emulated early radio and film serials. The quirkiness of the show was so problematic that it required a rewriting of a major character because of how much he convinced children to toy with their parents’ TV sets. Of course, I say indirect because this show directly influenced Joe Murray when designing the ethos of Rocko’s Modern Life, which in turn greatly influenced Hillenburg.
But aside from this and in a more general sense, SpongeBob is also very small-scale in a way where you could reasonably understand everything that goes on as it does in universe. This made it jive perfectly with many other shows at the time that ditched the legacy of ’80s cartoons constantly striving for a plethora of locations that mutually exist but never actually interconnect with one another. Instead, it constantly used the static image of a town and the very repetitive usage of the same backdrops to reinforce the idea that this is more than just an experimental series for slapstick comedy but rather a wholly developed world. Originally a product of a lack of resources (because toy companies weren’t throwing cash in yet), the same circumstance repeated itself again, albeit with a much different cultural zeitgeist and a new captain at the wheel.
My two cents? That captain is descendant from a lineage of captains that likely never crossed paths before and commandeered crews oriented towards completely different goals: One the illusive captain of rock and the other a captain of science. The fact that was so implicit I didn’t mention it was that Hillenburg, as a marine biologist, was born into a position where he was influenced and molded by the films of Jacques Cousteau. More specifically, he stated that Cousteau “provided a view into that world”, which he hadn’t known existed. Call me crazy, but I suspect that this impression manifested in a desire to replicate itself in what Hillenburg pursued creatively. In a sense, he was teaching marine biology through the show, just not in any way that was educational.
Rather, he was teaching sentimentally: SpongeBob lives in the ’60s because that was the time when Cousteau’s prominence was the brightest, with prominence emerging from documentaries like Silent World and World Without Sun no doubt appearing alongside The Bullwinkle Show on Hillenburg’s childhood television set. These two sources bled into each other as the perfect synthetic seed that would only blossom much alter in his life. It was so influential that the show is largely responsible for the creation of the ‘mock Cousteau’ trope, in which any marine biologist character shown on TV has a high chance of being based on Cousteau’s character, speaking in a French accent and all. This comes from SpongeBob’s usage of a French narrator to voice segments.
Every touch of polish on the show’s presentation took inspiration from Cousteau’s documentary style: The transition using a thunderous sound of bubbles, the usage of live-action footage to demonstrate fourth wall breaks and life above sea, the selective usage of a live orchestra, and the looking for any excuse to showcase live footage of sea animals. Fundamentally, the character of SpongeBob is like that of a ’60s cartoon because I fully believe it was a late attempt to turn Jacques Cousteau’s films into an animated series. I cannot stress this point enough; go watch one of Cousteau’s films and you’ll see exactly what I’m referring to.
The last piece of evidence I offer is artistic: While one of the major sources of Hillenburg’s synthesis are his zany style as a result of his education in CalArts and his passion for marine biology, another element omnipotently encircles the product, that being what culture has to be emulated by desiring a nautical set piece. Because Hillenburg is an American born in the ’60s and raised in California, the culture he had consistent access to was that which can be reduced to two components: Surf culture and Tiki culture, both of which informed mainstream ideas of what it means to be someone who bases their lifestyle around the ocean and have remained as the status quo for the next several decades.
Outside of science and commerce, interacting with the oceans on a civilian has unfortunately stereotyped people into two groups pertaining to the aforementioned categories above. Let’s start out with surf culture. Surfing has its origins in the South Pacific and was practiced all throughout Polynesia. Relevantly, it was a sanctified practice to Hawaiians speculated for over a millennium, even stretching into premodern times. Before the arrival of Captain James Cook, Hawaiian royalty had placed hard limits on what exactly could be done regarding surfing. As part of a system of prohibitions called kapu, the manner of making a surfboard was tightly regulated, most greatly along the lines of class: The royal class were reserved the best surfing spots and were often given longer boards. The commoner class suffered the short end of the stick (literally) by being given worse spots and shorter boards. However, this didn’t mean that surfing was only reserved for the ali’i (hereditary rulers), as Hawaiians of all classes practiced the art.
The demise of surf culture amidst the encounter with American missionaries in the early 19th century is well spoken of in white historiography, with details about puritans disproving of customary nudity and casual sexuality closely associated with the practice of surfing (it was normal to surf nude). While often undermining the agency Native Hawaiians had in resisting this cultural colonization, it reflects some truth in that the American journalist Jack London actively tried to marginalize Native Hawaiians and exploited surfing as a means to attract tourists. Even though Natives taught them how to surf, they took that knowledge and established their own segregated surf clubs for the haole (white people). In response, Duke Kahanamoku started a multiracial club to take back control of the surf zone and preserve it as a Hawaiian space, resisting ‘Western’ colonization. 
From here, it spread worldwide when Kahanamoku, alongside George Freeth, gave demonstrations about the practice in the Anglophone world, most importantly in the Western U.S. and Australia. Acting as ambassadors to surf, he performed public demonstrations of the sport at many famous beaches, such as Venice and Redondo. This was the opportunistic exchange of two cultures that had wildly different views of what the ocean meant for humanity. One was ancient and placed profound religious significance in how they interacted with them, while the other rapidly changed by destroying the tradition behind it, seeing the ocean as yet another obstacle in the name of Manifest Destiny. “Every activity in Hawaiian culture was associated with a cult devoted to a deity or the activity itself, such as surfing. When the ocean was calm and there were no waves to surf, the kahuna lashed the surface of the sea with long strands of beach morning glory (pohuehue) vines and chanted, in unison with the surfers:”
Ku mai! Ku mai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai,
Alo po ʻi pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue,
Hu! Kai koʻo loa.
