The Bob's Burgers Music Album
With the advent of post-television – TV freed from the constraints of networks and its once make-or-break schedules – audiences have never had more freedom of choice to consume and support the shows they love. Even in the age of the internet in which ubiquitous technology has allowed for unprecedented creative audience engagement – fan groups, art, memes, gifs, video re-editing, and cover songs – Bob's Burgers is at the apex of animated television as cult media. The show provides a world of characters and narrative space explored by artists, writers and musicians, amateur and professional alike. Tina Belcher, an avid writer of Erotic Friend Fiction herself, is the face that launched a thousand queer, feminist, body and LGBT-positive Tumblrs.
So what about the TV show that started it all? Bob's Burgers is an offbeat, intelligent animated comedy about Bob, an underachieving though talented restaurateur, his uproarious and musical wife Linda and their family of oddballs – butt-obsessed teenage Tina (creative, body confident and often gender queering), 11 year-old Gene, and youngest Louise (nine, but an aspiring evil genius of sorts with a heart of gold and a passion for kawaii kowai). They're a working class, sex-positive family with a veracious appetite for music.
The Bob's Burgers Music Album, released on the venerable Sub Pop label, is long overdue – six years after the show's debut, the album runs at an almost-exhaustive 107 songs for 107 episodes. The keen fan may notice the odd song omitted, such as Gene's humming of the never-heard but hilariously intriguing Elderly Prostitute, Teddy's (Larry Murphy) cover of Natalie Merchant's Wonder in tribute to his hammer, and Sleater Kinney's A New Wave, whose music video takes place in Tina's bedroom, a perfect site for riot grrrl, starring the dancing Belcher kids. Despite these minor quibbles, the LP manages to consistently surprise and entertain for its entire running time, just two minutes shy of two hours. It features longer, never-heard-before edits of Bob's Burgers songs, as well as classic numbers being fleshed out by critically-acclaimed artists as part of the 'Bob's Buskers' tracks, as with St Vincent's indomitable Bad Girls.
Musicality is a huge part of what makes Bob's Burgers work – as a TV show and cultural phenomenon – and it's inextricably linked with its anarchic, organic humour. Many songs are improvised and come from the unique chemistry between the talented cast, particularly John Richards who plays the comically, euphonic Linda, described by Louise as "that bird [who] likes to chirp", and the unlikely dulcet tones of Jon H. Benjamin as Bob. Instructional songs for remembering to use seatbelts – Buckle It Up, sample lyric 'Buckle it up, buckle it up, or you'll die' – and how to braid hair (The Harry Truman Song) are typical of the Belcher family and their weird, veracious musical humour.
In contrast to the songs the Belchers sing on the fly are the many musicals in which show creator Loren Bouchard's musical theatre background really shines. Gene, voiced by Eugene Mirman, is a particularly talented composer – his musical Electric Love, about an unlikely romance between electricity pioneer Thomas Edison and Topsy the elephant who he electrocuted as a publicity stunt, is performed beautifully by Kevin Kline (Mr Fischoeder, Bob's eccentric millionaire landlord, Edison) and Megan Mullally (Aunt Gayle, Linda's sister, Topsy). In typical Bob's Burgers style, Electric Love is absurd, hilarious, bizarrely moving and an undeniable earworm.
Bob's Burgers' unique music provides an offbeat, aural soundscape to its narrative and allows for characters to express themselves, with songs like Butts, Butts, Butts, and Richards unrecognisably performing Lifting Up the Skirt of the Night in the style of a sleazy '80s ballad. It also allows for the show to engage with other cultural phenomena, such as film; Gene writes and performs a musical version of Die Hard and its "sassy sister" film Working Girl in Work Hard or Die Trying; Girl featuring Carly Simon; and Cindy Lauper's incredible Taffy Butt is a firm nod to 80s classic The Goonies.
Though the show's writers and composers never go in for lazy, tired or cynical pastiche, BB's parodies are often satirically biting, such as the send-up of hyper-masculine rock and male fragility in Sex Sex Sex Sex Sex and Daddy / The Itsy Bitsy Stripper. The intertextuality of Bob's Burgers' music with different genre and media forms almost always results in something creative and pleasurable within its own right – songs and musicals that are brilliant in themselves. It's a testament to the quality and layers of Bob's Burgers' writing and compositions that these songs may then also, as an auxiliary function, thoughtfully comment on contemporary cultural politics and society.
