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The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
as an Introduction to Popular Music
[al genres]

In 1984, two artists created in parody a group of characters called the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." They first officially appeared in the 1984 comic book [Eastman & Laird's] Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (vol. 1) # 1. By 1987, the duo had landed a liscensing deal that included an animated childrens' program. Running a mere 5 episodes, the series did well, and spawned 9 additional seasons into the mid-1990s, 3 live-action movies, a live-action television program, as well as countless other products. Among those "other products" is a collection of songs dubbed "The Coming Out of Their Shells Tour" (COOTST)-in which the TMNT were presented as rock stars, touring the US in a show on par in appearance if not popularity with some contemporary bands. Through their theme songs, the COOTST, and the music chosen for the Movie soundtrack(s), the TMNT have served as a vehicle of musical interest for many. The COOTST and soundtrack(s) have introduced many [particularly children] to varying musical genres.

Theme Songs

For many, an embodiment of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in nostalgia or personal memories seems to be the theme song of the popular late-80s/early-90s cartoon. The cartoon series debuted in 1987 (ninjaturtles.com, pazsaz.com) and maintained the same theme song for most of its 9-year run (P.E.). In contrast to this 'classic' theme song is the new theme song from the current (2003) cartoon. While both are the theme song for their respective series, and share the same title, the similarity ends there. The theme songs carry entirely different meanings, expressing different aspects of the TMNT story as well as containing different themes (topic/ideas).

1987 Theme. The original theme opens with the declaration of the title of the song/TV series:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Heroes in a half-shell
Turtle power!

The song continues with a description/hyping of the group:

They're the world's most fearsome fighting team
They're heroes in a half-shell and they're green
When the evil Shredder attacks
These Turtle boys don't cut him no slack!

This part of the song tells that the Turtles fight as a team, are heroes (thus "good guys"), and when Shredder attacks, they will fight and not let up. Next, the song introduces the viewer/listener to the Turtles themselves and their Master Splinter, and describes very briefly an aspect of each character:

Splinter taught them to be ninja teens
Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines
Raphael is cool but crude
Michaelangelo is a party dude

Here, the listener/viewer is told that Splinter taught the group; Leonardo is the leader, and Donatello's specialty is machines. Raphael is "cool" [perhaps in a more zeitgeist sense?] and Michaelangelo is to be known as a partier. Finally, the song concludes with a repetition of the opening verse.

In this song, the emphasis and point of view seems to be from the outside looking in, only telling about the characters and giving some idea as to the premise of the show. (The Turtles fight together, are heroes, and when Shredder attacks, they go all-out [to stop him]). The listener or viewer is therefore stuck being told what is just as easily observed. That is not the case in the 2003 theme.

The theme song for the 2003 series opens with a chanted "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and proceeds with a call-and-response:

Turtles count it off!
One, Two, Three, Four! / Turtles!
Mutant chain reaction. / Turtles!
Livin' underground. / Turtles!
Ninjitsu action. / Turtles!
It's a shell of a town.

Rather than a "fleshed-out" description, this call-and-response introduces elements as brief phrases relevant to the program. The song continues with the call-and-response elaborating on the Turtles four-point philosophy:

One! / Live by the code of the martial arts.
Two! / Never fight unless someone else starts.
Three! / Always stick together no matter what.
Four! / If all else fails then it's time to kick butt!

From this, the viewer is shown that the turtles adhere to a code of martial arts, will not start a fight (though they will engage in combat if necessary), and stick together. This offers a statement to the [child] viewers, showing that it is not appropriate to fight for the sake of fighting, and stressing the importance of loyalty. The song concludes with a repeated call-and-response pattern with different words but same structure as the opening.

Turtles count it off!
One, Two, Three, Four! / Turtles!
There's no one better. / Turtles!
Watch out for Shredder. / Turtles!
They're like no others. / Turtles!
Those teenage brothers.

Unlike the original theme song which left listeners (viewers) on the outside, this theme song pulls the listener in, showing what s/he must do to be like the Turtles (the four-point philosophy). It also gives voice to the Turtles themselves, as the song seems to have the Turtles singing the response, the narrator (or "caller") being the outside observer. In this format with interaction over passive observation, the Turtles are not an outside force to be told about, but are a known entity to be identified with.

