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How Steven Universe, a joyous cartoon about love and aliens, used music to evolve

The show’s composers explain how they wrote songs about anxiety, grief, and obsession for cartoon aliens.

Cartoon Network

The Steven Universe theme song sounds like what winning a video game feels like. Its exuberant beats sound like old 8-bit games, evoking triumph, determination, and silliness while celebrating heroes as committed to saving the day as they are joyful to be alive.

The song is, in other words, the perfect encapsulation of what makes the beloved Cartoon Network series such a delight.

Since it premiered in 2013, Steven Universe has earned the adoration of its devoted fans for the depth and ambition it packs to every one of its short, 11-minute episodes. What started as an unabashedly silly cartoon about a lovable boy named Steven Universe and his alien guardians (Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, a.k.a. the “Crystal Gems”) has evolved over the course of more than 100 episodes to explore a complex web of mythology surrounding Steven and the Gems’ otherworldly origin stories.

And the show’s music, which has always been an intrinsic part of Steven Universe’s DNA, has evolved right along with it. While Steven Universe’s songs are sometimes still there just there for fun — à la “Cookie Cat,” a jingle about Steven’s favorite adorable ice cream sandwiches — they increasingly play more of a role in the story. Often, they serve as perfectly distinct, bite-sized embodiments of what the characters are feeling in any given moment, swerving from deeply human to eerily alien depending on what the scene calls for. This evolution has given the show’s characters room to learn (and sing!) about everything from love and trust to anxiety and grief.

As of June 2, fans have the opportunity to hear many of the show’s best songs in one place with the release of Steven Universe Soundtrack: Volume 1, a comprehensive collection that feels like taking a trip through the show itself.

I recently sat down with Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar and composers Aivi Tran and Steven “Surasshu” Velema to talk about how the show’s music comes together, and how music ties into the show’s overall evolution. They, along with Steven Universe’s storyboard artists and directors, have meticulously shaped the series into one of the most thoughtful on television. In fact, they’ve put so much thought it that even the smallest details that came up during our conversation inevitably ended up having a detailed (and totally fascinating) backstory. “Overthinking is my MO,” laughed Sugar. “The whole show is profoundly overthought."

And that suits Steven Universe just fine. Sugar — whose background is in animation and who worked on Adventure Time before creating Steven Universe — credits her collaboration with equally detail-oriented people like Tran and Velema with helping her create music that comes out of “the guts and souls of these characters” to tell bigger, better stories. "A lot of times I'm kind of going by ear, making things up until they feel right,” Sugar said. “Then I'll send it to [Tran and Velema] and they'll make sense out of it.”

To get more of an idea of how the team works together, here are some of the insights Sugar, Tran, and Velema shared about making five of the soundtrack’s best songs, which were also some of the most challenging ones to write.

“Here Comes a Thought” teaches a vital lesson about how to manage anxiety

Some of the most powerful Steven Universe songs are the ones that take a moment to breathe, refocus, and give us a peek into the mind of a character who’s having a particularly hard time. One of the best examples of how the show does this is “Here Comes a Thought,” a song that Garnet (voiced by Estelle) starts singing as a way to help Steven (Zach Callison) and his best friend Connie (Grace Rolek) combat anxiety.

“Take a moment, remind yourself, to take a moment and find yourself,” goes the chorus, before Garnet makes the soothing assurance that “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”

As Sugar tells it, “Here Comes a Thought” was one of the trickiest songs she’s ever had to write for the show. “The earlier versions were slower, more like a lullaby,” she said, “[but] it didn't feel right.” Citing her own experience with panic attacks and how “mindful meditation” can help, Sugar said that she struggled to find a way to make the song not just reflect “that frantic place” her mind can go to when she’s particularly anxious, but the steadiness that can actually calm her down. “One ‘it's okay’ is not enough,” Sugar said. “I wanted it to be a gentle, but firm grasp of both shoulders telling you, ‘please, please, please relax.’”

This made the song a natural fit for Estelle’s Garnet, who’s always been a source of quiet comfort for Steven and the other gems. Even Garnet’s signature song “Stronger Than You” (also available on the soundtrack) is a kickass power anthem by way of a smooth electronic jam, buoyed by Estelle’s clear voice and a driving beat like the one that pulses — though gently — throughout “Here Comes a Thought.”