“Arise, arise you great surfs from Kahiki,
The powerful, curling waves, arise with the pohuehue,
Well up, long raging surf”
Despite this, SpongeBob was not designed with this intimacy to indigeneity in mind while designing its aesthetic. Rather, it was concerned with capturing how Americans, particularly Californians, developed it as a lifestyle. The main issue with surfing, when it came to a propertarian culture that was newly introduced to it, was that the available area to find good surf breaks quickly became a coveted commodity. Logically, if you were a regular surfer who lived about a desirable surf break, you’d want to guard it jealously from others, right? The expression “locals only” was introduced as a commonality in beach towns, especially those that attracted seasonal vacationers, as a stark reminder of the fact that America in the ’60s was still defined by segregation. It was so bad that loose gangs formed with the intention of protecting their turf from outsiders, with the term ‘Surf Nazi’ being created to denote strict territorialism and hostility towards outsiders.
Surfing was also associated heavily with counterculture from inland Americans who embodied the part of the narrative of Manifest Destiny that made itself satisfied with its position. With the West Coast being the logical end of westward expansion, it quickly grew the reputation as being the land of either filthy rich assholes or bums who are seriously at the end of the road. Surfers were seen as lazy people on the fringes of society (both metaphorically and literally), and this necessitated the need for a cultural revolution to recognize the validity of their lifestyle: A much less violent alternative to the ever-increasing problem of surf gangs in both the U.S. and Australia.
Culturally, surf took after what was in its immediate viscinity: Immediately was the loose connection to its origins in Hawaii made, with signs and aesthetics being adopted. Graphically, surf adopted a style that took inspiration from the aforementioned Tiki culture but, more importaly, Kustom Kulture: A cultural movement based around people who drove custom cars in Southern California. Kustom Kulture was a vitalist backbone for many countercultural movements that would define the U.S. in the later 20th century, partially because the dependence on the car made people sign their lives to them, generating the sentiment that the customizing the car meant customizing the person. The age of the Highway would come to define greasers, drag racers, lowriders, and every other marginalized working-class demographic, surfers included.
With the music, it was dominating the popular radio: Beach Boys, Dick Dale, Surfaris, and the Ventures. So many present to the point where they created an entirely new genres (for the time). The most famous of which were obviously the Beach Boys, who projected this pristine, suntanned image that did the trick to capture the world by storm. Everywhere their image went, what followed was a tone of R&B music that emanated ‘good vibes’, a material obsession with custom cars, and sporting all types of surfwear originating from cottage industries. It was simultaneously lifting the image as this underground counterculture while also being the face of American youth culture.
The last effort to convince the public that surfing wasn’t a practice for delinquents was environmentalism. Since it’s a practice heavily dependent on the environment being healthy, interest groups grew to protect coastal properties relevant to surfing. This was a mark change in line with the general spirit of surf, which was the idea that the ‘Western’ world needed to rethink its approach to the seas despite all the difficulties it had in its implementation. The mass influx of a new civilian generation wanting to casually interact with the ocean beyond relaxing by its shores brought in a considerable new outlook into the mix of how the Americans have historically viewed the seas. Less was it about serving purely industrial needs and more was it about respecting their sanctity from cultures that practiced it.
This is likely what influenced the show given Hillenburg’s time in Southern California, if not the culture itself that greatly influenced him to pursue marine biology itself. After all, a major element was the influx of civilian interest in utilizing the ocean for something beyond commerce.
About that… The exchange I described regarding Hawaiian and American culture might’ve sounded mutual, but it was anything but, and that leads us onto the next culture: Tiki. As a form of Orientalism directed towards the South Pacific, it existed as a motif to design new residential and recreational properties around. It was inspired by a sentimental appeal to an idealized version of the South Pacific, informed directly by the experiences of American and European tourists who visited such areas and documented their experiences. Additionally, a lens of Hollywood mystique was foisted that emphasized beautiful scenery, forbidden love, and the potential for danger. Interestingly, the word ‘Tiki culture’ didn’t exist until the ’90s, when academics needed a term to describe its revival. 
There are two (technically three) periods in which Tiki culture was prominent in American conscience. The first was the end of Prohibition in 1933 with the opening of Don’s Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant in Hollywood, CA. It was owned by a man named Ernest Beaumont-Gantt (who loved his idea so much that he later legally changed his name to Donn Beach), who used his experiences of rum-running with his father to exaggeratedly claim that he sailed throughout much of the Pacific Ocean. The restaurant he made was adorned with the spoils he’d collected over the years while exploring, with a high alcoholic culture coming from his upbringing as a bootlegger. The restaurant predictably served food you’d expect to be stereotypical of Hawaii: Cantonese cuisine, rum cocktails, and punch drinks. Aesthetically, it utilized a decor of flaming torches, rattan furniture, flower leis, and brightly colored fabrics. All of these elements were meticulously designed to fuel desires to travel to the South Pacific for your average American.
Its drinks and scenery were new and exciting, and as the Great Depression started, it was the only way for many to experience a tropical getaway.
From here, it spread when a restaurant owner from Oakland, CA named Victor Bergeron ate at Donn’s restaurant, and its pitch worked. “We went to a place called the South Seas…and even visited Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood. In fact, I even bought some stuff from Don the Beachcomber. When I got back to Oakland I told my wife what I had seen, we agreed to change the name of our restaurant and our decor.” At this point onward, his restaurant was known as Trader Vic’s and he adopted a persona that further perpetuated illusions brought about by that Hollywood lens, telling people the leg he’d lost to tuberculosis was actually the result of a shark attack. Bergeron’s approach was a bit different than Beach’s, as he had no artefacts to display at his bar, so he initiated a policy where he’d give free drinks to anyone who brought him fitting objects.