While both theme songs serve as the "calling card" and embodiment of the show they are attached to, it is the longer-established original that sticks out for most TMNT fans. Having debuted in 1987, for nearly sixteen years it was the most widely known "music" piece known to TMNT fans. Compared to the theme song for a two-month-old show, the original theme embodies the entirety of the TMNT for most fans, and holds deeper cultural meaning and importance to these fans that cannot be replaced.

Soundtrack(s)

The original movie's soundtrack included several instrumentals-"Shredder's Suite" (akin to Darth Vader's "Imperial March" from the Star Wars movies), "Turtle Rhapsody" by the "Orchestra on the Halfshell" (which serves as theme music for the movie) as well as companion pieces "Splinter's Tale" and "Splinter's Tale II." The latter two contain the title character's speaking over the instrumental work, describing how he and the Turtles came to be. In addition to these instrumentals are pieces from various rap/hip hop artists: MC Hammer's "This is What We Do," Hi Tek 3's "Spin That Wheel," and Partners in Kryme's "Turtle Power."

As hip hop and rap were entering into the mainstream in the late 80s, for many children, it is likely that their first introduction to the genre may have been through the movie's inclusion of several pieces. In context of the movie, MC Hammer's piece is used in a scene showing the organized chaos of the Foot's warehouse headquarters as teens are shown participating in all the activities they would not be allowed to under normal adult supervision. Used in this manner, it is possible to see a message that rap is the music of choice for juvenile delinquents. Whether or not this is the case, it reflects the idea of rap as dangerous and part of an underground youth movement. Hi Tek 3's piece is rather subtle, and not nearly as "threatening" as Hammer's. Finally, Partners in Kryme presents a song found at the end credits of the movie, recapping the movie in brief. Overall, through these pieces, many individuals adult and child were introduced to the genre as a whole, and given a glimpse of context and style for the songs.

In the sequel movie, probably the single most widely known piece is Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap." Rather than simply being music played in a scene, Vanilla Ice's performance of the song is part of the movie itself, as the Turtles' battle with two enemy mutants crashes into a club where the real-life rapper is performing. After the enemy mutants are dispatched, the Turtles climb onstage to participate in the performance of the song, showing their approval for the piece as well as indicating my example their approval of and enjoyment of the genre. Perhaps through this piece, with a lighter tone than its counterparts from the original movie, rap is shown to be "okay" and not a bad/dark thing to be feared. In the years since, it seems that when discussing the movies, the "Ninja Rap" is brought up, obviously one of the most memorable parts of the TMNT. The "Ninja Rap" may be as widely known of as the theme song of the original cartoon, though it seems more novelty than essential item in the overall cultural memory of the TMNT.

COOTST

In 1990 for a brief time, the Turtles took on the role of rock stars, performing a live tour for their album "Coming Out of Their Shells." This Coming Out of Their Shells Tour went nation-wide, with the album available originally through Pizza Huts, with copies later available in other outlets.

Presented by the TMNT, the 10 primary songs of the COoTST each carry their own theme and message, as well as offering some reflection on the individual characters. Each of the turtles gets at least one song as lead singer. These songs also carry elements of various genres and styles, introducing children to these varying genres rather than sticking to a single format. The unifying element is the Turtles themselves.

Out of Our Shells. This song introduces the overall album and theme of the project-that the Turtles have come out of their (figurative) shells. The song primarily tells of the idea that everyone has music inside just waiting to be let out, and that this Tour is the Turtles' outlet of that inner music.

When there's music inside of you
You know that someday it's got to come through
That's why we're here and we're tellin' you true
We're coming out of our shells…

This song also explains how the Turtles went from Foot-fighting-ninjas to public-rock-stars. The primary vocalist for the piece is Raphael. Overall, this song would probably be classified as "soft rock."

Sing About It. This song led by Leonardo's vocals emphasizes the idea that one has but to sing about their lives-good or bad as a means of facing the problems.

