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Memory is a powerful, if inaccurate, curating tool.
It’s like how current seasons of Saturday Night Live are never as good as the seasons from your youth, because you mostly recall only standout sketches from historical episodes that, realistically, had a similar ratio of hits-to-misses as new episodes.
We the People
Or take Schoolhouse Rock!, the iconic cartoon songs that taught kids everything from grammar to basic mathematics to governance between 1973 and 1984. The Schoolhouse Rock! team — mostly Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens — wrote dozens of songs and, depending on your age, you might only remember a half-dozen, or possibly just “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.” Trust me, they weren’t all that good.
Chris Nee, creator of Netflix’s We the People, doesn’t hesitate to list Schoolhouse Rock! among the biggest inspirations for her new exercise in animated active citizenship. How could she? We the People, a collection of 10 songs aimed at teaching children concepts like the importance of the Bill of Rights, the separation of powers between the three branches of government and the value of immigrants in the American experience, is cut very obviously from that Schoolhouse Rock! cloth.
So when I say that We the People is, comparatively and qualitatively, a decidedly mixed bag, with one or two standouts, one or two real duds and a bunch of so-so songs in the middle, am I drawing a distinction between my memory of Schoolhouse Rock! or the reality? Probably the former. In an ideal world, then, this well-meaning endeavor would inspire future, hopefully increasingly good and topically varied seasons of We the People and most of these less inspired tracks would just get lost in the background.
The biggest point of differentiation for We the People is that the songs (and one poem from inaugural superstar Amanda Gorman) hail from 10 different performers and therefore come from 10 different approaches, if not quite genres. There’s Adam Lambert wailing on the rock anthem “These Are Your Rights”; H.E.R. and Janelle Monae both contributing different (but not different enough) R&B odes to engaged democratic participation; Lin-Manuel Miranda and Daveed Diggs (with Brittany Howard) treating “Checks and Balances” as a Hamilton outtake; Brandi Carlile crooning about the First Amendment in “Speak Your Mind”; and Cordae rapping about taxes.
Also setting this new venture (which boasts Barack and Michelle Obama among its producers) apart from Schoolhouse Rock! is its variety of animation styles. Animation houses Buck and Titmouse have split the 10 songs, and about the easiest way I can break down the distinction is that if the animation has any humor, it’s one of the Titmouse installments, while the Buck episodes tend to be more dreamy and colorful and impressionistic. Each episode has a different animation director, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse helmer Peter Ramsey, working on the H.E.R. video for “Change,” probably the biggest name.
The topical vagueness of some of the songs points to these 10 episodes as being more of a proof-of-concept than a fully realized project. The H.E.R. and Monae songs are easily the two catchiest tunes, and their basic messages — no matter your age or gender or race, you can take big and small steps to change the world — are thoroughly admirable. But did this first batch of episodes need both bops? Probably not. Did there need to be multiple songs explaining what the court systems do? Did we need songs focused on both the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment? This should theoretically be a thematic big tent, but We the People very quickly becomes a little redundant.
There’s some question, as well, on how educational some of these songs even are. “Checks and Balances” actually does a very good job of breaking down the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, and how they would work together were our current system not a bit broken. Cordae’s “Taxes” is pretty basic, but makes a decent, kid-friendly explanation for why taxes are necessary. Andra Day’s “All Rise” has very little to say specifically about the courts, but the accompanying animation directed by Daron Nefcy beautifully visualizes the countless ways court decisions have impacted our daily lives.
This leads to some of the disappointments. Bebe Rexha’s “American Citizen” is a fun earworm, but says nothing about the value of immigration to the American Dream — other than that it’s valuable — while the animation featuring dancing people from various countries is simultaneously adorable and rife with stereotypical representations of an “It’s a Small World” sort.
The worst song, by a wide margin, is “These Are Your Rights,” which takes an essentially apolitical approach to the Bill of Rights that leads to banalities like “Number eight is a simple and serious rule/ That if you are punished it cannot be cruel,” as well as the Second Amendment bottom line, “Today’s guns have led to a raging debate/And everybody must have their say.” This is toothless “both sides” nattering from a series that will still be dismissed as liberal propaganda by the right anyway, so why bother?
“These Are Your Rights” is the only one of these 10 songs that overstays its welcome in less than four minutes. At the very least, all the rest of the We the People tracks have either a catchy hook or some cute animation or, in the case of Gorman’s “The Miracle of Morning,” actually sophisticated wordplay. I doubt we’re going to still be singing these songs in a decade, much less in 40 years, but it’s an inspiring hour of Fourth of July viewing and I’d be curious to watch more installments.
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