From here, it became a massive trend for restaurants all across the western U.S. to embrace this kitschy bastardization of Polynesian cultures that differed greatly from the equally kitschy nautical motifs associated with the historic eastern coast. No longer would the abstractions of the ocean that average American would interact with be influenced by colonial cultures that had by necessity to view the sea as expandable, as somehow ownable and tamable. This time, the ocean was viewed in a more preferable light: Something vast and untamed, with the people associated with it being equally so. At the edge of the colonial project, a more lackadaisical attitude had to be embraced: One that saw new avenues of profiteering that diverged from the old colonial half of North America. Recreationally abusing the oceans was the new motto instead of commercially abusing it. This obsession with geographic disassociation was best exemplified in the efforts of Joseph “Steve” Crane, the owner of The Luau restaurant, who began his menu with a list of the places of origin of all his building materials. While largely realistic with efforts for geographic accuracy (as a way to create this image of a well-traveled man), they still included dramatic exagerations like furniture from Hong Kong and “man-eating clam shells” from the Indian Ocean.
The final boost that Tiki culture needed was when it was presented to the world in the California’s World’s Fair in 1939. It was hailed as a ‘celebration’ of Polynesian culture for the first time in the U.S., boasting the title of “Pageant of the Pacific.” Its main showcase was of particularly native goods, likely so opportunistic businessmen could snatch up whatever they thought was a good idea to steal and commodify. So impactful was this parading of empty culture that then president Franklin Roosevelt used it as a platform to speak of the ‘blossoming’ relationships and mingling destinies between the U.S. and Pacific countries. This sentiment was honored with the symbol of an 80-foot-tall statue of a figure known as Pacifica, a statue created by Ralph Stackpole specifically for the celebration that took place on the artificial Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. It overlooked the entrance to the Cavalcade of the Golden West in the Court of Pacifica and arrogantly symbolized the power of a united Pacific coast. No attempt to separate the sea from its history of being utilized for warfare will last long, as WWII is on the horizon, and the Pacific would play a massive part.
This segues into the second period of Tiki culture: Post-WWII. After the heavy utilization and objectification of various Pacific Islands (on both sides) to win in the war against Japan, many American servicemen returned home with all of these stories from their military campaigns in the South Pacific that only further strengthened the idealistic image Hollywood had created about these real places with real people. Donn Beach peaked his head again and made another alcoholic drink to complement his service in the war in the long tradition of exotic alcohols: Three Dots & A Dash cocktail, which is Morse code for “victory.”
The medium of film proves once again to be a very important vessel for the ideas listed so far in this text, with Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition promoting an even greater intrigue into this magical world. Importantly, this brought the word ‘tiki’ into mainstream American lexicon despite the word being Maori in the context of something meant to highlight Hawaiian culture. With the public enthralled by this, Steve Crane (acting as another mole in this segment) peaked his head again to create a chain of tiki restaurants, starting the trend of bringing it to the forefront of decoration. It was plastered all over signage and menu covers, further contributing to this unstoppable Orientalism.
Over the 1950s Polynesian design began to infuse many aspects of the country’s visual aesthetic, from home accessories to architecture. The Trader Vic’s in Palo Alto eventually even spawned architectural choices, such as the concept behind the odd-looking Tiki Inn Motel,which still exists as the Stanford Terrace Inn. Single family homes, apartment complexes, bowling alleys and other business were heavily influenced by assumed Polynesian aesthetics, in some cases incorporating the motif into entire residential areas and shopping districts.
Of course, so many appeals to this vacationer lifestyle would be useless if people didn’t have the money to make such pseudo-expeditions. As you probably learned in history class, post-war America saw the rise of a middle-class as a considerable economic force, leading to an increasing affordability to travel. Civilian air travel to Hawaii was completely halted during the war (obviously) so this created an even greater demand once the war ended. All of that built-up disposable income was absolutely dumped into everything tropical, with airlines aggressively marketing flights to consumers. With this demand, Donn Beach moved to Hawaii and opened up ‘tiki’ restaurants in ‘tiki’ territory, and this spurred a trend of these restaurants opening up all over the islands, usually staffed with native bartenders who were completely unfamiliar with the alleged ‘Hawaiian drinks’ that American tourists asked for.
If Tiki culture began as a restaurant theme made to look like a Hollywood set, alcoholic drinks dressed up in elaborate barware are its cornerstones and main actors. 
Of course, this concept can’t be brought up without mentioning just how much of an impact it had on the linchpin of animation at the time: Walt Disney. The American culture of labor had undergone a massive shift in the suburban explosion that led to the “9 to 5” work schedule that’s so mundane to us. With something as exotic as tiki culture that placed emphasis on a slower pace of living and a more carefree lifestyle, it proved the antithesis to the rapid spirit of the growing post-war economy. Hollywood was churning out productions like Blue Hawaii and Paradise Hawaiian Style and TV shows like Hawaiian Eye and Gilligan’s Island. The craze finally caught onto Disney with the opening of the Tahitian Terrance in 1961, and years later the famous Enchanted Tiki Room would open, featuring the world’s first audio-animatronics.
In a way, it was a perfect match for Disney. To put it simply, Tiki Culture was never an accurate portrayal of Polynesian culture. From the very beginning with Don the Beachcombers, it was a mashup of different elements of different islands into one singular idea of what that Polynesian lifestyle was like. Even the name, Tiki, was generalized. […] Exotica music was less a recreation of actual Polynesian music and more of an original attempt to create music that might be considered tropical. In short: Tiki culture was about taking all of the idealized and romanticized aspects of multiple cultures and leaving out the rest, whhich was exactly what Walt was doing over at Disneyland. 
