Why cartoon theme tunes should be taken seriously
With its musical references and stylistic innovations, the music for Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons was way ahead of its time, argues Tom Service
That’s really not all folks, as the final credits of Looney Tunes don’t quite say. Cartoon music deserves to be taken seriously; as seriously as this:
‘The innovations of composers such as Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley, making scores for those archetypal Jungian animated beings known as “Bugs Bunny” and “Elmer Fudd”, “Tom”, and “Jerry”, created a new musical form in Hollywood’s animation studios of the 1930s and ’40s, an idiom of paradoxically coherent discontinuity and virtuosically precise parody.’
That curlicued pseudo-musicology is my cartoon-like parody of a summation of the value of cartoon music. But there might be some truth in it – seriously.
Stalling’s music for Bugs Bunny’s cartoon adventures and Bradley’s for Tom and Jerry’s achieves something that music had never done before. In the quick-fire time-scale of the ’toons, their music has to be both immediately expressive and fearlessly versatile. That means instantly communicating, say, a scene of pastoral perfection – like the landscape of the Ozarks that Bugs skips through at the start of ‘Hillbilly Hare’, before just as quickly dramatising a scene of Bugs’s life being threatened at the end of a shotgun.
Unlike Hollywood feature films, there’s no time in cartoons to set atmosphere or underscore emotions: the music has to realise the drama instantaneously. Scott Bradley even used Schoenberg’s serialism to dramatise a moment in a Tom and Jerry cartoon called ‘Puttin’ on the Dog’, in which Jerry wears a mask of a dog’s head to escape Tom’s clutches.
These juxtapositions and references, from American musicals to avant-garde modernism, mark these scores as new not only for film music of the time, but for all music. Not even Stravinsky is as extreme as Stalling and Bradley, and when you hear their scores away from the visuals, you realise that the music is the engine of the zany drama of these cartoons, rather than the image. The clue is in their titles: these are Looney Tunes and Silly Symphonies, after all.
Then there’s the service that cartoons did for classical music culture in the mid-20th century, introducing audiences to Wagner and Liszt, and Brahms and Chopin while sending up the pretentiousness of long-haired conductors and helmet-horned divas.
In fact, if there’s one artform that’s more illogical than cartoons, it’s opera, which is why ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ – in which Elmer hunts and falls in love with Bugs-as-Brünnhilde – isn’t really a parody, but a sophisticated distillation of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk into a six-minute multi-media music drama.
Cartoon music is postmodernism before anyone had thought of the term, it is sampling and remixing decades before digital culture, and its omnivorousness makes it prophetic of today’s world of non-stop streaming. Told you it was worth taking seriously.
Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.