SpongeBob SquarePants and the Value of Bad Poetry
I’ve been thinking these days about the tagline of Phil Metres’ blog Behind the Lines (which shares the same name as his important 2007 study on war resistance poetry)–“Further thoughts on the cultural labor of poetry and art. Not ‘is it good?,’ but ‘what has it accomplished?’…”–and since this month is SpongeBob SquarePants’ 10th anniversary, I would like to take up this question in a discussion of “Sing a Song of Patrick,” an episode from SpongeBob’s fifth season. While this Nickelodeon cartoon is ostensibly for kids, it is a sophisticated show, and this particular episode raises important issues about aesthetics, commodification, and audience reception.
The episode begins when Patrick the Starfish, SpongeBob’s tubby and endearingly dumb friend, sees an ad in a comic book from Bigshot Records that promises to turn “one of your poems into a hit song on the radio.” Patrick then pens the following poem which he sends (along with $100) to the record company:
“I Wrote This”
Twinkle, Twinkle, Patrick Star.
I made myself a sandwich.
My mommy named it Fred.
It tastes like beans and bacon,
and smells like it’s been dead.
Writing stuff is hard
so I use a pointy pencil.
Pointy, pointy, pointy,
pointy, pointy, point.
Pee-ew, what’s that horrible smell?
I have a head that ends in a point.
Pointy, pointy, pointy,
pointy, pointy, point.
This song is over, except for this line:
you win this round, broccoli!
This text is another exercise in what Spongebob has called in another episode “the arcane art of the weird,” and while it is by no means a good poem, it surely has what Charles Bernstein (following Malinowski) calls a high “coefficient of weirdness.” Obviously certain forms of badness and weirdness can accomplish humor, though I suspect that this episode is suggesting something more.
The running joke of the episode revolves around how bad Patrick’s poem is and the disastrous effects it has on the people of Bikini Bottom. In fact, the poem is so bad (visible stench fumes rise from the document) that it makes the eyeballs of the lead guitarist melt and eventually kills the members of the band in their process of converting Patrick’s poem into a song.
At the band’s funeral, the funeral director presents Patrick with his “hit single” on a 45 and says, “They wanted you to have this.” After a rousing listening session of Patrick’s poem (now accompanied by rock instrumentation) on SpongeBob’s stereo, the always supportive Spongebob encourages Patrick to air the song at the local radio station which, of course, turns them away with disgust:
Patrick: I can’t wait to see the look on their face once they hear this.
[They go inside and a radio employee screams and kicks them out and closes the door.]
SpongeBob: Did you see the look on his face?
Patrick: Yeah. Did you see his ears?
SpongeBob: I didn’t know they could turn inside-out like that. Now, how are we going to get your record on the radio?
SpongeBob’s brilliant solution is to hijack the means of distribution: they climb to the top of the radio antenna on which they mount, with the help of sticky pink bubblegum, a gramophone to blast Patrick’s record. This impossible apparatus is like a Dadaist “instrument of ballistics” (to use Walter Benjamin’s term) that assaults the complacent and conformist fish of Bikini Bottom. The high-decibel song is meant to “outrage the public” and “hit the spectator like a bullet” (again Benjamin’s phrases on Dadaist art) and indeed it does. The sheer weirdness of Patrick’s work creates pandemonium: cars crash, a fish’s head (while listening to earphones) explodes, and a plane dramatically crashes into a fireworks factory. The townfolk, in angry mob form, rush to the radio station with pitchforks and torches to snuff the offending source, but SpongeBob and Patrick distract them with a bizarre display of dancing while they spew nonsensical sounds and utterances. As a performative accompaniment, Spongebob flails around a tambourine and chainsaw. Miraculously, this act of performance art defuses the anger of the mob. One fish observes, “You know–It’s not that bad,” while another responds, “Yeah, at least it got that first terrible song out of our heads.”
A pessimist might observe that SpongeBob and Patrick’s dispersal of bad poetry lowered the aesthetic standards of the town, that the townspeople would have welcomed just about anything to clear their heads of Patrick’s poetic abomination. A similar pessimist might make the case that bad poetry should stay private, that Bigshot Records–much like vanity presses–lures subpar writers with the illusive promise of fame and recognition. Yet, to me, there is a performative exuberence in Spongebob and Patrick’s blaring, gum-attached gramophone that makes it seem like an ultimately salutary, and even revolutionary, gesture for Bikini Bottom–that it shocked the town out of its rigid aesthetic categories. I want to optimistically think that at the very moment when that fish thought “You know–It’s not that bad,” some kind of aesthetic recalibration occured, that Patrick’s poem redefined his notions of what art can be. Perhaps the tambourine and chainsaw is indeed mightier than the pitchfork and torch.