Now, for the technical third period in which Tiki culture arose. It was partially revived in the ’90s after two decades of decline largely stemming from the Baby Boomers coming of age and rejecting the Silent Generation’s obsession as tacky at best and offensive at worst. Alongside this, the Vietnam War draft turned off many people to the illusion that tropical lands are paradises, with Vietnam being seen as the place where said illusion was annihilated. The only place tiki culture survived dormant until that time was in Disneyworld, where it got away with being dated by signing it off as purposeful. After all, it was Disney’s motif to create its parks around idealizing the past: “It was yet another faded memory for guests to immerse themselves in at a place dedicated to such a goal.” In its revival, there was an air of self-awareness in how tacky it was that repurposed what the children of Woodstock parents were now interested in since that prior generation rejected it as old and “square.” To tie the loop in, I believe that this was the blip of tiki culture that inspired SpongeBob the most, especially in how unashamed of how dated its references are.
Everything about the show oozes a callback to ’60s design: The writing, the pacing, the narrative presentation, the music choice, the usage of live-action footage, and even down to minute details like the title cards and choice of font. I summarize it as a living surf movie poster.
All that I’ve mentioned previously wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the American subjugation of various Pacific nations, most pivotaly Hawaii, as servants to their economic and military order. That’s the uncomfortable truth that was always hiding behind the veneer of Hollywood magic. The entire construct of ‘tiki’ was what the U.S. gave back to the Pacific nations that, out of generosity, taught them the gift of surfing. The statehood of Hawaii was only a further cementing of the idea that this entire culture belonged to the U.S., and was no longer a foreign country. “With statehood making travel easier than ever, for many average Americans for the first time the myth of what Hawaii was and what it was supposed to be came face to face as a booming economy and urbanization began to change the lifestyle of its countryside.” 
The world created, back when Hollywood held a grip on public consciousness, was one of permanent vacation meant to ease the dehumanizing levels of stress that’s been associated with living in the mainland United States. The descendants of colonizers who’ve had their entire generational livelihoods built around sacrificing personhood to industry with a Calvinist teleology driving their lives. Manifest Destiny only had a geographical limit, that being how far you could dig into the massive mainland and how much property lucky individuals could reasonably claim. The island doesn’t have these issues, as it’s a land (in the ‘Western’ sense) so tiny that it can have its entire population bend to the will of serving whatever corporate interest throws the fruits of industrialization towards it. The island has everything that’d make it convenient all while being aware of the precious space.
You can see it in the clothing people wore. For the men, the standard was the Aloha shirt, which were collared and buttoned dress shirts that distinguished themselves from white collar uniforms by adding a splash of pattern and color. Ironically, it was the same oppressive form that only changed appearance superficially: A symbol that you’re never really free from the leash of white collar work. Their origin is far more complex than just being Hawaiian, as they were originally inspired by sailor shirts cut from Japanese kabe crepe fabric and sewed by Asian tailors who immigrated to Hawaii as plantation workers.
For women, it was ripped blatany from sarong garments, and an entire new archetype of feminine identity developed around white American women acting as pin-up models for tourism. Several movies and songs were made to celebrate this archetype of the white damsel made exotic by embracing Polynesian cultural forms. The second important piece of feminine clothing is the bikini, a two-piece swimsuit that has existed throughout many points in history, but the introduction it had on American society was via French automative engineer Louis Réard introducing the modern design in Paris in 1946. The name came from the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which were famously known as the site of a nuclear weapons test as part of Operation Crossroads. It’s been stated by Réard that he hoped the revealing and exotic nature of the swimsuit would create an “explosive commercial and cultural reaction” similar to the explosion at Bikini Atoll…
… Now, I’m not saying that SpongeBob is indicative of some insidious plot to push allegiance to American imperialism in the Pacific, but some people have definitely said that. One famous example is the paper published by University of Washington anthropology professor Holly M. Barker, which titles itself as Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies on Violence on Bikini Bottom. Barker wrote that her article aimed to expose the “complicity of popular culture in maintaining American military hegemonies in Oceania while amplifying the enduring indigeneity of the Marshallese people, who maintain deeply spiritual and historical connections to land — even land they cannot occupy due to residual radiation contamination from US nuclear weapons testing — through a range of cultural practices, including language, song, and weaving.”
The overall tone of the paper is that of being subtly expositional, writing that because SpongeBob is an American cartoon that was a product of American circumstances, it replicates the history of cultural appropriation that defined its two artistic inspirations. It’s no secret that, like the Disney cartoons and other ’60s animation productions that influenced Hillenburg, SpongeBob wasn’t concerned about how accurate its cultural references were to their Polynesian origins, and this is only a problem in the culture the show represents and markets to rather than the show itself. When this article released, it was slammed by the reactionary press for being yet another example of a vindictive academic wanting to accuse a well-respected figure of racism just for the sake of inciting discourse. But, I want to give this article a fair chance and criticize it on its own grounds as a breath of fresh air.
To begin, I’ll say that one of the analyses of the article is spot-on, in that Bikini Bottom “appears an amalgam of token objectifications of Oceania; it is a place where characters reside in buildings shaped like pineapples, Easter Island statues, and tikis and are surrounded by Hawaiian-shirt motifs and steel-guitar music.” There’s nothing to deny about this, as I’ve argued extensively that this is undeniably the case, but the problem here is that Barker fails to recognize the broader cultural influences that led to how SpongeBob presented its world and art direction. This cultural imperialism against the South Pacific began long before Hillenburg was even born, and even then, being born as an American, Hillenburg had no reference to how these forms should be rightfully respected. He’s definitely less of a product of his time in this scenario and more of a product of trying to replicate the time where he would’ve been otherwise.
The key hinge this article bases its exposé on is that, because it’s been stated by its creators that the show imitates the real-world location of Bikini Atoll (hence the name of Bikini Bottom), that it gives its audience an unrealistic impression of what that location is like. Specifically, it “considers the costs of maintaining a singularly submerged viewpoint that disconnects the lagoon bottom from holistic Marshallese constructions of place.” What that means is that this paper takes into account how fundamentally different the Marshallese notion of terrain classification is compared to the ‘Western’ system the U.S. has operated with and continued to operate with despite the minor cultural revolutions that came from appropriating Polynesian cultures. What it counters is the constructed argument that SpongeBob is representative of the Western concept of terrain classification being applied in the environment of abstract aquaticism.