“Garnet's stuff is always steady,” Tran acknowledged.

“Garnet’s always going steady,” Sugar grinned, a winking reference to the fact that Garnet was revealed halfway through the series to be a fusion of two other gems named Ruby and Sapphire — a loving, opposites-attract couple.

Once they figured out how to combine the panic of anxiety with the stability of Garnet’s strength, the song came more fully into focus. “Here Comes a Thought” both acknowledges the traps people can fall into within their own heads, and provides a real, musical assurance that it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. “I wanted there to be this sense of reliability that was in the song,” Sugar said, “so the song would be a support that is coming up under you.”

“It’s Over, Isn’t It” takes an obsession to its bittersweet conclusion

Not every Steven Universe song is about soothing fears. The desperate ballad “It’s Over, Isn’t It” presented a whole set of different challenges for Sugar and her collaborators than something like “Here Comes a Thought.” This song is a showcase for Pearl (Deedee Magno), whose fierce love for Steven’s mother Rose Quartz — who died to give birth to him — has been consuming her whole for centuries. “It’s Over, Isn’t It” marks the moment in Steven Universe’s third season when Pearl finally acknowledges that Rose Quartz is gone, nothing will bring her back, and that Rose Quartz never loved Pearl the same way Pearl loved her, anyway.

"The song is about obsession,” Sugar explained, “[when] you're stumbling forward through this thing you don't know how to deal with."

That’s why the song became a meandering torch song. Sugar usually composes the music for Steven Universe on a ukulele, but for “It’s Over, Isn’t It,” she knew that wouldn’t work for how she wanted the song to reflect Pearl’s chaotic mindset. So she asked her collaborators to help her compose the song on the piano.

Piano is the instrument the team uses most for Pearl throughout the series, versus Garnet’s foundational bass and Amethyst’s spastic drums. (As Tran explains it, they see the Crystal Gems as a jazz trio, with Steven’s 8-bit themes working in some of his particular — if more offbeat — energy. When Rose Quartz’s themes creep in from time to time, they’re unifying strings.) In “It’s Over, Isn’t It,” the piano cascades and trips all over itself just like Pearl as she works through her knotted feelings. “That erraticness ... was crucial to it making sense,” Sugar said.

But one of the most gut-wrenching parts of the song is one Sugar didn’t plan at all. When her storyboard artist-turned-director Joe Johnston took a crack at laying out how the song would be illustrated, he put a huge pause after “she loved you” to make “and she’s gone” more of a drawn out, aching moment.

"You get something really special when you do things in tandem with one another,” said Tran. “When you write music at the same time as the lyrics, or storyboard with the music, it hooks together in this way that you don't always get when you separate the two.”

“What’s the Use of Feeling (Blue)?” gives Patti LuPone an eerie, alien showcase

Yes, Steven Universe got the Patti LuPone to play an all-powerful alien named Yellow Diamond, who rules over the Gems’ “home world” with an impenetrable fist. But Sugar didn’t ask her to sing on the show — not at first, anyway.

After LuPone’s Yellow Diamond — a hugely anticipated character — first appeared on the show in season two’s “Message Received,” Sugar presented her with a pitch to write the legendary singer a song of her own, accompanied by a fitting offering: a bouquet of yellow roses. “She said yes, and I could've fallen over, but somehow I didn't,” Sugar laughed. “And then I just tried my best.”

Writing a song for the great Patti LuPone might have been a stressful enough task on its own. But Sugar, Tran, and Velema were possibly more stressed about writing a song for a mythical alien like Yellow Diamond. “We almost had to invent a new sound,” said Tran.

To create more unnatural sounds than the ones they use for the more grounded Gems, the trio had Magno — singing backup as two separate versions of Pearl — layer her voice in dissonant chords to keep the song a little off-kilter. Sugar then used an omnichord to create an “oh-ee-oh” (so called for the chanting from The Wizard of Oz’s monkey guards) that could anchor the song with an otherworldly theme. After Tran and Velema tinkered with the background and finally added some strings just to “tie it down” and keep it from sounding too alien, the result feels exactly as regal and strange as they’d hoped.

