Tacopuff Girls: Emily Nokes on Writing a Theme Song for Cartoon Network

"...in 30 seconds they need this, this, and this to happen."

The past few years have seen a number of “A-ha!” blog posts from millennials positing that 1998’s six-season Cartoon Network classic Powerpuff Girls informed their now-fervent feminism. The show, following super-powered, crime-fighting kindergarteners Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, is almost feminist by default (a crew of young women, raised by a single stay-at-home dad, beating up mostly adult male villains).

But beyond the basic premise, animator Craig McCracken also explicitly tackled feminist issues head-on in episodes like “Equal Fights” and “Femme Fatale,” albeit under the show’s family-friendly, Technicolor fun guise. When producers from Cartoon Network called Seattle punk group Tacocat and asked them to write the theme song for the series’ upcoming April reboot, lead singer Emily Nokes said “it was too crazy and too good to be true.” All things considered, the choice makes complete sense—Tacocat’s neon-splattered, riot grrl-influenced songs about getting your period, fighting catcallers, and online harassment is a perfect fit for the spirit of the show. We talked with Nokes about what it’s like to write a cartoon theme, Powerpuff Girl-era feminism versus today’s feminist atmosphere, and the Spice Girls.

SW: Did you identify as a feminist yet when the original Powerpuff Girls was airing?
Nokes: I was a little too young to really know what feminism meant yet. I grew up in Montana where it wasn’t really taught in school, but I do remember cartoons in general that had any female characters, like X-Men and definitely Powerpuff Girls, but anything that had a woman kicking ass, I was like “Yes, wow, yeah!” That was more the era of “Girls can do anything they want,” you know, like the early Spice Girls feminism of just kind of like, “Girl power!”

The 45-second preview clip Cartoon Network put online features Buttercup fighting an evil lumberjack trying to bring Townsville back to its “manly roots.” It’s already been posted on a Men’s Rights Activist subreddit. It seems as if women are more under attack in today’s feminist climate than in the “Girl power!” era of the ’90s.
Women are totally more under attack. All the harassment from the anonymous web-troll factor. In the ’90s it seemed like there was a moment where people wondered, “Is feminism over?” There was this Time magazine cover with Ally McBeal that asked “Is Feminism Dead?” Like, “All right, women are in the workforce, it’s equal now. Next topic.” That’s how the riot-grrl movement seemed to die. But now it seems like there’s this resurgence of “Fuck you, seriously? This all still exists, this is all still here.” In fact, the conservative values—maybe it’s me because I’m an adult now—but they seem louder than ever. Like, why are we still talking about abortion?

How different is it writing a television theme song versus a pop-punk song?
I think they sort of didn’t really know what they wanted at first. We got a bunch of inspiration boards for how they felt the new show was going to be. It was cool because they were nodding to riot grrl and Olympia in all the imagery they were showing us—the animation in the new intro is very zine-y. They were like “Just send us anything!” It was a little too free-form at first. They were like “The only thing we ask is try to get a few notes of the old version of the song in there.” That was it—they didn’t say anything about the lyrics or stuff like that. I was like, “We need more guidance!”

Did you end up studying that original opening theme a lot?
I listened to it over and over and watched the cartoon a lot, the old one, to get inspiration. We worked with a composer whose main job is composing music for video games. He flew down here when we were recording it, and it was kind of funny—he walked in and within the first 15 minutes he handed us sheet music, and we’re all like uhhhhh . . . I think he was really used to working with super studio musicians and we’re really the opposite of that, so it was funny. The big stressful thing [in writing a theme song] is timing—it’s like, in 30 seconds they need this, this, and this to happen. I don’t think we’ve ever spent so long on anything that was so short.

Did anything strike you rewatching the series as an adult?
The premise is so weird. Like, wait, what is the Professor’s deal here? He’s trying to make three little girls in his basement? I like the new version a lot. We actually got to see one of the episodes when we were in L.A. We went to the Cartoon Network building and they let us watch one. It’s really pro-little girls doing whatever the hell they want. Back then [in the ’90s] you had feminism, but it wasn’t until you got older that you really learned about it. The younger the better these days, especially gearing women up to be, like, “This is a fight, this is something you have to take an active stance on or you’re going to get trampled.”

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