A motif throughout it is that Barker equates SpongeBob’s presence in Bikini Bottom to U.S. presence in Bikini Atoll, literalizing the American cultural titan the show became, and that leads to some, on paper, rather silly comparisons between a naive sea sponge and a world superpower. The language gets so damning to the point where the show is described as normalizing violent settler behavior in Oceania “by exposing the ways that SpongeBob’s encroachment on Bikini Atoll maintains an American military hegemony.” But it’s through these absurd and longwinded comparisons that Barker does give us some noteworthy insight into the Marshallese worldview:
The concept of “land” in Western construction that does not equate with a traditional Marshallese worldview; one’s land is not simply dry acreage to stand on, and it certainly is not a commodity that any one person or generation can own (Johnston and Barker 2008). The Marshallese call their world — again, not just the land — “aelōn kein ad,“ frequently translated as “these islands of ours.” Sometimes Marshallese refer to their nation, the Marshall Islands, as “Aelōn in Majol,” a vestige of colonial naming practices honoring the initial ‘discoverer’ of the location, British Captain John Marshall. Despite the similarities in sound, “island” is not a translation for “aelōn” ; the word “island” focuses on the terrestrial realm above the ocean and does not capture the expansive Marshallese version of place embodied in “aelōn,” in which “ae” refers to the currents or the seas and “lōn” to the heavens or skies above (Ahlgren 2016). As the concept of aelōn communicates, there is no separation of realms because Marshallese notions of land are expansive and holistic, extending to the bottom ofthe ocean and lagoons, as far as the ocean currents flow, and as high as the stars and heavens. 
This passage details that the Marshallese never viewed land in a way where it could be objectified or commodified, but rather the ocean is an inextricable part of our world, and taking this into account reveals the knowledge that land is far more than what can be made productive use of. The oceans are as much land as the continents or islands. Barker uses this worldview to think of the show’s fictional Bikini Bottom, with all of its callbacks to contemporary American life, as a sortof metaphor for colonial encroachment. She’s not wrong in that the show very much made allusion to that world as an anchor of familiarity in a world of absurdity, but it’s where she goes from here that teeters into disbelief.
Barker keeps falling into the same pitfall where she assumes that SpongeBob is responsible for the cited symbolic erasure of the real Marshallese people and not just another product of a long history of American chauvinism commodifying the cultural forms of peoples it subjugated. This is partially due to her original sin of taking a silly fan theory as plausible truth: Yes, really. You’ve likely heard the idea before that, because the show is said to take place in the real-world Bikini Atoll, that its characters are a byproduct of the nuclear tests conducted there. That’s why they’re anthropomorphic, because they’re a product of radiation, which gives some functional backstory to justify the general weirdness Hillenburg injected into the story.
The core flaw in this argument, after taking this theory to be gospel, is that it was the narrative legacy of U.S. colonialism in the Marshall Islands that inspired the ‘weirdness’ of the show, and not the more logical answer being Hillenburg’s interests in alternative rock and marine biology and his past work on shows like Rocko’s Modern Life that directly contributed to the show’s style. Even further, Barker goes onto suggest that participating in the call-and-response cue in the show’s opening is covertly agreeing to the idea that the United States has legitimate ownership over the Marshall Islands, and SpongeBob is the character we sympathize on this viewpoint with. “People do not laugh at the SpongeBob theme song and cartoon because they are malicious or willing conspirators to colonial activities. Like the bikini, the program obfuscates the historical and contemporary pain of the Bikinians by cleansing them from their own story and place. However, if the laughter of audiences is not wrong, then neither are the tears of the Bikinian people.”
In my opinion, SpongeBob doesn’t lay claim to Marshallese lands (both under and above water) any more than any other product of American imperialism in the Pacific did. The problem is far deeper than a show on Nickelodeon, and it’s far more productive to talk about the direct inspiration for Hillenburg’s endeavors than it is to dwell on nonsensical connections. That explanation for why the characters are so wacky and unlike how their animal counterparts naturally appear is interesting though. But the way I’m theorizing, Spongebob is as much a show about aliens as it is about mutated marine life. But it’s alien in the same way I described Cousteau’s documentaries: We’re so averse to life underwater because it’s been categorized for so long as not typically where humans should tread. If the show treading on any territory intentionally, it’s the territory of human presence underwater.
To use technical language, it’s less about marine biology and more about using the history of American nautical cultural forms, up to the legacy of imperialism in Oceania, in such a way where Hillenburg’s main topic of education could be explainable to entire audiences of people. Despite how zany it can become, the depth still seem familiar and human in a way that takes you back while simultaneously pushing the world forward. Every character is, design-wise, a complete absurdity, but its core characteristics are so human that it doesn’t matter. The anthropocene is reclaiming the opportunity it had lost so many decades ago to reconnect with the oceans it’s now destroying at unprecedented rates.
Speaking of that, I think now’s a better time than ever to state that Hillenburg shared Cousteau’s similar cause of environmentalism:
Throughout his life, Hillenburg remained devoted to the delicate ocean eco-system. Perhaps for that reason, he tried to retain a veto over SpongeBob merchandising. In an interview with the The New York Times, Hillenburg’s colleague Sherm Cohen described the moment when SpongeBob got his own doll. Surely a proud moment for any cartoon character’s creator? Not so for Hillenburg. Cohen explained: “Stephen looked grim. He said, ‘My biggest nightmare is that I’m going to be at the beach one day, and one of these dolls is going to wash up on the shore like garbage.’” 