As for the title’s pithy parentheses ... well, they’re definitely clever, but Sugar also just thinks they’re funny. "As a little kid, I would always notice [song titles with parentheses] on the jukebox,” she told me, amused. “I could never figure out why certain songs would have it. And I still don't know, which is why I just make it up every time."

“Haven’t You Noticed (I’m a Star)” imbues a pop song with some sneaky pathos

When I asked her which Steven Universe songs were particularly difficult to write, Sugar listed a song I was frankly surprised by: “Haven’t You Noticed (I’m a Star),” a bopping pop song that simply exists in the world of the show, and that Steven’s friend Sadie (Kate Micucci) loves.

“I'd never written a song that was just a song that was playing on the radio before,” Sugar explained. “It's super important to me that these songs are coming out of the guts and souls of these characters, and then here I was with this song that had to be a random song that Sadie liked."

But once she talked some of it out with Micucci — who’s also one half of the comedy music duo Garfunkel & Oates — Sugar got a better sense of how she could sneak in some of Sadie’s personality, anyway.

“I had the chorus: 'Haven't you noticed I'm a star / now everyone can see me burning,’” Sugar said. “I liked the thought that it would feel superficial on its surface, but you could take it two ways. This person is brilliant, and glamorous and glowing, and anyone who ever doubted her can tell that she's made it. But there's this other version of it where there's a despair to it, and it's visible.”

And lo, Steven Universe found a way to make a seemingly silly moment a deeply personal one — a very Steven Universe thing to do.

An opportunity to expand the Steven Universe theme song helps the show come full circle

For all its intergalactic drama and hard-won lessons, Steven Universe is still at its core about Steven and his loving family helping each other through whatever comes their way. In the beginning of the show, a “crisis” rarely amounted to more than Steven running out of Cookie Cats. As the show settled into some of its grander ambitions, Sugar began to feel like the theme song — written before much of the Steven Universe’s mythology was even a blip on her radar — needed a tune-up.

But she didn’t think about actually making it happen until Cartoon Network asked her to come up with a series of extra Steven Universe shorts, at which point she immediately threw her entire team into the task of producing a new and improved theme that better reflected how the show had evolved. When she presented the challenge to Tran and Velema, they knew what was at stake — so, as Tran puts it, they “took all [their] musical canon and lore and just threw it at this song.”

[Writing the extended theme song] was actually really emotional,” Sugar said, “because it was so exciting to really think about how much we'd expanded the show and the world."

Plus, she added, the original theme had everyone being “very patronizing” to Steven. “They ruffled his hair and it frustrates him, you know?” she said, completely earnestly. “But by the time we were at this level of the show, everyone is patting him on the head for doing a super good job, and it’s not patronizing anymore! He's an equal member of the team.”

Sugar and her fellow writers seized the chance to incorporate some of their characters’ backstories, from Amethyst growing up in caverns on Earth to the love story of Sapphire and Ruby. They even gave the show’s original theme song a backstory, revealing that Steven wrote it when he was little — a conceit helped by the fact that Steven’s voice in the new extended theme song is lifted from a recording Callison did when he was also younger for the Steven Universe pilot.

This framing also lets Sugar explain away the fact that Steven’s first draft of the theme includes the line “we’re good and evil never beats us,” pointing out that show purposefully never calls anything outright “evil” anymore — and neither would Steven, now that he’s grown up to understand nuance.

More than anything, though, Sugar maintained that putting the new theme song together was a chance to celebrate what she and her team had built over a hundred episodes later. “A lot of things we were incorporating into that song, we came up with as a team,” Sugar said. “So it was also a chance to celebrate the whole crew, and everything they contributed ... to make it part of the theme song so it wasn't just something that came before the team was assembled. Now,” she added with a blooming smile, “everyone's inside of it.”

Steven Universe Soundtrack: Volume 1 is now available. The first three seasons of Steven Universe are also available to stream on Hulu, while season four and the beginning of the currently airing season five are streaming on CartoonNetwork.com.

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