Ben Folds, author of the world’s greatest kids’ computer-animated movie environmentalism song by mattsteinglass
June 16, 2007, 4:39 pm
Filed under: Oddities

I write kids’ cartoons for PBS, so I speak with some authority when I say that last year’s “Over the Hedge” is one of the finest animated kids’ movies ever made. It’s unquestionably the greatest one with a political-educational message. Its handling of its soundtrack is fantastic. Soundtracks have been critical to these movies ever since Randy Newman kicked loose on “Toy Story”; the idea has always been that the use of an adult-rock soundtrack provides an ironic counterpoint, that having a computer-generated green ogre pining after a Barbie-like princess to the sound of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” gives the parents in the audience a satisfying echo of their own sense of absurdity in accompanying their nine-year-olds to watch this thing. But there’s usually a gap evident: the song, usually being written for an entirely different context, diverges from the trajectory of the film, and that forces inauthentic gestures and reinforces the sense of the film as a secondary, lightweight product.

All Ben Folds’s songs for “Over the Hedge” are better than that — written for the flick, and seamless with the dramatic and emotional thrust of their scenes. And one of the songs, “Heist”, transcends the whole genre. It’s all of two verses long, and it’s so great, it deserves a close reading by a really first-rate music critic — The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, maybe. Since Alex has better things to do, you get me.

The song starts out with the most self-satisfied summer riff in rock music, a Phil Spector/Motown rhythm. You’ll recognize it from the beginning of “Love Don’t Come Easy”, or the Katrina and the Waves hit “Walking on Sunshine”. It’s on the song’s tonic G, so there’s a sense of total complacency. After 4 beats, it heads up a whole step to a suspended A minor — a little tension introduced, but in a perfectly routine way. The melody starts as a simple rising scale, then takes advantage of the suspended chord for a fall and rise (C-E-B) that’s a bit chromatic and uncertain, underlining the path of the lyric:

Follow me into the great unknown…

The chord then moves, naturally, up to the subdominant C; but it’s left as a major 7th. The major 7th is an open, aimless chord, a chord of empty afternoons and alienation — it’s the “April in Paris” chord, but we’re not in Paris here, we’re in the American suburbs, and the melody is back to a simple rising scale:

Where pink flamingos grow…

Okay, a little hackneyed, but effective enough. The next chord, though, is going to show you where brilliance comes from. Folds at this point takes the chord out of the tonic’s frame, with a jazzy Elton John-style modulation, up a third to a dissonant-sounding D-sharp major!

…and diet soda flows —

Again, the lyric is a fairly routine base-touch to the symbols of American suburban inauthenticity. (Though you’ve got to admit, the attention to irony is diligent: the pink flamingos “grow”, the diet soda “flows” — two unnatural nouns to which actions of the natural world are impossibly attributed.) More importantly, Folds here establishes a super chord progression for the twisting of ironic twists. That D-sharp, rising incongruously out of the G-A-C progression, is going to let him repeatedly undercut the first three lines of each verse with a wry fourth one that leaps out at the listener.

And, in good comic fashion, this fourth line is rushed through, throwaway and deadpan, like the final post-joke joke in the fourth frame of a “Doonesbury”. We fall straight back into the tonic G, then up to A-minor suspended and to C. And the lyrics are starting to get good.

— and what you take magically regenerates
on supermarket shelves…

And then Folds take real advantage of that D-sharp for the first time.

…the ovens clean themselves

It’s a sharp, surprising rhyme, smack in the sweet spot of the melody, from which spring unbidden all the accusations of carelessness, irresponsibility, inauthenticity and hidden consequences of a great 150-year American tradition of environmentalist critique. The ovens “clean themselves”: right. The voice Folds is evoking here is that of the classic Yankee huckster, the squeaky-clean con man of “The Music Man”.

Which is perfect, because R.J., the movie’s raccoon lead, is a modern take on that Music Man, in this case conning a bunch of unsophisticated but honest woodland foragers into buying the shiny lie of the American suburban dream. And the song’s title, “Heist”, gives it all away. The song is in fact the background to a montage-over-sound of the film’s animals pulling their first big scavenging jobs in the tract houses of the neighboring subdivision, so at one level the “heist” joke is just the cutesy one, classic kids’ CG, of woodland animals as Danny Ocean rat pack. But there’s another whole refiguring going on here: the suburban environment IS a heist. It’s a dream of riches without consequences, the great American sales pitch. The heist film is the greatest of all American genres because the dream of endless unearned wealth is the great American dream. And to picture the American suburb as a heist played on nature is a refiguring of the environmentalist worldview so brilliant that to get it at the hands of a movie made for 9-year-olds, and from an ex-frat boy musician who says Elton John is his greatest hero, simply exceeds all reasonable expectations. It’s beautiful.

The song has a chorus and one more verse in it, but really, you can listen to it for yourselves — I’m done.


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