“Under the Sea” Writers: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman Original Release Date: November 17, 1989
Well, I thought long and hard about which Disney classic I would (un)cover next this month, and, as you can see, I just couldn’t stray from The Little Mermaid. But can you blame me? This movie had a phenomenal soundtrack, and this fun, bouncy, calypso-style song takes the cake. In fact, it won an Academy Award in 1989 for Best Original Song (as it should!).
As you may know, our favorite little Jamaican crab Sebastian sings “Under the Sea” to cheer up Ariel (and help her keep her head below the surface, since she’s got a weird obsession with humans). And he recruits practically the rest of the ocean’s inhabitants to help him out. Featuring a lively steel drum and Sebastian’s delightful Jamaican accent, “Under the Sea” is ultimately a really fun song. Part of this song’s brilliance is the bridge, where lyrical genius Ashman manages to name and rhyme 12sea creatures with musical instruments (14 if you count the sturgeon and the ray) Plus, the vocabulary is surprisingly elevated for the target audience—crustaceans is one thing, but fricassee and beguine? Yeah, I’ll admit I had to look those up. The creative language makes for some vivid imagery and rhythm in the song, even if you don’t know what the words mean, which is part of what I loved so much as a kid. At the very least, the words are fun to say, and the song is always fun to sing.
One of my favorite takes on this song, though, comes from the pop/rap duo Timeflies. Yep, I said rap. At the beginning of the month, I questioned how well Disney musical numbers and electric guitars would mesh (recap: so well!). Now, I feel it is my duty to uncover the Disney/Top 40 rap dichotomy. Can it be done?! Well, let me direct your attention to Exhibit A: Timeflies. Firstly, these guys got an actual steel drum to flesh out the percussion on their version, which is also backed by the synths and electronic beats that appear in their own music as well. Secondly, the verses are completely original. Vocalist Cal Shapiro raps to a pretty simple melody on the verses, but it’s nowhere near Sebastian’s inspirational message or tune (though he does namedrop our little crab friend). In fact, this version isn’t quite as innocent as the original—the lyrics drop expletives and innuendos throughout the song—but I admire the creative freedom they’ve taken with the classic. Of course, the chorus is (mostly) the same, creating a pretty good blend of familiar and fresh. Finally, Shapiro has a really great singing voice. Even the rap verses turn melodic, and his smooth and always on-pitch vocals make everything flow together with a surprising ease. So yeah, it looks like Disney & rap is a unexpectedly satisfying combination!
I am continually surprised by how many different versions of Disney songs exist out there (just keep clicking through Youtube’s recommended list and you’ll see what I mean). From a capella to acoustic to rock, and more, there is just a ton of creativity swirling around Disney music. Even The Little Mermaid songs like these are still getting fresh renditions, and these tunes are nearly 30 years old! I guess it just goes to show the versatility of the Menken’s music and Ashman’s lyrics. The fact that Disney music has such a profound impact on people is the basis for this kind of creativity and inspiration—it’s one of the reason why I love Disney soundtracks so much, and inevitably all the awesome covers that come from them!