There ain't been too much that's been invented yet
To help you remember, or help you forget
So it doesn't matter what kind of a song
Just get things started and before too long
All of your problems will be long gone
Sing about it! If you're happy or sad.
Sing about it! In good times or bad.
Sing about it! You don't need a drum.
Your heart is where the music's coming from…

This song carries an idealistic tone and driving beat. It is a harder rock piece, with call and response elements.

Pizza Power. This song comes from all four Turtles, the obvious theme being the Turtles' favorite food-pizza. "Pizza Power" would be the energy the quartet gain from eating the food itself. The song speaks of the Turtles' views of pizza as a food beyond "gourmet" in comparison to other foods.

Growin' up in a glass bowl
With chameleons, lizards and tadpoles
It hardly enters your mind that there's something better than this
A lettuce leaf and a carrot
Maybe a seed from the parrot
Believe me when I tell you the word gourmet just don't exist
[…]
It isn't burgers or french fries
That work for turtles of our size
Ice cream, cake, or apple pie
They don't even pass the test, dude!
But Pizza Power is the thing that keeps us going
Pizza Power is the food worth asking for...

This song is a general driving rock piece with a definite dance beat to it, that can get listeners moving. In the COoTST show itself, the Turtles claim this as the first song they wrote, once they learned how to write their music.

Cowabunga. Michaelangelo's rap piece serves as a child-friendly example of rap, much moreso than the selections found in the original movie [The COoTST preceding TMNT II]. It carries elements familiar in other rap pieces-the rapper speaking to or describing companions or a place, offering self-referential lyrics, as well as aknowledging the audience.

Yo! It's time for the last of the Gang of Green
He's the first, man, he's the first that made the music scene
I say, it's Raphael, and you can see that there's nothing in the world
That he'd rather be-than a turtle who's a mutant as well
I said it before, he's comin' out of his shell
I saved this guy for the end of the song
I'm sorry, excuse me if it gets too long...

Skipping Stones and April Ballad. Splinter's "Skipping Stones" is a quiet piece that describes the impact each individual has on the greater whole of humanity. Like a stone skipped across a body of water, each person creates ripples that impact the entire whole. This message is given to children, reminding them of their potential and the need to be aware of their impact on the world, that no matter their size or perceived place in life, they do count, they are important. April's ballad speaks to the importance of friends, and being able to rely on them.

But when you're all alone out on your own
It's easy to worry and doubt
When you're without someone, a true companion
To help you work it all out
It's hard to face the things that scare you inside
As you move through every day...

Count on Us. This final song is sung by all four turtles, with Leonardo as the lead. Its message is of the Turtles' determination to fight Shredder and prevent anyone from meeting harm at the hands of the Shredder. The Turtles emphasize that they can be counted on.

When you're callin'…you can count on us
You feel like you're fallin'…you can count on us
No need to be afraid…you can count on us
Whereever you are, you know that we're never far
You gotta fight to be free

Reflecting the story of the stage show and Shredder and his Foot ninjas' involvement, the Turtles realize their dilemma. While the opening song explains the Turtles shift from every-day adventures they'd come to be known for, after a brief foray into the world of music, due to Shredder's interference the Turtles accept in song their fate.

No one can stop us once the fight's begun
Ain't gonna stop until the Foot's undone
We gotta let the music be...

Conclusions

Though this is but a brief exploration and analysis of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their impact on music, I hope it is apparent that the Turtles had significant impact on music, and its consumption. The music found in the original movie introduced many to the emerging-into-the-mainstream genre of rap and hip hop, carrying with it differing tones depending on the aspect-some threatening, some child-friendly, and some indicative of the times. The Coming Out of Their Shells Tour offered music in several genres with a positive message to the fans of the TMNT. Finally, in the differing tones of the theme songs for the cartoons, it is apparent that individuals have come to associate a certain sound or song with the TMNT and the time, showing how a single piece of music can be an important cultural artifact in itself to a given audience.


Walt Kneeland
Intro to Popular Music
Dr. Donahue
T/R 1pm
[Spring Semester 2003 | BGSU]