The Backyardigans' lyricist McPaul Smith on the heart behind his viral TikTok hits and his illustrious career in kids' media

The Backyardigans' lyricist McPaul Smith on the heart behind his viral TikTok hits and his illustrious career in kids' media

These days, the whimsical Gen Zs of the TikTok community have delighted themselves in a bunch of songs from a famous Nickelodeon TV series that first aired in 2004.   

In fact, just take a scroll through your app's For You page (a.k.a. 'FYP') now and you'll probably still see a handful of videos using either one of these lovable tunes:

@steffonslays

The ughhhh just hits different

♬ Into The Thick Of It! - The Backyardigans

@liamsilk

 

♬ Castaways - The Backyardigans

The songs in question, 'Into The Thick Of It' and 'Castaways', are part of the soundtrack of The Backyardigans.

The children's TV show chronicles the backyard shenanigans of five animal neighbours, who prove that a little bit of imagination is all it takes to embark on an exciting adventure. 

But why are tunes from this TV programme that first aired more than 15 years ago suddenly picking up so much interest again?

Photo Credit: Nickelodeon Animation. (L to R): Austin, Pablo, Tasha, Uniqua, Tyrone

Perhaps, it's the warm nostalgia and childhood flashbacks that these TikTokers get after listening to the songs (Gen Zs would have been young kids in the years the show was airing). Or maybe it's the songs' irresistibly catchy words and melodies that have helped to skyrocket them to such popularity again. Who can tell for sure? After all, it's the world of TikTok. 

But what we do know for sure is just how viral these songs have gotten over the past month. 'Castaways' shot right up to the top of Spotify's Global Viral 50 charts upon its debut. A quick check on this week's charts also revealed that 'Into The Thick Of It' remains at #37 on the worldwide rankings. 

On TikTok, the number of videos that have used the official sounds for 'Into The Thick Of It' and 'Castaways' currently total 3.3 million and 1.2 million respectively. This doesn't include the dozens of remixes that have sprung up recently from creative TikTokers who have put their own spins to the songs. 

In the spirit of celebrating these endearing songs that have taken over social media as of late, Bandwagon caught up with lyricist and writer for the Backyardigans, McPaul Smith, to find out what he thinks about the recent resurgence in the songs that he helped to write more than a decade ago. 

Aside from crafting the words to 'Into The Thick Of It' and 'Castaways', McPaul also wrote many other songs for famous kids' shows like Winx Club, Lazy Town and The Book of Pooh. Read on to hear from the accomplished screenwriter-producer-lyricist himself, who's played an integral part in soundtracking our childhoods. 


Hi McPaul! The songs you’ve written for The Backyardigans — ‘Into The Thick of It’ and ‘Castaways’ — have found rising popularity on TikTok after more than a decade. How did you feel when you first learnt about this? 

I felt totally surprised and delighted. I heard about it first from my friend Tom Hill, who messaged me in May to say that his teenage kids had been listening to 'Castaways' a lot.  Then, over the next week, I had similar messages from many other people, so I finally checked in on TikTok and saw the profusion of videos. 

What do you think is the reason for the songs’ resurgence over the past month? 

I think it started because of @swagsurfff posting her first 'Castaways' video on TikTok. It was such a fun video, and she has a lot of followers, so lots of people saw it and responded. Then, I guess it spreaded fast because it’s a pretty, light, happy song – a great vibe for early summer. The melody is just so catchy and the lyrics express a feeling that many people had over the last year during Covid lockdowns - “we’re stuck where we are.”  

As for 'Into the Thick of It', I’m less sure why that one caught on. But it’s a catchy tune and the lyrics “into the thick of it, but we can't see where we’re going” fit the pandemic too. Things are complicated and no one knows how this will all turn out, but we must keep moving forward. 

@swagsurfff

Send this to the uncultured 🤮 Pt. 4 ##fyp ##foryoupage ##backyardigans

♬ BGC Drama Effect - whozmanzz

Let us in on your creative process when you were writing the lyrics for the two songs. What was your source of inspiration? 

Musically, 'Castaways' was inspired by Bossa Nova music from Brazil, a style of pop/jazz that first became popular in the 1960s. For each Backyardigans episode, we chose a particular style of music to work with, and Bossa Nova was chosen for 'Castaways'. We (the writers) listened to a lot of Bossa Nova songs and wrote songs that seemed to fit that style.  

'Into The Thick of It' was written for the “Heart of the Jungle” episode. In that one, all the songs were inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote comic operettas in England in the 19th century. Lyrically, the songs were simply inspired by the stories. We would outline a story, pick several places in that story where songs will happen, and then write lyrics that fitted the action of the story.

What was the experience like working with composer Evan Lurie on the songs? 

I loved working with Evan, and also with Doug Weiselman who wrote many of the shows' songs. Doug actually composed the 'Castaways' song, and Evan composed 'Into the Thick of It'. Evan was the musical director on the show, and he brought in Doug because there were so many songs to write – four songs per episode meant 80 songs in a season! Hence, they split up the composing duties episode by episode. They’re both super talented, and really nice people to work with.