So in a way, SpongeBob was an indirect attempt to spread an environmental message; he was writing that these exotic sea creatures are just the same as us through writing them as ordinary people getting into comedic situations dissolved by their ancient archetypical chemistry. If any appeals to ‘Western’ notions of the sea’s ontology arises, it’s usually a product of the clashes that inevitably come from orienting the framework of the ocean to function as Westerners are culturally expected to perceive land. So in a way, I’m saying that Barker is wrong in that, even though the show very much relies on an ignorant romanticization of Polynesian cultures for aesthetic sense, the show’s implicit message is that of Marshallese monism — the idea that the bottoms of the ocean are just as much ‘land’ in the sense that islands and continents are.
In this sense, he educated you, me, and all of us through appealing to a very abstract elaboration of Cousteau’s divulgationism. While it might’ve rarely communicated direct scientific fact, what it did communicate were important takeaways from the legacy of marine science in regards to how we should treat the oceans. I know I sound like a broken record, but the culture it calls back to is an attempt to recapture that spirit in the air to fundamentally change a nation’s ontology of the sea to be like that of the peoples it subjugated in the name of continued militarism. Regardless of what you believe, think about the impact the show has on children: What do you think they’ll start doing after watching it? They’ll relate the characters on the show to real-world sea creatures. Ideally, they’d point to starfish and say “that’s Patrick!” In this case, the show has already accomplished its duty.
But alas, like Cousteau, Hillenburg’s passion contributed to the one thing he despised: For Cousteau, it was militarism, and for Hillenburg, it was capitalism.
The Marine Biologist who Never Was (Conclusion)
I mean, what even is SpongeBob SquarePants? It was just one of the surrealistic, deadpan cartoons that populated ‘90s American TV, a countercultural strain that the show was synthesized from and Hillenburg perfected. And the ‘thing’ about tiki culture? It just transformed mundane life into a “tropical” version of itself. Isn’t it poetic that a show about the wonders of aquatic life has a character who lives a life being content with performing menial wage labor for his greedy, parental boss? This was a brilliant cultural contrast for Hillenburg to pull: Island escapism idealized by terrestrial creatures contrasts with the society they escaped being recreated just under the water’s surface.
Although, Hillenburg has been deceased for three years (God bless his soul), SpongeBob is considered by diehard fans to be a shell of its former self, and any revival of tiki culture will definitely be criticized in post-colonial studies. It makes me wonder why I’m still writing about this…
…Goddammit, but where am I getting all these crazy ideas about environmentalism, tiki culture, American imperialism, and divulgationism from? It’s a very strange cultural hole to fall into, like I was on a bad psychedelic trip and Nickelodeon was on the TV. It feels just like a bad trip… Like the one I had back in the late ’90s when I fell asleep at my computer monitor researching ‘big wave’, eating gratuitous amounts of phone-ordered pizza while my skateboard falls off my back wall from its hanger. The music I listened to was what my dad lambasted me for as it wasn’t Led Zeppelin or any of the classics, but I was just trying to reconnect with the person that became lost in me so long ago!
Looking back on my youthful interest in marine biology, perhaps I was influenced in the same way Hillenburg was by passively observing nature documentaries in my impressionable years. Regardless, I knew one thing for sure: I didn’t have to introduce myself to the cartoon known as SpongeBob SquarePants. But one album I had to introduce you to is Ween’s The Mollusk. I explained how Hillenburg’s work was directly and obviously influenced by Cousteau’s documentaries, but I never bothered to explain the passion he also had for alternative rock; this is because of my shared intimacy with the album.
Given the nature of the show and my arguments for the logical explanations of its wackiness, it makes a lot of sense that not only was Hillenburg influenced by this type of music but this album in particular greatly inspired the direction of the show alongside the plethora of ’60s allusions. I don’t want to assume totally what he was thinking when he drew strong inspiration, but I have a feeling that it was these main elements of the album that appealed to him: A sense of carefree childhood whimsy, a wide range of inspirational sources including casual reference to European nautical folklore, liberal usage of psychedelic imagery, and an overall narrative of odyssey.
The show’s late, great creator Stephen Hillenburg’s love of the alternative music of the time bled through into the original version of the series, as later episodes without Hillenburg’s input would lose this touch. His love of weirdo underground rock was most prevalent during the credits sequence of the first feature film, which had original songs from the Flaming Lips and Wilco. Unless he somehow managed to find and license a song titled “SpongeBob & Patrick Confront the Psychic Wall of Energy”. 
The band was involved with the show from early on, with them being commissioned to write a song for the season 2 episode Your Shoe’s Untied. Now famously known as Loop De Loop, the song was played alongside a fantastic montage in which SpongeBob defies all plot continuity and physical sense to produce what’s meant to represent childhood wonder with otherwise mundane things. He’s seen plopping down a shoe into Patrick’s ice cream cone, writing the refrain with shoelaces, being used as a tracing cursor to produce patterns of his image across the landscape, and then turning a shoe-shaped airplane into a shoe-shaped roller coaster cart. What I see here is a heartwarming appeal to whimsy. You’d be hard pressed to believe that this is from the same band that made songs about pissing up a rope or waving your penis in the wind.
But that’s the other thing that makes the album so special: It takes the great dexterity Ween was famously known for and concentrates it into one cohesive narrative package. Much like the awkward college kids they were, they tried everything because they didn’t know what they wanted to be, and it’s that sense of youthful ambition that defined their entire musical career. When the image of trying to be one core thing haunts you, it’s comforting, but it also means that you’re doomed to whatever category society puts you into. From the same band that “placed a somber mariachi ballad right before an experimental rock track about HIV (Chocolate and Cheese, 1994)”, refusing to be defined as one thing that wasn’t just their name was what greatly influenced how Hillenburg approached his work.