A brilliant example of this is Bob's Burgers' attitude towards boy bands and their female teen and tween fandoms. Girls play an important role as social tastemakers, driving cultural markets in fashion, music, flim and literature – making huge cultural phenomena as diverse as Instragram, the Kardashian/Jenner klan, Taylor Swift and the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises – yet the tastes of young women are often ridiculed and seen as inherently worthless. This cultural paradox is thrown out for the nonsense it is by Bob's Burgers when Tina helps Louise overcome her internalised misogyny so she can admit to loving boy band Boyz4Now, and to her crush on lead singer Boo Boo which takes the form of wanting to slap his "hideous, beautiful face". Through the band's music, Bob's Burgers pokes gentle humour at tween/teen fangirl culture whilst highlighting its importance and the ridiculous misogyny of performative disgust at it – the entire family and many adult male characters are avid Boyz4Now fans.
Feminism, sex positivity, body positivity and anti-ageism all feature frequently. In the music of Linda and her reformed high school band The Tatas, the riotously joyous lyrics of Not Bad For Having Three Kids see Linda celebrating and accepting her physical imperfections publicly. Before she can perform however, Linda has to face her teenage humiliation of being laughed off the stage during her high school talent contest in which the winning band, Bad Hair Day, went on to hit the big time. Their song We Won The Talent Show includes brilliant lines like 'Got a PhD in Rock and Roll / My friends are all my seven cars / I've never had a menstrual cramp,' which highlights the absurd, impossible twin ideals of feminine physical perfection and achieving a higher socioeconomic status – the interpellation of class and beauty, ironically delivered through rock music, traditionally an anti-establishment genre.
Linda overcomes her embarrassment and for the first time lets Gayle sing her own songs which showcase her weird, sensual and creative inner life. Her ballad to old crush Derek Dematopolis is as hilarious and endearing as it is grotesque and sexually frank: 'Won't you enter my acropolis and make my yoghurt Greek?'
Perhaps in contrast with the show's economic and critical success, Bob's Burgers has a radical rejection of traditional capitalist and heteronormative notions of success at its heart. Socioeconomic struggles, mediocrity and failure of lifelong dreams and aspirations are central themes of some of Bob's Burgers' most moving songs. Unlike Lisa Simpson, neither Tina nor Louise Belcher aren't A Grade students, nor are Gene's musicals always a runaway success.
Bob has flirtations with success, considering selling out to his children's favourite amusement park to make money in Oh, Nice Things Are Nice (this epic moral dilemma is comically sung about by Linda in the James Bond-esq Wharf of Wonder), and again when Bob's friend offers to invest in the restaurant and turn it into a tacky, culturally appropriative tiki bar (I Love Charades). Bob sidesteps these easy ways out of near-poverty to stay true to his own conscience; what is ultimately important for him is to make his burgers, to be as Mr Fischoedor terms it: "a beef artist, a bee-fartist!"
Time and again, Bob's Burgers emphasises life-affirming messages of human fragility, socioeconomic failure and mediocrity without being bleak. A Belcher defines life on their own terms, championing acceptance, creativity and weirdness over a zero sum of individualist productivity, social climbing and monetary success and status. The existential struggle to live this way is perhaps best explored in Bob's Burgers' musical episodes, particularly in Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom when a chance magazine interview that could make or break Bob's business is threatened by Louise's prank gone wrong, causing Bob to become stuck to the toilet.
Bob's hopes and dreams reckoning with imminent failure and Louise's guilt clashing with her optimism make for an emotionally rich, achingly human and relatable song – one that is far more moving than a song about a man glued to a toilet has any right to be. The National's Bob's Buskers version of this song, featuring Låpsley – an indie, experimental, ambient EDM cover with comically po-faced, sombre vocal delivery – makes for a funny and emotive juxtaposition, emblematic of a show that refuses to give into cynicism, whatever the pressures of the "vacuum," the abyss, the toilet. It's a fitting end for such a life-affirming album.