The lyrics were always written first, then they’d be given to Evan or Doug, who would write the music to fit the words. They’d bring in 'demo' recordings of the songs and we’d all listen together, along with Janice Burgess, who was the show’s creator and executive producer. After that, I'd often re-arrange the lyrics a bit to make them fit better and flow more smoothly. Sometimes, I’d add a new verse or cut a verse out – whatever it took to make the song fit the story and sound better. 

The songs have been used by millions of TikTok users on their videos ever since it went viral. Have you watched any of them, and if so, what did you think of them? 

Millions! Amazing! I certainly haven’t watched all of them, but I’ve watched maybe 30 or 40. I absolutely love seeing and hearing them. I’ve always been a fan of dance, whether it’s on video or in clubs or on stage – I watch a lot of contemporary dance company performances in New York. Hence, seeing people make new dance moves for songs that I co-wrote feels really good. And I love the remixes too! It’s exciting to hear something that you’re so familiar with suddenly get turned into something new and unexpected. It’s all so good.

@howard7731

##backyardigans ##fypシ

♬ Castaways Remix - Elda

Writing songs for a children’s series must be quite a specific process! What are some things that you’ve had to pay close attention to when writing such songs? 

Clarity is important for kids’ songs. I’m careful to use language that’s clear and concrete so a younger kid would understand. If I do sometimes use more complex words, I try to make their meaning clearer through context. Usually, a song in a show tells part of the story. It takes a lot of editing and trying out different phrases and rhymes to get the story in the right order while maintaining the song’s rhythm and rhyme pattern.

I go through a lot of revisions before the final version, that’s for sure. Also, sometimes I like to put in little jokes into the songs that parents would get. Since parents are usually listening along with kids, it’s good to entertain them too – as long as it doesn’t make the song less clear to the child listener.  

You’ve written many other songs for The Backyardigans and other popular TV series like Winx Club and Lazy Town. If you could pick another one of your songs to go viral next, which would it be and why?

If I were to pick another Backyardigans song to go viral, it would probably be 'The Yeti Stomp' from the Yeti episode. I like that it only mentions one particular move – “stomp, stomp, stomp” – but a dancer would then have to make up lots of other moves to go with the stomping. I’d love to see what they will come up with. 

If I were to pick a non-Backyardigans song, I’d pick 'Dinosnores' from 'The Book of Pooh' for a similar reason. The song describes several different kinds of dinosaurs, and I’d like to see what kinds of moves dancers would invent for each of them.  

Aside from music, you’re also an accomplished screenwriter for children’s TV, having worked on programmes like Arthur, The Book of Pooh and The New Mickey Mouse Club. In your opinion, what makes a good kids’ show?

A good kids’ TV show should have some real educational value – it should leave the viewer’s mind more enriched than before. At the same time, it should be so entertaining that it doesn’t feel “teach-y”. It should feel like a party, not like a classroom, but a kid should still learn something from it. And the music should be great! 

Of all the scripting, soundtracking and production projects that you’ve worked on over the years, which has been a personal favourite? 

My favourite changes all the time. At this moment, it’s probably 'The FurryTones'. That’s a musical adventure podcast that my friend Susan Clarke and I created in 2019 for Pinna, a subscription audio streaming service for kids.

It’s about four foxes who are in a band together. They live in the woods, and they get hired to play music at parties for other animals — a rabbit's graduation party, a snake's wedding, a sand crab's birthday party, a barn dance for pigs etc. In each episode, you can hear the band making up a new song for the upcoming occasion before performing it at the party towards the end. The show teaches kids about the process of songwriting. (And it’s also just full of a lot of silly animal jokes). The actors whom Pinna hired to play the foxes and the other animals did such a great job.  

Alternatively, I might also say that my favorite was 'Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?', a funny game show that I worked on early in my career. It’s the first kids’ show I ever wrote for. I’m still friends with many of the people who worked on it. It started me off right!

What has been your proudest achievement in your media career thus far?

For some reason, I find this question difficult. I’ve written so many scripts and songs. I’ve worked on some shows that people remember fondly for decades, and other shows that came and went with almost no notice at all. Maybe my proudest achievement is simply that I’ve had fun working for about 30 years and have managed to make a living from it. 

Tell us more about what you’ve been busy with recently!

Most recently, I’ve been writing scripts for an animated series called Molly of Denali. It’s on PBS here in the USA. The show is about the life of a 10-year-old girl named Molly who lives in a small village in central Alaska with her family. Alaska Native culture has rarely been featured in American media, so many people have misconceptions about it. This show puts it in a contemporary light, showing how Molly’s life is similar to most kids’ in some ways, yet very different in others. The show is funny and smart, and I’ve learned so much from the staff’s Alaska Native writers and producers who guided our work. 

Also, for most of 2020, I was working as head writer on the new season of a Netflix animated kids’ show. The show’s new season hasn’t been officially announced yet, so I’m not allowed to tell you the title! But it’s a fun one.