SpongeBob was never just one thing, but an amalgam of many different things to the point where it was only appropriate to simplify it as the “underwater cartoon”, much like how The Mollusk was many different things and could only reasonably be defined as “the nautical album.” Sure, you can use words like ‘slapstick comedy’ and ‘experimental rock’, but those terms don’t really capture the whole glossary, do they? The freedom to not be defined by what came before you, yet simultaneously hearkening back to a window of cultural revolution so many decades ago, is what allows you to write a fantastic educational children’s song without feeling like it’s not of you. Much like SpongeBob, Ween appealed to all ages with a record that boasted both hard rock performances and imitations of children’s dance recitals. It’s very much possible to segment what parts of the album each age group would find appealing and engage it with mutual respect that changes alongside the person.
Speaking of range, Gene and Dean rarely ever sang in their natural voices, and it makes sense given their creative ambitions. The natural range of two human voices is just far too limiting for their goals of creating unique characters in their songs that demanded it. Throughout the album, there’s many voices that either reoccur or star for one song: In the opening track, a mix of nasal voices gives the impression of a cohort of performers getting anxious over the debut; in the Mutilated Lips, a high-pitched nasal voice is employed to really sell the psychedelic nature of the song; and in the Blarney Stone, this gruff-voiced sailor sets the backdrop of a noisy pub-choir to the tune of a disgusting sea shanty. At this point, one could make some loose connections between the voices in the album and what Hillenburg chose for each of his characters. SpongeBob and Patrick fit the interchanging, juvenile voices on I’m Dancing In The Show Tonight while Mr. Krabs fits the foul-mouthed sailor present in Blarney Stone.
In the same vein, on ‘Mutilated Lips’, they intone with a nasal squeak that brilliantly connects typical cartoon voice acting with the whiny tone of psychedelic rock singers. The variety of vocal styles is the first aspect that becomes apparent upon first listen. Instead of following a single protagonist like many other albums, each side of the disc presents new characters to meet, like a TV show on the scale of Spongebob. This does a bountiful job of fleshing out the world Ween have in their minds, physically mapping out the census as we hear their theatrical accents and vocal nuances. 
The record’s sense of humor is childish in a way that isn’t obnoxious but rather charmingly silly: Everything’s on the nose in such a nerdy fashion. This nerdiness extends into the occult aspects of the album: I’ve mentioned before that the figures invoked in the album could refer to friendlier versions of Lovecraftian creatures. I mean this quite literally, in that all the mystique and horror of what lurks in the unexplored depths is combined with the pettily personal conflicts that seem so impossible for us to overcome in our stubbornness. In the album, it’s the transfer from tracks with topics about very human circumstances to tracks that depart radically with surreal messaging. For Hillenburg, it was using the perceived strangeness of the ocean to justify making his show equally strange and have it be believable in a way that welcomes rather than turning away.
In unreality, the psychedelic emerges. Using rumbling analogue electronics, haunting drones, and a trudging beat attempt to recreate the times where Gene’s roommate’s eel encapsulated them. Tracks like Mutilated Lips and Polka Dot Tail recall images that make sense through the ingestion of pills. It’s certainly an impression that sticks, but it’s never something that carries the intention of scaring or isolating you despite its intimidating appearance. In the same vein, SpongeBob is something that can surely keep you wrapped up in its bold character designs and odd set pieces, but you’re never made to feel like you’re watching a bad trip but are rather micro-dosing to maximize enjoyment. So close are you to these strange creatures and crushing atmospheric depths that the pod you left long ago has been abandoned, but it’s alright, as the earnestness of the life you see won’t hurt you. After all, you’re a guest on their lagoon.
The vibe I receive while listening is the same while watching: History is revitalizing itself right in front of my senses. Whether that history be of rock music, marine science, cartoons, or nautical culture, I can feel the breakdown of a previously dominant narrative in favor of a cellular restructure from the bottom up. Through using art as a form of time-travel, I’m taken back to various times in which the dominant world was given a moment’s chance to observe the primal ecosophy it had originated from but now regards with obliviousness and marginalization. The same ecosophy that has spanned spiritualities that attributed it from the old god of Neptune, the modern colonial specters of Davy Jones, or the even more ancient practice of offering and praying for the spiritually endowed koa trees that provided the wood for surfboards.
The Mollusk is a very spongy album that absorbed the magic from every source it was crafted around, and it only makes sense that it directly inspired a very spongy show. And the thing about sponges is that they tend to be filthy, but being so isn’t inherently a bad thing. When you’re filthy, you get everywhere, and then that which you get on is forced to be acknowledged. In the same sense that rock music became so filthy in the midst of Ween’s presence, so did our entire childhoods become filthy in the midst of SpongeBob SquarePants. Synths became grittier, the drums became chunkier, and the guitars were given more texture. Cartoons defied their expectations, manifested teaching in unprecedented ways, and made us relate to something as oddball as a seasponge.
It’s undeniable that the album’s cultural legacy is intertwined with SpongeBob: From one revolutionary piece of nautical media to another; from one product of the weirdness and experimentation of the ’90s to another. The conclusion here is that the power of the absurd brought these things into our lives. And whenever the absurd leans into mythology, it always pulls from nautical folklore, scaling from ancient Greek mythology to the 19th century. How can anyone suggest that the contrast I mentioned above isn’t a deliberate effort on Hillenburg’s part to illustrate a need for a change in naturalistic ontology? He calls back to deities like Neptune and Davy Jones to characterize the rulers of the sea in this fictional world, but the most elusive of all is the cultural god of the Ocean Man.
Every time I listen to it now, I reminisce on how I wanted to write a big expose on the aesthetic philosophy of the show it inspired and what it meant for the usage of nautical subject in ‘Western’ animation. I know, it was a very abstract subject, but something about it spoke to me very personally. The strumming of the Mandolin borrowing heavily from surf rock alongside the processed vocals and impenetrably mystifying verses just get to me every time.
