There’s a moment in 30 Rock where Liz Lemon’s phone rings to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries.” “Oh you like Wagner?” asks the woman she’s lunching with. Liz responds, “No, I like Elmer Fudd.” For reference, Wagner’s Die Walküre was first performed in 1870, while Looney Tunes’ “What’s Opera, Doc?” aired in 1957. This was the second time I learned that you don’t have to be topical to be great. The first time was related, when I saw Plucky Duck’s dad and a group of yaks sing The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” on Tiny Toons Adventures. The song came out in 1958, but in the early 90s it was new to me.
TV shows, albums, and movies only get to be part of pop culture after enough people experience them and find some shared reality. But there is something about finding a song, a genre, alone. I had no gauge for what modern music was supposed to be like. I didn’t know that the progression from 60s rock to 70s disco and punk to 80s new wave and hip hop was sealed in amber. Music was a scatter plot, and Tiny Toons Adventures allowed me to learn music from my parents’ generation and own it on my own terms.
Looney Tunes (and earlier, Merrie Melodies) was created as a vehicle to showcase the compositions Warner Music held in its library, and to promote sales of its sheet music. The imagery was just the latest, snazziest way to get the message across. The side effect of it was that a lot of Warner’s catalog became inseparable from the show for viewers who were previously unfamiliar with the music. I’m not sure if Tiny Toons aimed to boost Aretha Franklin’s record sales, but its relationship to music of a previous era is nearly identical. Motown and 60s R&B was the backing track to something geared toward a new generation, not because it was music they loved, but because it just fit. The pure danceability and joy, the overwhelming emotion, of R&B felt cartoonish. Screams of love and wanting felt like they should be coming out of the mouths of elastic, pastel bunnies in T-shirts.
Looking back the music was a smaller part of the show than I thought, but It’s not like I got the other references Tiny Toons was making half the time. I had no reference for the MTV VJs they occasionally skewered, the celebrity appearances, the Thirtysomething spoof Thirteensomething. As a child, the point of cartoons was not to get the references, but to learn what humor looked like. Here’s what a caricature is, this is the beat you take before the punchline, this is how a laugh grows. When we analyze them, we know the best cartoons were always the ones a little too old for us, the ones that went over our heads most of the time gave us hope for getting it someday. That’s what Looney Tunes did first, and Tiny Toons and Animaniacs did later, and shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe are doing now.
It’s also not like I wouldn’t have discovered Motown in due time. My parents curated musical households, and there’s no way they would have let me get to adulthood without understanding the importance of the Jackson 5. But when your clothing, your shelter, your entire life is given to you by your parents, you look for the things that will eventually define you alone. It’s not like I didn’t love the Beatles or Star Wars or any of the other things their generation came up with, only that I knew that by learning about them through my parents, they could never truly be mine.
A lot of television in the early 90s utilized 60s pop, because that was the music beloved by those making media at the time. Getting everyone to appreciate soul was the whole point of The Blues Brothers, and Sesame Street played elephants bathing to “Splish Splash.” I didn’t find Motown in a vacuum. But Tiny Toons put the music on an equal playing field with everything else happening in pop culture. It wasn’t a throwback, or something that should exist out of time, but the next logical music video after They Might Be Giants’ “Particle Man.” And through the cartoon, the music became mine. “Respect” conjured not visions of my parents listening to it on the radio, but Babs Bunny roller skating and listening to her Walkman. “It’s In His Kiss” and “Do You Love Me?” weren’t torch songs performed by adults in suits on TV variety hours, but by characters something closer to my image of cool, or at least characters closer to my age. “Yakety Yak” felt like a relevant teenage anthem.
Most kids experience that moment of discovering a bit of pop culture on their own. It’s the first song you hear on the radio by yourself that you like, the first TV show you stop on by flipping through the channels, the movie your parents haven’t heard of but your friend at school loved. The irony that the music of Tiny Toons, the stuff I thought I came to on my own, was actually of my parents’ generation is not lost on me. Eventually, I strung the music of Tiny Toons in with the rest of the Great Pop Music Timeline. I learned the songs were old because I’d hear them occasionally on a radio station that wasn’t Z100, and I realized the songs were chosen by the creators to serve some narrative purpose. They started belonging to the rest of the world, and sharing is another thing I had to learn as a child.
The alchemy of why I was drawn to those bits of Tiny Toons at that moment will always be a mystery, why I chose to hear Motown over MTV. But coming to these songs first, alone, with as little context as possible, set the stage for a greater understanding. When I learned the history I could picture everyone else in 1962, sitting by their radios or TVs, hearing these songs for the first time and feeling the way I felt. I could see the experience of hearing a sound that made you get it as universal, different only in timing and specifics. I was alone, and then I wasn’t. I put myself in the timeline.
Jaya Saxena is a writer and New Yorker. She lives in Queens with her husband and two ungrateful cats. Follow her on Twitter.