I imagine peering into a childhood experience of existing in the midst of late ’90s lifestylism: You’re with your parents and siblings in a Gulf town near the beaches of Miami, and what you see is a form of commodified culture distilled to complement the betweenness of the coast. It’s clear but not yet clear enough, and it’s a very romantic reminder of how idealistically colonial descendants saw the land of Hawaii and what it meant to be an ‘islander’, especially in how the lens of manifest destiny beholds it. Before I even knew it, the new environmentalist movement was influencing directly how I looked at something as ancient as the oceans. It entered my subconscious not through any “on the grounds” activism and direct interaction, but rather through the indirect lens of Cousteau’s documentary.
Yet, I had never watched any of Cousteau’s documentaries when I was younger, but what I did watch extensively was Hillenburg’s Nickelodeon production which was you turned to TV on every weekend morning to see. I was watching an animated version of his showmanship tied to the tune of experimental rock all along. Despite this, I don’t feel betrayed, like I signed up for mindless cartoons and got someone’s incredibly earnest attempt to synthesize his two passions instead.
Clearly, a lot of other people in my exact age range didn’t feel betrayed either, but rather they felt so incredibly grateful for the viewing experience that was brought to them. And they had to’ve been, otherwise the show wouldn’t become the cultural titan it is: Further, the reason why this work likely intrigued you. Of course, not everyone got the messages I did to the extent I described, but that’s okay, as it had a lot to offer on the surface too:
As Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, told me, the show has “comedic archetypes that have worked for hundreds of years, further back than Shakespeare”. Hillenburg stripped our world back to literal cartoon versions of human behaviour. SpongeBob is the idealist, met with both cynicism (Squidward, Plankton and Mr Krabs, a triptych of venality) and chaos (best friend Patrick, a starfish of pure id). Off they go for 11 minutes at time, the oppositional energies colliding. It usually goes badly for SpongeBob to begin with, those eyes suddenly massive and brimming — but in the end he triumphs, often thanks to errors the others make due to their self-interest or negativity. So often children are told merely to “be yourself”, but what if that self is corrupted? SpongeBob evolves the message: fill your heart with kindness and then be yourself. The world will bend to you without you trying. 
Like the broken record I am, I’ll keep insisting that this is the reason why Hillenburg directed the way he did. I know I stated that SpongeBob was unlike Rocko for being a projection of the creator, but in truth, he somewhat is. He represents the wide-eyed earnesty that led to Hillenburg becoming the scientist he was for a time. He looked at the seas as something not to be objectified and owned but was in the process of resanctifying it as something that has such an indescribably intimate relationship with our humanity. Operating from the culture he knew and following his role model Cousteau, he created something that rekindled at least some peoples’ closeness with the sea. That’s why SpongeBob is so hyper-relatable for people of the 21st century: He is the cultural conclusion of experimental media attempting to explore the frontier once thought as impenetrable and devoid of life.
It’s this purity of intent that makes SpongeBob so globally popular, and such an absorbent medium for online memes. Hop on Twitter or Instagram and you are never far from an “evil Patrick”, used to illustrate amusing misdeeds, or SpongeBob himself, looking relieved, angry, stoned or indeed any other human mood. The memes work because we both see ourselves in SpongeBob and aspire to be him. He is flawed, vulnerable but endearing, while being quietly, mutably omnipotent. 
I think about this every time I listen to that album, other than being in a damp, dank undersea bunker lit only by the ghostly light of Davy Jones. But, in the wake of everything that’s happened regarding the vast amount of time its offspring has existed for, from what its fans have done with the property and what has been done in later times to analyze our obsessions, I feel like it’s now a time machine for me to observe. And what I observe is culture emerging from the primordial stew of the creative depths and begin to become thirsty as it walks onto the dry land. It demands that it returns back to that which has given it life, yet the only signs of progress were a few steps backwards in a continual drudging towards a bitter end.
That time machine is like a little submarine all to my own. I enter it whenever I read the books from my childhood of colorful sea creatures and intimidating predators. I enter it whenever I get lost surfing the web, perusing deeper into a fixation with marine life. But when I listen to The Mollusk, I’m lifted out of it and asked to live in the depths where I never thought humans could go. The mollusk asks of me to bring it along when I walk. It gazes at the sun with its wandering eye and speaks wisdom of the trinity. You see there are three things that spur the mollusk from the sand: The waking of all creatures that live on the land, a faint glance that returns them back into the sea, and a lingering of the mollusk’s wandering eye.
Where does it linger? I think I know now: It lingers towards the what the Ocean Man has built among the tide pool. Around there are strange men in boats and other aquatic vessels who document his efforts. Among their crew is an artist who, from hearing the beautiful notes of the shanty choir, draws something magnificent that all the other crewmates just can’t foresee.
What lies on his paper is the village under the sea.
“The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”
— Jacques Cousteau
Square Roots: The Story of Spongebob Squarepants: A 2009 documentary that released on VH1 that focuses on how the show immersed itself into popular culture, giving an overview of its origins and showcasing just how broad its appeal actually is.
SpongeBob Season 1 DVD, Behind the Scenes: A look into the developmental process behind the first season of the show, with some important insights.
Coral City: Part 1: A two-part documentary on a scientific art collective based in Miami, FL that explores the visual storytelling potential of coral reef organisms through film and site-specific artworks.
The Secret Life of Plankton: A creative showcase of new videography techniques that allow it to be possible to view the life cycle of plankton.
Case of the Sponge ‘Bob’: A DVD bonus feature meant to educate young viewers on the real-life counterparts of the creatures that inhabit Bikini Bottom, staring Jean-Michel Cousteau.
There’s an entire subreddit for weirdos into Tiki culture and there are numerous threads about Spongebob.
 Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religion and Water. Routledge. pp. 217–219.
Most of my non-opinionated information came from Wikipedia.